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Views & visions from Pinnacle, St Catherine

Creeping over a dusty road in a hilltop housing estate dotted with large two-storey detached homes, Roland spots two meandering youth and crunches the crew cab pickup to a halt alongside the first.

‘Morning my yout – looking for Pinnacle’

‘Right here’ he says, pointing to a green sign nailed to a telegraph pole bearing the legend Pinnacle Dr.

Roland shakes his head ‘Rasta place?’

‘Oh – up so’ he says, turning his sinewy body outwards and sweeping his hand up left to a steep section ahead where the road narrows and is surrounded by thick bush.

‘Vehicle can pass?’

‘Yeah man’

‘Thanks, y’hear’.

We’re looking for a lost kingdom – my father-in-law Roland and me. My wife Sharah and baby daughter Marley Rose are along for the ride in the back.

Following our friend’s gesticulations, we see a bright sign attached to another pole  ̶  this time it’s a red, gold and green Ethiopian tricolour, with PINNACLE emblazoned across the top and The Lion of Judah inscribed at the bottom.

‘Aye, this must be it’ I whisper.

Birth of Pinnacle


October 2019 and we’re near the community of Sligoville in the hills of St Catherine overlooking the Jamaican city of Spanish Town. From the late 1930s to the late 1950s, the first Rastafarian commune, named Pinnacle, was located around an old colonial Great House here, overseen by an enigmatic leader named Leonard P.Howell, regarded by most adherents as the founder of Rastafari. Howell ran a thriving self-sufficient community for the best part of 20 years which hosted 4500 inhabitants at its peak.

At the time, Jamaica was a British colony and, although authorities largely ignored Howell and his acolytes at first, he eventually drew their ire because of the (hugely profitable) expansive ganja plantation which dominated much of the settlement and the religious doctrine he espoused, whereby followers pledged allegiance not to the King in England, but to Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia who had been crowned in 1930. Through his Solomonic Dynasty, Selassie claimed blood descent from King David, and by extension, from Jesus Christ. Using this lineage in combination with his spin on Jamaican civil rights leader Marcus Garvey’s exhortation to ‘look to the east for your king’, Howell’s doctrine developed another dimension in proclaiming Selassie a living deity.

The early Rastafarians were therefore instilled with a newfound dignity and pride through reclaimed history as the spiritual sons and daughters of Emperors, Empresses and the only African Kingdom never conquered by European powers during the scramble for Africa. Further, they were emboldened by economic power independent of the British colonial authorities and the moneyed members of Jamaican ‘uptown’ society. Through radically rewriting the established narrative, these first Rastas were soon regarded as unacceptable to both colonial authorities and the monied Jamaican classes.

A series of police raids were launched throughout the 40s and 50s, including a massive bust in 1954 which resulted in many of the dwelling places and crops being razed to the ground, Rastas beaten and imprisoned and, according to reports, some 8 tons of ganja destroyed. A final raid in 1958 dispersed the inhabitants throughout the island and many ended up in Kingston  ̶  the tenets of Rastafarianism spread from here throughout the island and later, via music, around the world.

Howell was a controversial figure who according to some accounts ruled Pinnacle with a rod of iron, while the growing Rastafari faith was treated with deep suspicion by swathes of the population even after Jamaica gained independence in 1962. Following enforced stints in local asylums and various physical assaults, Howell drifted into obscurity and died in 1981 just three months before Bob Marley, the reggae icon who named himself ‘Tuff Gong’ after Howell’s original soubriquet ‘Gong’.

From what I’ve read, there’s not much of the original Pinnacle left; it’s neither promoted nor adequately protected by the Jamaican Government and the property is greatly reduced after longstanding land disputes. It seems a shame that the birthplace of a movement of international significance has been left to rack and ruin while salubrious houses spring up around it but, if you know Jamaica, hardly surprising. Prophets are rarely welcome in their own lands and both Howell and Marley were steadfastly rejected by the ‘great and good’ of Jamaica during their lifetimes although many are happy to subsume Rastafari into ‘brand Jamaica’ today.

Back on track


A track of compressed clay earth and boulders winds its way gradually up the hill, sharp aloe plants and rough boulders on one side, steep drops on the other. Every few metres we’re rewarded with a view over the lush hills rolling down to Spanish Town, peppered here and there by terracotta rooftops and whitewashed walls. In a few minutes we roll onto a wider dead-end track of ageing tarmac that’s as brittle as honeycomb toffee.

Roland draws the brakes, and we ease out of the vehicle slowly. On our left, a series of red, gold and green stepping stones mark a rudimentary path upwards to a final peak topped by a thatched rotunda flying an Ethiopian flag. The hills billow below us like clouds, gradually fading from rich greens to light greys that merge with glinting coastal waters   ̶  Mr Howell certainly had a room with a view.

Threading our way gingerly up the earthen steps cut between the coloured stones, us three adults plus a babe in arms eventually make it to a flat area at the top where we can see the round thatched building (a ceremonial tabernacle as it turns out) and a neat plyboard dwelling in the familiar regal colours, adorned with a cloth printed picture of Leonard Howell.

Roland calls ‘Hello! Friends visiting’ as he pads down the path to the house and a Rasta bredren emerges with a spliff hanging from a beaming smile.

‘Can we look around please?’ I ask, explaining our interest in Pinnacle, Howell and Rastafari.

‘Yes man, welcome, welcome’ he laughs. He walks us through the land and even holds Marley for a while, the two watching each other with a gentle joy and easy care.

He explains there’s one older bredren higher up the hill but at the moment that’s his only company. A few Rasta artists have come and gone over the years, activists visit and sometimes dispense funds, but the many promises of significant government support to preserve what’s supposedly a national heritage site has never been forthcoming. Considering this is a now tiny rural spot with no modern conveniences, it’s immaculately clean and well-kempt, although he expresses his regret that the tabernacle is in a state of disrepair. He also (totally unnecessarily) apologises that he had some leaflets printed about Pinnacle’s history but there are none left.

Visionary legacy


The tabernacle roof is ragged but it’s neat inside, with a swept dirt floor, painted central table, solid stone fire and bench seating all around. On a pillar at the back there’s a laminated photo of Leonard Howell flanked by portraits of Haile Selassie I and Empress Menen.

Around another corner are the red-brick remnants of Leonard Howell’s Great House, which must have had a commanding position in its heyday. Opinions amongst Jamaicans are still split over whether Howell was an authentic and altruistic leader, a cynical opportunist, madman or genius.

But regardless of his motivation and true character, his vision of empowerment and dignity licensed by regal/divine lineage has stood the test of time.

And the destruction of Pinnacle only served to transform a movement which might have become a historical footnote into a vibrant global phenomenon – carried like seeds on the wind to all corners of the Earth by the word, sound and power of Reggae music.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said ‘the height of the pinnacle is determined by the breadth of the base’.

Even as this physical Pinnacle crumbles, its spiritual lodestar shoots ever skyward.

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