Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism – Hélène Lee (Chicago Review Press)
As sometimes happens with good books, ‘The First Rasta’ slipped under the radar when it was initially published, but has recently received greater recognition due to its adaptation into a film documentary. Such an oversight is a great shame as veteran French journalist Hélène Lee effectively draws on her considerable firsthand experience of Jamaican culture to untangle the complex roots of Rastafarianism.
Although the story of Leonard Howell and his establishment of Pinnacle, the first Rasta settlement, forms the fulcrum of the narrative, Lee weaves explorations of slavery, colonialism, religion, and politics around this core. However, this is no dry slice of acetic academia, as her restrained gonzo-style research brings a sense of Jamaica and its people into vivid life. A natural communicator, she not only connects with significant figures in Jamaican history including Bob Marley’s mentor Mortimer Planno, but also those whom history has overlooked – such as Howell’s son Blade and former Pinnacle resident Miss Amy Fairweather, and in doing so richly evokes the human side of the island’s political and spiritual development.
Weaving in and out of her explorations of the island and its inhabitants, Lee traces the roots of Rastafarianism back from Howell and Jamaica’s multitude of Ethopianist/Zionist sects, across the Abyssinia of His Imperial Majesty Halie Selassie I, through Marcus Garvey’s Black Star line, to its nebulous origins among successive waves of African and Indian slaves. This process reveals a plethora of fascinating and diverse historical information that includes the manner in which British warlord Winston Churchill sought to exert a totalitarian influence over the colony during the immediate post-war period, the roots of the violent political schism between Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, and the way in which the meditative use of ganja arrived in Jamaica from the Indian subcontinent.
‘The First Rasta’ is a book that brings into clear focus the story of a people struggling against successive waves of external and internal oppression. Many of the key protagonists have their homes destroyed, are imprisoned, tortured, beaten or confined to lunatic asylums. In addition to being an effective examination of the development of a specific culture, it also represents a further body of evidence that demonstrates how governments exploit their people.