Apr 212017

Today is Grounation Day, an important day for the Rastafari, second only to Coronation Day (November 2). It is celebrated in honor of Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit to Jamaica.  When Haile Selassie visited Jamaica, around 100,000 Rastafari from all over Jamaica descended on Palisadoes Airport in Kingston. When his Ethiopian Airlines flight landed at the airport at 1:30 pm the crowd surrounded his plane on the tarmac. After about half an hour, the door swung open and the emperor appeared at the top of the mobile steps. A deafening tumult was heard from the crowd, who beat calabash drums, lit firecrackers, waved signs, and sounded Abeng horns. All protocol was dropped as the crowd pressed past the security forces and on to the red carpet that had been laid out for the reception. Selassie waved from the top of the steps and then returned into the plane. Finally Jamaican authorities asked Ras Mortimer Planno, a prominent Rasta leader, to climb the steps, enter the plane, and negotiate the Emperor’s descent. When Planno reemerged, he announced to the crowd: “The Emperor has instructed me to tell you to be calm. Step back and let the Emperor land” After Planno escorted Selassie down the steps he refused to walk on the red carpet on the way to his limousine. Thus was born the term “grounation” a portmanteau of “foundation” and “ground,”  meaning something like “the spiritual leader (foundation) makes contact with the soil (ground).”

As a result of Planno’s actions, the Jamaican authorities were asked to ensure that Rastafari representatives were present at all state functions attended by Selassie, and Rastafari leaders, including Planno, also obtained a private audience with the Emperor, where he reportedly told them that they should not attempt to emigrate to Ethiopia (or Africa in general) until they had first liberated the people of Jamaica. This dictum came to be known as “liberation before repatriation.” Defying the expectations of the British colonial Jamaican authorities, Selassie never rebuked the Rastafari for their belief in him as the Messiah. Instead, he presented the movement’s faithful leaders with gold medallions bearing the Ethiopian seal – the only recipients of such an honor on this visit. Meanwhile, he presented some of the Jamaican politicians with miniature coffin-shaped cigarette boxes. So let’s explore what Rastafari is all about (in very little space – as always).

The word Rastafari comes from Haile Selassie’s birth name and title in Amharic: Ras (Chief) Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael. From the 1930s onward a movement, known as Rastafari, grew in Jamaica as a militant reaction to colonialism and former slavery, at one time advocating a return of the descendants of former slaves to Africa and revering Haile Selassie as the reincarnation of Jesus of Nazareth. Outsiders define Rastafari as a religion, but devotees prefer to see it as a movement, although it has many of the hallmarks of a religion, with many features taken from Judaism and Christianity.  I see no point in quibbling about terminology.

Rastas use the Biblical term “Babylon” to describe the colonial forces of oppression, one major form of which is language itself. Thus suffixes, such as “-ism” and “-ian,” are seen as linguistic forms of limitation and control. I am wholly sympathetic with this agenda. Labels such as “Marxism” or “Freudian,” for example, are both limiting and misleading. I happen to like the word “Christian” when it is strictly applied, meaning “a person who strives in all ways to be Christ-like.” By this definition there are precious few Christians. In my opinion the word “Christian” should not be randomly applied to anyone who happens to go to a certain kind of church, but should have a clear and precise meaning. In this respect I am fully in accord with Rastas.  The trouble is that with or without suffixes, “Rastafari” and “Rasta” are labels and bring the limits of definition along with them.

It is fair to say that Rastafari has no rigid dogmas, but is rather a way of life with multiple paths. These ways include an emphasis on an Afro-centric worldview (replacing the desire for repatriation to Africa), eating unadulterated and unprocessed foods, smoking ganja (marijuana) as a sacrament, communal singing and chanting, belief in a single God – called Jah, and belief that Haile Selassie was the Second Coming of the Messiah. These paths are not all rigid. Not all Rastas smoke ganja for example. Some are strict vegans, while others eat meat. Early on Rastas realized that language can limit ways of thinking and developed a dialect of English which is now called Iyaric (a portmanteau of “I” and “Amharic”). The idea was to break away from standard English, the language of the colonial masters, and, since the former languages of African slaves had been lost, to create a new mode of speech that rejected the ideology of “Babylon.” “I,” signifying the empowered self, is of prime importance in Iyaric – hence the name.

In the first place, “I” can signify at least two meanings through “wordsound” (the power of sound in words). It can mean the self, but can also signify “high” (which is sounds like), not in the sense of high from ganja, but spiritually high. Here’s a very brief lexicon:

I replaces “me,” which is much more commonly used in Jamaican English than in standard English. Me is felt to turn the person into an object whereas, I emphasizes the subjective nature of an individual.

I and I (also spelled I&I, InI, or Ihi yahnh Ihi) is a complex term, referring to the oneness of Jah (God) and every human. Rastafari scholar E. E. Cashmore says: “I and I is an expression to totalize the concept of oneness. ‘I and I’ as being the oneness of two persons. So God is within all of us and we’re one people in fact. I and I means that God is within all men. The bond of Ras Tafari is the bond of God, of man.” The term is often used in place of “you and I” or “we” among Rastafari, implying that both persons are united under the love of Jah.

I-tal (like “vital”) is spiritually blessed food that has not touched modern chemicals and is served without preservatives, condiments, or salts. Alcohol, coffee, milk, and flavored beverages are generally viewed as not I-tal. Most Rastas follow the I-tal proscriptions generally, and many are vegetarians or vegans. Even meat-eating Rastas abstain from eating pork, crabs, lobsters, and shrimp (which coincides with the restrictions of Kashrut).

I-man is the inner person within each Rastafari believer.

Irie refers to positive emotions or feelings, or anything that is good. This is a phonetic representation of “all right”.

Ites derived from English “heights”, means “joy” and also the colour “red”. It can also be short for “Israelites”.

Irator replaces “creator”, and Iration replaces “creation”.

Idren refers to the oneness of Rastafari and is used to describe one’s peers.

Itinually replaces continually. It has the everliving sense of I existing continuously.

Reggae developed out of the Rastafari movement, with its early lyrics expressing core Rasta values of militancy and freedom.  Here’s Bob Marley and the Melodians singing “By the Rivers of Babylon” which explores notions of slavery and alienation in a Biblical context. The song is dear to my heart because it was the first on a mix tape that I used every night 25 years ago to rock my son to sleep when he was an infant.

There are, of course, plenty of Rasta recipes exploiting I-tal food. Like Buddhist monks, Rastas don’t want to sacrifice taste and complexity just because they avoid certain ingredients. Many avoid red meat because of a belief that it rots inside the body, but fish is acceptable to some. Callaloo is a common Caribbean dish, ultimately deriving from West African cooking, that can be made from various leafy greens. In Jamaica amaranth leaves are the usual component. They are best if cooked fresh, but in the US I only ever found tinned callaloo, which is all right. The flavor is correct, but the greens are too mushy for my taste.

If you can get fresh amaranth leaves, take a bunch, cut off the tough part of the stems and roughly chop the  leaves. Soak and rinse them in fresh water for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile peel and slice an onion and mince 1 or 2 cloves of garlic, and thinly slice a scotch bonnet pepper. Also de-seed and chop a tomato. In a large heavy skillet sauté  the onion in a little vegetable oil until translucent. Add the garlic and pepper and cook for 1 or 2 minutes longer. Then add the amaranth (with fresh water still clinging to the leaves) and the tomato. Mix well, cover and steam for about 10 minutes, or until the leaves are tender. Add a little water if necessary during the cooking process so that the pan does not dry out and scorch. Callaloo is often served in Jamaica with salt fish and plantains, but it can be used as a green vegetable accompaniment for any dish.

Oct 112015


Today is the 150th anniversary of the Morant Bay rebellion which began on this date in 1865, when Paul Bogle led 200 to 300 black men and women into the town of Morant Bay, parish of St. Thomas in the East, in Jamaica. The rebellion and its aftermath were a major turning point in Jamaica’s history, and also generated a significant political debate in Britain. Today, the rebellion remains a topic of debate in certain circles, and is frequently mentioned by specialists in black and colonial studies. However, it is not widely known outside those circles.

Slavery ended in Jamaica on 6 August 1834, with the passing of the British Emancipation Act, which eventually led to full emancipation on 1 August 1838 after four years of apprenticeship – the date on which former slaves became free to choose their employment and employer. On paper, former slaves gained the right to vote. However, most blacks remained desperately poor, and a high poll tax effectively excluded them from enfranchisement. During the election of 1864, fewer than 2,000 black Jamaicans were eligible to vote out of a total population of over 436,000, despite outnumbering whites by a ratio of 32:1. Prior to the rebellion, conditions in Jamaica had been worsening for ex-slaves. In 1864 there were several floods which ruined many crops, whilst 1865 marked the end of a decade in which the island had been overwhelmed by plagues of cholera and smallpox. A two-year drought preceding 1865 made economic conditions worse for the population of former slaves and their descendants. These conditions led to several bankruptcies in the sugar industry, widening the economic void. Consequently tensions between white farmers and ex-slaves increased, and rumors began circulating that white planters intended to restore slavery.


In 1865, Dr. Edward Underhill, Secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society of Great Britain, wrote a letter to the Colonial Office in order to express Jamaica’s current poor state of affairs. This letter was later shown to Jamaica’s Governor Edward Eyre, who immediately tried to deny the truth of its statements, and Jamaica’s poor blacks began organizing in “Underhill Meetings.” In fact, peasants in St. Ann parish sent a petition to Queen Victoria asking for Crown lands to cultivate as they could not find land for themselves, but it passed by Eyre first and he enclosed a letter with his own comments.

The Queen’s reply left no doubt in the minds of the poor that Eyre had influenced her opinion – she encouraged the poor to work harder, rather than offering any help. George William Gordon, a wealthy mulatto politician, began encouraging the people to find ways to make their grievances known. One of his followers was a church deacon named Paul Bogle.


Keeping the Haitian Revolution in mind, the British population in Jamaica, as in many other British colonies, was fearful that the Jamaicans, like the Haitians before them, would seize control of Jamaica.

On 7 October 1865, a black man was put on trial and imprisoned for trespassing on a long-abandoned plantation, angering black Jamaicans. During the proceedings, James Geoghegon, a black spectator, disrupted the trial, and in the police’s attempts to seize him and remove him from the courthouse, a fight broke out between the police and other spectators. While pursuing Geoghegon, the two policeman were beaten with sticks and stones.[2] The following Monday arrest warrants were issued for several men for rioting, resisting arrest, and assaulting the police. Among them was Baptist preacher Paul Bogle.

A few days later on 11 October, Paul Bogle marched with a group of protesters to Morant Bay. When the group arrived at the court house they were met by a small and inexperienced volunteer militia. The crowd began pelting the militia with rocks and sticks, and the militia opened fire on the group, killing seven black protesters before retreating.


Governor John Eyre sent government troops, under Brigadier-General Alexander Nelson, to hunt down the poorly armed rebels and bring Paul Bogle back to Morant Bay for trial. The troops met with no organized resistance, but regardless they killed blacks indiscriminately, most of whom had not been involved in the riot or rebellion: according to one soldier, “we slaughtered all before us… man or woman or child”. In the end, 439 black Jamaicans were killed directly by soldiers, and 354 more (including Paul Bogle) were arrested and later executed, some without proper trials. Paul Bogle was executed “either the same evening he was tried or the next morning.” Other punishments included flogging for over 600 men and women (including some pregnant women), and long prison sentences, with thousands of homes belonging to black Jamaicans burned down without any reason.


George William Gordon, a Jamaican businessman and politician, who had been critical of Governor John Eyre and his policies, was later arrested by Governor John Eyre who believed he had been behind the rebellion. Despite having very little to do with it, Gordon was eventually executed. Though he was arrested in Kingston, he was transferred by Eyre to Morant Bay, where he could be tried under martial law. The execution and trial of Gordon via martial law raised some constitutional issues back in Britain, where concerns emerged about whether British dependencies should be ruled under the government of law, or through military license. The speedy trial saw Gordon hanged on 23 October, just two days after his trial had begun. He and William Bogle, Paul’s brother, were both tried together, and executed at the same time.

When news of the response to the rebellion broke in Britain it generated fierce debate, with public figures of different political affiliations lining up to support or oppose Governor Eyre’s actions. When Eyre returned to Britain in August 1866, his supporters held a banquet in his honor, while opponents at a protest meeting the same evening condemned him as a murderer. Opponents went on to establish the Jamaica Committee, which called for Eyre to be tried for mass murder. More radical members of the Committee wanted him tried for the murder of British subjects, such as George William Gordon, under the rule of law, stating that his action under martial law were in fact illegal. The Committee included English liberals, such as John Bright, Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Huxley, Thomas Hughes and Herbert Spencer. An opposing committee, which included such Tories and Tory socialists as Thomas Carlyle, Rev. Charles Kingsley, Charles Dickens, and John Ruskin, sprang up in Eyre’s defense. Twice Eyre was charged with murder, but the cases never proceeded.

While some historians have argued that the Morant Bay uprising was no more than a local riot, in its wake the House of Assembly renounced its charter and Jamaica became a Crown Colony. A thorough overview can be found in Gad Heuman’s “The Killing Time”: The Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica, (Knoxville,1994).

mbr6  mbr7

Ackee and saltfish is a traditional Jamaican dish served for breakfast or lunch. The ackee fruit was imported to the Caribbean from Ghana before 1725; Ackee or Aki is another name for the Akan or Akyem people. Its botanical name is Blighia sapida, honoring Captain William Bligh who took the fruit from Jamaica to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, in London in 1793, and introduced it to science. Because parts of the fruit are highly toxic, there are shipping restrictions when being imported to countries such as the United States. You can get it canned online, as here, for example: http://www.amazon.com/Linstead-Market-Ackee-19oz/dp/B002SM5K62

To prepare the dish, salt cod (soaked overnight to eliminate most of the salt) is sautéed with boiled ackee, onions, Scotch Bonnet peppers, tomatoes, and spices, such as black pepper and paprika. It can be garnished with bacon and tomatoes, and is usually served alongside breadfruit, hard dough bread, dumplings, fried plantain, or boiled green bananas. Ackee and saltfish can also be eaten with rice and peas or plain white rice.