Leonard Percival Howell was born on June 16, 1898 in May Crawle village in Jamaica. Leonard Howell, who was also known as the Gong or G. G Maragh, is regarded as one of the pioneers and most widely-recognized proponents of the Rastafari movements. He was the eldest of 10 siblings. He worked as a seaman during the First World War and so he frequently visited both Panama and New York.
One of his travels to New York, he joined a group called Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) who sought to propagate pro-black messages across New York and America at large. Leonard found these messages very sound. Pro-black messages then were resented by the ruling white people and so the UNIA were constantly being pursued by the police forces. And so, as a result of his ties with the group, Leonard was arrested and jailed and then later deported back to Jamaica in 1932.
After his return to Jamaica, he sought to spread the ideologies of Rastafarianism which estranged him from his family. His message was centred around making strong claims that Emperor Haile Selassie was the Messiah referred to in the bible. He also lauded Ethiopia’s culture for he believed that it’s richness and originality had been undiluted and stood the test of time. He also posited that a new, powerful civilisation would spring out under the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie, The black Messiah. Coupled with this, he also spread messages of the need for black supremacy to kick colonialist ideologies and white supremacy out to the chagrin of the colonialists.
Leonard’s messages, audacity, unflinching determination and relentlessness amassed him a considerable following who were also very much endeared to him. He propagated these messages through several gatherings and got arrested several times.
One of Leonard’s most notable and influential works was his book “The promised key.” The book was very popular which drew the ire of the colonizers and the Jamaican government alike. In the book he openly criticized the Roman Catholic Church, local religions like Revivalism and Obeah and White Supremacy. Owing to this, he was labelled as mentally unstable and subsequently placed in an asylum in 1938.
After being released from one of his many arrests, Leonard formed the foremost Rastafarian village in Sligoville, St. Catherine, Jamaica in 1940. The village was named Pinnacle. Pinnacle was a self-sufficient community in the sense that members or villagers didn’t relied solely on inside resources – this was very rare in Jamaica. Pinnacle was also known for the production of marijuana. As a result of the fact that Pinnacle was built on Rastafarianism, pro-black Ideologies and Black supremacy and, of course, the involvement of the “infamous” Leonard Howell, it became a target of many attacks from government forces.
First attack was in 1941 – it got raided and several members, including Leonard Howell, were arrested. Well, this did little in dimming his determination to keep Pinnacle running as in 1943, after his release, he returned to Pinnacle and strengthened it’s security by way of bringing in watch dogs to guard the community. This did not really stop the government as the police raided there, arresting and sacking most of the villagers several times in the 1950s; but the villagers who fled returned each time after the raid.
But then, unfortunately, in 1958, the Pinnacle Village was destroyed unsalvageably. On that fateful day, the police evicted and sacked every last person there. In spite of it’s ill-fate, Pinnacle Village, it’s establishment and the story surrounding it – characterised by endurance and grit on the part of the villagers, has made it a rich part of the Jamaican History.
Leonard Howell championed Rastafarianism until his death on February 25, 1981.
Fun fact: Leonard Howell, while being widely recognised as the first Rasta, he never donned a dreadlock.