A number of preachers emerged in the 1930s in Jamaica with similar messages about black self-determination and Haile Selassie as the black messiah. Among those recorded by historians were Leonard P. Howell (1898-1981), Joseph Hibbert (1894-1986), Archibald Dunkley (dates unknown), and Robert Hinds (dates unknown). They may have been Garveyites, although the specific details about their early lives are sparse. The best known is Leonard Howell, who served in the Ashanti War of 1896 and learned several African languages. He visited the United States and there experienced severe racial discrimination. Leonard Howell was a leading figure in the early Rastafari movement through his ministry in the West Kingston slums. Joseph Hibbert lived in Costa Rica from the age of 17; he was a member of the Ancient Order of Ethiopia, a Masonic Lodge, before returning to Jamaica in 1931. Hibbert started preaching in St Andrews and then moved to Kingston. Robert Hinds was a follower of the revivalist preacher Alexander Bedward until the latter was confined to an asylum; he then founded his own King of Kings Mission, which had the most members of the early known Rastafari groups. Archibald Dunkley was a sailor in the United Fruit Company, who began a mission in Port Antonio then moved to Kingston. All four were ministers and founders of separate groups that claimed to receive the revelation that the newly crowned Emperor of Ethiopia was the messiah of black people.
The Rastafari movement began in the slums of Kingston, the capital city of Jamaica, and from there spread to the rest of the island. The early preachers worked separately and recruited Garveyites, with a core of the emerging movement formed by 1934. They offered hope at a time of social and economic depression and hurricane destruction, when the future of the poor seemed bleak. The coronation of a black Emperor identified by preachers as the messiah offered a vision of future renewal for black people who continued to be oppressed under British colonial rule. Leonard Howell preached six principles: hatred for the white race; the complete superiority of blacks; revenge on whites for evil; the negation, persecution, and humiliation of the government and legal authorities in Jamaica; preparation for black people to return to Africa; and Haile Selassie as the supreme being and only ruler of black people. This teaching presented a direct challenge to the government of Jamaica. Howell was arrested along with other Rastafari leaders and followers for sedition in 1934 by the British colonial authorities, and Howell was imprisoned. His teachings were continued by his lieutenants in secret.
In 1940, Howell founded a commune called the Pinnacle in the hills of St. Catherine, outside Kingston. The members were following the example of the 19th century Maroons, who had rebelled against slavery on the plantations of Jamaica and taken up arms against the colonial authorities, living in the hills in a self-sufficient community, which served as a beacon to other slaves in assisting their escape. Between 500 to 1600 followers lived at various times in Howell’s self-sufficient community at Pinnacle. Howell proclaimed himself the chief, styled after African tribal organisation. He allegedly had 13 wives. The commune subsisted on its own produce but also planted cash crops to sell in Kingston, including ganja (marijuana) which went on to assume religious significance for Rastafari. In January 1941, the police raided the commune, having been tipped off by neighbours that the Rastafari had demanded taxes from them in the name of Haile Selassie. Howell was arrested and imprisoned again. The Pinnacle community dispersed in his absence.
The second phase of Pinnacle began in 1953, and it was during this period that some Rastas started growing the distinctive dreadlocks. The commune was raided and the members were arrested again in 1954. Pinnacle was destroyed on 22 May 1954. By this time, Howell was claiming that he was divine; following the destruction of Pinnacle his followers deserted him, and he was committed to a Kingston mental hospital in 1960. In 1975, he was living with followers in Bushy Park, a few miles from the original Pinnacle site. Howell has been charged with acting as an autocrat at Pinnacle by historians of Rastafari, because he meted out punishments and was in charge of everything. He was the first to use the honorific ‘Gong’, an abbreviation of the name ‘Gangunguru Maragh’ which has an East Asian origin with Gangunguru translated as ‘teacher of famed wisdom’ and Maragh as ‘king’. The other early preachers achieved less lasting renown (or infamy), but each was a charismatic figure in the early movement. Hinds and Dunkley were seen as prophets. Joseph Hibbert was thought to have powers of clairvoyance, to see the truth of the past and what would happen in the future. Hibbert based his organisation on ‘occultism’, reading secrets hidden in the Books of Maccabees (these texts are not in the Hebrew Bible and are either relegated to a section called ‘Apocrypha’ or omitted from Protestant Bibles, but included in Roman Catholic versions). While he was known for having occult powers, he did not like teaching his secrets to his followers who subsequently left him.