Religion forms an important part of any city’s identity. Bristol, like other towns and cities with a culturally diverse population, is home to many kinds of religions and movements. The African-Caribbean members of the community belong to various religions. When the large numbers of migrant workers arrived in the 1950s, they often found a limited welcome from the established, white-run churches. Many belonged to the Nonconformist and Evangelical churches, such as the Baptist movement. The churches in the Caribbean were usually less formal and more expressive than the churches in Britain. Many of the people arriving in Britain found the English services formal and uncomfortable. They felt more comfortable with their own services, and black-led Evangelical churches began to develop. The Evangelical movement today is a large and growing one, and has many black followers.
Rastafarians, Rastas, or Ras Tafarians are followers of the Rastafarian (or Rasta) religion. This first appeared in Jamaica in the 1930s. The movement has a strong following in Bristol.
The original Rastafarians drew their inspiration from Marcus Garvey (1887-1940). He promoted the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the 1920s, whose main goal was to unite black people with their rightful homeland of Africa. Garvey believed that all black people in the western world should return there. He preached that the Europeans unfairly spread the African population throughout the world, as a result of slavery and colonisation. According to Garvey, as a result of this, people of African descent were unable to organise themselves politically or express themselves socially. This was a result of continuous European oppression. Garvey argued that by being enslaved, black people had developed what he called a “slave mentality”. This meant that they had come to accept white racist definitions of themselves, as inferior and worthy of the slave status.
One of the things that Garvey told black people was to ‘Look to Africa when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is near.’ In 1930, in east Africa, Prince Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned the new Emperor of Ethiopia, and claimed for himself the title of Emperor Haile Selassie (meaning ‘Power of the Trinity’) I. Some Jamaicans remembered Garvey’s words and interpreted them as referring to Haile Selassie, the new black king, and the day of deliverance as meaning the return to Africa. After the crowning of Selassie, the Rastafarian movement gained a following and officially began. Selassie was never a Rastafarian himself, and no one is really sure what he ever thought of his following.
In this new religion, Haile Selassie became a god and Messiah. It was thought that he would arrange the return of black people to Africa and overcome the imperial power of the Western countries. The new movement found followers amongst the poor in Jamaica. They had few hopes of improving their lives and seized on the hope offered by the Rastafari movement.
The sacred text used by Rastafarians is the “black man’s Bible,” known as the Holy Piby. Certain sections of the Bible are used, and significance is given to the Ethiopian Holy Book, the Kebra Negast. Worldwide, the total following is currently about 1,000,000 people. Most Rastafarians are pacifists, although a lot of support for the religion started out of anti-white sentiments.
The Caribbean island of Jamaica had many followers of Rastafarianism. By the mid-1950s, they often clashed with the police, and were viewed by the ruling white elite as black racists who wanted to rule over the white people. Throughout the 1960s, Rastafarians demonstrated against social inequality and black poverty. These demonstrations were violently put down by the Jamaican police and military.
In 1968, the Jamaican University lecturer Walter Rodney started the Black Power Movement, which influenced the development of Rastafarianism in the Caribbean. The movement encouraged black people to overthrow white domination, and to change society to make it better for the black population. On the islands of Dominica, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago, Rastafarians played a major role in radical left-wing politics. On the island of Jamaica, Rastafarian resistance was expressed through a variety of cultural forms.
In the 1970s, the Rastafarian image went through a change. In the 1960s Rastafarians had been seen negatively. In the 1970s they came to be viewed as more of a positive cultural force, contributing to art and music (in particular reggae ) in Jamaica. In the late 1970s, the reggae musician Bob Marley came to symbolise Rastafarian values and beliefs. He played an important role in promoting the Rastafarian movement worldwide. His popularity ensured a diverse audience for the messages and concepts behind the religion. Marley’s music captured the essence of the ideologies at the heart of Rastafarianism.
Since the 1980s, the Rastafarian movement has become less religious. Rastafarian ideas and beliefs seem to be less popular today with Jamaica’s urban youth. Additionally, many Rastafarian symbols, such as the three colours of red, green, and gold have lost their religious and ideological significance. Similarly, dreadlocks, once the symbolic hairstyle of the Rastafarians, are now sported by both blacks and whites all over the world.