The Caribbean region is one of the most pluralistic and diverse religious zones in the world. It serves as a meeting point of many religious traditions of the world including African derived religious expressions and views which play a vital role in organizing, restructuring and shaping religious thought and action. This diverse religions effected the history of the Caribbean people through cultural and traditional believes and practices. Among the most popular and dynamic religions of the Caribbean people is Rastafarianism.
Rastafarianism is a social and religious movement that evolved in Jamaica in 1930s. Rasta is the name given to refer to the members of the Rastafari. In Jamaica, Christian culture was the predominant religion and also the population of the black Africans (descendants of slaves) surpassed any other races by as far as 98 percent. Rastas main objective was to provide a voice for the majority poor black Africans in Jamaica. Their core believe as a result of interpretation of the Hebrew Bible focuses on blacks being God’s chosen race and the Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie I is considered as the true Messiah. The Rastafarian movement embraced the use of cannabis as spiritual means of enlightment and held the theme of rejecting the Babylon which was believed to be unjust hierarchy of Western culture. The movement believes and proclaims Africa as mankind original birthplace and awaits the time of repatriation of Blacks and their return to Ethiopia, Promised Land.
Rastafarianism can be essentially taken as afro-centric social and religious movement centered in Caribbean islands of Jamaica. Rastafari fought to liberate blacks from post-colonial oppression and it was appealing to people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Even during the most difficult economic hardships, for instance, at the time of independence in Jamaica when the larger population was poor, the movement saw a tremendous increase of its members and to date the growth is enhanced by international music reggae thereby calling for larger group of followers internationally.
The core principles and beliefs of Rastafarianism which comprises of: the belief that Haile Selassie I is the Biblical Messiah; belief in blacks repatriation to Ethiopia; belief in African heritage of the black people; belief in the fall of Babylon; and the belief in a reversal in the slavery-based social hierarch, gave a fundamental drive to the movement. It encouraged and motivated black people to free their minds from the bonds of the unjust society and instead embrace the true leadership that Jah (God) intended for them. Rastas wear long and uncombed locks of hair. This tradition practice originated from the Nazarites laws that forbid cutting hair which was the style of priests and tribal warriors of Ethiopia, and preserved as a symbol of lion’s mane. The locks also serve as a mystical link. Other symbols, used by Rastas, include national colors, green, red and gold, and the lion on the country’s flag. Marijuana (ganja) is a holy herb among Rastas, which has therapeutic, physical and psychological powers to enhance their lives and beliefs.
Rastafarianism apart from using the Bible as their source of knowledge, had other sources such as The Holy Piby, The Leaving Testament of Rastas-for-I, and The Promised Key. They believed that the Christian ministers used incorrect interpretation of the Holy Scripture especially using it to justify slavery. Rastafarian fought for the liberation of blacks from oppression of organized systems.
Basically, Rastafarian do not have an organized hierarchy; some of the members exist as small groups sharing a common belief even though they may not be connected to any particular larger group. Moreover, houses and yards represent communal organizations and focus on sharing their traditional beliefs and practices.
The Rastafarian, an indigenous movement of the Caribbean island of Jamaica, found its initiation in the economic, cultural and political struggle of the people of Jamaica in years after 1838, in the post-emancipation. Africans suffered under the harsh slavery laws introduced by the Western organizations and the dire need for liberation gave an inspiration to the community of Caribbean as a result of previously embracing African idealism in Jamaica. This forced Selassie becoming the first black African leader to be a part of international community of kings and princes hence forming the movement.
Teachings of the Leonard P. Howell, who had been deported from Panama for grand theft in 1932 and had just returned to Jamaica, gave a way to the birth to Rastafarianism. His popularity began when he formed Ethiopian Salvation Society spreading the message of the importance of only having one true king who was to be the Emperor Haile Selassie. His words spread quickly encouraging people to embrace his anti-colonial message. The colonial authorities feared the upcoming resistance from the people incited by Howell; in order to destroy these developments, he was imprisoned together with his deputy, Robbert Hinds in 1939. Other pioneers of early Rastafarianism included: Archibald Dunkley and Joseph Hibbert, who, together with Howell, share the common bond of exposure to Afro-American system thought which the main aim was the eventual rise of Africa through Ethiopia as a world leader.
In the early 1900s, Marcus Garvey led “Back to Africa” movement that comprised of the many Africanist movements. He advocated the need for blacks to interpret their own history and in such a way to control their destiny in Africa. He believed that Ethiopia was the cradle of the Black race and therefore, it was of paramount importance to be included in the contributions to the development of civilization which would help in the realization of equality for the black diasporas. Garvey significantly contributed to the evolution of Rastafarianism as he stressed the idea of a black king to liberate the blacks. The prophesies and teachings of Howell, Garvey and other anti-colonial activists and the interpretation of the Bible in a manner that favored Africans left the people convinced that indeed Haile Selassie was the true messiah.
In conclusion, Rastafarianism movement, which is focused on some specific aspects of religion, contributed greatly to shaping the history of the Caribbean people through a random change in social structure and traditional beliefs. It played a vital role in reversing the culture of slavery introduced by the Western nations and encouraged people to fight for their human rights through rejection of unjust colonial rule by establishing a messianic leader to follow. The predictable historical directions were changed by the movement by providing and motivating its people to liberate their mind from false interpretation of the scriptures by the Western ministers that aimed at oppressing them socially.