IN Notes and Queries, London, January 25, 1851, we find the following communication.
"Can any of your readers give me some information about obeism? I am anxious to know whether it is in itself a religion, or merely a rite practised in some religion in Africa and imported thence to the West Indies (where, I am told, it is rapidly gaining ground again); and whether the obeist obtains the immense power he is said to possess over his brother Negroes by any acquired art, or simply by working upon the more superstitious minds of his companions. Any information, however, on the subject will be acceptable. T. H., Mincing Lane, January 10, 1851." (1)
This inquiry drew forth several replies. In the issue of February 22, 1851, we find: "As our correspondent T. H. desires 'any information' on the subject of obeism, in the absence of more and better, I offer my mite: that in the early part of this century it was very common among the slave-population in the West Indies, especially on the remote estates--of course of African origin--not as either a 'religion' or a 'rite,' but rather as a superstition; a
power claimed by its professors, and assented to by the patients, of causing good or evil to, or averting it from them; which was of course always for a 'consideration' of some sort, to the profit, whether honorary, pecuniary, or other of the dispenser. It is by the pretended influence of certain spells, charms, ceremonies, amulets worn, or other such incantations, as practised with more or less diversity by the adepts, the magicians and conjurers, the 'false prophets' of all ages and countries, etc." The writer thinks that obeism is on the decline and simply signs the letter M. (2)
Another reply in the same issue runs as follows: "In answer to T. H.'s Query regarding obeahism, though I cannot answer his question fully, as to its origin, etc., yet I have thought that what I can communicate may serve to piece out the more valuable information of your better informed correspondents. I was for a short time in the island of Jamaica, and from what I could learn there of obeahism, the power seemed to be obtained by the obeah-man or woman, by working upon the fears of their fellow-Negroes, who are notoriously superstitious. The principal charm seemed to be, a collection of feathers, coffin furniture, and one or two other things which I have forgotten. A small bundle of this, hung over the victim's door or placed in his path, is supposed to have the power of bringing ill luck to the unfortunate individual. And if any accident, or loss, or sickness should happen to him about the time, it is immediately imputed to the dreaded influence of obeah! But I have heard of cases where the unfortunate
victim has gradually wasted away, and died under this powerful spell, which, I have been informed by old residents in the island, is to be attributed to a more natural cause, namely, the influence of poison. The obeah-man causes a quantity of ground glass to be mixed with the food of the person who has incurred his displeasure; and the result is said to be a slow but sure and wasting death! Perhaps some of your medical readers can say whether an infusion of powdered glass would have this effect. I merely relate what I have been told by others, etc." This letter is signed D. p. W. (3)
In the issue of April 19, 1851, a communication signed T. J. furnishes a number of references to show that "obeahism is not only a rite, but a religion, or rather a superstition." It is further stated that "the influence of the obeist does not depend on the exercise of any art or natural magic, but on the apprehensions of evil infused into the victim's mind." (4)
In Notes and Queries of May 10, 1851, Henry H. Breen writing from St. Lucia insists: "Obeism is not itself a religion, except in the sense in which Burke says that 'superstition is the religion of feeble minds.' It is a belief, real or pretended, in the efficacy of certain spells, and incantations, and is to the uneducated Negro what sorcery was to our unenlightened forefathers. This superstition is known in St. Lucia by the name Kembois. It is still extensively practised in the West Indies, but there is no reason to suppose that it is rapidly gaining ground." (5)
While the interest awakened in the subject by this correspondence was still rife, The Medical Times (6) published a communication from Doctor Stobo of Tortula, in the Virgin Islands, of a peculiar case of child-birth which had been accompanied by symptoms that he seems unable to diagnose although he evidently does not credit the patient's explanation that she was a victim of obeah. The title of the article is "Spasmodic Action of the Uterus.--Obeism," and the main fact in the case is thus stated: "Ann Eliza Smith, aged 50, Sambo, domestic servant, mother of three children; has a miscarriage between first and second, and an interval of seventeen years between second and third child. During that interval was in bad health, and under the delusion that she was (hurted) obeahed, and is now under that delusion."
The Editor of The Medical Times adds this information in a footnote: "Obeism was a species of witchcraft employed to revenge injuries, or as a protection against theft, and is so called from Obi, the town, city, district or province of South (sic) Africa where it originated. It consisted in placing a spell or charm near the cottage of the individual intended to be brought under its influence, or, when designed to prevent the depredations of thieves, in some conspicuous part of the house, or on a tree; it was signified by a calabash or gourd containing, among other ingredients, a combination of different coloured rags, cats' teeth, parrots' feathers, toads' feet, egg-shells, fish bones, snakes' teeth, and lizards' tails. Terror immediately seized the individual who
beheld it; and either by resigning himself to despair, or by the secret communication of poison, in most cases death was the inevitable consequence."
The Editor immediately adds: "The following is a description of the superstition as given by a witness in a trial that took place some years ago: 'Do you know the prisoner to be an obeah-man?--Ees massa! shadow-catcher true. What do you mean by shadow-catcher?--Him heb coffin (a little coffin was here produced) him set fe catch dem shadow. What shadow do you mean?--When him set obeah for somebody, him catch dem shadow, and dem go dead.'" This example is really taken from Alexander Barclay, A Practical View of the Present State of Slavery in the West Indies, London, 1828, p. 185f, although no credit is given by the Editor who quotes it in The Medical Times.
From what has been said thus far, it is evident how confused has been the concept of that form of witchcraft which is known as Jamaica obeah even in usually most reliable sources of information. It must be our purpose, then, at the very outset to try and clarify the origin of the name as well as the practice of this intriguing subject, obeah.
The following communication appears in Notes and Queries for July 15, 1899, signed by James Platt, Jun.: "Obi; obeah.--The origin of this well-known West Indian term is not precisely defined in any of our existing dictionaries. We find such statements as 'probably of African origin' (Webster and Chambers); 'said to be of African origin' (The 'Century'); 'said to have been introduced from
Africa' (Worcester). The following quotation from the Rev. Hugh Goldie's Dictionary of the Efik Language (of Old Calabar), Glasgow, 1874, p. 300, appears to set the matter at rest, and should interest etymologists and students of folklore; 'Ubio, a thing, or mixture of things, put in the ground, as a charm, to cause sickness or death. The obeah of the West Indies.'" (7)
This little notice had far-reaching effects, or at least its writer's influence quickly made itself felt. For the Oxford Dictionary shortly afterwards accepted Mr. Platt's suggestion and came to describe obeah with its variants obi, obia, obea, obeeah, as "A West African word: cf. Efik ubio, 'a thing, or mixture of things, put in the ground, as a charm to cause sickness or death,'" and quotes as its authority Goldie's Dictionary of Efik, 1874. (8)
Sir Harry Johnston, too, regarded the word as "a variant or a corruption of an Efik or Ibo, word from the north-east or east of the Niger Delta." (9) But as his Preface is dated May, 1910, long after the appearance of Vol. VII of the Oxford Dictionary, it would be only natural to suppose that Sir Harry drew his information from that source, unless perhaps he was originally the authority consulted by the Editor of the Dictionary. In either supposition, we would have overlapping authority for the Efik origin of the word and not independent sources.
Now I am informed by those who are actually working among the Efik speaking people that ubio really means rubbish or dirt, and that the derivative
ubi signifies wickedness in general. Further that witchcraft is included under ubi or ubio only in so far as it is a wickedness like any other evil act.
In keeping with this observation, Goldie himself gives the primary meaning of ubio as "anything noxious," (10) and the citation quoted by the Oxford Dictionary is a secondary meaning. However, even here Goldie says nothing about witchcraft which he actually renders as idion. (11) This, in itself, might well imply that obeah is given as a particular illustration of the generic idea of what is noxious or wicked.
All this is supported by tracing historically the introduction of the word obeah into English usage. The first appearance of the word in any dictionary is in An American Dictionary of the English Language by Noah Webster. Revised and Enlarged by Chauncey A. Goodrich; Published by George and Charles Merriam, Springfield, Massachusetts, and Copyrighted in 1847. In this, the Third Edition of Webster's Dictionary-it does not appear in the earlier editions--we find the entry on page 762: "Obeah, n. A species of witchcraft practised among the African Negroes. Encyc. Am."
As will be noticed, the only reference given in the above entry is to the Encyclopedia Americana. The first edition of this work was edited by Francis Lieber and published in thirteen volumes in Philadelphia by Carey, Lea and Carey, 1829-1833. The word obeah appears in volume IX which was issued in 1832: "Obeah; a species of witchcraft practised among the Negroes, the apprehension of which,
operating upon the superstitious fears, is frequently attended with disease and death."
There is reason for thinking that the entry in the Encyclopedia Americana is based on one of the Philadelphia editions (1805-6 or 1810) of Bryan Edwards, History, Civil and Commercial, of the British in the West Indies, which was originally published in London in 1793.
Edwards avowedly drew his information from the Report of the Lords of the Committee of the Council appointed for the consideration of all Matters relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations, which appeared in London in 1789. It is in this same Report of 1789 that we first find the distinction suggested: "The term obeah, obiah, or obia (for it is variously written) we conceive to be the adjective, and the obe or obi the noun substantive."
As noted in that Report, the principal source of information regarding obeah was Edward Long who belonged to an old Jamaica family and who had already been Speaker of the House of Assembly in Jamaica. He had published a History of Jamaica, London, 1774, wherein is the first reference by an historian to obeah as such.
As far as I can ascertain, the first actual record of the word in print is in the Acts of the Jamaica Assembly of 1760, Vol. II, Act. 24: "To remedy the Evils arising from irregular Assemblies of Slaves, prevent possessing Arms and Ammunition, going from Place to Place without tickets, and for the preventing of Obeah, etc."
Up to the Report of 1789, as we find recorded
therein, the word was not much in use outside of Jamaica. Thus Montserrat, Nevis, Dominica, St. Vincent, Bermuda and Bahama know nothing about obeah, and in the Barbados, Antigua, Granada and St. Christopher, where obeah is more or less known, there are no restraining Laws mentioned, indicating that it had not yet been recognized as a menace to the public peace.
It was long the Law in Jamaica, even before the real workings of obeah were understood, to transport to other West India Colonies such obeah-men as were convicted of the practice. This would explain the presence of the word and practice in those islands where it was known but only in a less degree.
Hence we may conclude from all this that the earliest acceptation of the word obeah in the English dictionaries must be traced to a Jamaica origin. And when I brought the foregoing facts to the attention of the publishers of the Oxford Dictionary, with characteristic courtesy, they made acknowledgment through the present Editor, Sir William A. Craigie, under date of August 3, 1934: "The Efik etymology of obeah given in the Oxford English Dictionary was no doubt supplied by James Platt, who would have no other authority for it than the similarity of sound and meaning. As the part of the Dictionary containing O to Onomashie was published in July 1902, there was plenty of time for Sir Harry Johnston to get it from that source. In such cases, unfortunately, the evidence of dictionaries is often unsatisfactory, and is of no weight
against evidence to the contrary such as you have supplied."
Having definitely established Jamaica as the source of the English usage of the word obeah, the question naturally presents itself, whence was it derived by Jamaica?
It has been shown in Voodoos and Obeahs that strictly speaking, myalism, the direct antithesis of obeah, is the residue of the old religious dance of the Ashanti, just as obeah itself is the continuation of Ashanti witchcraft. Thus obeah is secretive, malicious, and has gradually taken on a form of devil-worship. Myalism, on the contrary, is practised in the open. It is beneficent in its purposes, and it has developed into modern revivalism in Jamaica. In practice, however, the same individual is now frequently an obeah-man by night and a myal-man by day when he "digs up" the very obeah which he has planted while exercising the other rôle.
To explain how all this has come about, a brief review of what has been set forth in detail in Voodoos and Obeahs becomes necessary.
Among the Ashanti of West Africa there was a clearly defined system of religion wherein the Supreme Being, Onyame, was more popularly known under the title Nyankopon, meaning Onyame, alone, great one. Subordinate to this Supreme Being were numerous abosom, minor deities or spirits, acting as mediators between God and man, and claiming a prominent place in religious observances, since God Himself was regarded as so remote, that ordinarily
He was to be approached only through His mediaries, except at a time of particular need when He was addressed directly.
Consequently, while the Supreme Being actually had among the Ashanti a temple and a regular priesthood (12) for which a three-years' novitiate was required, (13) in the ordinary daily affairs of life recourse was regularly had through the subordinate abosom who were regarded as more accessible, and in consequence the okomfo, or priest, of these various spirits exercised a dominant influence upon the general life of the Ashanti both as a people and individually. It was the prerogative of the okomfo not merely to lead the service of the shrines of the minor deities but to imbue the good luck charm with its particular potency and this he did by invoking not only the Supreme Being directly but especially through the intermediary spirits since they were regarded as closely associated with the affairs of man. All those rites and practices that characterize the leading events in life, such as birth, marriage, or death, were clearly of a religious character. So, too, were the civic or national celebrations and even preparation for war or the coronation of a paramount chief.
But concomitant with this religious spirit that permeated the very life of the Ashanti there existed, essentially antagonistic to it, a condition of affairs which may be summed up under the single term witchcraft. Of this phase, Captain Rattray, the great authority on all things Ashanti, writes: "Witchcraft was essentially the employment of anti-social
magic. The belief in its general prevalence was largely due to the fact that certain forms of illness resulting in death could not otherwise be accounted for. There appears to be considerable logic in regarding killing by witchcraft as akin to murder, even if its classification as such by the Ashanti was not directly due to an acknowledgment of a fact which was in many cases true, i.e. that poison in some form or other was often an important stock-in-trade of the professed witch." (14)
That the Ashanti believed in a personal devil or evil spirit is evidenced by the secondary meaning of obonsam, viz. "The devil conceived to be an evil spirit reigning over the spirits of deceased wicked men." (15)
As a derivative of this word, we have sasabonsam who, according to Christaller, is "an imaginary monstrous being, conceived as having a huge body of human shape, but of a red colour and with very long hair, living in the deepest recess of the forest, where an immense silk-cotton tree is his abode; inimical to man, especially to the priests, but the friend and chief of the sorcerers and witches." ( 16)
Captain Rattray declares that the power of the Sasabonsam. "is purely for evil and witchcraft," ( 17) and elsewhere he declares: "The Sasabonsam of the Gold Coast and Ashanti is a monster which is said to inhabit parts of the dense virgin forests. It is covered with long hair, has large bloodshot eyes, long legs, and feet pointing both ways. It sits on high branches of an odum or onyina tree and dangles its legs, with which at times it hooks up the
unwary hunter. It is hostile to man, and is supposed to be especially at enmity with the real priestly class. Hunters who go to the forest and are never heard of again--as sometimes happens--are supposed to have been caught by Sasabonsam." ( 18 )
Here then we have a clear theoretical distinction between the Ashanti devil, bonsam, and this fabulous forest monster, Sasabonsam. But, just as in English the term devil represents indiscriminately either Satan or his minions, so in practice the Ashanti Sasabonsam is used as a euphemism for bonsam since it is not well to even mention names of the dead lest their spirits haunt you.
The Ashanti word for witch was obayifo and Captain Rattray furnishes us with the following information on this interesting topic. "Obayifo, deriv. bayi, sorcery (Synonymous term ayen), a wizard, or more generally witch. A kind of human vampire, whose chief delight is to suck the blood of children whereby the latter pine and die. Men and women possessed of this black magic are credited with volitant powers, being able to quit their bodies and travel great distances in the night. Besides sucking the blood of victims, they are supposed to be able to extract the sap and juice of crops. (Cases of coco blight are ascribed to the work of the abayifo.) These witches are supposed to be very common and a man never knows but that his friend or even his wife may be one. When prowling at night they are supposed to emit a phosphorescent light from the armpits and anus. An obayifo in everyday life is supposed to be known by having sharp shifty eyes,
that are never at rest, also by showing an undue interest in food, and always talking about it, especially meat, and hanging about when cooking is going on, all which habits are therefore purposely avoided. A man will seldom deny another, even a stranger, a morsel of what he may be eating, or a hunter a little bit of raw meat to any one asking it, hoping thereby to avoid the displeasure of anyone who, for all he can tell, is a witch or wizard." (19)
At the recent Anthropological Congress in London, Modjaben Dowuona, Esq., a native West African and one of the Vice-Presidents of the African Section of the Congress, presented a most interesting and scholarly paper on the subject of witchcraft. According to his view: "There are in the main two forms in which witchcraft is practised. The first takes the form of a power to do harm to other people, especially children, without any physical contact or concrete act of poisoning. Death due to poisoning is considered separate from that believed to be due to witchcraft, though in practice it is not always distinguished from it. The tendency is to ascribe to witchcraft any death which cannot be accounted for on other grounds. It seems that this non-physical way of killing was first directed against children, as is evidenced from the Twi word for witchcraft, 'Bayi' meaning literally 'taking away or removing children.' It is interesting to find that a corrupt form of the word, namely 'obeah' appears in the West Indies, though there it is associated with the worship of various cults."
Again Mr. Dowuona stated: "I think that we
may connect the belief in witchcraft of the first kind with the desire to find reason for the heavy infantile mortality which exists in African communities. . . . A saying among the Ga seems to support this view. It is this: 'If you have no witch in your family, your children do not die young.'" And he explained this assumption by the fact that "the power of a witch is limited to the members of her own family and that therefore no witch outside the family can do harm to any one in the family except through the co-operation of a witch inside it."
Mr. Dowuona thus traces back Jamaica obeah through the Ashanti obayifo, a witch, to the term for witchcraft, bayi, meaning literally "taking away children." This view is supported by Christaller (20) who derives bayi, witchcraft, from oba, child, and yi, to take away, and renders obayifo as a witch or wizard. Christaller also gives as a synonym (21) ayen with obaayen, a compound of obaa, woman, and ayen, as the female form. And it is probably from this form obaayen that the Jamaica word obeah was directly derived. For Long in his History of Jamaica at times spells the word obeiah. Incidentally, while examining Long's own copy of his work which is now deposited in the Manuscript Section of the British Museum, I noticed that he had entered a marginal correction: "Here et sequent., for obeah." (22)
As Mr. Dowuona well observed, the primary concept of witchcraft undoubtedly implied among the Ashanti a projection of some personal power whereby even death might be produced without
physical contact. But in practice, if the spirit-projection with its customary incantation proved ineffective, it was only natural that the surreptitious administration of poison should be resorted to, so that the reputation of the witch might not suffer in popular esteem. Yet even here, it was claimed that the effect was produced by the spiritual projection alone.
Unquestionably, the Ashanti clearly distinguished religious practices, the rôle of the herbalist and the workings of witchcraft. Thus we are told by Captain Rattray: "From the information at our disposal, we now know that the Ashanti makes a distinction between the following: the okomfo, priest; the sumankwafo or dunseni, the medicine man; and the bonsam komfo, witch doctor. The word okomfo, without any further qualification, refers to a priest of one of the orthodox abosom, gods. We see, however, that a witch doctor is allowed the same name as a kind of honorary title or degree, being known as a bayi komfo, a priest of witchcraft. Again the ordinary medical practitioners are never termed okomfo; they are sumankwafo, dealers in suman; or dunsefo, workers in roots; or odu'yefo, workers in medicine." (23)
It would be well to notice here that Ashanti witchcraft, as a practice of black magic is essentially antagonistic to religion in any form, and that it is as clearly dissociated from the making of a suman, which may be regarded as white magic, as its practitioner, the obayifo, is distinguished from the medicine man, sumankwafo. Nevertheless, the title
bayi komfo, a priest of witchcraft, indicates that even in Ashanti there has developed a phase of what might be called devil-worship inasmuch as the sasabonsam, or devil, is so closely associated with witches. (24)
This would help to explain the assertion of J. Leighton Wilson who when writing of that part of West Africa which lies between Cape Verde and the Cameroons, declares: "Fetishism and demonology are undoubtedly the leading and prominent forms of religion among the pagan tribes of Africa. They are entirely distinct from each other, but they run together at so many points, and have been so much mixed up by those who have attempted to write on the subject that it is no easy matter to keep them separated." (25)
Thus it came to pass that as the Ashanti were gradually carried by the slavers in increasing numbers to Jamaica, they naturally brought with them all their old traditions and beliefs which they sought to put in practice in their new surroundings. A strongly religious people, even as slaves in a strange land, they instinctively turned openly to their okomfo for guidance and consolation, while they necessarily feared the secret machinations of the nefarious obayifo. This very fear quickly became accentuated among the slave population generally, and it was this baleful influence more than anything else which tended to give the Ashanti their dominant control over all other tribes in Jamaica. For, secretly administered poison came to play a more and more active part to supplement incantations that might
otherwise have remained inoperative. So, too, Nyankopon became the Accompong of Jamaica, just as obeah-man was a transition from obayifo.
Herbert G. DeLisser, a native Jamaican who is now Editor of the Kingston Daily Gleaner, was one of the first writers to differentiate the functions of Ashanti priest and wizard among the early practices of the days of slavery in Jamaica. More than twenty years ago, he wrote: "The West African natives and particularly those from the Gold Coast (From which the larger number of Jamaica slaves were brought) believe in a number of gods of different classes and unequal power. All these gods have their priests and priestesses, but there is one particularly malignant spirit, which, on the Gold Coast, has no regular priesthood. He is called Sasabonsam, and any individual may put himself in communication with him. Sasabonsam's favourite residence is the ceiba, the giant silk-cotton tree. He is resorted to in the dead of night, his votary going to the spot where he is supposed to live, and collecting there a little earth, or a few twigs, or a stone, he prays the god that his power may enter this receptacle. If he believes that his prayer has been heard, he returns home with his suhman, as the thing is now named, and hence forward he has a power which is formidable for injurious purposes, to which he offers sacrifice, and to whose worship he dedicates a special day in the week. By the aid of this suhman he can bewitch a man to death. He can also sell charms that will cause death or bodily injury. . . . A priest, on the other hand, may also sell
you charms to scare away thieves, help you to prosperity, or keep away disaster. All this comes within the functions of a member of the West African priesthood. He may even undertake to 'put death on a man,' as the wizard does, if he is sufficiently well paid for the business. But priests do not care to indulge in this sort of thing. Their main function is to propitiate the gods, to unbewitch people; in a word, to prevent disasters from occurring. . . . Both witches and wizards, priests and priestesses, were brought to Jamaica in the days of the slave trade, and the slaves recognized the distinction between the former and the latter. Even the masters saw that the two classes were not identical, and so they called the latter 'myal-men' and 'myal-women'--the people who cured those whom the obeah-men had injured. Of the present-day descendants of these priests or myal-men more will be said later on. It is probable that many of the African priests became simple obeah-men after coming to Jamaica, for the very simple reason that they could not openly practice their legitimate profession. But when known as obeah-men, however much they might be treated with respect, they still were hated and feared. Every evil was attributed to them. The very name of them spread terror." (26)
From the earliest days of legislation in Jamaica, there was recognized to be a growing danger to the peace of the Colony in the assemblies of slaves that were characterized by old tribal dances. These ceremonies were openly accompanied by a system of drumming which evidently aroused the fanaticism of
the Africans to such a pitch as to endanger a general uprising. It never occurred to the planters that these dances were really an adaptation of time-honoured religious rites and they made the initial mistake of attributing the danger entirely to the fact that the slaves had gathered from various plantations and considered that while these assemblies were dangerous when attended from without, they might still be harmless enough if allowed to each group of slaves separately in their own plantation. Accordingly in 1696, it was enacted: "And for the prevention of the meeting of slaves in great numbers on Sundays and Holidays, whereby they have taken liberty to contrive and bring to pass many of their bloody and inhuman transactions: Be it enacted by the aforesaid authority, That no master, or mistress, or overseer, shall suffer any drumming or meeting of any slaves, not belonging to their own plantations, to rendezvous, feast, revel, beat drum, or cause any disturbance, but forthwith endeavour to disperse them, by him, or herself, overseer or servants; or if not capacitated to do the same, that he presently give notice to the next commission-officer to raise such number of men as may be sufficient to reduce the said slaves." (27)
In his Ashanti, Captain Rattray has a very illuminating chapter on "The Drum Language." Almost incredible stories are told of the rapidity with which news is passed across Africa by means of the so-called "Talking Drums," and it was more or less taken for granted that something like a Morse Code must be employed for the purpose. We now find
that what actually happens is that two drums are set in widely different tones and are known as the male and female drums, the former carrying the low note and the latter the high note. These drums are so manipulated that the musical intonation which replaces articulation, at least in the case of languages like the Ashanti which are distinctively tonal, with sufficient accuracy as to be intelligible to the people generally just as if the spoken word was used. (28)
Space will not permit our going into the question in detail, but so efficiently is the process carried out by the Ashanti that we have recorded, for example, the history of Mampon in a drum recital that has preserved "an accurate record of the migrations of the clan from the far-away days when the Mampon were settled in Adanse, and also the names, deeds, and physical attributes of their former rulers." (29)
Indeed, so exacting is the demand for accuracy in this drum record, that we are told: "A drummer who falters and 'speaks' a wrong word is liable to a fine of a sheep, and if persistently at fault he might in the past, have had an ear cut off." (30) When we remember that the entire audience is checking up every sound at each recital, the drummer must needs be skilful before he attempts publicly to display his proficiency.
What particularly interests us here is the fact that the early Ashanti slaves in Jamaica must have numbered among them some really expert drummers who would naturally exchange messages throughout the island while all their fellow Ashanti could perfectly
understand the conversation. And even when the use of the drum was prohibited, native ingenuity made use of barrels, gourds, boards or any other medium of producing notes that would correspond with those of the male and female drums.
This immediately gave rise to a new anxiety among the planters. For, while they seemingly knew nothing of the system of talking-drums, they certainly realized that their troublesome Ashanti were signalling to one another at considerable distances and were actually communicating their designs back and forth.
Hence, in 1717 a new enactment prescribed: "And whereas the permitting or allowing of any number of strange Negroes to assemble on any Plantation, or settlement, or any other place, may prove of fatal consequences to this your Majesty's Island, if not timely prevented: and forasmuch as Negroes can, by beating on drums, and blowing horns, or other such like instruments of noise, give signals to each other at a considerable distance of their evil and wretched intentions: Be it further enacted, That in one month's time after the passing of this Act, no proprietor, attorney, or overseer, presume to suffer any number of strange Negroes, exceeding five, to assemble on his plantation or settlement, or on the plantation or settlement under the care of such attorney or overseer; nor shall any proprietor, attorney, or overseer, suffer any beating on drums, barrels, gourds, boards, or other such like instruments of noise on the plantations and settlements aforesaid." (31)
However, there was no material interference with the purely local gatherings. Even in the Act of December 21, 1781, amusements are permissible to the slaves on the properties to which they belong although the use of "drums, horns, and other unlawful instruments of noise" are, of course, prohibited, (32) and in the Act of December 19, 1816, the restriction is made: "Provided that such amusements are put an end to by ten o'clock at night." (33)
Meanwhile, as a precaution against complete proscription, the Ashanti okomfo began to further disguise what was left of the old religious rites under cover of one of the dances that were permissible in the local amusements, until it was gradually appropriated to his own purposes. This dance in its adapted form became known to the Whites as the myal-dance. Possibly this was its original title, but thus far I have not been able to trace its origin. Certainly the name itself is not Ashanti, since no letter l is included in the Ashanti alphabet, and the only words in which it occurs are foreign proper names. (34)
This subtle appropriation of an alien dance completely disguised the true purposes of the okomfo as far as the Planters were concerned, but as a consequence the okomfo himself gradually lost his own identity until he became known to the Whites as myal-man, or leader in the myal-dance. And myal-man he has remained up to the present time.
Myalism, then, was in reality the old tribal religion of the Ashanti with some modifications due
to conditions and circumstances. It substantially featured the veneration of the minor deities who were subordinate to Accompong and included communication with ancestral spirits.
The age-old antagonism to obeah or witchcraft on the part of the priestly class gradually became accentuated and eventually took on a rôle of major importance, so that it actually came to form a part of the religious practice, to dig up obeah.
As I have remarked elsewhere, (35) in Ashanti, the okomfo openly combated the obayifo as a matter of principle, and he had the whole force of Ashanti religious traditions and public sentiment to support him, until he eventually looked down with more or less disdain on the benighted disciple of Sasabonsam. In Jamaica, on the other hand, native religious assemblies were proscribed by law which greatly hampered the okomfo in his sphere of influence, even his title being changed to myal-man, while the obayifo or obeah-man, who had always worked in secret, flourished in his trade. For the very status and restrictions of slave life put his fellows more and more at his mercy and filled them with a growing fear of his spiteful incantations, backed up as they were with active poisonings. Their gods had abandoned them; why not cultivate the favour of the triumphant Sasabonsam, or at least assuage his enmity and placate his vengeance?
It was natural, too, for the okomfo to adapt his practice to the new state of affairs. His hated rival, the obayifo, must be conquered at any price. Personal interests demanded this as strongly as religious
zeal. Since public service of the deities was no longer possible, he in turn was forced to work in secret, and it is not surprising that he met fire with fire, incantation with incantation. His religion had aimed primarily at the welfare of the community, even as the object in life of the obayifo was the harm of the individual. Open intercession for tribal success and prosperity necessarily gives way to secret machinations to break the chains of bondage. A fanatical zeal takes hold of the myalist okomfo and he devises the most impressive ritual he can, to arouse the dormant spirits of his fellow slaves.
Thus it came to pass that it was the okomfo and not the obayifo, as is generally assumed, who administered the terrible fetish oath. It was he who mixed the gunpowder with the rum and added grave dirt and human blood to the concoction that was to seal upon the conspirators' lips the awful nature of the plot for liberty, and steel their hearts for the dangerous undertaking. It was he, no less, who devised the mystic powder that was to make their bodies invulnerable, and enable them to meet unscathed the white man's bullets. Finally, it was the okomfo and not the obayifo who, taking advantage of herbal knowledge, induced a state of torpor on subservient tools, that be might seem to raise the dead to life.
Yet, through it all, while he frequently substitutes for his own religious ceremonial the dark and secret rites of his rival practitioner, his aim at least is still within the tribal law, as he works white magic for the welfare of the community, no less
than he continues to combat the black magic of his adversary.
It is not surprising, then, that the rôle of the myalist okomfo has been so little understood, and that his most effective work was ascribed by the Whites in Jamaica to the agency of obeah, and that myalism itself should become confused with witchcraft and even regarded by some as an offshoot of obeah.
Even in the days of slavery the Jamaica Planters came to recognize a two-fold menace. Danger to the individual from carefully devised but secretive poisonings, and danger to the peace of the entire colony from a spirit of unrest that was engendered at the assemblies of slaves. And yet these same Planters were entirely blind to the presence of witchcraft among the slaves, and completely unsuspicious of the element of devil-worship that was becoming accentuated.
Legislation forbidding all religious assemblies of slaves and particularly the time-honoured dances with drum accompaniment only tended to increase the secret machinations that confused more and more the field of influence of the okomfo and the obayifo. And if the Planter did at times hear stories of existent obeah, he regarded it with amused toleration as foolish superstition and nothing more, and failed absolutely to associate with it the increasing menace of subservient fear that was effectively supplemented by secret poisonings.
When at length the rebellion of 1760 disclosed the connexion of obeah and poisoning, and there
arose a set determination to crush it out at any cost, even then the true condition of affairs was never suspected. Popular opinion, it is true, quickly swung to the opposite extreme and everything was now ascribed to obeah. But the legislators themselves failed to realize that they were not dealing with witchcraft alone but with a recrudescence of the old religious spirit in a new and more dangerous guise, wherein it had actually entered into league for the time being with its arch-enemy, obeah, against the oppressor of both.
As a matter of fact, when the Assembly met to deal with the whole question of the rebellion and its suppression, at first they saw no reason for revising the general principles that had guided them in the past. Thus The Annual Register for the Year 1760, (36) reports: "Regulations made at a sessions of the peace at Jamaica, May 1, 1760, to prevent disturbances for the future amongst the Negroes of that island. That no Negro shall be suffered to go out of his plantation without a white with him, or having a ticket of leave. Every Negro playing at any game whatever, to be whipt through the public streets. Every rum or punch-house keeper suffering it in their houses to forfeit forty shillings. Any proprietor suffering his Negroes to beat a drum, blow a horn, or make any other noise in his plantation, to pay ten pounds, or the overseer of a plantation five pounds, and any civil or military officer has power to enter the plantation and demand the money, or distrain it, etc." And there is not yet any mention of obeah!
Even when the formal Act that aimed at the regulation of the conduct of the slaves for the future was introduced in the Assembly on December 6, 1760, there was still no reference to witchcraft. But the discussion that followed so overwhelmed the assembled legislators that when the Act was passed on December 13th it contained the first specific mention of obeah in a public document. The full text of this Act of 1760 which was never printed as it failed of the Royal Assent and consequently never became a Law of the Colony, may be found in the Public Record Office,[*] London. The preamble runs as follows: "Whereas there has largely been very dangerous Rebellions and Rebellious Conspiracies amongst the Slaves of this Island; and Whereas Suffering slaves to be instructed with Arms and Lodging large Quantities of Arms and Ammunition in Houses improperly guarded may be a means of enabling such Rebellious disposed Slaves to Execute their bloody Intention; and Whereas permitting Slaves to go abroad from their respective places of Abode without Tickets or Suffering them to Assemble from different Plantations or Places to Beat their Drums, Gourds, Boards, Barrells, or other Instruments of Noise, or Blow their Horns in production of the most dangerous Consequences; And Whereas on many Estates and Plantations in this Island there are Slaves of Both Sexes commonly known by the name of obeah-men and obeah-women
[*. I am deeply indebted to the officials of the Record Office for courteously giving me free access to their files as well as for furnishing me with photostatic copies of the Act of 1760.]
by whose Influence over the minds of their fellow Slaves through an Established Opinion of their being endued with Strange Preternatural Faculties many and great Dangers have arisen Destructive of the Peace and Welfare of this Island; In Order to prevent for the future such Rebellions or Rebellious Conspiracies and the fatal Consequences of such Meetings, We Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal Subjects, etc."
Coming to the section on obeah, we read: "And in order to prevent the many Mischiefs that may hereafter arise from the Wicked Art of Negroes going under the Appellation of obeah-men and women pretending to have Communication with the Devil and other Evil Spirits whereby the weak and Superstitious are deluded into a Belief of their having full Power to Exempt them whilst under their Protection from any Evils that might otherwise happen; Be it therefore enacted by the authority aforesaid that from and after the first Day of January which will be in the Year of our Lord One thousand Seven hundred and Sixty one Any Negro or other Slave who shall pretend to any Supernatural Power and be detected in making use of any Blood, Feathers, Parrots' Beaks, Dogs' Teeth, Alligators' Teeth, Broken Bottles, Grave Dirt, Rum, Egg-Shells, or any other materials related to the practice of Obeah or Witchcraft in Order to delude and impose on the Minds of others shall upon Conviction thereof before two Magistrates and three Freeholders suffer Death or Transportation, anything in this Act
or any other Act or any other Law to the Contrary notwithstanding, etc." (37)
Here it is to be noticed, in the first place, that obeah is specifically identified with witchcraft, and secondly, that it is regarded as a form of pseudo-diablerie, since the obeah-men and women pretend to have communion with the Devil and other evil spirits precisely as a basis of their claims to preternatural powers. Thus the Ashanti devil, or Sasabonsam, has definitely become the Jamaica Obboney according to the point of view adopted by the Jamaica Assembly. Moreover, the work of the okomfo or myal-man is entirely lost sight of and hereafter from a legal aspect at least the obayifo is to reign supreme.
True it is that when slavery was coming to a close, the descendants of the old priestly class made one last effort to regain their old prestige, bringing themselves to the notice of the Whites especially by their zeal in digging up obeah. But their identity had been so long submerged in the chaotic superstitions of the plantations that the new activity was not recognized as a recrudescence of the old Ashanti religious practices, but was commonly regarded as merely an offshoot of obeah, and even the title of myal-man given by the Whites to the readjusted okomfo had so evolved that it left absolutely nothing that was suggestive of the ancient Ashanti priesthood.
Edward Long, the first historian to mention obeah by name, joined the Jamaica Assembly shortly
after the passage of the Act of 1760, and for the next seven years he assisted at the discussions of the subject as it recurrently came up for consideration. His account, then, may be accepted as a fair portrayal of what was commonly accepted at the time in popular belief regarding obeah.
Thus he writes concerning the slaves: "They firmly believe in the apparition of spectres. Those of deceased friends are duppies; others, of more hostile and tremendous aspect, like our raw-head-and-bloody-bones, are called bugaboos. The most sensible among them fear the supernatural powers of the African obeah-men, or pretended conjurers; often ascribing those mortal effects to magic, which are only the natural operation of some poisonous juice, or preparation, dexterously administered by those villains. But the Creoles imagine, that the virtues of baptism, or making them Christians, render their art wholly ineffectual; and for this reason only, many of them have desired to be baptized, that they might be secured from obeah.
"Not long since, some of these execrable wretches in Jamaica introduced what they called the myal-dance, and established a kind of society, into which they invited all they could. The lure hung out was, that every Negro, initiated into the Myal Society, would be invulnerable by the white man; and although they might in appearance be slain, the obeah-man could, at his pleasure, restore the body to life. The method, by which this trick was carried on, was by a cold infusion of the herb branched calalue; which, after the agitation of dancing, threw the
party into a profound sleep. In this state he continued, to all appearance lifeless, no pulse, nor motion of the heart, being perceptible; till on being rubbed with another infusion (as yet unknown to the Whites), the effects of the calalue gradually went off, the body resumed its motions, and the party on whom the experiment had been tried, awoke as from a trance, entirely ignorant of anything that had passed since he left off dancing." (38)
Here again we must remark the confusion of ideas regarding the functions proper to the myal-man as distinct from those which belonged by right to the obeah-man, although in practice no doubt the same individual had by this time frequently assumed to himself the dual rôle.
Writing in 1740, Charles Leslie describes what might well be called a myalistic séance. It is in reality a religious ordeal, on the pattern of those practised in Africa, and not as is so often stated a true example of obeah. It runs as follows: "When anything about a plantation is missing, they have a solemn kind of oath, which the eldest Negro always administers, and which by them is accounted so sacred, that except they have the express command of their master or overseer, they never set about it, and then they go very solemnly to work. They range themselves in that spot of ground which is appropriated for the Negro burying place, and one of them opens a grave. He who acts the priest, takes a little of the earth, and puts into every one of their mouths; they say, that if any has been guilty, their belly swells, and occasions death. I never saw any instance of this
but once; and it was certainly a fact that a boy did swell, and acknowledged the theft when he was dying. But I am far from thinking there was any connexion betwixt the cause and the effect, for a thousand accidents might have occasioned it, without accounting for it by that foolish ceremony." (39)
Building his account around the Report of 1789, Robert Renny declared: "Whatever their notions of religion may have been, they, not unlike their European masters, seem to pay little regard to the ceremonies of any system in Jamaica. But they are not on that account, the less superstitious. A belief in obeah, or witchcraft, is almost universal among them. The professors of this occult science, are always Africans, and generally old and crafty. Hoary heads, gravity of aspect, and a skill in herbs, are the chief qualifications for this curious office. The Negroes, both Africans and Creoles (i.e. those born in the island), revere, consult, and fear them." (40)
In the following year, 1808, adopting the viewpoint usually put forward by the missionaries of the time, J. Steward asserted: "There is one good effect which the simple persuasion of his being a Christian produces in the mind of the Negro; it is an effectual antidote against the spells and charms of his native superstition. One Negro who desires to be revenged on another, if he fears a more open and manly attack on his adversary, has usually recourse to obeah. This is considered as a potent and irresistible spell, withering and palsying, by indescribable terrors, and unwonted sensations, the unhappy victim. Like the witches' cauldron in Macbeth, it is the combination
of all that is hateful and disgusting; a toad's foot, a lizard's tail, a snake's tooth, the plumage of the carrion crow, or vulture, a broken egg-shell, a piece of wood fashioned into the shape of a coffin, with many other nameless ingredients, compose the fatal mixture. It will of course be conceived that the practice of obeah can have little effect, without a Negro is conscious that it is practised upon him, or thinking so: for as the sole evil lies in the terrors of a perturbed fancy, it is of little consequence whether it is really practised or not, if he only imagines that it is. An obeah-man or woman upon an estate, is therefore a very dangerous person; and the practice of it for evil purposes is made a felony by the law. But numbers may be swept off by its infatuation before the practice is detected; for, strange as it may appear, so much do the Negroes stand in awe of these wretches, so much do they dread their malice and their power, that, though knowing the havoc they have made, and are still making, many of them are afraid to discover them to the whites; and others, perhaps, are in league with them for sinister purposes of mischief and revenge. A Negro under this infatuation can only be cured of his terrors by being made a Christian; refuse him this indulgence, and he soon sinks a martyr to imagined evils. The author knew an instance of a Negro, who, being reduced by the fatal influence of obeah to the lowest state of dejection and debility, from which there were little hopes of his recovery, was surprisingly and rapidly restored to health and to spirits, by being baptized a Christian;
so wonderful are the workings of a weak and superstitious imagination." (41)
In the second edition of this work, published fifteen years later, and under the new title of A View of the Past and Present State of the Island of Jamaica, this passage is rewritten and after ascribing to a superstitious imagination the principal efficacy of obeah, it is now stated: "But if the charm fails to take hold of the mind of the proscribed person, another and more certain expedient is resorted to the secretly administering of poison to him. This saves the reputation of the sorcerer, and effects the purpose he had in view. (The Negroes practising obeah are acquainted with some very powerful vegetable poisons, which they use on these occasions.) An obeah-man or woman (for it is practised by both sexes) is a very wicked and dangerous person on a plantation; and the practice of it is made a felony by the law, punishable with death where poison has been administered, and with transportation where only the charm is used." (42)
Clearly, then, at this period, according to the common opinion of the slaves, obeah was essentially a preternatural agency that could accomplish even death. Since they were convinced that Baptism was the only efficient protection, it would seem that the Devil was regarded as the principal agent in its operation. Without entering at present into the question of the soundness of this popular belief, we are safe in describing the obeah of the period as a form of witchcraft in which the ends were attained
by means of superstitious fear, supplemented when necessary by the subtle use of poison.
In connexion with this same period, we find The Edinburgh Review for August, 1817, under the caption "Present State of West India Affairs," reviewing Medical and Miscellaneous Observations relative to the West India Islands by John Williamson, M.D., Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, and late of Spanish Town, Jamaica. (43) Herein Doctor Williamson is quoted as follows: "On a property of that description, we have rather to fear the lurking and concealed practices of obi, the superstitiously depressing consequences of threats from a Negro of weight and influence in the estate against a Negro not aware of the futility of such pretensions." (44) He has been dealing with a stomach evil, or mal d'estomac, which from the accompanying propensity of what he calls "dirt-eating" is unquestionably the effects of hook-worm, a circumstance which naturally he does not recognize, as the disease itself was not understood until comparatively recently.
The review continues: "The effects of the obi sorcery have been glanced at in one of these passages. Another extract will illustrate its influence, and confirm the position, that there is almost always, if not in every case, an intimate connexion between the stomach-evil and mental suffering. After describing some cases of the complaint, our author goes on to say, 'These cases were much aggravated on account of the obi impressions which had unluckily laid hold of their minds. A particular terror against
returning to the mountain, where these superstitious apprehensions were formed, seemed to gain possession of their minds. It is absurd to reason with most Negroes on a subject of that kind; and very often, on grounds we cannot fathom, they will not discover the individuals they have an obi dread of.'" (45)
Another case quoted from Williamson runs as follows: "Agnes was sitting alongside of the Negro doctress, and exulting in the advances she was making to recovery. In that state she was in the evening. On the following morning, she was accosted by an oldish Negro, named Dick, belonging to the estate, who had established his name as a great obi-man. Agnes, not long before, had declined his amourous addresses; on which occasion threats were made by Dick; and she was so much impressed by apprehension from these circumstances, that, on his addressing her, she fainted, and could not be again fully restored to her senses. In course of that evening, she passed fæces insensibly, and used Dick's name often in terror. In a few days she sunk.
"A general outcry of the Negroes succeeded her death against Dick; and such was their violence, that the overseer found it necessary to yield to an inquiry. A party proceeded to his house, to search for obi implements, which Dick and the overseer accompanied. The floor of his house was dug; a small coffin was removed from it, which he said he had placed there to the memory of a friend. This the Negroes denied; and pronounced it to be one of the instruments of his obi practices.
"It is incalculable what mischief is done by such
designing, crafty people as Dick, when they establish a superstitious impression on the minds of the Negroes, that they possess powers beyond human. Such persons gratify revenge against their own colour in a destructive manner; and when bent on ruin to their masters, that malignant disposition is gratified by also destroying the Negroes his property. Mineral poison has been sometimes artfully procured; and it is believed that there are vegetable poisons which are less likely to lead to discovery. The agency of neither is often required; for the effect of a threat from an obi-man or woman is sufficient to lead to mental disease, despondency and death.
"The evidence against Dick was undoubted; and the Negroes regarded his stay on the estate with horror. The whole was submitted to the proprietor; and he was transported to some of the Spanish possessions." (46)
Here again we have it clearly set down by a witness whose sceptical regards for the whole process really strengthens the value of his evidence, that the real effective influence for evil on the part of obeah-men consists in the fact that "they establish a superstitious impression on the minds of the Negroes, that they possess powers beyond human."
Another testimony of this same period appears in The Times of London, for December 5, 1818, under the general heading "Colonial Intelligence." Herein we read: "By a recent Act of the house of Assembly (Barbados), an endeavour has been made towards more effectively suppressing the practice of obeah. Our readers are aware, that by this name is
designated a kind of necromantic power, which is mostly exercised by the Negroes for the attainment of the worst purposes. By the above Act, however, it is decreed that 'any slave who shall wilfully, maliciously, and unlawfully pretend to any magical and supernatural charm or power, in order to promote the purposes of insurrection or rebellion of the slaves within this island, or to injure and affect the life or health of any other slave; or who wilfully and maliciously shall use or carry on the wicked and unlawful practice of obeah, shall upon conviction thereof, suffer death or transportation as the Court shall think proper. Also, that if any slave wilfully and maliciously, in the practice of obeah, or otherwise, shall mix or prepare, or have in his or her possession, any poison, or any noxious or destructive substance or thing, with an intent to administer to any person (whether the said person be white or black, or a person of colour), or wilfully and maliciously shall administer to, or cause to be administered to, such person any poison, or any noxious or destructive substance or thing whatsoever, although death may not ensue, upon the testimony thereof, every such slave, together with his or her counsellors, aiders, and abettors (being slaves), knowing of and being privy to such evil intentions and offences, shall upon conviction thereof, suffer death, transportation, or such other punishment as the Court shall think proper.'"
All this in principle is but the extension of the Jamaica Act on the subject of obeah to the island
of Barbados where conditions were pretty much the same as in the larger Colony.
The past century may be briefly reviewed by a few citations which will show that substantially obeah remains the same but that as time goes on, the obeah-man has been appropriating to himself more and more of the functions and the technique of the myal-man, until the latter as a separate entity has practically ceased to exist.
As stated in Voodoos and Obeahs (47): Immediately after Jamaican emancipation, and during the trying days of reconstruction of the entire social order, with a readjustment to conditions that were so vastly different from the accepted status of nearly two hundred years when the word of the master usually stood against the world, free rein was given to the religious frenzy that brought again into vogue the myalistic spirit so long repressed. A spirit of exultation naturally drove the slave of yesterday to take advantage of his freedom and sate himself with long-forbidden joys and the outbursts of religious fanaticism became so intermingled with nocturnal saturnalia, that for a time it was difficult to distinguish the one from the other. The old objective of myalism quickly reasserted itself. Now that the shackles had been stricken from their bodies, why not strike the chains from their souls as well? To "dig up obeah" consequently became widespread and persistent.
This gave witchcraft a set-back for a time, or rather made it even more secretive and vindictive.
As a consequence, there was no abatement in the general fear and terror in which it was held by Negroes without exception. And it cannot be surprising if occasionally the practitioner of obeah, for self-protection, assumed the rôle of myalist, and "dug up" perhaps the obeah that he himself had planted. In public, too, he might become a myalist doctor, while in secret he was still the obeah-man. He could apply the healing properties of herbs to counteract the very poisons he had occultly administered. Finally, together with the vile concoction devised at the midnight hour for harm and ruin, he might fashion the protective fetish as a counter-irritant. And the myal-man would naturally be expected to retaliate. Is it entirely improbable that he may have on occasion stooped to unprofessional practices, and with his knowledge of vegetable poisons played the rôle of his rival in herbal lore? In any case, from this time on, we find an ever increasing confusion of obeah and myalism in the accounts that have come down to us.
Doctor R. R. Madden was one of the six stipendiary magistrates who were sent out to Jamaica in October, 1833. Writing from Kingston on September 8, 1834, he describes a case of obeah that had been brought before him at Spanish Town, in which the obeah-man was alleged to have bewitched a child by smoking a particular "bush" to windward of his victim who was overcome by the fumes. In the course of the trial, the obeah-man "confessed that he was a practiser of obeah, that he did it not for gain or vengeance, but solely because the devil put
it into his head to be bad." And again: "He had no spite against the father or mother of the child, nor wish to injure them. He saw the child, and he could not resist the instigation of the devil to obeah it, but he hoped he would never do it any more; he would pray to God to put it out of his head to do it." Doctor Madden adds: "Such was the singular statement made to the attorney-general by the prisoner; and the attorney-general informed me, made with an appearance of frankness and truth which gave a favourable impression of its veracity." (48)
Here at least there is clear indication of the obeah-man's belief that he is acting as a tool of the Devil, and it may be safely said that the same point of view is taken by his victims generally.
Reverend Benjamin Luckock declared in 1846: "Obeahism, or obeah, as it is most generally called in the islands, attains its power by a supposed, or pretended, intercourse with spirits, both capable of inflicting and controlling evil." However, he expresses the doubt: "There is some difficulty in understanding whether the belief was given to Obi, or Obeah, as a fancied personage, or to obeahism, as a system founded on the imaginary influence of malignant spirits." (49)
He is face to face with the old difficulty of confusing the craft of obeah with the evil spirit back of it that resulted in the transformation of the Ashanti Sasabonsam into the Jamaica Obboney.
It is not surprising, then, to find Charles Rampini writing in 1873: "Serpent or devil worship is by no
means rare in the country districts; and of its heathen rites the obeah-man is invariably the priest." (50)
Reverend R. Thomas Banbury, a native Jamaican, who was Rector of St. Peter's Church, Hope Bay, published in 1894, a pamphlet of fifty pages entitled Jamaica Superstitions; or The Obeah Book. As he tells us in the Preface that this is a curtailment of what he had written thirty-five years before, we may accept it as a fairly accurate exposition of the superstitious beliefs and practices that were current in Jamaica in the latter half of the nineteenth century, at least as regards the country districts with which he was familiar.
Mr. Banbury opens his treatise with the following words: "OBEAHISM. What wicked, immoral, disgusting, and debasing associations are called up in the minds of those who are acquainted with the baneful effects of this superstition in Jamaica at the mere mention of its name. A superstition the most cruel in its intended designs; the most filthy in its practices; the most shameful and degrading in its associations. It has not only directed its baleful influence against popular society in the island at large; but alas! it tends greatly to the pulling down of the Church of Christ. There is hardly any of the people connected with religion whose minds are not to some extent imbued with it--who do not believe that the influence of obeah is capable of exerting some evil effects either on their minds, bodies, or property; and there are very few we have reason to believe, who do not directly practice it. . . . Superstition is the parent of idolatry and all the concomitant evils
of this sin. What 'pestiferous Demon' has swept through the land of Africa with 'tainted breath' devouring its inhabitants? It is Superstition." (51)
In connexion with the importation of obeah from Africa, Mr. Banbury makes the amusing observation: "It is stated that the African obeah-man carried his obeah magic with him under the hair of his head when imported. For that reason the heads of the Africans were shaved before being landed, or if that was not done, he swallowed the things by which he worked in Africa, before leaving." (52)
As regards the obeah-man himself, Mr. Banbury declares: "He is the agent incarnate of Satan. The Simon Magus of these good gospel days; the embodiment of all that is wicked, immoral and deceptious. You may easily at times distinguish him by his sinister look, and slouching gait. An obeah-man seldom looks any one in the face. Generally he is a dirty looking fellow with a sore foot. But some few have been known to be decent in their appearance, and well clad. He never goes without a bankra, wallet or bag, in which he carries his 'things.' He is a professional man that is as well paid as the lawyer or doctor, and sometimes better. It is a well-known fact that in cases of lawsuit the obeah-man is retained as well as the lawyer, and at times he not only 'works' at home on the case, but goes into Court with his client for the purpose, it is called, of 'stopping' the mouths of the prosecutor and his witnesses and of influencing the judge and jury. The obeah-man is to be feared in the system of poisoning which he carries on. He is well versed in all the vegetable
poisons of the island, and sometimes has them planted in his garden. He is up to the knowledge that vegetable poison is not so easily detected after death as mineral, and therefore prefers to do his diabolical work with that. He takes advantage also of this to poison by the skin as well as by mouth. He is known to make a thin decoction of these poisons and soak the undergarments of people taken to him, which when taken back, and put on by the unsuspecting owner, the poison is absorbed along with the perspiration, and engenders some direful disease in the system. Many have suffered in this way and have not been able to account for their maladies." (53)
Before leaving the subject of obeah and going on to consider myalism, Mr. Banbury makes the rather startling statement: "Whilst treating about obeahism and other superstitions of Jamaica, we do not wish to leave the impression on the minds of our readers that it is only the black people of the country that have faith in them. The majority of the coloured people also come under the category of the superstitious, and even some white people are not exempted. As we have already hinted in setting out, there are but few among the people whose minds are not imbued with a superstitious dread of obeah influences, though they may not enter into the practice of it." (54)
Five years after the appearance of Mr. Banbury's pamphlet, W. p. Livingston declared: "Obeahism runs like a black thread of mischief through the known history of the race. It is the result of two conditions, an ignorant and superstitious receptivity
on the one hand, and on the other, sufficient intelligence and cunning to take advantage of this quality. The obeah-man is any Negro who gauges the situation and makes it his business to work on the fears of his fellows. He claims the possession of occult authority, and professes to have the power of taking or saving life, of causing or curing disease, or bringing ruin or creating prosperity, of discovering evildoers or vindicating the innocent. His implements are a few odd scraps, such as cocks' feathers, rags, bones, bits of earth from graves, and so on. The incantations with which he accompanies his operations are merely a mumble of improvised jargon. His real advantage in the days of slavery lay in his knowledge and use of poisonous plants. Poisoning does not now enter into his practice to any extent, but the fear he inspires among the ignorant is intense, and the fact that he has turned his attention to particular persons is often sufficient to deprive them of reason. Obeahism is a superstition at once simple, foolish, and terrible, still vigorous, but in former times as powerful an agent as slavery itself in keeping the nature debased." (55)
Writing of this same period, a missionary who had worked for more than a decade in some of the worst obeah districts of Jamaica, thus critically sums up the situation: "Obeah may be defined in general to be a superstitious belief that certain men and women, known as obeah-men and obeah-women, can exercise certain preternatural power over places, persons and things and produce effects beyond the natural powers of man, by agencies other than divine.
It seems to be a combination of magic and witchcraft. Magic, we are told, is an attempt to work miracles by the use of hidden forces beyond man's control, so it is in obi; it is an attempt to produce by some undetermined, invisible power, effects out of proportion to and beyond the capabilities of the things and activities employed. In witchcraft, we are told. . . . there is involved the idea of a diabolical pact, or at least an appeal to the intervention of the spirits. In the history and make up and practice of obi there is involved the idea of association with the devil. . . . His Satanic majesty is the invisible head of obeah. The visible agent, head and front of obeah is the obeah-man or obeah-woman, more often and more characteristically the obeah-man. Who and what is the obeah-man? In general the obi-man or woman is any man or woman who is supposed to have communication with some invisible agent through which he or she can exert preternatural power over animate and inanimate beings. You have obi-men of all sorts, just as you have professional doctors and quack-doctors. As obeahism is so common among the people and is a form of religion, it comes natural for any individual to practise it as he would practise any religious rite. From this you can easily understand how any rascal who wants to gratify his revenge, avarice or lust, can work upon the superstitious, practise obi and get a following as an obi-man. Hence obi-working is very common." (56)
Again the same writer tells us: "The obi-man's incantation is generally the muttering of strange
sounds, often meaningless, the pronouncing of some word or words over the objects to be obeahed, joined with some grotesque actions. It may consist in words or actions alone. The following lines which I find in my notes on obeah, by a Jamaican poet describe an obi-man at work:
"Crouched in a cave I saw thee and thy beard
White against black, gleamed out; and thy gaunt hand
Mixed lizard skins, rum, parrots' tongues and sand
Found where the sinking tombstone disappeared.
Sleek galli-wasps looked on thee; grimly peered
Blood-christened John Crows with a hissed demand
Who art thou? then like ghouls to a dim land
Fled for they saw thee working and they feared.
"Compare this description of the obi-man making obeah or an obi-charm with that given by Shakespeare in Macbeth of the witches making a charm through which they raised spirits and deceivingly foretold to Macbeth his future; and you will find that they have much in common." (57)
As was stated in Voodoos and Obeahs, (58) during the long years of slavery, myalism might be regarded as dormant. There was no opportunity of its development or branching out. It was preserved secretly and cherished as the fondest tradition of the past. No doubt the hours of amusement allowed to the slaves on their own cultivations preserved in some: degree the myalistic rites, disguised as one of the social dances that were countenanced by the planters.
The native African is essentially religious in his own way and as formal ceremonies were debarred he
found an outlet by associating with obeah an element of worship, if not of Accompong, at least of Sasabonsam or Obboney. If he could not venerate the Supreme Being through the minor deities and ancestral spirits, he might at least placate the evil one, and bespeak his influence for purposes of revenge or to coerce his master to grant him something that he sought.
We find obeah thus really becoming a form of devil-worship in the Christian sense, and when at length myalism entered into an alliance with it for the overthrow of the white régime it naturally gained in the popular estimation of the slaves, since its arch-enemy myalism had come to recognize its power. And yet this public esteem was not one of devotion but of unholy fear, which the obeah-man naturally played up to his own advantage.
With Emancipation, myalism made haste to assert itself in an endeavour to regain its pristine ascendance and made open war on obeah, at the expense be it said of the general peace of the community. Its newly found independence led to excesses of every kind and in course of years it became as great an evil as obeah itself. Its old priestly class was dead, for a generation none had come from Africa, and there had been no opportunity of establishing a succession in the craft or of passing along the ritual in practice. The traditions and nothing more could have remained, and it is questionable whether the new leaders had any legitimate claim to the exercise of the rôle that they assumed. It is simple, then, to see that the decay of myalism as a religious force was
inevitable. And it would certainly have soon been entirely eliminated had not its spirit and much of its traditional ritual found new scope in the kindred spirit of the emotional revivalism which was fostered for a time by the Methodists and even more so by the Native Baptist Congregations. But this recrudescence of myalism has found its climax with the Bedwardites, so characterized by the peculiar hip-movement that is clearly African, and which shows itself not only in their dances but also in the religious processions, and gives a peculiar lilt to all their hymns.
Here, strictly speaking, myalism disappears, and its very name is dying out except as a mysterious something that has endured in its opposition to the obeah-man who more and more assumes the dual rôle of myalist by day and obeah-man by night, using the title as a safeguard from the law in the prosecution of his real aim in life. As a further consequence, obeah is assuming more and more of a religious aspect and it is now, not undeservedly, classified by many as devil-worship.
In Chambers's Journal for January 11, 1902, there appeared an article entitled "Obeah To-day In The West Indies." The course of the narrative shows that the writer had been living in Jamaica for three years at the time of writing. However, it should be observed that the term obeah as used in this article includes voodoo and all other forms of West Indian witchcraft. Thus it is asserted in accordance with the old theory that an Egyptian origin is to be ascribed to the whole practice: "The name
is derived from obi, apparently an evil deity worshipped on the West Coast of Africa by the ancestors of the present West Indian Negroes before they were shipped off as slaves to the plantations. The Reverend John Radcliffe, a noted Jamaican scholar, has proved the word obi to mean a snake, and to this day the snake is commonly used as a symbol of the baleful rites." (59)
The article continues: "The obeah-man is generally a sinister, terrifying figure-aged, decrepit, often diseased, and half-mad; but with a baleful gleam in his bloodshot eyes, that does not belie his pretended intimacy with the Author of Evil." (60)
In connexion with the prevalence of obeah practices, the author states: "I have known coloured schoolmasters scatter these ridiculous trifles about their schoolrooms with the idea of compelling the Government inspector to give them good reports; and missionaries have told me that members expelled from their Churches for evil living commonly work obeah in order to be restored to the fold. When the minister enters his pulpit, and, opening his bible to give out the text, finds a quaint assortment of cats' claws, feathers, dried leaves, and egg-shells, he is by no means puzzled as to the meaning of it all. He knows it expresses Hezekiah Da Costa's wish to be received back into Church membership without abandoning his career as the village Don Juan." (61)
In the foregoing passage, I fear, the author has drawn unduly on the imagination. If such manifestations have actually taken place in rare, isolated instances, they are so unusual that they should not be
cited as if they were regular occurrences. Certainly I have never encountered anything in even the most out-of-the-way sections of the "bush" that could in any way support the story of Hezekiah Da Costa's method of regaining good-standing as a Church member.
In any case, the following passage from the same article is deserving of more attention in keeping with our present study: "In many countries superstitious rites are practised to bring good luck; but that is not the case as a rule with obeah. Its root idea is the worship and propitiation of the Evil One: it is essentially malevolent. A Negro usually goes to the obeah-man to harm his neighbour, not to do any good to himself; and that is why the law regards the matter so seriously. The principal exception to this rule is the not infrequent case of the young Negress who goes for a love-philtre to make some 'high gentleman' marry her. The obeah-man is often called upon to exorcise 'duppies' driven into a man or woman by a brother in the craft. In former days this used to be the exclusive work of the myal-man. It was the old story of 'white' and 'black' magic. One wizard did the mischief, and the other supplied the antidote. Nowadays myalism is complete merged into obeahism, and the law punishes both equally." (62)
Claude McKay, a native of Clarendon, who from a little-known Jamaica poet has become one of the more popular writers of Harlem fiction, is in general agreement with all this. Thus he writes: "Obeah is black people's evil God." (63) And again: "Of the thousands of native families, illiterate and literate,
in that lovely hot island there were few indeed that did not worship and pay tribute to Obi--the god of Evil that the Africans brought cover with them when they were sold to the New World." (64)
May Robinson, writing in Folk-Lore. A Quarterly Review of Myth, Tradition, Institutions, and Custom, on the subject "Obeah Worship in West Indies" stated in 1893: "The mystery with which the professors of obeah have always surrounded themselves, and the dread Negroes have always had, and still have, of their power, have made it very difficult to find out much about the worship or superstition." (65) However, she observes: "Obeah practices of the present day seem similar to those of a hundred years ago, and information about them has been kindly supplied to me by Mr. Thomas, Inspector Jamaica Constabulary, and gleamed from his interesting pamphlet, Something About Obeah. In addition to the Law of 1760, another Law for the suppression of obeah was passed in 1845, which gave to the executive authorities very comprehensive powers to deal, not only with the obeah-men themselves, but also with those who sought their services." (66)
The present legal aspect of obeah, may be briefly outlined as follows. The Rules and Regulations for the Jamaica Constabulary of 1867 simply enumerates among those that the constable is called on to arrest "every person pretending to be a dealer in obeah or myalism." (67)
The Sub-Officers Guide of Jamaica, published in 1908, is more specific when it defines the implements
of obeah as follows: "Grave dirt, pieces of chalk, packs of cards, small mirrors, or bits of large ones, beaks, feet, and bones of fowls or other birds, teeth of dogs and alligators, glass marbles, human hair, sticks of sulphur, camphor, myrrh, asafoetida, frankincense, curious shells, china dolls, wooden images, curiously shaped sticks, and other descriptions of rubbish." (68)
However, the mere possession of the paraphernalia of obeah is no longer sufficient ground for prosecution under the law. This was settled by the following decision of the Supreme Court of Jamaica: "Unlawful possession of implements of Obeah. This is an appeal from a conviction by a Resident Magistrate charging the appellant with being in the unlawful possession of implements of obeah. A person found in possession of such implements is deemed by Section 8 of Law 5 of 1898 to be a person practising obeah until the contrary is proved, but such possession is not in itself a substantive offence, and can only be used as evidence in support of a charge of practising obeah. In the circumstances the appeal must be allowed and the conviction quashed. (R. v. Bulgin (1919), S.C.J.B. Vol. 10, p. 86, A. M. Coll, C. J., Beard, p. J. and Brown, Ag. J.)." (69)
Towards the close of the last century, the Reverend Mr. Banbury was of opinion: "The laws affecting the punishment of this superstition (obeah) in Jamaica are too lenient; otherwise it would not be so rife. The Courts of Justice are apt to laugh at the thing, and treat it as mere nonsense." (70)
But the very opposite view is taken by a recent
correspondent in The Daily Gleaner of Kingston, Jamaica. The letter is dated January 15, 1934, and runs as follows:
"OBEAH LAW REPEAL SUGGESTED
Sir,--The time has arrived when the Legislature should eliminate the Obeah Law from our Statute Book.
Jamaica passed that stage long ago. The constant reference in the newspapers to this or that arrest for obeah is a reflexion on our present day civilization and does the country harm.
I will concede that this African cult was brought here from the West Coast by some of the poor slaves, but having no recruits it burnt itself out as some diseases do, decades ago.
I will also concede that there exists some artful poisonings by the so-called 'obeah-men', but the rascals when caught should be charged under a different and more serious act, flogging and imprisonment being the requirements.
The bulk of the rest so charged in our courts is merely receiving money by false pretences or by a trick, and should be also flogged.
I discussed the subject with my friend the Honourable A. G. Nash only a week before he died. He agreed with me and had intended in protection of the fair name of Jamaica to have brought the matter before the Legislative Council.
I am, etc.
And yet, on February 26, 1934, The Daily Gleaner, under the headlines: "Obeah and Voodooism. Still Practised in West Indies. Says Judge Bullock." runs as a news item a digest taken from The Brighton Herald of February 5, 1934, which concludes as follows: "The lecturer supplemented his pictorial and geographical details of the British West Indies with some fascinating stories of obeah worship, which with voodooism, is still secretly practised among the native communities." The lecturer, it is noted, was judge Willoughby Bullock, formerly Chief Justice of St. Vincent, British West Indies.
Undoubtedly, the present-day practice of obeah particularly as found in city and town does include a great deal of charlatanism pretty much as is to be found in the spiritual séances in all large American communities, together with an ingraft of superstitions that have been borrowed from the Whites. Even modern books, professedly treating of the mysteries of magic, are greedily assimilated and their formulae are attempted in practice. But my personal observations throughout the "bush" which have aggregated in all about six years, during the past quarter of a century, lead me to conclude that the obeah-man as a rule takes himself very seriously and honestly believes that he can and does exercise supernatural powers, and assuredly the great mass of the populace, whatever their protestations to the contrary may be, live in veritable dread of some nefarious influence of the obeah-man whose enmity must be avoided at any cost.
Further, I am convinced that I have witnessed
more than one death where the sole cause was an overpowering fear due to the conviction that obeah was being worked against the sufferer who literally pined away.
What is more, I am driven to the conclusion that just as in the days of slavery, obeah was too long regarded with amused toleration merely as a foolish superstition devoid of real efficient power to do harm, so to-day there is a tendency in Jamaica to shut the eyes to the true nefarious influence of the cult on the entire Negro population of the island, and to regard this practice of the black art as an exuberance of superstition and nothing more. The real menace comes not from the quixotic external practices, professing by a sort of sympathetic magic to control ghosts, to prosper some love affair, or assist in legal disputes and commercial transactions, but from the underlying conviction of the potency of a spiritual force which is nothing more nor less than an assumption that if Properly invoked, his Satanic Majesty will exert an efficient directive force in the affairs of man's daily life. Certainly, if you can persuade anyone who has gone to an obeah-man for a love-philtre to disclose what really went on in the nauseating process and the accompanying incantations, the last doubt will vanish from your mind regarding the diabolic association of the whole practice. In fine, obeah as such, in its purpose and acceptance must be classified as a form of devil worship. (71)
This does not mean that a diabolic influence is actually controlled by the obeah-man. In the ordinary
course of events such a supposition, in my opinion, would be repugnant to Divine Providence, although it might be permitted on rare occasions. But the real obeah-man, as far as lies in his power, places his confidence in the Evil One as he formally invokes his assistance, and his intention if not the result classifies his act as one of communication with the Devil. The client, too, approaches the obeah-man with the firm conviction that the evil which he purposes is to be wrought through the machinations of Satan and he forthwith puts himself under an obligation to the arch-fiend, even if what he seeks fails of accomplishment.
As noted in Voodoos and Obeahs, (72) the obeah-man has a wholesome fear of the priest and usually tries to avoid his presence. There is a conviction among his ilk that the priest can exercise a more powerful influence than any obeah-man. This belief is expressed by the aphorism: "French obi, him strongest." The first priest to become well known through the Jamaica "bush" was a Frenchman, and the Catholic Church in consequence came to be known familiarly as the French Church. Hence, "French obi, him strongest" really means that the Catholic Church exercises the strongest obeah. It is also accepted as a fact by the devotees of the obeah cult that the priest can give evidence of his dominant power by "lighting a candle on them." This process is thus described: "Fadder take pin and Fadder take candle, and him stick der pin in der candle; and him light der candle on you. Der candle him burn and him burn and him burn. And you waste and you
waste and you waste. And when der flame touch dat pin--you die." So that it is only necessary for a priest to make the playful remark to some black fellow in the "bush," "I think I'll have to light a candle on you," to bring him to his knees with: "O Fadder, don't." On one occasion I was actually approached by the most notorious obeah-man of a "bush" district who in the real spirit of a Simon Magus professed his desire to become a Catholic precisely in the hopes of acquiring this fictitious power of the lighted candle.