Article about Moses Joseph James and the History of the Dread Act in Dominica
When Dreads Meant Death in Dominica
By: Christine Tinker
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“It was an idiot thing that went down and it had to fall,
Who makes a man a man,
Who gives the right to judge?”
~ The Dread Act – Nelly Stharre & Trevy Felix
The year was 1974 and on the tiny Caribbean island of Dominica, a new way of life with ancient roots was beginning to flourish. Many of the inhabitants of this British owned territory were turning away from the colonialist religions and laws in order to forge a new, stronger bond with their kin and the natural environment. One such revolutionary, Ras Moses J. James Senior, was about to learn about the injustices of ‘Babylon’ the hard way.
The descendants of French and English colonialists slaves, Dominica’s people are some of the kindest, heartiest and most self sufficient on this planet. Many still practice the religions imposed upon them by imperialist interests and a full 80% of the population still identify as Catholic with Protestantism, Seventh Day Adventist and Jehovah’s Witnesses making inroads since independence from the U.K was achieved. Another way of life, more suited to the environment and the African cultural roots of Dominica was trickling in from Jamaica. For some, including Labor Party leader Patrick John, the cultural changes were not welcome. The Caribbean islands, including mountainous and fertile Dominica were being eyed by outside interests as the perfect island domain for a new type of international criminal network with white supremacists at its head. Patrick John would attempt to put a stranglehold on behaviours and cultural elements with which he disagreed or which were counter to his master plan to dominate Dominica and control it’s people.
The most insidious of these unwanted cultural elements was the spiritual use of the ancient eastern herb Cannabis. Since the establishment of the Rastafari faith upon Haile Selassie’s rise to power in 1930’s Ethiopia, the former African slaves of the Caribbean had been slowly but surely forging their own way forward by rejecting the degenerate, materialistic and oppressive society they refer to as Babylon. Many in Dominica were already living a Rastafari lifestyle without even knowing that this new faith had been spreading like wildfire across the Caribbean. On the ‘Nature Isle’ It seemed quite natural to live in tune with the environment, grow your own food, reject colonialist religion and be peaceful with your neighbours. One such farmer, a descendent of the famous escaped slaves they call ‘Maroons’ Ras Moses J. James Senior was wearing locks and living off the land long before Rastafari was an International ‘trend’. He and several of his brothers had established themselves a small plot of land by the White River in the tiny, barely accessible village of Delices on the mountainous and fertile south-east of the island. There, they worked together to create a small subsistence farm and attempted to live within the ideals of freedom, peace, love and harmony, much like the 60’s hippies of North America.
Moses and his brothers grew their hair and developed locks.
It is November 1974 and Patrick John, eager to make his mark on Dominican politics, amends the existing Prohibited and Unlawful Societies and Associations Act in a vain attempt to gain control of what he considered a rebellious youth movement of outsiders. The opposition Freedom Party did nothing to oppose the unwarranted amendments which would now make the wearing of ‘dreadlocks’ hairstyle in public illegal and punishable by up to 9 months in prison and in some cases allowed police and even ordinary citizens the right to shoot fellow Dominicans they called ‘Dreads’ on sight.
The act became known as ‘The Dread Act’ and while originally designed to weed out more militant anti social behaviour and stamp out illegal marijuana use, it became a ‘catch all’ law enabling citizen and police to discriminate against and in some cases murder innocent people based on their hairstyle alone. Although there are no confirmed numbers concerning the number of people killed under the Dread Act, the Nyabinghi Mansion of Dominica claims at least 21 of it’s members were killed or disappeared after the act was amended in 1974. Others put the number of dead at 27.
Rastafari herbalist Ras Moses J. James Senior was inside his mother’s private dwelling when the house was barged by police and James was, in his words, ‘carried away like a pig’ to prison for the crime of wearing his hair in locks. Moses had his locks forcibly cut and was remanded to prison for 6 months before his trial date. Luckily Moses had an ally in his lawyer, Brian Alleyne. Alleyne argued the point that Moses was not ‘in public’ when he was arrested and the arrest was therefore unlawful even under the restrictive and unconstitutional Dread Act. Ras Moses J. James Sr. was released, however his negative experiences with law enforcement were far from over.
In 1977, Ras Moses J. James Sr. had put his prison experience behind him and was back in Delices farming and living a Rasta lifestyle in the mountainous jungle near the White River. His brother and some friends had accompanied him on a trip into the village to acquire Calabash for making serving bowls. He assumes a villager must have seen them and based on their ‘natty’ appearance, called the police to have them arrested under the Dread Act. Moses and his companions received warning the police were on their way, but the notice came too late. They attempted to flee, fearing arrest and jail time and in the confusion Moses James was indiscriminately shot by police. James suffered three gunshot wounds and was forced out of fear for his life to run deep into the jungle with his brother, who was injured in the panic. Despite his serious gunshot wounds, James was not only able to escape the police but also removed one of the bullets from his body without medical assistance of any kind and spent 5 months in the bush recovering with help from his friends. After this incident, Moses became known around the island as Wèd (meaning ‘hard’ in Dominican Kwéyol). Wèd would go on to have two sons and build a beautiful and inclusive natural livity community for locals and travellers in the place they now call The Zion Valley. He had two lodged bullets removed in 1986 but continues to suffer terrible pain and disability from his unwarranted bullet wounds to this day.
The Prohibited and Unlawful Societies and Associations Act, though still technically on the books in Dominica as the ‘Terrorist Act’ continued to be enforced despite Independence from Britain being declared in 1978 and a change in government in 1980. Unfortunately, Dominica had not heard the last of power hungry Patrick John, who, despite his shameful involvement in the Dread Act and the subsequent atrocities was now ironically working with Grenadian armed militant ‘Dreads’ and white supremacist American and Canadian Klu Klux Klan mercenaries in a vain attempt to retake power from the duly elected Eugenia Charles. The goal of ‘Operation Red Dog’ was to take over the Caribbean islands of Barbados, Dominica and Grenada to set up lucrative and criminal businesses with impunity. In exchange for his assistance, disgraced Patrick John was promised the Prime Ministership. (see Steven Bell’s book The Bayou of Pigs for details). In April of 1981, Patrick John was arrested and a boat captain who had been approached by one of the mercenaries informed the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that a coup was about to place. When the plotters arrived at the port in New Orleans, the local police were waiting for them. Patrick John spent 12 years in jail for his part in the audacious plot. In 1985, the ‘Dread Act’ portion of the law was removed from the books while the Prohibited and Unlawful Societies act still stands, though it is rarely enforced.
Ras Moses J. James Senior has grown his beard and locks long, is still farming, sharing his herbal knowledge, raising his grandchildren, educating travellers and living peacefully in the Zion Valley. He his very active in the Rastafari ‘faith’ and attends Mansion meetings and events regularly as a respected Elder. He has travelled internationally to attend conferences and share his wisdom abroad. His book, Zion Valley Herbs beautifully illustrated by Olivier Pizzighini and featuring many of Ras Moses own formulations is extremely popular and encourages Dominicans and visitors to take full advantage of the natural health and healing opportunities found all around them on the fertile paradise called Dominica. He muses about the irony of police and government officials now seeking him out not to arrest him but to take full advantage of his shamanistic knowledge.
He continues to wait for an official apology and compensation from both government parties and the Government of the United Kingdom for their complacency in this shameful period of Dominica’s history and for the grievous injuries he has personally suffered because he chose to grow his hair. He is hoping Dominica will follow in the footsteps of Jamaica and legalize the sacramental use of marijuana for Rastafari or better yet, legalize the ‘healing of the nation’ for all people.
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