A Brief History of the Rastafari Movement

A brief history of the Rastafari Movement

Mention of the Rastafari Movement today brings the rhythm of reggae and images of Jamaica, dreadlocks and marijuana to mind. While Rastafari was brought to world attention through the laid-back reggae music of Bob Marley in the 70s, the religious movement has not-so-peaceful roots in the squalid living conditions and racist oppression of the black population of Jamaica in the early 20th century. In fact, Rastafari emerged in the 1930s as a fight for social justice with spiritual underpinnings. In this blog, Headz will cover a brief history of the Rastafari movement from Marcus Garvey through Bob Marley and on to the present day.

Historic Context of Rasta Movement: Marcus Garvey, Ethiopanism and Pan-Africanism

Marcus Garvey Rasta
Marcus Garvey

The early inspiration for the movement came from Ethiopanism and Pan-Africanism, through the words of Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), a Jamaican-born, African-American rights activist. Garvey believed the African diaspora should redeem the African continent from European colonialism by returning to Africa, and  in 1920, he directed the African diaspora to: “Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand.”  Both the Pan-Africanism of the 19th century and Ethiopanism, which began in the 18th century, promoted the restoration of Africa’s dignity and a sense of African patriotism among black slaves in the Americas.

Situation in Jamaica

The words of Garvey ignited a hopeful spark in the oppressed black population of Jamaica.  Although slavery had been abolished in the British Empire in 1834, no history of the Rastafari would be complete without pointing out a hundred years later the plight of most black Jamaicans remained dire. In the 1930s, the black population of Jamaica was still essentially an underclass reliant on wealthy white landowners for their subsistence.

Haile Sellassie I – Emperor of Ethiopia

Selassie I of Ethiopia Rasta
Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia

Miraculously, in 1930, just ten years after Garvey predicted a black king would appear, Ethiopia crowned Haile Selassie I, born Tafari Makonnen, as emperor. In Jamaica, Haile Selassie I was hailed as the divine leader destined to emancipate blacks from the oppression they suffered under colonialism.  

The fact that Ethiopia was never fully colonized, is referenced in the Bible, and that Selassie was thought to be a descendant of King Solomon and Queen Sheba, gave credence to the notion that Selassie was the Second Coming of Christ. Black Jamaicans recognized Selassie as a more fitting and rightful leader than their British king that had caused them so much suffering. Selassie’s coronation helped galvanize the budding Rastifari movement, providing a central figure to revere.

The name, Rastafari, was taken from Selassie’s pre-coronation name, Ras (prince)  Tafari. One of the most prominent Jamaican street preachers to promote the belief of Salessie as the divine leader of black Jamaicans was Leonard Howell (1898-1981), often called “The First Rasta”.

Leonard Howell and Pinnacle – Ganja’s Historic Role in The Ethiopian Salvation Society

Pinnacle - Rasta
Pinnacle, Ethiopia

Rastafari further coalesced as a movement and religion under the guidance of Leonard Howell when he bought a large piece of land in 1938 to offer sanctuary to those planning to repatriate to Ethiopia. The peaceful, self-sustaining community was called Pinnacle, though it was officially registered as The Ethiopian Salvation Society. The community raised livestock, grew their own food and ganja (cannabis), baked their own bread and produced arts and crafts for their own use and to sell in the near-by town. Ganja enabled the community to become economically independent from the colonial system.

History of Ganja & the Rastafari

Ganja had come to Jamaica in the mid 19th century by way of East Indian workers who used it as part of their Hindu ceremonies. Howell combined East Indian and African customs and beliefs, resulting in ceremonies that included the smoking of ganja with the dance and music of Kumina, the native Afro-Jamaican religion. Rastafari avoid alcohol and tobacco, considering them to be detrimental to health and spirit, but embrace cannabis for its ability to calm the mind and promote effective reasoning, a sense of community and a connection with God (Jah).

Pinnacle’s Destruction and the Move Towards Urban Areas

Bob Marley Rastafari
Bob Marley

Both the growing of ganja and the fact that it enabled Pinnacle’s economic Independence, led to clashes with the Colonial rulers. Ganja  was illegal, and police raids were a regular occurrence at Pinnacle. Tensions grew throughout the 40 and 50s, with Pinnacle seen as a dangerous exhibition of the growing independence movement. In 1954, Pinnacle was destroyed in a massive police raid and many of the residents were jailed. After the downfall of Pinnacle, the Rastafari movement gravitated towards urban areas and was given expression in the  musical experimentation that was taking place during the 50s and 60s in Jamaica. From development of ska in the late 50s, came the musical artists that popularized Rastafari throughout the world in the 60s and 70s— Peter Tosh, Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer to mention a few.

What is Livity?

Some practitioners see Rastafari as more of a lifestyle or philosophy than an organized religion. Rastas stay away from rigid religious dogma and organized hierarchy and leadership. Its core practices revolve around the concept of “livity” meaning to live righteously. This involves performing good deeds and taking care of one’s body and soul. What started as a reaction to the untenable situation of racist oppression developed, under a number of influences, into a religious movement with global reach and a positive message to respect each other. In the words of Bob Marley, “Let’s get together and feel all right” (From “One Love”).

Embracing Rasta Today

As the leading supplier of ganja for Rastas across Canada, Headz is proud to embrace Rastafarian beliefs. Read more about the Rastafari here and check out our Shop for all your mail order ganja needs.

Rasta History References




One thought on “A Brief History of the Rastafari Movement

Leave a Reply