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Leonard Howell – The First Rasta

Leonard Howell (6/16 1898 – 2/25 1981)

Leonard Howell, known as the founder of the Rastafari movement, was born in Clarendon, Jamaica. On November 2, 1930, Haile Selassie I was crowned by the emperor of Ethiopia. Howell interpreted this as a fulfillment of the words of Marcus Garvey when he said in the 1920’s, “Look to Africa for the crowning of a black king, He shall be the Redeemer!”

In 1933, Howell founded Rastafari movement in Jamaica with Joseph -, Arch Bold Dunk and others. Howell was accused of sedition due to this activity, and was captured by police authorities for 2 years, but even after prison, he fought with the power of Jamaica and developed Rastafari movement.

[Early life]

Howell was born on June 16, 1898 in May Crawle village in the Bull Head mountain district of upper Clarendon in Jamaica. He was the eldest of a family of ten children. Charles Theophilus Howell, his father, worked as peasant cultivator and tailor. Clementina Bennett, his mother, worked as an agricultural laborer.

During the First World War, Howell worked as a seaman and served as part of a Jamaican contingent sent to Panama. Before temporarily settling in Panama in 1918, he travelled back and forth between New York City and Panama several times. While in New York he became a member of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) after being confronted with his identity as a black man in Harlem for the first time and meeting Garvey, the revolutionary UNIA leader, in person.

Howell lived abroad for a total of some twenty years in his early life, during which time he was arrested and jailed for his involvement with the UNIA because the organization’s pro-black messages were viewed as threatening. After migrating to Panama and the United States, he eventually returned home in December 1932 at the age of 34 after being deported from the US. He was deported because of his involvement with the UNIA, which was perceived as threatening by the US government, due to the organization’s messages of black power and anti-colonialism. Upon returning to his homeland, he decided to leave his family home and spread the word about Rastafarianism. This decision to break away from his home was due to a conflict between Howell and his family, presumably because of his controversial belief in the divine nature of Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia.

[Rastafari evangelism]

Howell’s first public articulation of the divinity of Haile Selassie occurred in January 1933. This first open deification, which proclaimed the Emperor of Ethiopia to be the incarnation of God, took place at “Redemption Ground” in Kingston but was not successful in gaining converts.

In February 1933, Howell relocated his meeting to a southeastern parish of St. Thomas and two months later, on April 18, he addressed about two hundred people at a meeting in Trinity Ville, St. Thomas. During this meeting, police were present to monitor and control the event, which they deemed to be of a “seditious nature.” Despite concerns, authorities chose not to press charges against Howell so as not to draw extra attention to his movement and decided instead to closely monitor him.

According to Howell and his followers, Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia was the “Black Messiah” – an incarnation of God predicted by biblical prophecy. Howell believed that the grand coronation of Haile Selassie (who was widely traditionally claimed to be the descendant of King David, King Solomon, and the Queen of Sheba, in part due to the medieval Ethiopian text Kebra Nagast), was the realization of a prophecy. The grandness of the emperor’s ascension to power appeared to validate Howell’s imperative claim.

Howell’s teachings often began with background information about the people, land, and sovereignty of Ethiopia as an unchanged land populated by original, primitive Christian people who were under direct rule of a king who was a direct descendant of King David. He idealized Ethiopia in his preaching, calling the country a land with unmatched people and a perfect language, the sole uncorrupted language on Earth. Howell emphasized the coming of a new civilization based upon and founded in the glory and power of Haile Selassie, the “Supreme Black King.” He instructed his followers to adore the Ethiopian emperor as the supreme God over all of humanity. In Howell’s view, it was through Ethiopia that the truths of good character, social order, manhood and womanhood were preserved and were unfolding for all to see. Howell preached that Ethiopian culture was re-emerging to overtake hegemonic Anglo-Saxon forces that had kept Africans enslaved.

[Core values, leadership, and social network]

Among his followers, Howell preferred being called Gangunguru Maragh or G.G. Maragh to distinguish his ritual, mystical personality from his secular identity. Howell’s ritual name is thought to be a combination of three Hindi words – gyan (wisdom), gun (virtue or talent), and guru (teacher). In Hindi, Maragh means “great kings” or “king of kings.” Howell used this name as a pseudonym when he published The Promised Key.

In a meeting at Port Mortant, St. Thomas, on September 1933, it is recorded that Howell held a meeting that began with the singing of hymns. Then, Howell reportedly taunted clergymen of other religious denominations at the gathering and discouraged people from attending church because “ministers were liars.”[11] He also spoke critically of slavery, claiming that “the White man stole Africa from the Africans, and that Black people should think that Africa is their home, not Jamaica”.

Howell’s message of praise for Emperor Haile Selassie also came with an open call for black supremacy as a way to combat colonialism and reject oppression by whites. At times, Howell would ask his congregants to join together and sing “God Save the King” – the king being Haile Selassie. Howell’s central doctrine acted as a force against white colonial ideology due to his placement of blackness as morally superior to whiteness, as is explained in his widely read publication, The Promised Key.

Howell is remembered as being a charismatic and authoritarian leader who sincerely cared about the wellbeing of his followers. In 1937, Howell founded the Ethiopian Salvation Society (ESS) whose objective was to use collective savings to better its members. A secondary purpose of the ESS was to help spread the good news about salvation and Christianity and underscore the value of self-help and good citizenship. These secondary purposes were expressly stated so as to shield the organization from suspicion that it was promoting sedition. Nevertheless, in 1940 the Jamaican governor responded to pressure from the colonial secretary and the labor leadership by officially banning a meeting of the ESS due to the resentment the organization was creating as well as its internationalization.

In addition to his leadership role in the ESS, Howell served as a role model and father figure for the growing Rastafarian community. His audacious, generous personality, combined with his well-travelled background, made early Rastafarians particularly receptive to his messages. Howell brought “the hope of a new generation, one which was inspired by the magnificence of the new Ethiopian emperor.”

To expand Howell’s Rastafarian network, he formed relationships with other black groups such as the Afro-Athlican Constructive Gaathly and the UNIA. Additionally he collaborated closely with other icons of the Rastafarian movement such as Marcus Garvey and George Padmore, a Trinidadian journalist.

Howell’s appeal for identification with Africa was in opposition to concurrent movements in Jamaica promoting a Jamaican creole nationalism. Howell positioned himself as an opponent of the labor nationalists Bustamante and Manley who had gained a substantial following among the working class. Howell preached to both the working class and the peasantry in Jamaica, attempting to unite disenfranchised black people to overcome colonial oppression. Jamaica’s independence in 1962 (which nevertheless maintained social, political and economic ties between Jamaica and Great Britain) was largely a disappointment for Howell, who had called for the complete severance of relations with imperial Britain.

[Trials and punishments]

In January 1934, Howell and Robert Hinds, another pioneer of the Rastafarian movement, were arrested and charged with sedition due to their gatherings and speeches at a meeting of 300 people at Seaforth, St Thomas, on December 10, 1933.

Howell was put on trial for sedition on March 13, 1934, and pleaded not guilty to openly expressing hatred and contempt for the Jamaican government and the King in addition to disturbing public peace on the island. Howell defended himself in court, using a photograph of Haile Selassie as evidence. During this historic trial, Howell is remembered as being the first person to declare that Haile Selassie was “the Messiah returned to earth.” Ultimately he was sentenced to two years in jail for sedition by the Jamaican chief justice, Robert William Lyall-Grant.

Later, in 1938, Howell was sent to a mental asylum in Kingston called the Bellevue Aslyum after being certified as insane for the inflammatory statements he published in his book The Promised Key. In this publication, which was released while Howell was still incarcerated, he labeled the Roman Catholic Pope as “Satan the Devil” and created the impression that war was being declared against colonialism and white supremacy – which Howell asserted should be replaced with “Black supremacy.” Furthermore, he openly objected to locally created religious systems like Revivalism and Obeah, a Jamaican folk practice. Although small, the book was powerful and very popular to the dismay of the Jamaican government.

As one of the most charismatic and outspoken of Rastafarian leaders, Howell was incarcerated at notably higher rates than other pioneers of the Rastafarian movement, such as Joseph Nathaniel Hibbert and Hinds. Described as “the most persecuted Rastafarian to date,” Howell suffered considerably under constant state surveillance because of his Rastafarian teachings. Due to his repeated imprisonment and persecution, he suffered the blow of being absent during Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit to Jamaica.

Especially threatening to the powers that be was his prophetic call for people to destroy the legitimacy and might of the British empire and international white supremacy, a message that caused people to reconsider their for identity, agency, and socio-political mobilization in Jamaica and elsewhere.

[Creation of Pinnacle Community]

Following his release from prison for his teachings of black power and denunciation of colonial rule, Howell created the first Rastafarian village in Jamaica at Sligoville, St. Catherine in 1940. The settlement was called “Pinnacle” due to its high hilltop elevation and was symbolically located in the first free village established to house former slaves in Jamaica. Pinnacle was one of the country’s first self-sustaining communities, its community members were able to meet their needs without dependence on outside resources. Some refer to Pinnacle as a commune, in which Howell’s form of socialism was practiced. Soon after its foundation, other similar Rastafarian communities were established across the country. Pinnacle was especially known for the cultivation of ganja (marijuana) that has religious significance for Rastafarians.

In efforts to shut down Howell and his followers, police raided Howell’s community of Pinnacle multiple times and labeled the community a “communist experiment” in 1941. Just one year after the creation of the settlement, government forces infiltrated and arrested many of Howell’s followers. After escaping immediate arrest, Howell was eventually arrested and tried once again for sedition and consequently was faced with two more years behind bars. Upon his release in 1943, he returned to Pinnacle once again. Howell hired guards and brought in watch dogs to protect Pinnacle from future attacks.

The police raided Pinnacle several more times in the 1950s. In 1954, militia invaded the community and almost completely destroyed the village. Even after this mass destruction, settlers returned, though the settlement was never restored to its previous thriving state. During a final raid in 1958, the police cleared out the remaining residents completely. Despite its ultimate destruction, the impact of the settlement made it legendary among other settlements around the country, who were observed to have been “miniature Pinnacles.”

[Alleged disappearance and ongoing legacy]

Some claim that Howell disappeared from public sight between 1958 and 1960, completely dropping out of his role as a Rastafarian leader. Accounts that he was neither heard from nor interacted with between this period and his death in 1981 have been challenged by historians who examined his life, however. Even after the final major raid of Pinnacle and Howell’s confinement in a mental asylum, he reportedly continued in his leadership of the Pinnacle community and as a Rastafari foundational role model, as evidenced by his role as a defendant in several cases at the Home Circuit Court, Kingston, regarding disputes about his ownership of Pinnacle.

Today Howell is remembered as a pioneer of the Rastafarian movement. Additionally, in honor of his values and persistent fight against colonial authority, he is seen as a leader of Pan-Africanism. To fight for his remembrance, the Leonard P Howell Foundation was created to “perpetuate and honor the memory of Leonard P Howell.” The Foundation calls for the restoration of a portion of the Pinnacle Property so that it can become a UNESCO world heritage site, an international Rastafarian worship and research center, and a monument in tribute to the vision and leadership of Leonard Percival Howell.

Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford: A Moses to His People

Ford, Arnold Josiah (23 Apr. 1877-16 Sept. 1935), rabbi, black nationalist, and emigrationist, was born in Bridgetown, Barbados, the son of Edward Ford and Elizabeth Augusta Braithwaite. Rabbi Ford asserted that his father’s ancestry could be traced to the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria and his mother’s to the Mendi tribe of Sierra Leone. According to his family‟s oral history, their heritage extended back to one of the priestly families of the ancient Israelites, and in Barbados his family maintained customs and traditions that identified them with Judaism (Kobre, 27). His father was a policeman who also had a reputation as a “fiery preacher‟ at the Wesleyan Methodist Church where Arnold was baptized; yet, it is not known whether Edward’s teaching espoused traditional Methodist beliefs or embodied the radical reconsiderations of Christianity and the embrace of Judaism that his son would later advocate.

Ford’s parents intended for him to become a musician. They provided him with private tutors who instructed him in several instruments—particularly the harp, violin, and bass. As a young adult, he studied music theory with the Edmestone Barnes of London and in 1899 joined the musical corps of the British Royal Navy, where he served on the HMS Alert. According to some reports, Ford was stationed on the island of Bermuda, where he secured a position as a clerk at the Court of Federal Assize, and he claimed that before coming to America he was a minister of Public Works in the Republic of Liberia, where many ex-slaves and then early black nationalists attempted to settle.

When Ford arrived in Harlem around 1910, he gravitated to its musical centers rather than to political or religious institutions—although within black culture, all three are interrelated. He was a member of the Clef Club Orchestra, under the direction of JAMES REESE EUROPE, which first brought jazz to Carnegie Hall in 1912. Other musicians who were black and Jewish, such as Willie “the Lion” Smith, an innovator of stride piano, also congregated at the Clef Club. Shortly after the orchestra’s Carnegie Hall engagement, Ford became the director of the New Amsterdam Musical Association. His interest in mystics, esoteric knowledge, and secrete societies is evidenced by his membership in the Scottish Rite Masons, where he served as Master of the Memmon Lodge. It was during this period of activities in Harlem that he married Olive Nurse, with whom he had two children before they divorced in 1924.

In 1917 MARCUS GARVEY founded the New York chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association [UNIA]. Within a few years it had become the largest mass movement in African American history. Arnold Ford became the musical director of the UNIA choir, Samuel Valentine was the president, and Nancy Paris its lead singer. These three became the core of an active group of black Jews within the UNIA who studied Hebrew, religion, and history, and held services at Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the UNIA. As a paid officer, Rabbi Ford, as he was then called, was responsible for orchestrating much of the pageantry of Garvey’s highly attractive ceremonies. Ford and Benjamin E. Burrell composed a song called “Ethiopia,” the lyrics of which spoke of a halcyon past before slavery and stressed pride in their African heritage—two themes that were becoming immensely popular. Ford’s efforts in the movement place him in the category of GEORGE ALEXANDER MCGUIRE, Chaplain-General of the UNIA, and various Islamic and Christian clergy who were each trying to influence the religious direction of the organization.

Ford’s contributions to the UNIA, however, were not limited to musical matters. He and E.L. Gaines wrote the handbook of rules and regulation for the African Legion (which was modeled after the Zionist Jewish Legion) and developed guidelines for the Black Cross Nurses. He served on committees, spoke at rallies, and was elected one of the delegates representing the 35,000 members of the New York chapter to the “First International Convention of Negro Peoples of the World,” held in 1920 at Madison Square Garden. There the governing body adopted the red, black, and green flag as its national ensign and Ford‟s song “Ethiopia” became the “Universal Ethiopian Anthem,” which the UNIA constitution required be sung at every gathering. During that same year, Ford published the Universal Ethiopian Hymnal. Ford was a proponent of replacing the disparaging term “Negro” with the term “Ethiopian,” as a general reference to people of African descent. This gave the line in Psalm 68 that “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hand to God,” a new significance and it became popular slogan of the organization. At the 1922 convention, Ford opened the proceedings for the session devoted to “The Politics and Future of the West Indian Negro,” and he represented the advocates of Judaism on a five-person ad hoc committee formed to investigate “the Future Religion of the Negro.” Following Garvey’s arrest in 1923, the UNIA loss much of its internal cohesion. Since Ford and his small band of followers were motivated by principals that were independent of Garvey’s charismatic appeal, they were repeatedly approached by government agents and asked to testify against Garvey at trial, which they all refused to do. However, in 1925, Ford brought separate law suits against Garvey and the UNIA for failing to pay him royalties from the sale of recordings and sheet music, and in 1926 the judge ruled in Ford’s favor. Yet, despite his personal and business differences with the organization, Ford remained active in the UNIA as a rabbi, giving invocations and benedictions.

Several black religious leaders experimented with various degrees of Judaism between the two world wars. Rabbi Ford formed intermittent partnerships with some of these leaders. He and Valentine started a short lived congregation called Beth B’nai Israel. Ford then worked with Mordecai Herman and the Moorish Zionist Temple, until they had an altercation over theological and financial issues. Finally, he established Beth B’nai Abraham in 1924. A Jewish scholar who visited the congregation described their services as “a mixture of Reform and Orthodox Judaism, but when they practice the old customs they are seriously orthodox” (Kobre, 25). Harlem chronicler JAMES VANDERZEE photographed the congregation with the Star of David and bold Hebrew lettering identifying their presence on 135th Street and showing Rabbi Ford standing in front of the synagogue with his arms around his string bass, and with members of his choir arrayed at his side, the women wearing the black dresses and long white head coverings that became their distinctive habit and the men donned in white turbans.

In 1928, Rabbi Ford created a business adjunct to the congregation called the B’nai Abraham Progressive Corporation. Reminiscent of many of Garvey’s ventures, this corporation issued 100 shares of stock and purchased two buildings from which it operated a religious and vocational school in one and an apartment house in the other. However, the resources to sustain this enterprise dwindled as the Depression became more pronounced, and the corporation went bankrupt in 1930. Once again it seemed that Ford’s dream of building a black community with cultural integrity, economic viability, and political virility was dashed, but out of the ashes of this disappointment he mustered the resolve to make a final attempt in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government had been encouraging black people with skills and education to immigrate to Ethiopia for almost a decade, and Ford knew that there were over 40,000 indigenous black Jews already in Ethiopia who called themselves Beta Israel, but who were commonly referred to as Falasha. The announced coronation of Haile Selassie in 1930 as the first black ruler of an African nation in modern times raised the hopes of black people all over the world and led Ford to believe that the timing of his Ethiopian colony was providential.

Ford arrived in Ethiopia with a small musical contingent in time to perform during the coronation festivities. They then sustained themselves in Addis Abba by performing at local hotels and relying on assistance from supporters in the United Sates who were members of the Aurienoth Club, a civic group of black Jews and black nationalists, and members of the Commandment Keepers Congregation, led by RABBI W. A. MATTHEW, Ford‟s most loyal protégé. Mignon Innis arrived with a second delegation in 1931 to work as Ford’s private secretary. She soon became Ford’s wife, and they had two children in Ethiopia. Mrs. Ford established a school for boys and girls that specialized in English and music. Ford managed to secure 800 acres of land on which to begin his colony and approximately 100 individuals came to help him develop it. Unbeknownst to Ford, the U.S. State Department was monitoring their efforts with irrational alarm, dispatching reports with such headings as “American Negroes in Ethiopia—Inspiration Back of Their Coming Here—”Rabbi Josiah A. Ford,” and instituting discriminatory policies to curtail the travel of black citizens to Ethiopia. [Explain why briefly]

Ford had no intention of ever leaving Ethiopia, so he drew up a certificate of ordination (shmecha) for Rabbi Matthew that was sanctioned by the Ethiopian government with the hope that this document would give Matthew the necessary credentials to continue the work that Ford had begun in the United States. By 1935 the black Jewish experiment with Ethiopian Zionism was on the verge of collapse. Those who did not leave because of the hard agricultural work, joined the stampede of foreign nationals who sensed that war with Italy was imminent and defeat for Ethiopia certain. Ford, it was said, died of exhaustion and heartbreak in September, a few weeks before the Italian invasion.

Further Reading

The papers of Rabbi Ford are held largely in private collections; however, correspondence between Ford and Matthew is contained in the Rabbi Matthew Collection at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, along with other collections relating to Harlem’s black Jews. Detailed records of Ford‟s efforts in Ethiopia are available at the National Archives, State Department Records for Ethiopia.

King, Kenneth J. “Some Notes on Arnold J. Ford and New World Black Attitudes to Ethiopia,” in Black Apostles: Afro-American Clergy Confront the Twentieth Century, Randall Burkett and Richard Newman, eds. (1978).

Kobre, Sidney. “Rabbi Ford,” The Reflex 4, no. 1 (1929): 25-29. Scott, William R. “Rabbi Arnold Ford‟s Back-to-Ethiopia Movement: A Study of Black Emigration, 1930-1935,” Pan-African Journal 8, no. 2 (1975):191-201. and Richard Newman (1978) and William R. Scott. “Rabbi Arnold Ford‟s Back-to- Ethiopia Movement: A Study of Black Emigration, 1930-1935,” Pan-African Journal 8, no. 2 (1975): 191-201.

*This article was published by Rabbi Sholomo Levy in African American Lives (2004) and the African American National Biography (2008). Both volumes were edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and printed by Oxford University Press.