They can’t kill Rasta now
By Mark Wignall
I was attending KC for a little over three months when the JLP government – led by its neo-colonialist, paternalistic, dictator of a prime minister, Alexander Bustamante – unleashed the full weight of the Jamaican security forces on Rasta in Coral Gardens, on the outskirts of Montego Bay. That was on Good Friday, April 12, 1963, and the national infamy became etched in our history books as the Coral Gardens incident.
Long before that, Busta’s more intellectual cousin, Norman Manley, then premier of Jamaica, had issued warnings against Rasta. 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.”
No one really knows if Leonard Howell, the Gong, was the original Rasta but what we do know is that he was the first to have a Rasta organisation, a direction and a settlement at Pinnacle in the St Catherine hills. This settlement was given its validity by the remarkable strength and personality of this “new Marcus Garvey” – Howell, and his teachings of Rasta.
It came at a time – in the 1930s, 1940s when Jamaican black people were submerged in a landscape of whiteness, mother country, rule Britannia. It came at a time when most of our black people who were lucky enough to be exposed to tertiary education lapped it all up, only to be later sucked in by the system as they sold out the black poor and the powerless to the whims and fancies of the high brown, near white margin gatherers and politicians, and locked the gates on them. Even Busta’s letters to The Gleaner in the 1930s which made him a champion of the poor were a far cry from his (“laaw and aarda”) leadership which pitted the police against the constantly oppressed poor.
In 1959 I was a nine-year-old child living at 11 Newark Avenue off Waltham Park Road. Nearby on Rosalie Avenue lived Cladius Henry, who called himself “Repairer of the Breach” and who was a firm believer in repatriation. In 1960 he wrote to Fidel Castro the following: “We want to go back home to Africa; if we are not welcomed back with love, we will go anyway, in hate, as we were brought here. If we cannot go in peace, then we must go in war.”
Rosalie Avenue was raided where dynamite and crude weapons were found. He was tried and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
While I attended Trench Town and Jones Town Primary schools I saw my first Rastamen. The term “dreadlocks” which came about at the end of the decade of the 1950s was not yet in vogue. “Beardman” was the name given to them and, much to their delight, they were greatly feared by the public. Of course, we fear most what we know least of, and so we saw them as “black art man”, evil and alien to our culture even though we had no idea then that they were miles ahead of us who were overzealous “apers” of the colonial way.
In Helene Lee’s seemingly well-researched book, The First Rasta, she places the Coral Gardens Rebellion on Good Friday, April 12, 1963. According to the book, it all started the day before with a Rastaman named Rudolf Franklyn.
“Franklyn, the son of an estate watchman, was a ‘beardman’ who squatted in the hills above Coral Gardens. The story goes that he was cultivating his small garden, and one day on his way back from the field he stopped at a gas station to ask for a glass of water. Instead of giving him water, the attendant sprayed him with gasoline and threatened to light a match if he didn’t leave.”
Readers may find the behaviour of the pump attendant strange, but we have to bear in mind that the time was 1963, one year after “independence” and three years after Ronald Henry, son of Cladius Henry, had, with his gang of warriors, shot and killed two soldiers. Young Henry and three of his comrades were later hanged.
In 1963 Jamaican black people hated themselves. Black girls wanted “pretty hair” men, and black men wanted white girls or “red” girls as the term “browning” was not yet invented. That both hardly ever got what they wanted only served to harden the self-denigration. Rastamen were at the bottom of the barrel.
Helene Lee continues: “Franklyn got mad and the attendant called the police, who arrived and shot him several times. They left him for dead at the Montego Bay Hospital. But Franklyn wasn’t dead and the doctors did all they could. They even installed an intestinal prosthesis that saved him.”
After treatment Franklyn was charged for resisting arrest and was sentenced to six months in prison. All he wanted was a glass of water. Instead he was shot, smashed up inside and imprisoned. After he left prison, in his mind, he had many wrongs to right.
“Living with an artificial bowel was not a joyful prospect, and Franklyn felt he didn’t have much to lose. He gathered five of his brethren, ‘sufferers’ who were as frustrated by daily humiliations as he was, and they began preparing weapons – straight machetes sharpened on both sides, spears forged from concrete reinforcing rods, missiles made from shells filled with cement, cutlasses stolen from a banana plantation.
“On Thursday April 11, 1963, the six Rastas appeared at the gas station at dawn. The night watchman swore he was a Rastaman too, and gave them a spliff of herb, so they let him go. But they hacked to death a white driver who happened to stop, and then they set the station on fire. They went to a nearby motel, murdered a hapless guest, and then retreated to the hills. The Rose Hall estate overseer was their next victim, having just put his goats out to pasture.”
Franklyn and his friends were eventually shot and killed during that “Bad Friday” upsurge of violence while all over the island, Rastamen were being rounded up, beaten by the police and shorn of their hair. Many went into hiding.
Today 42 years later, nobody in Finland or Brazil or Lesotho or Japan knows who Norman Manley or Busta was. Their cronies have named them national heroes while their heirs and successors have continued to delay and deny justice to the poor and powerless.
Worldwide, everyone knows about Bob Marley and Rasta. We Jamaicans made it, gave it to the world. The “rasta head” entertainers in Jamaica know nothing about 1963. Why? Eighty per cent of them are fake, cartoon Rastas.