It may be unseemly to some folks to see a commonality between Jamaica’s national hero Paul Bogle, the Rastafari and the dons who rule the island’s so called politically defined ‘garrison communities’. The peasant farmer cum Baptist deacon Bogle was hanged in October 1865, with his mulatto middle class ally, George William Gordon, by the British colonial authorities after they were charged with sedition for leading a march to the Morant Bay court house to protest against harsh economic conditions being faced by the post slavery peasantry.
The march turns bloody when the militia fires of the protesters and they respond by burning the court house. Bogle, Gordon and several others dubbed ringleaders are rounded up, summarily tried and executed. In the aftermath, Jamaica loses any semblance of internal representation, reverting to Crown Colony status and gusto is thrown into the establishment of a constabulary, prison and mental sanitarium, in Kingston, which would be made the capital in 1872 having displaced Spanish Town as the economic centre of the colony.
The slavery system had only been abolished 27 years earlier, and not many people of colour, especially of the darker hue, participated in the country’s economic or political system beyond peripheral and subsistence levels.
By the 1930s, with the Great War in the recent shadows, the Great Depression in full swing and the liberty calls of Marcus Garvey for a full recognition of African humanity, Afro Jamaican messianists searching redemption located it in the coronation of Ras Tafari as Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, who with his title of Lion of Judah was seen as Christ returned to rescue the downtrodden Israelites.
This ‘heretic’ doctrine with man as God and calls for repatriation to Africa put the adherents to the nascent movement further on the periphery of colonial Jamaican society and left them on the dung hills and slums of the community. Their dreadlocks hair style and beards and the use of ganja as a a sacrament led to their stereotyping as criminals and lunatics to be purged from respectable society.
Skip to August 1962 and Jamaica against independence as part of a federation of soon to be ex British Caribbean colonies and instead go it alone . The first government of the independence era is led by Alexander Bustamante, a semi-educated lesser planter class eccentric who comes to power by ingratiation as leader of the poor dock and sugar cane field labourers but heads a conservative political group, the Jamaica Labour Party.
Busta’s letter writing campaigns to the newspaper was buttressed by the crutch of his lieutenant, former Garveyite and labour leader, St William Grant, who provided the link to the black underclass.
He has supplanted his cousin, erudite barrister and Rhodes scholar, Norman Manley, who in his time as premier and leader of the Fabian socialist People’s National Party and advocate of Caribbean federal unity, had agreed in 1960 to send a mission to Africa and undertake a University of the West Indies social study of the movement at the prompting of Rastafari leaders to seek cultural links with the continent and ameliorate their outcast status.
Whatever trust had been emerging between the Rastafari community and the government regressed when the security forces were unleashed on Rastafari adherents around the island after a fracas in Coral Gardens, Montego Bay, where a killing at a gas station followed an altercation between a worker and a “beardman”, alleged to be a Rastafari.
Not that Manley was a friend of the movement because to quote columnist Mark Wignall’s They Cant’t Kill Rasta Now, ‘In 1960 after the capture of Cladius Henry, for treason, and his wild son, Ronald, for murder/sedition, Manley said of Rasta, “These people – and I am glad that it is only a small number of them – are the wicked enemies of our country. I ask you all to report any unusual or suspicious movements you may see pertaining to the Rastafarians.”
A tribalized political culture which had been emerging under Bustamante and Manley since the granting of universal adult suffrage in 1944, with supporters in depressed urban constituencies defending territory with bottles, stones, knives, then guns and Molotov cocktails has taken root.
The western communities of the Corporate Area of Kingston and lower St Andrew are particularly depressed and crowed with the remnants of landless Africa, turned off the sugar estates in 1838 and traveling into Kingston via train to eke out existence on the periphery of produce markets, morgues, and free residence with scavenging on the adjacent cemetery and refuse dumps.
It is here that the deformed religious retentions of Africa comingle with revivalist Christianity and creolize into what is called Pocomania, and Kumina and Rastafari and where drummers and singers are wailing their relief and where the prisoners return to after serving their time at the Genral Penitentiary on the opposite side of town.
Bustamante himself was member of parliament for the West Kingston constituency in a pre-independence term but he made way for the Lebanese Jamaican Edward Seaga, who had previously immersed himself in the community doing sociological studies on the religious expresions in the community. The powerful imagery of a white skinned man living among them in their misery made a lasting impact on residents and Seaga embedded himself and the JLP in the area after one of the biggest housing and sociological experiments in the Anglophone Caribbean.
In the mid 1960s, while Minister of Development and Welfare, Seaga oversaw the bulldozing of the slum and its transformation into Tivoli Gardens self high rise, contained residential community almost completely sanitized of political opposition. State funds were funneled through the party constituency mechanism and community lieutenants enabled strict loyalty via the distribution of benefits and the force of weapons – a model that would be borrowed by politicians of the JLP and PNP.
Former Mayor Kingston, Desmond McKenzie, who succeeded Bruce Golding as the MP in a December 2011 general election, is a Seaga protege who proudly admits that he was one of those flogged by the representative as late as his 20th birthday, to tow the laid down lines.
“I remember the last beating I got from him was in 1972, during that election, I had a terrible period at that time,” McKenzie is quoted as having told Jamaica Observer editor, Desmond Allen. “Everything I put my hand on I used to mash it up… and I got a good caning from him for being in a demolishing mood, very destructive and being very irresponsible.”
It is this environment that created Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke and his father before him and others before that, most notably Claude Massop, who with the enforcer from the nearby PNP Matthews Lane enclave, ‘Bucky Marshall’, had agreed to a 1978 peace treaty backed by prominent Rastafari figures such as reggae star, Bob Marley. Both were subsequently killed amidst allegations that their peace had attempted to breach the political patronage status quo.
Coke himself met his comeuppance for breaking that mold. The growth of the illicit drugs industry with links to Columbia, gave the community dons an independence which could not be controlled by their political overlords or the security forces many of whom the controlled any way and who had interior fire power. While the dons continued to deliver the votes at election time, it was they who kept pots cooking and children clothed and able to attend school while the economy withered under the JLP and PNP but whose leadership associates continued to flaunt the trappings of success via ostentation.
It was Seaga who first attempted to exorcise the uncontrollable Coke and his associates from Tivoli by handing their names to the police high command under the label of criminal elements. Bruce Golding it was who threw him to the dogs after fighting valiantly in his corner to avoid extradition to the United States.
What is clear in 2012, the 50th anniversary of Jamaican Independence and the Rastafari observance of the 120th anniversary of the birth of Haile Selassie, is that the system of patronage has not changed and the black underclass, despite the huge change in coloration of the political directorate still depends on the brown alliance to achieve and semblance of economic advancement as a group.
A dreadlock gained a seat with the winning PNP in the December 2012 election but reggae and the Jamaican language for example which are prime cultural markers internationally are not fully endorsed at home; and Bogle was hanged, Garvey jailed in the USA and derided by polite society in Jamaica, Coke and his gun running, drug pushing and slayings represent a counter culture that is forced into criminalization in balancing contrasting class interests.