Marcus Mosiah Garvey was born on 17 August 1887 in Saint Ann's Bay, a town in the Colony of Jamaica.

Up to the age of 14, Garvey attended a local church school; further education was unaffordable for the family.

In 1901, Marcus was apprenticed to his godfather, a local printer.

In 1904, the printer opened another branch at Port Maria, where Garvey began to work, traveling from Saint Ann's Bay each morning.

In 1905, Marcus moved to Kingston, where he boarded in Smith Village, a working-class neighbourhood. In the city, he secured work with the printing division of the P.A. Benjamin Manufacturing Company. He rose quickly through the company ranks, becoming their first Afro-Jamaican foreman.

In January 1907, Kingston was hit by an earthquake that reduced much of the city to rubble. He, his mother, and his sister were left to sleep in the open for several months.

In March 1908, his mother died. While Garvey converted to Roman Catholicism.

Garvey became a trade unionist and took a leading role in the November 1908 print workers' strike. The strike was broken several weeks later and Garvey was sacked. Henceforth branded a troublemaker, Garvey was unable to find work in the private sector. He then found temporary employment with a government printer. As a result of these experiences, Garvey became increasingly angry at the inequalities present in Jamaican society.

In early 1910, Garvey began publishing a magazine, Garvey's Watchman—its name a reference to George William Gordon's The Watchman—although it only lasted three issues. He claimed it had a circulation of 3000, although this was likely an exaggeration. Garvey also enrolled in elocution lessons with the radical journalist Robert J. Love, whom Garvey came to regard as a mentor. With his enhanced skill at speaking in a Standard English manner, he entered several public speaking competitions.

Garvey involved himself with the National Club, Jamaica's first nationalist organization, becoming its first assistant secretary in April 1910. The group campaigned to remove the British Governor of Jamaica, Sydney Olivier, from office, and to end the migration of Indian "coolies", or indentured workers, to Jamaica, as they were seen as a source of economic competition by the established population. With fellow Club member Wilfred Domingo he published a pamphlet expressing the group's ideas, The Struggling Mass.

Economic hardship in Jamaica led to growing emigration from the island. In mid-1910, Garvey traveled to Costa Rica, where an uncle had secured him employment as a timekeeper on a large banana plantation in the Limón Province owned by the United Fruit Company (UFC).

In the spring of 1911 be launched a bilingual newspaper, Nation/La Nación, which criticized the actions of the UFC and upset many of the dominant strata of Costa Rican society in Limón. Marcus's coverage of a local fire, in which he questioned the motives of the fire brigade, resulted in him being brought in for police questioning. After his printing press broke, he was unable to replace the faulty part and terminated the newspaper.

Garvey then traveled through Central America, undertaking casual work as he made his way through Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela. While in the port of Colón in Panama, he set up a new newspaper, La Prensa ("The Press").

In 1911, Marcus became seriously ill with a bacterial infection and decided to return to Kingston.

Marcus then decided to travel to London, the administrative center of the British Empire, in the hope of advancing his informal education. In the spring of 1912, he sailed to England. Renting a room along Borough High Street in South London, he visited the House of Commons, where he was impressed by the politician David Lloyd George.

In August 1912, his sister Indiana joined him in London, where she worked as a domestic servant.

In early 1913, Marcus was employed as a messenger and handyman for the African Times and Orient Review, a magazine based in Fleet Street that was edited by Dusé Mohamed Ali.

In 1914, Mohamed Ali began employing Garvey's services as a writer for the magazine.

After managing to save the funds for a fare, he boarded the SS Trent in June 1914 for a three-week journey across the Atlantic. En route home, Garvey talked with an Afro-Caribbean missionary who had spent time in Basutoland and taken a Basuto wife. Discovering more about colonial Africa from this man, Garvey began to envision a movement that would politically unify black people of African descent across the world.

Back in London, he wrote an article on Jamaica for the Tourist magazine, and spent time reading in the library of the British Museum. There he discovered Up from Slavery, a book by the African-American entrepreneur and activist Booker T. Washington.

Garvey arrived back in Jamaica in July 1914. There, he saw his article for Tourist republished in The Gleaner. He began earning money selling greeting and condolence cards which he had imported from Britain, before later switching to selling tombstones.

Also in July 1914, Garvey launched the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, commonly abbreviated as UNIA. Adopting the motto of "One Aim. One God. One Destiny", it declared its commitment to "establish a brotherhood among the black race, to promote a spirit of race pride, to reclaim the fallen and to assist in civilizing the backward tribes of Africa".

UNIA officially expressed its loyalty to the British Empire, King George V, and the British effort in the ongoing First World War.

In August 1914, Garvey attended a meeting of the Queen Street Baptist Literary and Debating Society, where he met Amy Ashwood, recently graduated from the Westwood Training College for Women. She joined UNIA and rented a better premises for them to use as their headquarters, secured using her father's credit. She and Garvey embarked on a relationship, which was opposed by her parents. In 1915 they secretly became engaged. When she suspended the engagement, he threatened to commit suicide, at which she resumed it.

In April 1915, Brigadier General L. S. Blackden lectured to the group on the war effort; Garvey endorsed Blackden's calls for more Jamaicans to sign up to fight for the Empire on the Western Front. The group also sponsored musical and literary evenings as well as a February 1915 elocution contest, at which Garvey took first prize.

Garvey attracted financial contributions from many prominent patrons, including the Mayor of Kingston and the Governor of Jamaica, William Manning.

Marcus became increasingly aware of how UNIA had failed to thrive in Jamaica and decided to migrate to the United States, sailing there aboard the SS Tallac in March 1916.

Arriving in the United States, Garvey initially lodged with a Jamaican expatriate family living in Harlem, a largely black area of New York City. He began lecturing in the city, hoping to make a career as a public speaker, although at his first public speech was heckled and fell off the stage.

From New York City, Marcus embarked on a U.S. speaking tour, crossing 38 states. At stopovers on his journey he listened to preachers from the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Black Baptist churches. While in Alabama, he visited the Tuskegee Institute and met with its new leader, Robert Russa Moton.

UNIA also obtained a partially-constructed church building at 114 West 138 Street in Harlem, which Garvey named "Liberty Hall" after its namesake in Dublin, Ireland, which had been established during the Easter Rising of 1916.

After six months traveling across the U.S. lecturing, Marcus returned to New York City.

After the U.S. entered the First World War in April 1917, Garvey initially signed up to fight but was ruled physically unfit to do so. He later became an opponent of African-American involvement in the conflict, following Harrison in accusing it of being a "white man's war".

In May 1917, Garvey launched a New York branch of UNIA. He declared membership open to anyone "of Negro blood and African ancestry" who could pay the 25 cents a month membership fee. In his speeches, he sought to reach across to both Afro-Caribbean migrants like himself and native African-Americans. Through this, he began to associate with Hubert Harrison, who was promoting ideas of black self-reliance and racial separatism.

In the wake of the East St. Louis Race Riots in May to July 1917, in which white mobs targeted black people, Garvey began calling for armed self-defense. He produced a pamphlet, "The Conspiracy of the East St Louis Riots", which was widely distributed; proceeds from its sale went to victims of the riots. The Bureau of Investigation began monitoring him, noting that in speeches he employed more militant language than that used in print; it for instance reported him expressing the view that "for every Negro lynched by whites in the South, Negroes should lynch a white in the North".

In June, Garvey shared a stage with Harrison at the inaugural meeting of the latter's Liberty League of Negro-Americans. Through his appearance here and at other events organised by Harrison, Garvey attracted growing public attention.

In April, Garvey launched a weekly newspaper, the Negro World, which Cronon later noted remained "the personal propaganda organ of its founder".

UNIA membership grew rapidly in 1918. In June that year it was incorporated, and in July a commercial arm, the African Communities' League, filed for incorporation.

In November, Amy Ashwood became General Secretary of UNIA.

UNIA grew rapidly and in just over 18 months it had branches in 25 U.S. states, as well as divisions in the West Indies, Central America, and West Africa.

After the First World War ended, President Woodrow Wilson declared his intention to present a 14-point plan for world peace at the forthcoming Paris Peace Conference. Garvey joined various African-Americans in forming the International League for Darker People, a group which sought to lobby Wilson and the conference to give greater respect to the wishes of people of color; their delegates nevertheless were unable to secure the travel documentation.

By the end of its first year, the circulation of Negro World was nearing 10,000; copies circulated not only in the U.S., but also in the Caribbean, Central, and South America. Several British colonies in the Caribbean banned the publication.

The exact membership is not known, although Garvey—who often exaggerated numbers—claimed that by June 1919 it had two million members.

There were tensions between UNIA and the NAACP and the latter's supporters accused Garvey of stymieing their efforts at bringing about racial integration in the U.S. Garvey was dismissive of the NAACP leader W. E. B. Du Bois, and in one issue of the Negro World called him a "reactionary under the pay of white men". Du Bois generally tried to ignore Garvey, regarding him as a demagogue, but at the same time wanted to learn all he could about Garvey's movement.

In 1919, a young middle-class Jamaican migrant, Amy Jacques, became his personal secretary.

UNIA also began selling shares for a new business, the Black Star Line. The Black Star Line based its name on the White Star Line. Garvey envisioned a shipping and passenger line travelling between Africa and the Americas, which would be black-owned, black-staffed, and utilized by black patrons.

Liberty Hall's dedication ceremony was held in July 1919.

People continued buying stock regardless and by September 1919, the Black Star Line company had accumulated $50,000 by selling stock. It could thus afford a thirty-year old tramp ship, the SS Yarmouth. The ship was formally launched in a ceremony on the Hudson River on 31 October.

In October 1919, George Tyler, a part-time vendor of the Negro World, entered the UNIA office and tried to assassinate Garvey. The latter received two bullets in his legs but survived. Tyler was soon apprehended but died in an escape attempt from jail; it was never revealed why he tried to kill Garvey. Garvey soon recovered from his wounds; five days later he gave a public speech in Philadelphia.[178] After the assassination attempt, Garvey hired a bodyguard, Marcellus Strong.

Back in Kingston, UNIA obtained Edelweiss Park in Cross Roads, which it established as its new headquarters. They held a conference there, opened by a parade through the city which attracted tens of thousands of onlookers.

Shortly after the incident, Garvey proposed marriage to Amy Ashwood and she accepted. On Christmas Day, they had a private Roman Catholic church wedding, followed by a major ceremonial celebration in Liberty Hall, attended by 3000 UNIA members. Jacques was Ashwood's maid of honor. After the wedding, Garvey moved into Ashwood's apartment.

In January 1920, Garvey incorporated the Negro Factories League, through which he opened a string of grocery stores, a restaurant, a steam laundry, and publishing house.

The newlyweds embarked on a two-week honeymoon in Canada, accompanied by a small UNIA retinue, including Jacques. There, Garvey spoke at two mass meetings in Montreal and three in Toronto.

In July 1920, Garvey sacked both the Black Star Line's secretary, Edward D. Smith-Green, and its captain, Joshua Cockburn; the latter was accused of corruption.

In August 1920, UNIA organized the First International Conference of the Negro Peoples in Harlem. This parade was attended by Gabriel Johnson, the Mayor of Monrovia in Liberia. As part of it, an estimated 25,000 people assembled in Madison Square Gardens.

Three months into the marriage (Feb-Mar 1919), Garvey sought an annulment, on the basis of Ashwood's alleged adultery and the claim that she had used "fraud and concealment" to induce the marriage. She launched a counter-claim for desertion, requesting $75 a week alimony. The court rejected this sum, instead ordering Garvey to pay her $12 a week. It refused to grant him the divorce. The court proceedings continued for two years. Now separated (Year 1921), Garvey moved into a 129th Street apartment with Jacques and Henrietta Vinton Davis, an arrangement that at the time could have caused some social controversy. He was later joined there by his sister Indiana and her husband, Alfred Peart. Ashwood, meanwhile, went on to become a lyricist and musical director for musicals amid the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1921, Garvey twice reached out to Du Bois, asking him to contribute to UNIA publications, but the offer was rebuffed.

In January 1922, Garvey was arrested and charged with mail fraud for having advertised the sale of stocks in a ship, the Orion, which the Black Star Line did not yet own. He was bailed for $2,500.

In June 1922, Garvey met with Edward Young Clarke, the Imperial Wizard pro tempore of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) at the Klan's offices in Atlanta. Garvey made a number of incendiary speeches in the months leading up to that meeting; in some, he thanked the whites for Jim Crow. Garvey once stated: I regard the Klan, the Anglo-Saxon clubs and White American societies, as far as the Negro is concerned, as better friends of the race than all other groups of hypocritical whites put together. I like honesty and fair play. You may call me a Klansman if you will, but, potentially, every white man is a Klansman as far as the Negro in competition with whites socially, economically and politically is concerned, and there is no use lying. News of Garvey's meeting with the KKK soon spread and it was covered on the front page of many African-American newspapers, causing widespread upset.

1922 also brought some successes for Garvey. He attracted the country's first black pilot, Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, to join UNIA and to perform aerial stunts to raise its profile.

Garvey also proposed marriage to his secretary, Jacques. She accepted, although later stated: "I did not marry for love. I did not love Garvey. I married him because I thought it was the right thing to do". They married in Baltimore in July 1922.

At UNIA's August 1922 convention, Garvey called for the impeachment of several senior UNIA figures, including Adrian Johnson and J. D. Gibson, and declared that the UNIA cabinet should not be elected by the organization's members, but appointed directly by him.

Having been postponed at least three times, in May 1923, the trial finally came to court, with Garvey and three other defendants accused of mail fraud. The judge overseeing the proceedings was Julian Mack, although Garvey disliked his selection on the grounds that he thought Mack an NAACP sympathizer.

On 18 June, the jurors retired to deliberate on the verdict, returning after ten hours. They found Garvey himself guilty, but his three co-defendants not guilty. Garvey was furious with the verdict, shouting abuse in the courtroom and calling both the judge and district attorney "damned dirty Jews". Imprisoned in The Tombs jail while awaiting sentencing, he continued to blame a Jewish cabal for the verdict; in contrast, prior to this he had never expressed anti-semitic sentiment and was supportive of Zionism.

Their relationship became acrimonious; in 1923, Du Bois described Garvey as "a little fat black man, ugly but with intelligent eyes and big head".

In September, Judge Martin Manton awarded Garvey bail for $15,000—which was duly raised by UNIA—while he appealed his conviction. Again a free man, he toured the U.S., giving a lecture at the Tuskegee Institute. In speeches given during this tour he further emphasized the need for racial segregation through migration to Africa, calling the United States "a white man's country".

In February 1924, UNIA put forward its plans to bring 3000 African-American migrants to Liberia. The latter's President, Charles D. B. King, assured them that he would grant them area for three colonies. In June, a team of UNIA technicians was sent to start work in preparing for these colonies.

In early 1925, the U.S. Court of Appeal upheld the original court decision. Garvey was in Detroit at the time and was arrested while aboard a train back to New York City. In February he was taken to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary and incarcerated there. Imprisoned, he was made to carry out cleaning tasks. On one occasion he was reprimanded for insolence towards the white prison officers. There, he became increasingly ill with chronic bronchitis and lung infections; two years into his imprisonment he would be hospitalized with influenza.

With Garvey absent, William Sherrill became acting head of UNIA. Garvey was angry and in February 1926 wrote to the Negro World expressing his dissatisfaction with Sherrill's leadership. From prison, he organized an emergency UNIA convention in Detroit, where delegates voted to depose Sherrill.

The Attorney General, John Sargent, received a petition with 70,000 signatures urging for Garvey's release. Sargeant warned President Calvin Coolidge that African-Americans were regarding Garvey's imprisonment not as a form of justice against a man who had swindled them but as "an act of oppression of the race in their efforts in the direction of race progress". Eventually, Coolidge agreed to commute the sentence so that it would expire immediately, on 18 November 1927. He stipulated, however, that Garvey should be deported straight after release.

On being released, Garvey was taken by train to New Orleans, where around a thousand supporters saw him onto the SS Saramaca on 3 December. The ship then stopped at Cristóbal in Panama, where supporters again greeted him, but where the authorities refused his request to disembark. He then transferred to the SS Santa Maria, which took him to Kingston.

In Kingston, Garvey was greeted by supporters. UNIA members had raised $10,000 to help him settle in Jamaica, with which he bought a large house in an elite neighbourhood, which he called the "Somali Court". His wife shipped over his belongings—which included 18,000 books and hundreds of antiques—before joining him.

Garvey attempted to travel across Central America but found his hopes blocked by the region's various administrations, who regarded him as disruptive. Instead, he traveled to England in April, where he rented a house in London's West Kensington area for four months.

In May, Marcus spoke at the Royal Albert Hall.

In Kingston, Garvey was elected a city councillor and established the country's first political party, the People's Political Party (PPP), through which he intended to contest the forthcoming legislative council election. In September 1929 he addressed a crowd of 1,500 supporters, launching the PPP's manifesto, which included land reform to benefit tenant farmers, the addition of a minimum wage to the constitution, pledges to build Jamaica's first university and opera house, and a proposed law to impeach and imprison corrupt judges.

In September 1930, his first son, Marcus Garvey Junior, was born; three years later a second son, Julius, followed.

Dissatisfied with life in Jamaica, Garvey decided to move to London, sailing aboard the SS Tilapa in March 1935. Once in London, he told his friend Amy Bailey that he had "left Jamaica a broken man, broken in spirit, broken in health and broken in pocket... and I will never, never, never go back."

In London, Garvey sought to rebuild UNIA, although found there was much competition in the city from other black activist groups. He established a new UNIA headquarters in Beaumont Gardens, West Kensington and launched a new monthly journal, Black Man.

In June 1937, Garvey's wife and children arrived in England, where the latter were sent to a school in Kensington Gardens.

In January 1940, Garvey suffered a stroke which left him largely paralyzed.

Garvey then suffered a second stroke and died at the age of 52 on 10 June 1940.