Last August, under the direction of New World Archives, a gathering was held in Queens, New York, to honor and celebrate August Fist. The consensus of the gathering was that this date must be returned to its glory. This year, the focus of the activities surrounding August First will recognize the significant contribution of Leonard Percival Howell (b. June 16, 1898) the history of Jamaica and the African diasporic world. On the basis of a meeting with one of Mr Howell’s son’s, this coming August 1st gathering will be the forerunner to his centenary celebrations in 1998. The Leonard P. Howell Institute will be formed with a view to reclaim his lost treasures: spiritual and material values.
We have great legacy as a people; somehow this greatness is not reflected in the ways we go about building our society. In fact there is a story to this; things considered great can only come from the ‘superior race’ -the great man theory of history. In Jamaica we have had our interpretation. The ‘popular history’ is suppressed, as a contrived interpretation of the world and domestic sphere is advanced. We have a generation in Jamaica who have no sense of selves; I am not blaming the victim. I am pointing out the result of deliberate policies of the colonial authorities and its continuation by the modern and independent governments leaders.
There are many Black Jamaicans who have made significant contribution to history and culture: in the struggle for freedom and independence. Some wage significant battles, for example, Tacky, Sam Sharpe, Paul Bogle and those valiant workers of the 1930’s struggles. Others operated in the cultural sphere-the George Lisle (an African- American), Alexander Bedward, Marcus Garvey and Leonard P.Howell, among others. There is also the UNIA and Jamaican nationalist, St. William Wellington Grant; Una Marson one of our most powerful thinker and leader is also buried in this conspiracy to keep Black people in a state of the absence of self. All of the above had one thing in common, their effort in the mission to debrief the slave society of the slave idea. Some were executed, some were brutalized by the police, while others were forced into exile. It is gong to take more than rule of law to put this society on a straight road.
Leonard P. Howell developed an idea that has profound impact n Jamaica and the world. despite severe persecution by the police, the idea of Rastafari was incubated and hatched by Howell. In 1954 when Pinnacle was destroyed, and Howell and others were brutally treated by the police, the seeds of Rastafari was scattered all over Jamaica. Later on, the work of the great Bob Marley and other artistes of his caliber have done much to universalize this idea. Despite the greatness of Howell’s contribution, many people will ask, Who is he?” This includes many who are Rasta.
It was the great thinker Walter Rodney who said that “The Jamaican people are a breed apart, in my estimation, of any people”. On the basis of our history, I firmly endorse such an idea. I am not a all intoxicated by it; I am worried that much of it is hidden. The revelations of correct interpretation of our society will be essential as we discuss plans for the future. This is not a secret for Jamaica. All over the world there is a search for self-the spiritual self and the material self. Out of relative obscurity, Howell discovered his mission, and fulfilled it. There is much to earn from his contribution.
Leonard P. Howell was born in rural Jamaica June 16, 1898. He died in February 1981 from wounds inflicted on him by robbers. He was born 33 years after the Bogel Uprising in St. Thomas. e migrated to the U.S.A and became a leading activist in Garvey’s U.N.I.A. It is said that Howell traveled to Africa and fought in a war against King Prempeh of the Ashanti. He returned to Jamaica during a period of crisis and struggles for change-there were much activities i politics and revivalism in religion.
As a man of history, Howell went to St. Thomas whee he thought thee was fertile ground to launch the movement. According to one of his observers of that time, Audvil King, “Yes, at that time…..that place was the womb of the stirring, was the seed of faith, which named and proclaim and pronounced Rastafari.” According to another observer, pearl Earlington, Howell “was the first man who came to Jamaica and introduced His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie as Rastafari the creator of heaven and earth. (Nettleford et al 1960) This development frightened sectors in the Jamaican society, for example a retired magistrate C.A. Bicknell (R. Hill) and the interests of The Jamaica Times. The latter carried, in its Editorial (Oct. 24, 1934), ridiculing Howell’s effort: “We understand that Rastafari is King, in his own right; but certain misguided people in Jamaica, chiefly in the parish of St. Thomas, made of his name a symbol”. (Nettleford et al 1960).
The Robert Hill paper, Leonard P. Howell and Millenarian Viisions in Early Rastafari, revealed that in 1936, two years before the Uprisings of 1938, C.A. Bicknell, a retired magistrate warned the colonial government of the threat of the Rastafari Movement’. On the eve of the 100th anniversary of Emancipation, the colonial authorities became apprehensive of the works of Howell and others. In a letter warning the Governor, Bicknell spoke of the growth and development of the Rasta movement. He argued that Howell’s propaganda is threatening; he suggested that the Rastas were planning to have “their own black war in Jamaica”. Such preachings in the public were declared seditious by Bicknell. Some of the pronouncements in the Bicknell’s letter echoed callings similar to the skin for skin” declaration made by Paul Bogel in 1865. It was on this basis that the Rastafari Movement was born, in persecution; and it is fair to say that Leonard P. Howell became one of the most persecuted men n the history of Jamaica. When Howell died in 1981, there was no fanfare; this was similar to the treatment given to another great Jamaican, Una Marson when she died in the 1960’s.
In addition to Howell, there were other exponents of Rastafari; Joseph N. Hibbert., H. Archibal Dunkley and from a more secular mainstream” branch in Western Kingston (Kingston Dungle) were Paul Earlington, Verna Davis, Ferdinand Ricketts and others. Another preacher of noted importance is Robert Hinds, an assistant to Howell (Nettleford 1960). It was Howells school of thinking that became the dominant view on Rastafari.
Another historical move by Howell was to purchase a piece of land in the first free village of Sligoville, in St. Catherine in 1940. The land purchased became known as Pinnacle, the new center of power for the Rastafari movement.
It is interesting to note that the Italian invasion of Ethiopa incensed Blacks throughout the West Indies, particularly the Rastas in Jamaica. Howell and others were faced with police terror and arrest. After his release from prison he formed the Ethiopian Salvation Society, entered into business and bought Pinnacle where he settled over 1600 followers from rural and urban Jamaica.
Earlier I noted that Howell was a man of history, his mission to St. Thomas was attracted by the history of struggles in that parish. His move to Sligoville had profound historical significance. Sligoville was the first free village in Jamaica after Emancipation. Even though the Emancipation Act indicated that slaves should occupy their cottages on the plantations for three months after Emancipation, the Ejection and Trespass Act was passed in Britian and employed y plantation owners. According to historical notes, “police of the country were empowered to arrest and imprison any individuals who were found in their former homes after an ejection notice had been served” (Knibb-Sibley 1965). On the basis of their contacts in England, the Baptist Movement had the vision to prepare lands for “free villages”. According to Knibb-Sibley (1965), the land in Sligoville was purchased as early as 1834. It was named after the Marquis of Sligo. “A church and school were the first buildings erected and in this church, in July 1838, one month before Emancipation, the first free village was dedicated”. Sigoville was a point of the convergence of powerful historical forces: the Baptist Church, started out as a Black Church by George Lisle made links, played an important role in education and ideas of liberation. Under pressure by the colonial authorities Lisle made links with the Baptist Society of England that continued his important works. This article is suggesting that Howell was aware of these important forces, and it was on this basis that he went to Pinnacle. This man was a thinking person; the effort to marginalize him as a lunatic on the fringe must be countered; we need more deliberate efforts by the people in their activity to document properly the history of our nation. Not only of the Howells and Garveys, but of the many individuals and events that have remained hidden.
Very little has been done to enhance and embellish the embryonic work by Howell. In fact, the history of the Old Testament and that of Ethiopia have been used as the beginning and the end of Rastafari. There is more to Rasta than these two sources; there is the importance of our African retentions and also the history of Jamaica that is of paramount importance. We need to understand more of Howell’s contribution, in terms of his general contribution to the history of Jamaica; secondly, we need to know more so we can enhance the growth and development of the spiritual sector, a sphere of influence that is playing a quality role in this contemporary society.
Rastafari establishment was rooted in Christian Orthodoxy; this was good in terms of the dominant thinking in religion at the time when the movement was launched. This article is suggesting that the tradition that galvanized the movement is limited; it is responsible for the lack of growth and the major confusion that exist inside and outside of Rasta thinking. What is needed is a new thinking rooted in religious heterodoxy-that is a movement from the individual salvation of Christianity to that of religious heterodoxy, that is collective salvation. This paper is suggesting a kind of ‘liberation theology’ that will have have great impact on the spiritual and political sphere. Leonard P. Howell showed us a direction over sixty years ago, he begun a journey and illuminated a path for us to follow, not only as believers but as thinkers refining his contribution..
It is very clear that the present situation in Jamaica resembles the period of the 1930s when ‘the led’ is separating itself from “the leaders”. What is worrying this time is the lack of clarity as to whee “the led” is going. Once more the call for change is like a specter haunting this nation. Change suggests a process, one that wll not be enacted by parliament or by the contemporary activities of party politics. The new society must be built on a solid foundation in our case, the stones that the builders refuse will become the head corner stones.
In a letter to Share newspaper of Toronto, J.P. (Jim) Howell, the son of L.P. Howell defended the point that ” the Jamaican government (continues) to delete and suppress my father’s contribution to the island’s history……and Black history in particular; a practice which was orchestrated by the colonial rulers of the time”. While that is true, in the spirit of continuity, we, the people must become dependent on ourselves to correct the errors of the past; the government cannot and will not revise our history. In fact it is not the role of that institution to do so. Let us give importance to, and bring to the center of the political debate and activity the cultural orientation. One thing this article is saying, is that the correct interpretation of Howell and others will be a magic wand that can wave away all of our problems. It s suggesting that self discovery via the emancipation of the mind will unleash a reservoir of creative thinking; only when this takes place we will enjoy the true meaning of independence:: liberation through redemption. this idea is articulate in a most brilliant way by Bob Marley in Redemption Song, from the Uprising album.
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
Have no fear for atomic energy
Cause none of them can stop the time
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look?
Some say it’s just a part of it,
We’ve got to fulfill the book.
Won’t you help me sing, these songs of freedom
Cause all I ever had, redemption songs.
by Louis E. A. Moyston June 11, 1996