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Book on Founding Father of Rastafarians
By Howard Campbell, IPS, 17 March 1998
KINGSTON, Mar 21 (IPS) - A French journalist's fascination with Leonard Howell, a charismatic religious leader acknowledged as one of the founding fathers of the rastafarian religion in the Caribbean, has led to a detailed book on his life.
Helene Lee, a 51-year-old writer, is putting the finishing touches on research for her tome on Howell, who presided over the early rastafarian movement in Jamaica. Howell died in obscurity in 1981 aged 84, but his work as a pioneer in the cause of the embattled sect remains vivid in the minds of rastafarians even though he was ostracised by them at the time of his death.
"He was the foremost prophet of the movement, even more than (Marcus) Garvey," says Miguel Lorne, an elder in the Jamaican rastafarian community. "Howell was an important figure in the early days."
Like Lorne, Lee is an admirer who has sought to give Howell his due. She first discovered his work during a visit to Jamaica in the late 1970s to experience first hand reggae music which she loved dearly.
"The music turned lousy and I chose to go beyond that and research the roots of rasta," she said.
Lee returned to Jamaica about seven years after Howell's death in 1981 to further her research, but found documentation on him was not accessible. "There were five lines here, another five there, but nothing detailed" Lee explained. "I thought, 'we must get this man's history'."
Lee carried her story to Flammariom, a French publishing company which specialises in leisure publications. Flammariom's editors expressed an interest in funding her research and a book on the founder of rastafarianism.
That research began in earnest almost three years ago when Lee made her first visit to the ruins of Pinnacle, an expansive commune in rural Jamaica where Howell governed more than 1,000 followers for nearly 15 years. Pinnacle's rastafarians fashioned a self-reliant community whose strengths were based on agricultural and cultural means.
Pinnacle was constantly under siege from Jamaica's colonial forces for its rastafarian connections. Popular opinion was that Howell and his followers use their farming and basket weaving trades as cover for the illegal, but much more lucrative practise of exporting marijuana to the United Kingdom.
Pinnacle finally yielded to pressure in 1954 when security forces raided the community and arrested hundreds of settlers. Howell managed to escape but he became increasingly unpopular among militant rastafarians who said his ideas had become dated.
Howell was born in 1898 in Clarendon, a rural parish in the sugar belt region of Jamaica. He sought greener pastures in the United States in 1914, living in that country for 16 years and serving in the US army.
His stint in the army saw him travelling extensively, and meeting the popular Black nationalist leaders of the time, such as his countryman Marcus Garvey, and the African-American communist leader, George Padmore.
Deported from the US in 1932 after serving a two-year prison sentence for grand larceny, Howell first came to public attention in Jamaica when he started selling photographs of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie 1.
Howell had learnt of Selassie during a visit to England where the African leader was in exile. Howell's photo enterprise - the money from which he said would go to purchasing tickets for the return to Africa - grew to an extent that he became a target of weary authorities.
He was sentenced to a two-year prison term in 1933 for sedition and shortly after his release, Howell was committed to the asylum when he resumed his rastafarian crusade.
Howell established his first commune, Tabernacle, in the parish of St Thomas in the late 1930s. But it was at Pinnacle - a near 200-hectare stretch of land bought with money gathered from followers - that Howell rose to national prominence.
The commune thrived throughout the 1940s as rastafarians made a living by selling their farm produce and straw accessories. But according to Lee, that was not all they were selling. "They were known as the biggest ganja (marijuana) growers in Kingston at the time; they were very rich, Howell's children went to the best schools," Lee says.
Evidence of that prosperity came to light when Pinnacle was raided in 1954.
According to a police report on the raid: "The value of the property was almost as staggering as the quantity of ganja, no less than 3,000 dollars was handed over to the police."
Howell's aura faded as the rastafarian sect grew more militant in the 1960s and 1970s. Many claimed he had lost sight of the movement's teachings and had began projecting himself as God. Because he wore no beard and no locks, Howell was also considered too conventional to be a rastafarian. But Lee says that assessment is debatable. For the last leg of her research on Howell, she will journey to New York to trace his activist days there.
She expects her book to be completed by the year 2000. "That would be great, because his followers say he will return about that time," said Lee.
[c] 1998, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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