The impact of the 1935 Italian/Ethiopian War in Guyana

Common knowledge has it that it was in Jamaica where the Rastafari faith was first and foremost proclaimed. This is true; however, this truth belies the wider impact of the Italian/Ethiopian war of 1935/6 on the Caribbean region, and especially on its peoples of African heritage. African peoples in Jamaica were not the only ones who, using their existing political and spiritual resources, saw in Emperor Haile Selassie I their king – and even, perhaps, their God. In this post, I will look at the impact of the Italian/Ethiopian war on the African peoples of Guyana, focusing mainly on the historical context, that is, the roots and routes of this impact. My information is garnered from secondary sources as well as original research in the UK National Archives.

Let us start with the Demerara uprising against slavery, starting in 1823 on a plantation belonging to the father of future British Prime Minister William Gladstone, and spreading subsequently to sixty other locations.  In the trials that followed the suppression of the uprising, great importance was placed upon the complicity of Rev John Smith who, having been sent by the London Missionary Society, proceeded to narrate to enslaved congregations the story of Moses, pharaoh, exile and liberation. It is most likely, however, that these African congregations took what they found useful from these sermons without being too enamored by the London Mission itself. After emancipation, churches expanded greatly amongst the new “free villages” but most were organized around a strict and formal British liturgy that marked its civilized distance from “primitive” superstition. This growth proceeded parallel to a re-embracing of African faiths by the emancipated masses who had fast become disillusioned when the laity supported planters despite their decreasing wages in the late 1840s.

Obeah – along with drumming and dancing – were regularly outlawed in Guyana during the nineteenth century. Special attention, in this respect, was given to the African faiths that focused upon the spiritual agency known as Water Mamma. And the most (in)famous of these was Comfa. In many West and Central African cosmologies, rivers are powerful places that intersect the human and spirit worlds. The (usually feminine) spirits of the waterways are therefore powerful agents of intercession. Comfa works in a non-dualistic universe where the material and spiritual, living and ancestors are related. There is, therefore, an emphasis on spiritual mediums that actively guide the living. Baptism is easily placed within these practices, especially due to the relationship between water and the Holy Spirit. Hence in the late nineteenth century many practitioners of Comfa also attended church,  and over time a number of Comfa articles of faith came to be justified through biblical narratives.

Into this context stepped the Jordanites. The history of this faith demonstrates how interconnected the Caribbean region was during colonial times, both economically and spiritually. Joseph Maclaren, was an Anglican Grenadian working in Trinidad in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Introduced by his friend Bhagwan Das to Hinduism Maclaren also underwent a “baptism by immersion”. One of his subsequent disciples, a Barbadian man called Bowen, migrated to Guyana and there undertook a proselytizing mission, baptizing members into his “church”.  One such member was Nathaniel Jordan, a cane field laborer from whom the faith derives its name. The Jordanite Baptist faith had already been prepared by Comfa and the popularity of Water Mama. Indeed, the Jordanites place great emphasis on full immersion baptism as well as spiritual mediumship for communicating with ancestors.

Upon Jordan’s passing, Elder James Klein picked up the leadership who was a member also of the Guyana chapter of Marcus Garvey’s UNIA. That there would be strong resonances between both groups (perhaps despite Garvey’s wishes) is not a surprise. Jordanites are adamant that God is Black and that Jesus had African ancestry, and this no doubt fitted the Ethiopian lens on God provided by Garvey. Indeed, both the Jordanites and Garveyites were seen by colonial authorities in the 1920s to be spreading the same seditious messages of “race hatred” against whites. Later, when the Italy/Ethiopia war began in October 1935, both organizations cooperated to agitate for Ethiopia’s defense. It was most probably the Jordanites and Garveyites who organized meetings to petition King George V for their members to be allowed to fight on behalf of Selassie I.

The Jordanites were not only strong in greater Georgetown but also along the east bank of Demerara, the rural area where, from October 1935 onwards, a series of uprisings commenced on plantations. As the Governor of Guiana noted at the time, while unrest amongst rural workers around cropping time was not unusual, in 1935 the low price of crops had combined with a “very strong sympathy which the blacks have for Abyssinia as against Italy”. This had led, reckoned the Governor, to a “new feature” whereby “combinations” of Black villagers had entered the estates and prevented mostly Indian laborers from working. The intensity of the uprisings led the Governor to approve the temporary enlistment of one hundred extra police. Additionally, the Governor requested all District Commissioners to relay the message to their local populations that Great Britain was doing its utmost to put a stop to the Italian invasion and that Black laborers could help by observing the law and keeping order. However, just one week later after this pronouncement rumors abounded that Italian doctors were poisoning black children in Georgetown and near East Coast Demerara. A similar episode had recently happened in Jamaica, and the Governor, judging the mood to be incendiary, requested a warship to patrol the coast.

A few episodes  from the rural uprisings in East Coast Demerara are of great interest to recount. In a report to the secretary of the Governor, the inspector-general of police testified that two overseers had been assaulted, compelled to carry red flags, and forced to march with strikers on the sugar estates. While rumors of communist infiltration always accompanied peasant uprisings in the 1930s Caribbean, this flag should not be confused with the hammer and sickle. For in the Comfa faith, red is the special color of Africa (as it is in a number of other African faith systems across the Caribbean). Another estate driver, providing evidence later at a labor disputes commission, recounted how a field laborer had tried to force him to perform an “African war dance” as drums were played. And in another incident, the overseer discovered that twenty strikers were blocking a bridge to the fields. “One fellow laid down and said he was an Abyssinian General. He defied anybody to cross and said he meant to chop anyone who tried to do so.” The Chair of the commission asked the driver what he supposed was to gain from these actions; the overseer replied “I suppose they thought that with the Abyssinia war on they would have a war too; in fact, that is what some of them said.”

The evidence is tantalizing. Some Africans in Guyana were, through their own spiritual and political resources, sighting the Emperor of Ethiopia as their living King and were prepared to fight for Him. Their faith systems confirmed that God was Black. Was Selassie I their King and God? Rastafari, as a faith, developed most keenly (and with most suffering) in Jamaica. Yet this does not rule out the deeper possibility that Rastafari is latent in the whole African trod out of slavery. And just waiting to emerge, in unlikely places, given the right conditions.

8 thoughts on “The impact of the 1935 Italian/Ethiopian War in Guyana

  1. Dr Shilliam, i love it. As usual your writing delves deep into issues that are so close to the hearts of anyone with black/brown/olive origin as in this case. i intend to thoroughly read your piece again and make my comments. As a point of interest, i was reading a Fijian article written in Fijian language. The article had a spiritual angle to it tracing Fijian origins. Interestingly, i spotted an image of one of our forefathers of hey days. His hair-do was ‘Rastafari’ style or one similar to that of Bob Marley. I wish i could upload here but theres no link on your blog to do that.

    1. Thank you for citing my article as a reference on Jordanites. You are correct that there has been little actually published on the religion. Aside from my Ph.D Thesis, whichisavailable online, there are some unpublished papers, by students and journalists, but little else. There is Kean Gibson’s book which is on Comfa and Faithists. The lines dividing Jordanites, Faithists, and Comfa can be difficult to see, but the Jordanites as I knew them definitely forbade “shaking” and “speaking in tongues”.

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