Caribbean Religions: Afro-Caribbean Religions

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Most West Indians of African descent are affiliated, at least nominally, with a historic Christian denomination or with one of the newer sects. In many areas of the West Indies, however, a number of hybrid religions have attracted large numbers of followers. In Haiti, virtually the entire population is in some way involved in vodou. In Jamaica, the Revivalist, Kumina, and Convince cults continuously attract a small number of adherents. Wherever such cults are found, some persons participate more or less regularly in both a Christian church and a cult, and in times of crisis many who ordinarily ignore the cults become involved in their healing or magical rituals.

This essay will concentrate on four types of syncretic religious cults found in the Caribbean region, which will be called the neo-African cults, the ancestral cults, the revivalist cults, and the religio-political cults. The experience of Caribbean blacks under the political, economic, and domestic conditions of slavery modified character in a stressful direction, and those who were most sensitive to the stress advanced innovative religious and secular systems to deal with their anxiety. The new religious institutions consisted of elements of African and European beliefs and practices, and, in some cases, parts of American Indian and South Asian religious traditions. A number of new religions arose from the interaction of three major variables: socioeconomic, psychological, and cultural. Contingent factors in the development of these hybrid religions include such ecological and demographic variables as the degree to which a group of people had been isolated physically and socially from other segments of the population and the proportion of the total population constituted by various ethnic and racial groups (Simpson, 1978). Successful religions spread, adapt, and persist after the conditions that gave rise to them have changed (or changed to some extent), and individuals are socialized into accepting the revised beliefs and procedures. When this happens, a religion acquires new meanings for its members, and it takes on new functions, the most universal of which is the satisfaction that comes from group activities.

Neo-African Cults

These cults developed during the early stages of cultural contact between persons of European and African origin, because members of the subordinate group could neither acquire the religion of the dominant group nor participate as comembers in the historic Christian denominations. The major cults of this type are Haitian vodou, Cuban Santería, and Trinidadian Shango. From the viewpoint of cultural content, these religions represent the most extensive blend of African and European traditions and rituals in the Caribbean region.

Haitian vodou

The African dances that were performed in the seventeenth century by slaves in the western part of the island of Hispaniola and the religious beliefs of the Fon, Siniga, Lemba, Yoruba, and other African peoples who had been brought to Hispaniola were combined with certain beliefs of European folk origin about Roman Catholic saints, and, as a result, the neo-African religion of vodou developed. As James G. Leyburn (1966) has noted, the period from 1780 to 1790, when the importation of slaves to Hispaniola was increasing, saw the emergence of vodou, with a gradual ascendancy of Fon ideas. Finding the rites useful for their cause, revolutionary leaders in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth century brought about further syntheses.

The supernatural phenomena of greatest importance in vodou are the lwa, also known as zanj, mistè, and other names. Many of these have names derived from old African gods, but other deities have names derived from African tribal or place names, names of Haitian origin, or names of Catholic saints; others have names of uncertain origin. The confusions and contradictions in the beliefs about these beings are due in part to contradictions in the Fon religious system that the Haitians adopted, and in part to the merging of the Fon system with that of the Yoruba (Courlander, 1960). But the endless variations in these and other beliefs concerning the ultimate reality are also the result of the absence of a hierarchy in the cult and of written documents. Erika Bourguignon (1980) suggests that variety and inconsistency in Haitian vodou have developed, and continue to develop, in part through the mechanism of altered states of consciousness, particularly in the forms of possession-trance and dreams. In Haiti, possession-trance is not highly stereotyped and prescribed. During possession-trance, cult leaders and members speak and act in the names of the spirits, behaving in ways that may modify the future performance of the ritual or the adherents' perception of the spirits.

The grand lwa comprise both nature spirits and functional spirits that are of African origin. Prominent among the nature spirits are Dambala, the serpent spirit identified with the rainbow and associated with floods; Bade, spirit of the winds; Sogbo, a Fon spirit of thunder; Shango (Yor., ango), the Yoruba spirit of thunder and lightning; and Agwé, spirit of the sea. The functional lwa include Legba, the Fon guardian of crossroads and all barriers; the Ogou (Yor., Ogun) family, spirits associated with war; Zaka, associated with crops and agriculture; Ezili, a sea goddess among the Fon, but transformed in Haiti into the personification of feminine grace and beauty; the members of the Gèdè family, the spirits of death; Adja, skilled in the fields of herbs and pharmacy; and Obatala (Yor., batala), the Yoruba divinity responsible for forming children in the womb (Herskovits, 1937b; Courlander, 1939; Simpson, 1945, 1978; M. Rigaud, 1953; Métraux, 1959).

The lwa are also identified with Catholic saints. Thus, Legba is often believed to be the same as Anthony the Hermit, but some say that he is Saint Peter, the keeper of the keys. Dambala is identified with Saint Patrick, on whose image serpents are depicted. Ogou Ferraille is equated with Saint James; while Ogou Balanjo, the healer, is associated with Saint Joseph, who is pictured holding a child whom he blesses with an upraised hand. Obatala becomes Saint Anne; and Ezili, who is believed to be the richest of all the spirits, is identified with Mater Dolorosa and is represented as richly clothed and bejeweled. The marassa, spirits of dead twins, are believed to be the twin saints Cosmas and Damian (Price-Mars, 1928; Herskovits, 1937a).

The relationship between vodou adherents and the lwa is thought to be a contractual one; if one is punctilious about offerings and ceremonies, the lwa will be generous with their aid. The lwa must be paid once or twice a year with an impressive ceremony, and small gifts must be presented frequently. It is thought that the lwa like blood and that animal sacrifices are the means by which favors may be obtained. It is believed also that neglect of one's lwa will result in sickness, the death of relatives, crop failure, and other misfortunes (Simpson, 1980).

In West Africa, concepts of the "soul" are highly elaborated. In traditional Fon belief, all persons have at least three souls, and adult males have four (Herskovits, 1938). In Haitian vodou, every man has two souls: the gro bonanj, which animates the body and is similar to the soul in the Christian sense, and the ti bonanj, which protects a person against dangers by day and by night (Métraux, 1946). "Bad" souls are said to become "bad" lwa who divide their time between suffering in hell and doing evil deeds on earth (Simpson, 1945).

Adherents fear the power of the dead and observe funerary and postfunerary rites meticulously. A wake is held on the night of death; the funeral itself follows and, if possible, is held in accordance with the rites of the Catholic Church. On the ninth night after death is the "last prayer," and on the tenth night a ritual is held in which sacrifices are offered to all the family dead (Métraux, 1959; Herskovits, 1937b). Also, a family must honor its dead by mentioning their names at subsequent ceremonies and, if family finances permit, by holding memorial services for them annually. In vodou belief, the dead rank second only to the lwa, and to neglect or anger them is to invite disaster. (For accounts of vodou cermonies, see Herskovits, 1937b, pp. 155176; Simpson, 1940; Simpson, 1946; Rigaud, 1946; Métraux, 1959, pp. 157212; Courlander, 1960, pp. 4174.)

François Duvalier, the dictatorial president of Haiti from 1957 to 1971, successfully exploited vodou for political purposes (Rotberg, 1976). Nevertheless, most observers agree that the cult has been weakened in recent years. An important factor in its decline has been the decay of the large extended family in the rural areas. Many of the large cult centers have split up into minor sects under priests whose training has been inadequate. A deepening economic poverty in the countryside has brought about the impoverishment of ritual there, and with the expansion of urbanization there have emerged innovative cult leaders who deal with the problems of a heterogeneous clientele rather than with the traditional concerns of farming or the demands of ancestral spirits (Bastide, 1971; Métraux, 1959; Bourguignon, 1980).

Cuban Santería

Most of the non-European elements in the Afro-Cuban syncretic religion known as Santería are derived from Yoruba beliefs and rituals. Animals are sacrificed to Yoruba deities, Yoruba music is played on African-type drums, songs with Yoruba words and music are sung, and dancers are possessed by the orisha (Yor., oria, "spirit"). Yoruba foods are cooked for the gods and for devotees, beads of the proper color are worn, and leaves with Yoruba names are used in preparing medicines and in washing the stones of the ori-sha and the heads of cult members. In Santería, Elegba (Yor., Eu or lgba) is identified with Saint Peter, and Shango (Yor., ango), god of thunder, is identified with Saint Barbara. Shakpana (also Babaluaiye; Yor., -pna) is equated with Saint Lazarus. Oya (Yor., ya), one of Shango's wives, is the equivalent of Saint Teresita. Obatala (Yor., batala) is Our Lady of Mercy, and Yemaja (Yor., Yemja) is identified with the Virgin of Regla (a suburb of Havana). Osun (Yor., un) is associated with the Virgin of Cobre (a town in eastern Cuba), and Osanyin (Yor., sanyin) known for his skill in healing, is identified with Saint Raphael. Ifa, or Orunmila (Yor., runmila), the god of divination, is linked with Saint Francis of Assisi. The Ibeji (Yor., "twins"), who behave like young children, are the counterparts of the twin saints Cosmas and Damian. Ogun, the Yoruba god of war and iron, is equated with John the Baptist (Bascom, 1951, 1972).

During a Santería ceremony, the blood of animals sacrificed to the gods is allowed to flow onto the sacred stones of the santero (Santería priest). Many instances of spirit possession during a given cermony indicate that the orishas have been well fed and are satisfied with the ritual offerings. The herbs serve to cleanse, refresh, and prepare the devotees and ritual objects for contact with the orisha. The blood is the food of the deities, and the stones are the objects through which they are fed and in which their power resides (Bascom, 1950). The lucumis (Afro-Cubans of Yoruba extraction) honor each of the gods with choral dances and pantomime in accordance with authentic Yoruba tradition (see Ortiz, 1951, for a detailed and vivid account of lucumi dances; and Simpson, 1978).

The regime of Fidel Castro has not assisted the Afro-Cuban cults and has taken some measures to control their expansion (Barrett, 1982). Although in recent years Santería has declined in Cuba, the presence of Cuban refugees has stimulated the worship of Shango and the other Yoruba orisha in the United States. Today many priests and priestesses officiate in Miami, New York City, Newark, Detroit, Chicago, Savannah, Gary, and other cities (Bascom, 1972).

The Shango cult in Trinidad

In southwestern Nigeria, each Yoruba deity, including ango, god of thunder and lightning, has his or her own priests, followers, and cult centers. In the Shango cult in Trinidad, Shango is only one of several dozen "powers," which include twenty or more Yoruba deities (Lewis, 1978). Several non-Yoruba powersespecially Gabriel and Mama Latayare popular in Trinidad. Ancient African gods are identified with certain Catholic saints, as occurs in Haiti, Grenada, parts of Brazil, Cuba, and other countries in the New World. Among these pairings in Trinidad are Obatala and Saint Benedict; Shango and Saint John; Shakpana and, variously, Moses or Saint Francis or Saint Jerome; Oshun and Saint Philomena or Saint Anne; Béji (Ibeji) and Saint Peter; Emanja and Saint Catherine or Saint Anne; Oya and Saint Philomena or Saint Catherine. Each god has his or her favorite colors, foods, and drinks; each is thought to have certain physical traits and to possess certain powers. In Shango, as in vodou and Santería, participants can recognize the major spirits who are well known throughout the country, or the principal spirits known in a given locality, by the stylized behavior of devotees possessed by them (Bourguignon, 1980). For example, Ogun, the god of iron and war, is believed to prefer the colors red and white (also the favorite colors of Shango), and rams and roosters are his preferred offerings. When possessed by Ogun, a Shangoist brandishes a sword and behaves in a violent way (Simpson, 1978).

Each Shango cult center holds an annual ceremony in honor of the orisha known to its worshipers. The four-day ritual begins with the recitation of original prayers, followed by several repetitions of the Lord's Prayer, Hail Mary, and the Apostle's Creed. The leader then recites in succession prayers such as Saint Francis's prayer, Saint George's prayer, and Blessed Martin's prayer; he recites each prayer line-by-line, and the worshipers repeat each line after him. Next, in an act of dismissal, food for the deity Eshu is placed outside the ceremonial area. (The Yoruba deity Eu is thought both to serve as a messenger among the gods and to be a trickster.) After Eshu's ejection, the worshipers invite other powers to the ceremony by drumming the powers' favorite rhythms. Ogun's rhythm is the first to be played. Drumming, dancing, singing, and spirit possession continue through the night; the climax comes at dawn with the sacrificing of pigeons, doves, chickens, agoutis, land turtles, goats, and sheep. Similar rites are performed on the following three nights, and often a bull is sacrificed. Aspects of Trinidadian cult life that are closely related to African religious behavior include divination, conjuring, and folk medicine, which are often strikingly similar to West African procedures (Simpson, 1978).

In recent decades, traditional religious, magical, and medical beliefs have been undermined to some extent by the expansion of education, the growth of medical and social services, and the influence of mass communication. Trinidadian Shango has also been modified by the intermixture of some of its aspects with the Spiritual Baptist (Shouters) complex (Simpson, 1978). There are many similarities between the Shango cult of Trinidad and that of Grenada (Pollak-Eltz, 1968; Simpson, 1978).

Ancestral Cults

The second type of hybrid religious cult in the Caribbean, called the ancestral cult, has fewer African and more European components than does the neo-African-type religion. The Kumina and Convince cults and the Kromanti Dance in Jamaica, the Big Drum Dance of Grenada and Carriacou, Kele in Saint Lucia, and the religion of the Black Carib of Belize exemplify this kind of syncretic religion.


According to Monica Schuler (1980), Kumina did not originate among plantation slaves of the eighteenth century but was brought to Jamaica by post-emancipation immigrants from central Africa who chiefly settled in the eastern parish of Saint Thomas. Kumina is primarily a family religion, and each group honors a number of family spirits in addition to other divinities. The three ranks of Kumina spirits (known as zombies) are the sky gods, the earthbound gods, and ancestral zombies. Among the thirty-nine sky gods listed by Joseph G. Moore (1953), only one (Shango) clearly has the name of a West African deity, but some Kumina gods appear to serve tribes or "nations" that are African. Of the sixty-two earthbound gods given by Moore, at least seven have biblical names (e.g., Moses, Ezekiel). The twenty-one ancestral zombies are the spirits of men and women who, in their lifetimes, were dancing zombies (persons who experienced possession by a god and who danced while possessed), obeah men (sorcerers), and drummers (Moore and Simpson, 1957). Most Kumina dances are memorial services held to pay respects to the dead ancestors of the participants, but ceremonies are performed on other occasions, such as betrothal, marriage, burial, the naming of a baby, the anniversary of emancipation, and Independence Day (Moore, 1953; Schuler, 1980).

All zombies are invoked through drumming and singing. Songs are of two types: bilah songs, which are sung in a dialect of English; and country songs, which are sung in a language referred to as African (accent on the last syllable). Kumina ritual ends with the sacrifice of a goat and the dance of the Queen of the Kumina and her attendants. In performing ritual, the living members of a family convey their wishes to the ancestors (Moore and Simpson, 1957, 1958).


The Convince ritual practiced in the Jamaican parishes of Saint Thomas and Portland has a number of Christian elements, but its principal powers are the spirits of persons who belonged to the cult during their lifetime. The most powerful bongo ghosts come from Africa, but the spirits of ancient Jamaican slaves and the Maroons (descendants of runaway slaves), who perpetuated the cult until recent times, are also of importance. The spirits of Jamaicans more recently departed are less powerful than the other ghosts, but those who practiced obeah ("conjuration") in their lifetime are used by bongo men (i.e., Convince devotees) as partners in divination and conjuring. Each bongo man operates independently, and each has one or more assistants called apprentices or grooms. In addition, a number of lesser followers are attached to each cult group, including some persons who are devout Christians (Hogg, 1960).

Each bongo man holds a sacrificial ceremony annually and conducts Convince rites as the need for them arises. Christian prayers, the reading of Bible passages, and hymn singing precede the main ceremony. Special bongo songs, hand clapping, and dances performed by bongo men call the spirits to the ceremony. Later, the spirits of the ancestors (that is, devotees possessed by the ghosts) dance.

According to Donald Hogg (1960), such traits as blood sacrifice, vigorous possession-trance behavior, the materialistic purposes of ceremonies, the involvement with divination and conjuring, religious dancing, the worship of ancestral spirits, and the propitiation of potentially malevolent beings almost certainly have African antecedents. In these respects Convince, like Kumina, shows greater African influence than do the Revival Zion, Pocomania, and Rastafarian cults in Jamaica. Once a nativistic movement, Convince has so declined since the 1950s that it now provides mainly jollification and catharsis.

The Kromanti Dance

The traditional religion of the descendants of "Maroons," escaped slaves of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Jamaica, is known as the Kromanti Dance. One supreme deity, Yankipong, is believed to be remote from human affairs. The spirits of the dead, called duppies, jumbies, or bigi-man, have the power to work good or evil in the daily lives of their descendants, and this power is referred to by the term obeah or by the more modern term science. No Kromanti Dance can be successful without one or more of the participants becoming possessed by the spirit of an ancestor. Most Kromanti Dance ceremonies require the sacrifice of an animal to the pakit (ancestral spirit) of the fete-man (ritual specialist). Although the Kromanti Dance is a separate tradition, it bears some similarity to both Kumina and Convince (Bilby, 1981, pp. 52101).

The Big Drum Dance in Grenada and Carriacou

For numerous residents of Grenada and Carriacou, performing the Big Drum Dance (also known as the Nation Dance, or Saraca"sacrifice") is a show of respect to their ancestors. In Carriacou, many persons can still recount the African "nations," traced patrilineally, to which they belong. Usually this ceremony is a family occasion, but it may be put on by members of an occupational groupfor example, fishermen. Various reasons are given for organizing a festival: to counter the ill health or misfortune of a friend or relative, to dedicate a tombstone for a deceased family member, to start a critically important undertaking, or to launch the marriage preparations of a son or daughter. Offerings of food are prepared for the ancestors and the guests, a space is provided where the spirits of the ancestors can dance, the ancestors are summoned, and the "beg pardon" dance is performed, during which family members kneel and sing, asking the ancestors to pardon them for any wrongdoing (Pearse, 1956). In Carriacou, as M. G. Smith (1971) has noted, Christianity and the ancestral cult are complementary, each supplying what the other lacks.

The Kele cult in Saint Lucia

The Kele ceremony in Saint Lucia resembles, in attenuated form, the Shango ritual in Trinidad. The ritual is performed to ask the ancestors of devotees for health, protection against misfortune in agriculture, and success in important undertakings, as well as to thank the forebears for past favors. The paraphernalia essential for the Kele rite consists mainly of Amerindian polished stone axes (which are called pièrres tonnerres, "thunderstones," by devotees, who believe them to have fallen from the sky), drums, and agricultural implements such as machetes, axes, hoes, and forks. Several of the stone axes are placed on the ground to form a cross, with additional axes arranged around the central grouping (Simpson, 1973; Simmons, 1963).

The stone axes, addressed as "Shango," symbolize the African ancestors of the Saint Lucians who participate in Kele. Thunderstones constitute one of the principal symbols of Shango in West Africa, Haiti, Cuba, Trinidad, Grenada, and urban areas of the United States that are heavily populated by immigrants from the Caribbean. Present-day devotees in Saint Lucia seem to be unaware that Shango (ango) is the deity of thunder and lightning in traditional West African belief. To these believers, Shango is simply the name of the thunderstones that enable the living to get in touch with their African ancestors.

Following some preliminary drumming, singing, and dancing, the leader of a Kele ceremony asks the ancestors to intercede with God on behalf of the sponsor of the occasion. A ram is then sacrificed to the ancestors. Communication with God is achieved through possession; the ancestors enter the bodies of some of the men participating in the ceremony. After the ram has been cooked, morsels of the meat, as well as portions of yams, rice, and other foods, are thrown on the ground as offerings to Shangothat is, to the African ancestors. Saint Lucia is a predominantly Catholic country, and some devotees of the cult are active Catholics.

Ancestral cult of the Black Carib of Belize

The Black Carib of Belize are descendants of African slaves who escaped from other parts of the West Indies and settled first among the Island Carib in Saint Vincent. At the end of the eighteenth century, they were deported by the English to Roatan, an island in the Gulf of Honduras, and later they spread out along the coast of the mainland. The Black Carib of Belize speak a South American Indian language, and, as Douglas MacRae Taylor has noted, their "outward cultural manifestations differ but little, in the main, from their neighbors" (Taylor, 1951, p. 37; Stone, 1953, pp. 13).

The supernatural beliefs, rites, and practices of the Black Carib are a mixture of African and non-African elements. Singing, drumming, and dancing are intended to placate the ancestors of the family giving the ceremony, and some participants become possessed by the spirits of their deceased ancestors, as occurs in Kumina and Convince in Jamaica, the Big Drum in Grenada and Carriacou, and Kele in Saint Lucia. Sacrifices of food and drink are offered periodically to the spirits of the ancestors; some offerings are taken out to sea and thrown into the water.

Most of the Black Carib are professed Christians and, in the main, Catholics. They see no inconsistency between their Christian faith and non-Christian beliefs. The ancestral spirits are regarded as subordinate to the Christian God, and the evil forces of the universe are manifestations of Satan (Taylor, 1951).

Revivalist Cults

The third type of Afro-Caribbean religious syncretism, the revivalist cult, descends from the Afro-Protestant cults of the late eighteenth century and, in the case of Jamaica, from the Great Revival of 18611862. Revival Zion in Jamaica, the Spiritual Baptists (Shouters) of Trinidad, and the Shakers of Saint Vincent typify this kind of cult.

Revival Zion

For nearly a hundred years after England acquired Jamaica in 1655, no missionary work was carried on on the island. The official missionary movement did not begin until the 1820s. A religious movement known as Myalism emerged in the 1760s to protect slaves against European sorcery. This "native" Baptist movement was without serious competition during the forty-year period (17801820) when a reinterpretation of Christianity spread across Jamaica. Rent and wage disputes between planters and workers were common after the abolition of apprenticeship in 1838. In 18411842, Myalists preached the millenarian message that they were God's angels, appointed to do the work of the Lord, and their wrath was directed against both planters and missionaries. The authorities took severe measures against the movement. Popular interest in separatist churches, as well as in regular missions, was stimulated by the Great Revival which swept over the island in 18611862, but the enthusiasm dwindled within a short time. The hybrid religion of the Myalists, or Black Baptists, which included dancing, drumming, and spirit possession, resurfaced in 1866. Subsequently, the vitality of this movement was seen in the multiplication and flourishing of black revivalist cults (Curtin, 1955; Schuler, 1979).

Adherents of Revival Zion and the related sects of Revival and Pocomania do not identify old African gods with Christian saints as do participants in vodou (Haiti), Santería (Cuba), and Shango (Brazil, Trinidad, Grenada). The Holy Spirit possesses followers during revivalist ceremonies, as do the spirits of Old Testament figures such as Jeremiah, Isaiah, Joshua, Moses, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; New Testament apostles and evangelists such as Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, and James; the archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael; Satan and his chief assistant, Rutibel; beings from Hebrew magical tradition, such as Uriel, Ariel, Seraph, Nathaniel, and Tharsis; Constantine, Melshezdek, and the Royal Angel; and the dead, especially prominent revivalist leaders of the past (Moore and Simpson, 1957; Simpson, 1978).

Drumming, hymn singing, hand clapping, praying, Bible reading, spirit possession, and intermittent commentary by the leader are main features of the weekly services, as is "spiritual" dancing, in which leading participants circle the altar counterclockwise, stamping first with their right feet and then with their left, bending their bodies forward and then straightening up, hyperventilating, and groaning rhythmically. Special revivalist rituals include baptismal ceremonies, death rites (wake, funeral, "ninth night," "forty days," and memorial services held after one or more years have passed since the death), and the dedication of a meeting place. "Tables" (feasts) are given to thank the spirits for assistance or to seek deliverance from trouble (Simpson, 1956).

Spiritual Baptists (Shouters) of Trinidad

In many ways, the Spiritual Baptist cult (Shouters) in Trinidad is similar to Revival Zion in Jamaica, but there are several noteworthy differences. Among the Shouters, no drums or rattles accompany hymn singing. Spiritual Baptists do not become possessed by the wide variety of spirits that possess Revivalists in Jamaica; as a rule, devotees are possessed only by the Holy Spirit. Certain groups among the Shouters do, however, make ritual offerings to the spirits "of the sea, the land, and the river," and occasionally a Shango "power" may enter a person who is taking part in a ritual. In Trinidad, important relationships exist between Spiritual Baptists and Shango groups. (The Shango cult is not found in Jamaica). Shangoists as well as Shouters need to be baptized, and only a Shouters pastor of some standing can perform this service. In addition, "mourning" and "building"optional rites taken by some members of both cultsare conducted by Spiritual Baptist leaders. Many Shouters attend the annual ceremonies staged by different Shango cult groups, and like their counterparts in syncretic cults elsewhere in the Caribbean, some adherents participate at times in the services of more orthodox religions (Simpson, 1978; Glazier, 1983).

Spiritual Baptists are often men and women of the lower classes. Most are of African descent, but a few East Indians do participate in the cult. Throughout the Caribbean in recent decades, most of the neo-African cults, the ancestral cults, and the revivalist cults, as well as many of the historical churches, have lost membership, while the Pentecostal, Holiness, and Adventist sects and the Rastafarian movement have made impressive gains (Simpson, 1978).

The Shakers of Saint Vincent

English rule of the island of Saint Vincent began in 1783, and the first direct religious influence intended for the slave population was brought to the island by a Methodist missionary in 1787. The Shaker cult, which goes back to at least the early part of the twentieth century, has a Methodist base, with an admixture of elements of other Christian denominational traditions (Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism), modified African religious traits, and elements developed locally. An important feature of this religion is the mild state of dissociation, attributed to possession by the Holy Ghost, that some of its adherents experience. The range of Shaker services and the rituals themselves are similar to those of the Spiritual Baptists of Trinidad (Henney, 1974).

Religio-Political Cults

The fourth cult type appears when a society is undergoing severe reorganization, as was the case in Jamaica with the unrest that accompanied the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Rastafarian movement, which appeared in the island during this period, is a mixture of social protest and religious doctrine and so may be called a religio-political cult.


An important factor underlying the rise of Rastafarianism is that, since at least the beginning of the twentieth century, Jamaican blacks have identified with Ethiopia on account of its biblical symbolism. The verse most often cited is Psalms 68:31: "Princes come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God." Between 1904 and 1927, Ethiopianism came to the attention of Jamaicans through several essays, articles, and books published in Jamaica and in the United States. The early 1930s saw the founding of a number of associations for black people and the emegence of the Rastafarian movement, named after Ras ("prince") Tafari, who was crowned emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia (Abyssinia) in November 1930. Marcus Garvey had formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Jamaica in 1914, and his doctrine of racial redemption, together with the coronation of Haile Selassie, furthered interest in the Ethiopian tradition (Hill, 1980).

Since emancipation, persons on the lower rungs of Jamaican society have struggled continuously against exploitation. Higher wages, the granting of civil and political rights, and other gains have come slowly, and often against bitter opposition. In the early 1930s, the basic issues for rural Jamaicans were land, rent, and taxation, and their struggles over these questions gave rise to the millenarian visions of the Rastafarian movement. In that period, Rastafarians were subjected to intense police pressure in Saint Thomas and neighboring parishes. It is likely that the Rastafarian millenarianism, with its vision of black domination, served as a catalyst in bringing about the labor uprisings of 1938 (Hill, 1981).

In 1953, Rastafarianism bore strong resemblance to revivalism in organizational and ritual patterns. The small, independent groups of both movements had similar sets of officers, festivals, and ritual procedures, including the reading of passages from the Bible and the singing of hymns (modified in the case of the Rastafarians to fit the doctrines of the cult), but important differences existed. Drumming, dancing, and spirit possession were prominent features of revivalism, but they never occurred in a Rastafarian gathering (Simpson, 1955). Beards and dreadlocks were present among Rastafarians but were not important aspects of the movement in the early fifties, nor was the place given to ganja (marijuana). Rastafarianism was, however, antiestablishment and bitter on the racial question (Chevannes, 1977). Revivalism had no political significance in 1953; its adherents were mainly concerned about personal salvation (Simpson, 1956).

According to Rastafarian doctrines in 1953, (1) black people were exiled to the West Indies because of their transgressions; (2) the white man is inferior to the black man; (3) the Jamaican situation is hopeless; (4) Ethiopia is heaven; (5) Haile Selassie is the living God; (6) the emperor of Abyssinia will arrange for expatriated persons of African descent to return to the homeland; and (7) black men will soon get their revenge by compelling white men to serve them (Simpson, 1955). These remain the basic beliefs of the movement, but not all adherents subscribe to all of them, nor do they give them equal emphasis. Rastafarians reinterpret the Old Testament in claiming that they are true present-day prophets, the "reincarnated Moseses, Joshuas, Isaiahs, and Jeremiahs." They also believe that they are "destined to free the scattered Ethiopians who are black men" (Nettleford, 1970, pp. 108109).

As revivalism began to decline in the mid-1950s, many of its followers were attracted to Rastafarianism and became active participants in the movement, or sympathizers (Smith, Augier, and Nettleford, 1960). Between 1953 and 1960, the Rastafarian movement grew rapidly and became more complex doctrinally. This growth continued through the 1970s and the early 1980s. Membershipboth the fully committed and partially committedcame to be drawn from all levels of the society. The more militant Rastafarians insisted that deliverance from poverty, unemployment, and humiliation must come from forces within Jamaica and not from Haile Selassie or Haile Selassie's spirit. Repatriation to Africa received less emphasis as some bands began to stress black power and "the africanization of Jamaica" (employment, education, and use of the country's resources are to benefit persons of African descent; see Nettleford, 1970; Barrett, 1974; Simpson, 1978).

The militancy of present-day Rastafarianism is seen clearly in its concept of a modern Babylon that includes Britain, the former colonial power; the United States, the present major industrial power; the bourgeois state of Jamaica; and the church. Babylon is said to be the source of Jamaica's misfortunes (Chevannes, 1977). A recent theme of the movement has to do with its concept of nature. In Rastafarian thought nature is nonindustrial society; and this underlies certain aspects of Rastafarian lifestylefor example, dietary rules, uncombed locks and beards, and the importance of ganja (Chevannes, 1977).

Since the early 1960s, Rastafarianism has played an important role in the evolution of Jamaican popular music. The rhythm of the Rastafarians' akete drums influenced the development of the fast rhythm called ska, and the ska form has developed into reggae. Most reggae songs contain caustic social comments, but they also praise Ras Tafari, Jamaican heroes, freedom, and ganja (Barrett, 1977; Chevannes, 1977). In the poetry and prose written by contemporary Rastafarians awareness of an African identity and of Africa itself is a main theme (Johnson, 1980).

Rastafarianism is not a unified movement (Campbell, 1980). Many of the brethren gather in small, informal bodies and are not affiliated with organized groups. Many Rastafarians refuse to take part in elections on the grounds that neither of Jamaica's two political parties represents them. In recent times, however, some Rastafarians have played an increasingly active role in politics (Smith, Augier, and Nettleford, 1960; Chevannes, 1977).

Rastafarian culture has spread to other parts of the Caribbean, and Rastafarian art, poetry, music, and philosophy are well known in London, Paris, and other cities in Western Europe and the United States. Rastafarian music has been diffused to a number of African countries (Campbell, 1980).

The dethronement of Haile Selassie in 1974 and his death the following year have not resulted in a decline of the movement. Rastafarianism arose out of certain conditions in Jamaica and in other countries of the Caribbean and has continued because those conditions, as well as the international situation, have not changed appreciably (Barrett, 1977).

See Also

Christianity, article on Christianity in the Caribbean Region; Fon and Ewe Religion; Santería; Vodou; West African Religions; Yoruba Religion.


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George Eaton Simpson (1987)

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