The Coral Gardens Massacre, also known as the Coral Gardens Incident or Bad Friday, refers to a series of tragic events that unfolded in Jamaica between 11 April and 13 1963. It is a dark and often overlooked chapter in Jamaica’s history. This tragic event saw the mass arrest, torture, and even death of Rastafarians by the Jamaican police and military forces.
Despite its significance, the Coral Gardens Massacre remains largely unknown in mainstream historical narratives, overshadowed by the popular image of Rastafarianism as a peace-loving, spiritual movement epitomised by the iconic Bob Marley.
The Rastafari Movement in Jamaica
Tensions between the Rastafarian community and the British colonial government in Jamaica had been building for years before the Coral Gardens Massacre. In 1958, the British police arrested and evicted several Rastafarians, often charging them with possession of cannabis, a plant used as a Rastafarian religious sacrament. Some of these incidents resulted in the police killing Rastafarians, while others disappeared without a trace. Public opinion in Jamaica largely sided with the police against the Rastafarians due to alleged violence on their part and a focus on the “anti-social” aspects of the Rastafarian faith.
In 1959, a confrontation at Coronation Market led to the police beating a Rastafari security guard. This prompted a violent response from nearby shop owners, resulting in the arrest of 57 Rastafarians and the brutal beating and forced shaving of dreadlocks from some of them. Later that year, Rastafari leader Reverend Claudius Henry was accused of plotting a revolution and communicating with Fidel Castro. In 1960, his son Reynold was arrested for plotting a revolt, and after a declaration of a state of emergency, he and his co-conspirators were executed. These events led to the arbitrary arrest of Rastafarians accused of orchestrating a communist revolution.
The political climate in Jamaica
Jamaica gained independence in 1962, with the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) securing victory over the People’s National Party (PNP). Alexander Bustamante, the JLP leader, gained control of the government, police, and army. One of his first acts as leader was establishing the Jamaica Defense Force and initiating an aggressive campaign against the growing Rastafarian movement.
Coral Gardens: A historical background
Coral Gardens is situated on Jamaica’s northern coast, a few miles from Montego Bay. The area is steeped in history, with the notorious “white witch” Annie Palmer’s home, Rose Hall, standing above it. As legend has it, Palmer murdered her husbands using obeah sorcery during the 18th century.
Coral Gardens was part of the larger Rose Hall estate, which included the Rose Hall mansion. This property was the site of small-scale farming by Rastafarians. A group of international capitalists acquired 400 acres of land in 1954 to construct the Half Moon Bay Hotel.
The government and landlords viewed the Rastafarians as an obstacle to their goal of repurposing the property for tourism and frequently sent police to evict them. This development led to the displacement of Rastafarian settlers who had lived peacefully on the land.
The influential Kerr-Jarrett family
During this period, Sir Francis Moncrieff Kerr-Jarrett was the largest landowner in Jamaica and a vocal opponent of the Rastafarian movement. He owned multiple sugar plantations and was an active member of the planter class that opposed Marcus Garvey and his nationalist ideas.
Kerr-Jarrett’s fervent appeals to the governor of Jamaica and the colonial office led to increased surveillance of Rastafari camps and the use of Vagrancy laws against their inhabitants. His family’s Barnett Estates significantly influenced the economy of St. James before tourism became the primary industry.
Rudolph Franklyn: A catalyst for conflict
Rudolph Franklyn, a Rastafarian also known as a “beardman,” lived in the hills above Coral Gardens.
In 1961, police shot Rudolph Franklyn six times in the stomach, leaving him for dead. Franklyn required surgery to repair his stomach but was told by a doctor that once the plastic used in the procedure “rotted,” his wounds would reopen, and he would die. Following his surgery, Franklyn was arrested on cannabis possession charges and sentenced to six months in prison. After his release, Franklyn vowed to take revenge against Edward Fowler, the overseer who had tried to evict him.
The gas station altercation
On 11 April 1963, a violent altercation occurred at a gas station in Montego Bay. According to police reports, a group of Rastafarians armed with spears, hatchets, and machetes set fire to the gas station as part of an attempted robbery. A skirmish ensued between the Rastafarians and the police, resulting in the deaths of three Rastafarians, two policemen, and three civilians. However, alternative accounts suggest that the violence at the gas station resulted from previous conflicts between Franklyn and other Rastafarians and between the police and property owners.
The aftermath and suppression of Rastafarians
After the gas station altercation, a police manhunt tracked down and killed the other Rastafarians involved in the incident. Jamaican newspapers published numerous articles demonising the Rastafarians and calling for armed intervention by the state. On 12 April, Good Friday, Prime Minister Alexander Bustamante ordered the arrest of all Rastafarians, dead or alive. Police and military forces entered working-class neighbourhoods and Rastafarian encampments, detaining Rastafarians and forcibly cutting their dreadlocks. Many Rastafarians were tortured and killed, with estimates suggesting that as many as 150 individuals were detained.
Two narratives emerged in the aftermath of the Coral Gardens Massacre. One view, supported by contemporary media reports and government officials, held that the events constituted an unlawful uprising by the Rastafarians. On the other hand, the Rastafarian community and more recent academic scholarship argued that the actions of Rudolph Franklyn and his compatriots were justified in response to decades of persecution by the government and that the mass arrests that followed were an abuse of state powers.
Commemoration and Recognition
Despite the brutal suppression, the Rastafarian movement persisted and gained support in cultural circles, thanks to leaders like Mortimer Planno, Filmore Alvaranga, and Douglas Mack. The work of influential musicians such as Count Ossie also helped to create safe havens for Rastafarians and promote their beliefs.
The Rastafarian community in Jamaica has commemorated the Coral Gardens Massacre yearly. In 2011, a documentary film titled “Bad Friday: Rastafari After Coral Gardens” was released, shedding light on the incident.
Government investigation and apology
In 2015, Public Defender Arlene Harrison Henry submitted a report to the Parliament of Jamaica detailing an investigation of the Coral Gardens Massacre. The recommendation was for the government to provide financial reparations for the injuries, abuses, and deaths caused by its actions against the Rastafarian community.
In April 2017, the government of Jamaica issued a formal apology for the incident, taking responsibility “without equivocation” and stating that the event “should never have happened.” The government established a trust fund of 10 million Jamaican dollars (approximately $78,000 USD) for survivors as reparations for the incident. Additionally, the government promised to recognise Pinnacle, Saint Catherine Parish, a site with historical relevance to the Rastafarian community, as a protected site under the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.
The Coral Gardens Massacre marked a tragic and violent chapter in Jamaica’s history, fuelled by political agendas, economic interests, and social tensions. While the government’s apology and recognition of the incident are significant steps in acknowledging the injustice and healing the wounds of the past, the memories of those who suffered during this time will never be forgotten.