Who is Leonard Howell?
This question has lingered on the lips of so many in recent weeks as the realities of the issues surrounding Pinnacle come to light. This question not only exposes the ugly underbelly of Jamaican history, but also that of the world at large.
How accurate are our history books if they contain no mention of a black man in Jamaica who acquired 500 acres of land in a time when blacks were prohibited from having significant land holdings? When the accomplishments of Pinnacle have been taken into account, this historical exclusion can no longer be seen as an act of negligence, but an outright act of conspiracy. But, who would conspire to suppress the truth about Jamaica’s only self-sustaining community, and what motivation could one have for such action?
Despite the abolition of slavery in 1838, almost a century later there were still very few changes to the social structure in Jamaica. The white minority still owned most of the land and formed the ruling class, which imposed restrictions to cripple the progression of the black majority. Among these restrictions were legislations that limited the land holdings that could be acquired by the formerly enslaved. However, Leonard Howell had a vision: a vision of self-sustenance and self-reliance for Africans, and he was determined to see that vision come to fruition. In 1935, Howell purchased 500 acres of land in the hills of Sligoville, naming this land Pinnacle. Here, with over 4000 residents, all that he envisioned became a reality. Farming was the mainstay of the commune; residents ate what they grew and sold the surplus to vendors in the city. They built a school, a bakery, and had a number of wells. Pinnacle’s economy was thriving and residents did not have to leave their haven in the hills for anything. The economy of the community grew even further when marijuana became the main cash crop at a time when the demand far outweighed the supply.
The colonial authorities saw Pinnacle as a direct challenge to the social order of the time. Historically, blacks were the cogs that kept the colonial machine operating. However, this newfound desire and realization of self-sustenance would lead to the eventual collapse of the colonial system. Just imagine what the result would be if there was a Pinnacle in each parish. The state would have to seek an alternate source of cheap labour, and this they were not prepared to do. This meant that Pinnacle, and anything resembling that idea had to be removed completely from the consciousness of the masses. This was done in three steps.
The first step was to target the head. The authorities understood the importance of Howell to the overall movement. Howell was seen by many as a mystic, a healer, divinely ordained to liberate blacks. Howell is revered at the level of Haile Selassie by many of his followers. It is said that in his lifetime, Howell was arrested over 50 times by the local authorities, charged for treason, sedition and other prejudicial judgments passed by the courts. To further tarnish his reputation, he was deemed mentally insane on several occasions and admitted to the Bellevue Hospital for extensive periods. All this done by the colonial powers in an effort to paint a particularly negative portrait of Howell, further facilitating his omission from history.
The second step was the physical destruction of Pinnacle. Marijuana was used as a convenient scapegoat to carry out multiple violent raids on the commune in the 40’s and early 50’s. With each raid, thousands of pounds of the residents’ hard earned money were ‘confiscated.’ The final raid, which took place in 1954, saw the destruction and burning of residents’ property and belongings at Pinnacle by the police, including Howell’s great house. This event lead to the displacement of the majority of the Rastafari population of Pinnacle, resulting in the proliferation of the Rastafari movement throughout Jamaica as the now homeless residents sought refuge across the island: most individuals settled in St. Thomas, Clarendon and West Kingston.
The third step was to eradicate any mention of Leonard Howell and Pinnacle from collective history. With the base now destroyed, the government next had to cover their tracks. The story of Pinnacle is one so alarming that any mention of the realities of the actions of the authorities to the masses would result in significant implications. For years, we have been led to accept a skewed version of history: one portraying Howell to be an enemy of the people. Furthermore, with the sale of the property to St. Jago Hills Development Ltd., all remnants of Jamaica’s first and last self-sustaining community were to be completely removed and the legacy of Leonard Howell and Pinnacle lost forever.
It is important to note that the story of Leonard Howell and Pinnacle begins in a Jamaica still under colonial rule. When pondering the basis of such callous treatment of a man most now consider a hero, it is important to remember a few things: the Premier at the time, Alexander Bustamante, was essentially a marionette under instruction from the Crown, as is the case with any country under colonial rule.
Leonard Howell created a model in which blacks could exist outside of the system, becoming rulers of their own destiny. Howell’s model saw people living sustainably, equitably and in harmony with each other and with nature. The preservation of Pinnacle means the preservation of this dream.
Written by Learie Holt.