Documenting Oppression

By D. A. Dunkley

In Women and Resistance in the Early Rastafari Movement, D. A. Dunkley examines the lives and experiences of Rastafari women in colonial Jamaica, where government oppression and silencing were the norm for those engaged in the struggle for Black liberation. Here Dunkley discusses the significance of petitions submitted to the Jamaican government in the 1930s by five Rastafari women who refused to accept the dominant white supremacist narrative of British colonialism.

Original documents courtesy of the Jamaica Archives, Spanish Town

One of my main reasons for writing Women and Resistance in the Early Rastafari Movement was to explore the silencing surrounding women’s activism during the founding period of the Rastafari in Jamaica in the early 1930s. However, the silence was broken periodically by Rastafari women who created documentation highlighting their political, social, and economic activity and their refusal to accept the white racial supremacy of British colonialism and its oppressive government. This periodic documentation occurred, for instance, in August–September 1934, when five Rastafari women, together with three men, submitted written petitions to the government complaining about injustices in the judiciary. The petitioners called on government officials to act reasonably and to ensure that despite their Rastafari identity, they would receive respectful and fair treatment from the colonial system. In one petition, Rachel Patterson asserted, “I am now oppressed with false accusation and undergo a trial of no substantial nature.” Patterson exemplified the anticolonial sentiment of the group. Principal petitioner Delrosa Francis added, “The majestrates [sic] objected to my statement and also diss-allowed [sic] my witnesses to give evidence in my behalf.” All of the petitioners decried the injustices of the colonial system.

Petitions have a long history in the African diaspora in the West. During the period of slavery, abolitionists in Britain, who were motivated mainly by enslaved people’s resistance to their condition, submitted petitions that proved vital to the struggle to end slavery in Britain in 1834. Vast numbers of British women were responsible for these petitions submitted to Parliament and the Crown. Fast forward to the early 1930s, and in a similar scenario, early Rastafari women submitted their petitions to the Jamaican colonial government for justice and fairness. Rastafari men of the period produced similar documentation. For example, in the 1930s Rastafari men submitted a petition warning the colonial government of the potential for another Black uprising as occurred in 1865 if there was no redress for the racism and impoverishment prevalent under the colonial system. They made it clear that they understood colonialism as a racially unjust system and wanted nothing to do with it. The women and men of the early Rastafari movement asserted their desire for fair and just leadership and for self-rule. They did not think that colonialism had done the Black people of Jamaica and other British colonies any good in its nearly three hundred years of domination. The argument was sound, but it was not, as you would imagine, something the British colonial government wanted to hear. The government largely ignored the petitions and sent the police to suppress the Rastafari communities.

Jacket image for "Women and Resistance in the Early Rastafari Movement"

As government officials recorded activities of the early Rastafari movement, they suggested that the Rastafari women were self-imposed outcasts of society and that men of the movement were manipulating them. These officials referred to the Rastafari men and the “gullible” women who followed them as “part of the most curious sect to appear in the British West Indies of late.” According to the government, the Rastafari had nothing good to say to the rest of Jamaica or the African world and were possibly crazy, considering their belief that they could repatriate to Africa. Denouncements like these, backed by the mainstream press, spread like wildfire to other British colonies. On September 1, 1934, the Daily Chronicle of British Guiana (later Guyana) published an editorial with more scathing denunciations, including calling for more than “a blunt razor to dissuade the members of the Ras Tafari cult.” Yet the women who came together and wrote their petitions in 1934 were not outlandish and were not asking for social exclusion. They were asserting their expectation that the justice system would protect their rights even under British colonial rule. This fascinating discussion stemming from the 1934 petitions highlights women’s role in the resistance of the early Rastafari movement. Not only did these women come together to create an antipatriarchal Black feminist and womanist narrative of Rastafari resistance to colonialism, but they also raised deeply felt concerns about inequities based on gender, sexuality, class, and race. They saw the wrongs committed against them as injustices suffered by Rastafari people and all Black people.

Dunkley, D.A. Photo credit College of Arts & Science, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, USA

D. A. Dunkley is associate professor of history in the Department of Black Studies at the University of Missouri.

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Women and Resistance in the Early Rastafari Movement is a pioneering study of women’s resistance in the emergent Rastafari movement in colonial Jamaica. D. A. Dunkley examines the lives and experiences of a group of Rastafari women between the movement’s inception in the 1930s and Jamaica’s independence from Britain in the 1960s. Countering many years of scholarship that privilege the stories of Rastafari men, this book reclaims the voices and narratives of early Rastafari women in the history of the Black liberation struggle.

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