Anyone can get dreads, smoke marijuana, listen to reggae music and call him or herself Rasta. So how do you tell the difference between a real Rasta and a fashion dread? It is simple. Just ask them a simple question: Who is the Gong?
A real Rasta will not hesitate to tell you that the Gong is Percival Powell who is the founding father of Rasta.
Leonard Percival Howell (June 16, 1898 – February 25, 1981) was born in Jamaica but as a youth travelled to Panama during the building of the canal and later travelled to New York. It was in New York where he met Marcus Garvey and became a member of Garvey’s United Negro (UNIA).
The really appreciate Percival Howell’s story, you need to understand the story of Pinnacle, Jamaica.
Pinnacle’s story began in the 1930s, in British-ruled Jamaica, when a street preacher named Leonard Percival Howell gained a large following among the lower classes. Inspired by revivalist and Ethiopianist movements that took hold in Jamaica from the late eighteenth century, and drawing on an Africanism distinct from European Christianity, Howell sought to create a spiritual practice that would also offer a political voice to the island’s downtrodden workers. Howell’s Pinnacle, originally intended as a temporary community for those hoping to repatriate to Ethiopia, soon became home to hundreds, at times thousands, of Jamaicans. It was a place where members of the underclass could go in the absence of institutional support that plagued the large number of Jamaicans descended from the formerly enslaved, who had few rights and continued to face systemic discrimination.
Even before Pinnacle was established, Howell and other street preachers had been moving away from Christianity toward a radical new focus. After the 1930 crowning of Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie I, born Tafari Makonnen, itinerant preachers in Kingston and the adjacent parishes celebrated the divinity of Ras (Prince) Tafari, who, at his coronation as emperor, took on titles—King of Kings, Lord of Lords—that were reserved in the Bible for the second coming of Christ. Ras Tafari, Howell declared, was the rightful ruler of all black Jamaicans rather than British monarch George V. In the eyes of his Jamaican followers, Emperor Selassie’s resistance to Mussolini’s invasion of his kingdom in 1935 underscored his divine status. After acquiring the property, Howell officially registered Pinnacle as The Ethiopian Salvation Society.
Howell was born in Clarendon, a rural parish in south-central Jamaica. Unlike those around him, Howell’s father was a prosperous farmer, who owned his own land and was later appointed a lay preacher. As a teenager Howell left the island for Colón, Panama, where many Caribbean people were migrating as laborers to dig the canal. He traveled as a seaman between Panama and New York City, and even to Europe, finally opening a tea room in Harlem in 1924. This was his base as he continued to travel until 1932, when it seems he was deported back to Jamaica for serving cannabis drinks in his “tea room”.
These experiences exposed Howell to Pan-Africanism, as well as Marxism, Communism, and various strands of Black Nationalism. During his time in New York, he joined fellow Jamaican Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), founded in 1914.
When Howell returned to Jamaica in 1932—two years after Haile Selassie I was crowned emperor of Ethiopia—he began holding public meetings, fusing all that he’d learned abroad with local ideas. His worldliness and gifts as a speaker not only attracted Jamaica’s underclass, they gained him the attention of local authorities. Already in 1933, the colonial police force had identified the “type of persons attending” Howell’s meetings as “the poor and ignorant who apparently have nothing else to do.” Howell was put under police surveillance, arrested numerous times on charges of sedition, and sentenced to years of hard labor. He was called a “cult leader” and “absolute monarch” in the newspapers. “The most dangerous man on the island,” Bill says of his father at the time. “This man come and say an Ethiopian man God? After we know Christ was a white, long-haired, blonde person? Are you crazy?” In fact, Howell was also committed more than once to Jamaica’s Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, another attempt to defuse his perceived threat to the state.
But for the authorities, the greatest menace to the colonial order was Howell’s founding of Pinnacle as an autonomous economic community financed by the cultivation of marijuana. “Ganja” (an Indo-Aryan word) had originally reached Jamaica in the mid-nineteenth century by way of East Indian indentured laborers, who used the herb in their spiritual ceremonies and were brought to Jamaica to fill the labor demand created by emancipation. Howell’s Rastafari spirituality amalgamated East Indian and African customs and beliefs—an approach that incorporated ceremonial ganja-smoking with the drumming, singing, and chanting of Kumina, an Afro-Jamaican religion developed by central Africans brought to the island enslaved or, like the East Indians, indentured. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, at Pinnacle’s height, Howell was the biggest ganja planter in modern Jamaican history.
This left Pinnacle in a precarious legal position. Ganja had been illegal in Britain and its colonies since 1924, and the community’s efforts to harvest it became a pretext for continual police raids on and shakedowns of the settlement. Monty and Bill Howell recall that colonial police repeatedly confiscated valuables and destroyed documents, claiming they were seditious. Monty says his father pulled people away from the nearby sugar estate where Alexander Bustamante, founder of the JLP party, was then a union leader. “Bustamante didn’t like that,” Monty says. In a 1939 letter, Bustamante warned the Colonial Secretary that Howell was “a danger to the peace of the Community…the greatest danger that exists in this country today,” and recommended that the local inspector of police investigate him. Bustamante would go on to be Jamaica’s first prime minister following British rule.