Selassie, Sumfest & Slavery

 HAIL H.I.M.       July 23rd marks the anniversary of the birth of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie 1, the former Ras Tafari Makonnen whose life inspired descendants of slaves in Jamaica to seek the Kingdom of Righteousness and to name their religion and themselves Rastafari.  The controversial belief that Haile Selassie was the living embodiment of God on earth was deemed heretical and blasphemous by those whose belief in God was inherited from generations of European Christianity. But the foundations of the Rastafari faith were undeniably rooted in the same Christian Bible, albeit viewed by intellects inspired by another Jamaican – Marcus Garvey – to see God in their own African image.

That Emperor Selassie denied the divinity claimed by his followers did not deter many, who based their proof on how the positive influence of this man has led so many – not just in Jamaica but the world – to make a conscious effort to follow the pathway of Right Living based on the teachings of the Bible and its avatar Jesus, the Christ.

The enormous impact the Rastafari faith has made globally in music, culture and the positive image of Jamaica, shows the influence of this unique man who became famous – not for wealth, scandal or criminal acts – but for inspiring a new and uniquely Afrocentric religious pathway towards godliness.  HAIL H.I.M!


Reggae Sumfest week began Saturday July 17  with the traditional Beach Party, but it will not be until Thursday night July22 that the reggae crowd will gather at Catherine Hall, Montego Bay, to herald the kings and queens of dancehall on what is usually the biggest night of the festival, that for the past 20 years has been the national celebration of Jamaica’s famous music culture and the showcasing of its very best artists and musicians. 

The dancehall ‘massive’ have been waiting with bated breath for the release of Vybz Kartel from detention by the security forces, which only happened late Friday — causing him to miss lucrative show bookings elsewhere, but just in time for Sumfest. No one knows why Kartel was detained under the State of Emergency, which has taken into custody several ghetto dons, warlords and managers of criminal networks involved in drug smuggling, armed robberies and murders.  

However, promoters and fans alike are glad the ‘Gaza god’ is free to join other dancehall ‘gods’ as Movado, Elephant Man, Idonia, Ce’Cile, Konshens andespecially Bounty Killer, who will be specially honoured by Summerfest Productions.  Sumfest’s Friday night is headlined by American R&B star Chris Brown who will be joined by perennial favourites Etana, Queen Ifrica, Jah Cure, Romain Virgo and Mackie Conscious, among others. On Saturday Usher is the big star, on a bill featuring Shaggy, Beenie Man, Tarrus Riley and Gramps Morgan.

Red Stripe Beer has joined the major sponsors once again after staying away for  several years to protest the downward moral slide of some dancehall acts. But all is now good to go and reggae fans are arriving in Montego Bay on packed flights, cars and hotel rooms, full of anticipation of the three-night musical feast.  Sumfest is always a holiday time for Jamaica as, whether you get to MoBay or not, the spirit of reggae takes over the island and everything seems to come to a standstill as people gather around TV sets broadcasting live snippets, or radios conducting interviews with stars.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT will bring you a full report on Reggae Sumfest 2010  in our next Blog.


BOOK REVIEWBELISARIO: Sketches of Character: Jackie Ranston; Mill Press

Most Jamaicans have at some time seen copies of the illustrations of the John Canoe celebrations dating from slavery, when slaves staged elaborate masked parades of costumed figures that have now become handed down as part of our culture.  The famous paintings were done by Isaac Mendes Belisario, a Jamaican born in 1794 to a wealthyJewish family of Kingston merchants.  Some may well think little of a man who painted life in the heydayof slavery, and may therefore have given little attention to his life story.

The Mill Press, through its founder Valerie Facey, set about correcting that mis-impression and invited noted writer Jackie Ranston to research the Belisario life and family history, and to gather as much materials and illustrations as could be found to document this important piece of Jamaican history. The two ladies unearthed a fascinating story of  importance to the Jamaican descendants of slavery, and one that is directly connected with the founding of Pinnacle — the property purchased in the 1940s by Leonard ‘Gong’ Howell, the ‘father’ of Rastafari – and on which he established the first Rasta village.  The colonial government of the time raided the village several times and eventualy destroyed and burnt it to the ground, leaving the basis for a protest movement by Rastafari to reclaim and restore the site as a historic headquarters.

The Belisario book recounts that at age of 9 years young Isaac had to flee Jamaica with his father and grandfather, who had been accused by France of aiding and abetting the Haitian revolutionaries. Isaacs father was horrified to witness the treatment of slaves in other West Indian islands and published several articles as grist for the mills of London-based abolitionists.  Belisario became an art student and when he returned eventually to Jamaica, painted lovely watercolours of idyllic scenes of plantation life that gives us an idea of what Jamaica looked like in the 17th Century.

Belisario’s greatest fascination, however, was with  the elaborately-costumed masquerades known as Jonkoonnu, (Jon Konny and John Canoe) that were the slaves’ chief entertainment at Christmas.  These paintings have made Belisario famous and inspired the research of the beautifully produced book which documents clearly the history of the Jews in Jamaica as well as the colonial rulers who governed at that time. 

abolitionists medal

Most interesting is the account of the Marquis of Sligo, who purchased the hilltop estate he named Pinnacle and built the first house there.  The fervent abolitionist Sligo was the Governor of Jamaica charged with the responsibility of implementing the Emancipation Act and Apprenticeship system. He did such a good job that in gratitude to Sligo, the apprentices subscribed One Thousand Pounds which was used to make a pair of silver candelabra featuring figures of freed Africans, as a suitable tribute to Sligo “… in testimony of the grateful rememberance for his unremitting efforts to alleviate their sufferings and redress their wrongs during his just and enlightened administration of the Government…”

Author Jackie Ranston presents a copy of BELISARIO to His Majesty, Nana Ndama Kundudmuah IV of Prince's Town, Ghana

Interestingly, while trying to source the origin of John Canoe, Jackie Ranston discovered a link with one Jon Konny of Prince’s Town, Ghana who waged a successful war against the Dutch for 20 years, only to be eventually conquered, captured and sold as a slave to Jamaica.  Confident that this is a direct link to Jamaica’s John canoe, she made contact with the present Prince’s Town chief, conducted a geonological and DNA search which discovered a positive match between the Chief and an African-American businessman. She later arranged for them to participate in a ceremonyof atonement and reconciliation performed by the Chief and has taken the DNA samples to Jamaica to research closer links.

Valerie Facey says it was the discovery of a link with the Belisario prints and her husband Maurice Facey (co-founder of the Mill Press and one of Jamaica’s leading businessmen) who is descended from ‘a free Negro woman of Spanish town’ and an English indentured servant, that sparked her quest for Belisario.  The book’s price (JA$7,000) is amply justified by the several excellent colour plates, especially of the original John Canoe revelers, all of which could be framed by collectors of this unique art.  It is a book that should be on the shelf of every Jamaican interested in revisiting the days of slavery in search of new and relevant information on those who made Jamaica what it is today.

Jackie Ranston & Valerie Facey



The Jonkonnu masquerades became very elaborate as they incorporated the traditions of other African peoples and even some European carnival traditions.  The great houses were opened and the slaves drank with their masters and spoke with greater familiarity, the distance between them appeared to be annihilated for a moment.”

Jackie Ranston – Author: BELISARIO – Sketches of Character


4 thoughts on “Selassie, Sumfest & Slavery

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