Overview

As Jamaica proudly celebrates her fiftieth jubilee of political independence, the Rastafari Movement also marks the fiftieth anniversary of Coral Gardens Massacre, an event that still haunts the wider society through the perennial, but unanswered, Rastafari calls for justice. The new nation-state less than one year old - during the Easter Holy Week, became embroiled in a series of violent events in the Coral Gardens and Rose Hall areas of St. James. On Holy Thursday April 11, 1963, six bearded men assumed to be Rastafarians attacked a gas station in Coral Gardens. They were reportedly armed with guns and machetes. This resulted in a skirmish and the death of two policemen, and six civilians including three of the assailants.

In response the then Prime Minister Sir Alexander Bustamante instructed the army and police to bring in all the Rastafari not only in St. James, but also in Hanover and Trelawny – if the prisons could not accommodate them they were to be ‘disposed’ of – killed and taken to Bogue Hill – above a major cemetery in Montego Bay. The events of Holy Thursday 1963 thus resulted in a collective crucifixion of many innocent adherents of the Rastafari faith and crackdown on the Movement island-wide. The Daily Gleaner reported that ‘almost all’ the Rastas in Leith Hall, St. Thomas (a former stronghold of Leonard Howell) had trimmed their locks and cut their beards to prevent being persecuted by the agents of the state, as well as eager civilian vigilantes. Fifty years later there are still living victims of the incident, some of whom continue to suffer the effects of that experience and could easily make justified claims for reparation, and more critically there has never been any attempt to officially provide restitution for these people.

Obscurity and debate continue to surround the incident and the Rastafari movement generally today. This is fuelled by misunderstanding about the true ethos of the faith, its discourse on Africa and repatriation, as well as the sacralization of the Herb. With its multiple meanings and embeddedness in the livity, ganja has been and continues to be a key signifier of the Rastafari faith and at the same time a signifier for the state to victimize and humiliate members of the community. The Rastafari narrative is laden with tales of the Herb as “the healing of the nation” and the spiritual connectivity attained by communicants through the use of the ‘sacrament.’ Equally important, are explorations into the economic possibilities presented by ganja. At Pinnacle for example, ganja was planted as a cash crop. As the Rastafari Movement was scorned and disliked by elements of the society, similarly there was contempt for ganja production and consumption. Despite the many ways in which Rastafari has become an inseparable part of the fabric of society, there is still tension and conflict over the Movement’s usage of their sacrament which remains in opposition to the formal laws.

In these circumstances, it is more than paradoxical that scholars and visitors in the thousands come to Jamaica annually because of the Rastafari presence, many because they acknowledge Rastafari as a dynamic global force for the development of spirituality and genuine human dignity. The movement – originally stigmatized as comprising marginal, lower-class male dregs—has long since crossed social and class boundaries within the Caribbean. This Movement has also come to celebrate the place of the Rastafari woman within the life of the community and the nation. What might be described as the coming of age of Rastafari has taken place with Rastafari brethren now visibly involved in civil society as professionals in a range of sectors, and even as political figures. At the same time, a growing body of literature has developed on the international appeal of the Rastafari worldview as its spread continues to be documented by both local and foreign scholars.