ROWAN C MILLAR
Among Pirates and Rastas
I've just returned from a two week
stay in Barbados, the easternmost island of
the Caribbean. It's almost the southernmost
also, and the temperature was perfect for
the holidays. All my life I've had a fascina-
tion with pirates, so I kept an eye out for
them in Barbados, which was once a pirate hangout
along with the rest of the Caribbean. Pirates of the
sea no longer frequent those waters, but land pirates
are another story. Barbados and the Caribbean are
also home to many Rastafarians, and I've had an
ongoing interest in them also.
Barbados is the wealthiest of the Caribbean
Islands, which isn't saying much. It's one of the most
densely populated countries on earth, but it's still
lonely compared with Jamaica, another Caribbean Island.
Almost everyone in Barbados is black, but there are
small white and Indian minorities. There are more
Rastafarians, or Rastas, than in even Jamaica, the
birthplace of the Rastafarian religion. I think it
might be safe to say there are more Rastas per
capita than anywhere else on Earth. Rastas traditionally
wear their hair in dreadlocks, smoke marijuana
religiously, and worship Haile Selassie.
Selassie was the emperor of Ethiopia in
the early 1900s and was an Ethiopian Orthodox
Christian, a branch of Christianity that goes back
hundreds of years in Ethiopia. Black people in the
Caribbean have maintained their African culture in
ways black Americans have not. I'd often see Barbadian,
or Bajan, women carrying large bundles on their heads.
There are many styles of clothes made and worn in the
Caribbean that are obviously African. The early
Caribbean slave owners didn't tinker much with the
culture of their slaves, so a strong African identity
persevered. Jamaica was where Marcus Garvey was from,
the black man famous for organizing a "Back to Africa"
movement in the Caribbean and America.
Rastafarianism was started in the 30's in
amaica as kind of an extension of Garvey's African
identity movement. Rastas consider Africa the homeland,
and Ethiopia in particular. Rastas are encouraged to
make a holy pilgrimage there, where some have moved
permanently. The Ethiopian flag of red, green, and
gold have been adopted as the flag for the whole African
continent by Rastas. The word "Rastafarian" comes from
Haile Sellasse's alternate name of "Ras Tafari." He
himself disagreed with the Rastas about his godliness
and told them not to worship him, but to no avail. He
visited Jamaica once to express brotherhood with Jamaicans.
I'm not sure how dreadlocks and marijuana, or "ganja"
as they call it, came into the picture. I do know,
however, that in Ethiopia there are holy men (I forget
their name) who are hermits and live in caves and have
dreadlocks, both Christians and Muslims. I'm not sure
if the Christian ones smoke marijuana or not, but many
Ethiopian Muslims eat marijuana leaves as part of their
religious ceremonies. Marijuana goes back pretty far in
Ethiopia, where the oldest hookah (water pipe) ever
found was, complete with marijuana remnants.
In America Rastas are best known through their
music, reggae, which was popularized in the 70's by the
late Bob Marley. One of Marley's albums was nominated
the album of the century, I think, in the last issue
of Time. In Barbados reggae plays everywhere, in every
bus and restaurant and house. In my two weeks on the
island, I had the luck to visit the only true reggae
night club there twice. It was called The Penthouse,
for some reason. The first time I went there were 4
other white people (tourists) there, and the second
time only one, and I felt lucky to have such a unique
experience. Every other guy had dreadlocks and I've
never heard of so much marijuana being smoked at one
time. The dancing was very slow and slight, which is
my kind of style. There was a d.j. who would play the
records and sing along to them and give a running
rhythmic euphoric commentary like a mix between rap
and auctioning. When people liked what he was doing
especially much, they would bang the floor and walls
and point their fingers in the air like guns and make
shooting noises of "Bwah! Bwah! Bwah!" I was told this
comes from Jamaica, and that before security tightened
at the club, people would use real guns. Not quite
the peaceful Rastas one might hope for.
Thieves are a problem in Barbados, especially
for white people. I was told not to bring money to
the beach near where I was staying, or it would surely
be stolen. The first night at The Penthouse, I had
trouble finding a cab afterwards and my friend and I
were harassed by a guy wanting money from us who never
actually did anything to us. A few days before I'd run
into a problem of slightly worse proportions as I was
leaving the Rasta section of the capitol, Bridgetown.
For reasons of my own, I will not go into details about
this, except to say I came out of it 3 dollars poorer
and a bit confused and small feeling. I'd just been
hanging out with a Rasta Sculptor named Ras Ilix, a
kind dreadlocked fellow who I bought a small clay
head off of. I asked him, sure that he'd know, if
there are any pirates in Barbados, and he told me
"A pirate jus' a tief, ya know?" (A pirate's just
a thief, you know?) and I was forced to agree. So
having dealt with a couple modern day pirates I asked
a museum employee on my last day in Barbados about
the island's pirate past. Until then, I had only been
assuming it had one, as a Caribbean Island and the rum
capitol of the world. She told me briefly about how at
least one pirate had a huge castle there which still
stands where he would watch for passing ships to loot.
I hadn't the time or means to visit the castle,
nor the Rastafarian Church on the opposite coast I'd
heard so much about but didn't know the location of.
There's a small chance I'll visit Barbados again
someday, in which case I can make a point of it.
Personally, I thought it was a bit too fast paced
even for a Silicon Valley boy like myself. I would
walk through stores where there was hardly a foot
of floor not being stood on by one of many shoppers.
The bus rides there are the fastest most dangerous
seeming rides I may have ever been on. Going at 80
miles an hour, the buses purposefully graze everything
they can and narrowly miss head-on collisions with a
kind of proud joy that's both scary and hysterical.
I suppose you may be wondering what this has
to do with the Baby Boom Generation, or any generation
for that matter, and the truth is I'm not quite sure.
The most obvious relevance I can find is the connection
between Rastafarians and the counterculture of the
late 60s and 70s. "Hippy" and "Rasta" have become
almost interchangeable these days. Among modern day
hipsters, Dead Heads, and Rainbow Gatherers, dreadlocks
say "60's" as much as they say "reggae". The
quintessential modern hippy kid has dreadlocks,
plays the didgeridoo, (an Aboriginal Australian
instrument) and listens to reggae, along with the
other trademark hippy music. As far as religions,
Rastafarianism is the one most thoroughly respected
among young hipsters. Rastas are not the only people
who have traditionally had dreadlocks. The saddhus,
or holy men, of India and Nepal have long dreadlocks.
They are kind of a parallel group with the ones in
Ethiopia. They avoid material possessions and cover
themselves in ash and smoke hashish out of chillum
pipes as a religious ceremony. I don't approve of
marijuana or hashish (or alcohol for that matter)
but Rastas are still an interesting group and I'll
continue to keep an eye out for Rasta culture.
As a last little tidbit of data to download
onto you, I'd like to tell you about my love of the
Caribbean accent. It's a mix of African and English
and sailor talk, among other things. By sailor talk,
I mean the kind spoken by pirates in pirate movies
when they say "aarr, me maties!" or "Ahoy tharr!"
It has a use of the "R" sound and a rhythmic
quality not found in The Queen's own English.
Noticing all this, I drew a parallel between this
island/sailor talk and the American accent, and
then the Celtic. All three make great and colorful
use of the "R" sound and are a bit more rolling and
rollicking than England's English. It would make
sense, because the Celts of the British Isles have
always been very see faring, and probably made up
a large part of the pirate population, which was
highly outlawed by England. And America has a large
Celtic population by any standard. I'm a bit Celtic
myself, and all of this has been fun to think about.
Back to Barbadians, they sound so much like the
pirates I grew up fantasizing about fighting on the
seven seas, it was quite fun to listen to them.
So if you're ever out on the rollin' sea
and you come upon any pirates or Rastas, tell them
Rowan said hi, and give them big pirate hugs and
Rasta kisses for me here in San Jose. Our neighbors
in the Caribbean are interesting folk, and they
seem to be entertained with us indefinitely well,
I'm off now to watch a cheesy movie with an even
cheesier soundtrack. Ahoy!
Rowan C. Millar is a Generation Y'er.
He lives in Silicon Valley.
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