THE DIAL PRESS
NEW YORK MCMXXXIV 
ASHANTI CULTURAL INFLUENCE IN JAMAICA
POPULAR BELIEF IN GHOSTS
EARLY in December, 1906, I first visited Jamaica, where I planned staying a couple of months. On January 14th, the day of the disastrous earthquake, I was returning from the north side of the island, driving by way of Mount Diabolo, and I arrived at the Ewarton Railway Station about an hour before the starting time of the train that was to carry me back to Kingston.
The day was unusually tropical for that season of the year in Jamaica, with a cloudless sky, and what was really strange, at a time when the Trade Winds should have been at their height, not a breath of air was stirring. One could almost feel the stillness, and the brightness of the sunshine was simply dazzling. As I reached the station platform, a gentleman and a young lady were attracting much attention. They were brown people of the mulatto type, well dressed and with every indication of refinement. But the young lady, who, I should judge, was about twenty-five years of age, had become hysterical. She was wringing her hands, and between convulsive sobs kept repeating: "Father, we should never have left home to-day. I told you that something dreadful is going to happen."
The gentleman naturally showed great embarrassment as he vainly strove to quiet his daughter who kept repeating in a mechanical sort of way that she knew that something dreadful was going to happen. Finally, her father led her away and I saw nothing more of either of them. But just about half an hour after their departure, suddenly the ground began to tremble and to run in waves with a crackling, sputtering sound similar to the disruption of a gigantic Leyden jar--an earthquake was upon us. Then as the tremors ceased, I glanced at my watch, the time was exactly eighteen minutes past three.
It was the following morning before I reached Kingston, and I found the city a mass of ruins with a ravaging fire still sweeping over the débris. More than a thousand persons had been killed outright and many hundreds of others were succumbing to their injuries.
Amid the general confusion and excitement, I repeatedly heard stories of a weird prophet who, it was said, had passed along the city's streets some hours before the disaster, sounding a cry of warning that had gone unheeded by the populace who had only laughed at him.
Ordinarily, I would not have given any credence to these rumors which I would have classified with those numerous after-fact delusions to be expected on such occasions. But the memory of the strange scene at the Ewarton Station haunted me as it had baffled any explanation that I could offer. Consequently, I made it a point to inquire carefully from the least imaginative of my confrères and they were
in agreement that they had heard the rumor many hours before the earthquake had happened.
Years later, this incident was reported in The Times of London for January 13, 1921, as follows: "It is noteworthy that in the forenoon of January 14, 1907, a man wearing a red mantle, who was regarded as an irresponsible person, made his appearance in Kingston warning the people that before evening Kingston would be destroyed. At 3:30 p.m. Kingston, and in fact the entire island, was visited by an earthquake of great magnitude which not only laid a large area of the capital in ruins but killed at least 2,000 persons."
Needless to say, the following days in Kingston were filled with rumors of prophecies of new disasters that never eventuated, and which drove the distraught people to an emotional frenzy of despair. Even the revivalist Bedwardites, clothed in white, as they paraded the city in single files, with that peculiar hip-movement which is so characteristic of myalism, adapted their hymns to the spirit of the occasion. Over and over again, in seemingly interminable reiteration, they sang with a distinctively myalistic lilt to their tune: "It is a warning! It is a warning! On the dreadful judgment day, Heaven and earth will pass away. It is a warning! It is a warning! On the dreadful judgment day there'll be no warning." At first I could not catch the words, but the air itself seemed to burn into my very soul.
[1. As shown in Voodoos and Obeahs Myalism is a residue of the old Ashanti religious rites as found in Jamaica just as obeah is a continuation of Ashanti witchcraft.]
I asked a youngster to find out for me what they were saying with the result that I have here set down.
Since that fateful day, about twenty-seven years ago, I have made three other visits to Jamaica and I have spent there in all nearly six years. It has been my good fortune to penetrate to some of the least accessible parts of mountain and "bush" and I have lived for considerable time in those remote districts where superstitious practices are most prevalent. It has been my constant purpose to forward a scientific study of such unusual phenomena as might be regarded as psychic, both by discussing the incidents with natives of every class and colour, and by seeking out those who were reputed as practitioners of the black man's witchcraft.
Time and again I sought to draw out in conversation the professional obeah-men, but I invariably found them evasive and non-committal. As occasion offered, I closely questioned youngsters who, according to common report, were apprenticed to obeah-men as disciples to acquire the art, but they had already learned their lesson of secrecy and I could make no impression on them. I repeatedly watched a black boy whom I knew well, the son of a notorious obeah-woman, as he stood motionless for long periods staring straight at the sun,--a sure indication in itself that he was in preparation for the practice of obeah, yet despite the fact that I remunerated him generously for trifling errands and otherwise strove to win his confidence, I never succeeded
in gaining from him any information of value.
It was only from disillusioned clients of obeah-men who shame-facedly made admissions connected with their own experiences, that I was really able to gather directly any reliable facts. Chance, however, occasionally favoured my effort. At rare intervals I stumbled on nocturnal workings of the obeah-man, but even here there was no prearrangement--I am extremely sceptical of all stories of surreptitious rendezvous--and even what I did see usually savoured rather of myalism than of obeah proper, as we shall see in the course of the narrative.
Meanwhile, however, I have carefully studied the works of others and I have searched diligently for every scrap of information on the subject, making it my great objective to sort out judiciously to the best of my ability, what appears to be authentic facts from the mass of fiction that has been written on the subject.
At the Congrès International des Sciences Anthropologiques et Ethnologiques, held in London, July 30 to August 4, 1934, I presented a paper to the Section on Religions bearing the title "Psychic Phenomena in Jamaica." Over a thousand delegates had assembled from forty-two different countries, and it was my purpose to place dispassionately before the learned gathering the results of more than a quarter of a century of intensive research.
After a brief description of the various forms of local belief in Jamaica regarding duppies, shadows, and the like, I then proceeded:--
Without attempting to classify the various phases, we may now take up some particular instances of "Psychic Phenomena in Jamaica". No idle rumors are to be reported. Almost without comment, I purpose citing a series of cases, as far as possible quoting the very words of witnesses for whom I can personally vouch, and also giving an incident or two that actually came under my own observation. The Reverend A. J. E. to whom repeated reference will be made was the Reverend Abraham J. Emerick, a Jesuit Missionary who took up work in Jamaica in 1895, at first in Kingston, and subsequently in the heart of the mountains where for ten years, as he expressed it himself, he "lived in an atmosphere impregnated with obeah and other superstitions."
One of the favourite pastimes of the duppies is stone-throwing. Reports of persons and places being stoned by duppies are very common. My first experience of stone-throwing duppies was rather startling and trying. It happened soon after my undertaking the mountain missions on the north side of the island, and before I was acquainted with the habits of the
[1. The Reverend Abraham J. Emerick, S.J., was born at Falmouth, Pennsylvania, November 211, 1856, and died at Woodstock, Maryland, February 4, 1931. After missionary work in Jamaica from 1895 to 1905, he laboured for a time among the coloured people of Philadelphia and subsequently spent more than a dozen years in Saint Mary's County, Maryland, where he devoted himself especially to his beloved Negroes whom he had come to know so well.]
people and knew anything about their superstitions and occult practices. One evening after dark, I was on my way to Alva mission, situated at a lonesome spot on a hill in the Dry Harbour Mountains. I was met by a crowd about a mile away from the mission. They got around me and warned me in an excited way against going up to the mission. They said that duppies were up there at night throwing stones; that the duppies had stoned the teacher away from the Alva school. It seems that the stone-throwing had been going on for a week or more before my arrival. For several nights crowds went up to the old Alva school, not far from the church on a mountain spur partly surrounded by a deep ravine covered with thick bush. The teacher of the school, a certain Mr. D. lived in two rooms that overlooked the declivity. Every night the crowd was there, stones were thrown from various directions, but most of them seemed to come from the bush-covered ravine. What mystified the people most and made them believe and say, as did the teacher and the most intelligent store-keeper in the district, that the stones were thrown not by human hands but by spirits, was that those who were hit by the stones were not injured, and that some of the stones which came from the bushy declivity, after smashing through the window turned at a right angle and broke the teacher's clock, glasses, etc. on a sideboard. In spite of the dreadful stone-throwing duppies, I went up to the hill followed by a crowd. I found the school building littered with stones,
broken windows and a generally smashed-up, sure-enough ghost-haunted place. The story of the stone-throwing, which I afterwards put together, amounted to this. On a Saturday night Mr. D. and a hired girl noticed a suspicious person lurking around the premises. They became frightened, left the place, and returned later with a man by the name of H. who brought a gun with him. They were not long in the school building before stones began to fall here and there in different rooms, at first one by one but gradually very plentifully. They ran away in fright with the stones pelting after them as they ran. H. turned around once and fired, pointing his gun in the direction from which the stones were coming. As he did so, a stone flying from the opposite direction hit him in the back of the neck. The stone-throwing followed them into the house to which they fled for refuge about a quarter of a mile away. They, with the family living in the house, made a gathering of six or seven or more. Stones were fired into this house and broke a number of things on the sideboard, but no one could tell from where the stones were coming. Some of them seemed to come in the open door, turn around and fall at the teacher's feet. One of the persons marked a stone and threw it out saying: "If him be a true duppy, him will throw this stone back." This marked stone was said to have been thrown back, proving that the stone-thrower was a true duppy. A while after they went to bed, the stone-throwing ceased.
Strange to say the old mission house at All Saints, with a history and location as weird as that of the "House of the Seven Gables," was said to be haunted. A strange coincidence in connexion with its being haunted happened to one of our Fathers. The Father, who had come to the country for a change, was to stop in this house on Saturday night and say Mass at All Saints on Sunday, while I went on to Falmouth about eight miles away to say Mass there. Before going I said to the Father, "As you are not accustomed to sleep alone in a house, you had better have a boy remain in the house with you." "Do you think," he asked, "that I am afraid to sleep alone in the house?" "No," I said, "but I think it more prudent that you have the boy in the house in case anything should happen."
The next day the Father seriously asked me why I warned him against sleeping alone in the house. He said that during the night the boy who was sleeping in the hall called him and said that a lady and gentleman were there and wanted to see him. The Father, having dressed hurriedly and come out of his room into the hall, asked the boy where were the lady and gentleman. The boy pointed to the corner where he said he had seen them; but when the lady and gentleman were not there, the boy was so frightened that he could not be persuaded to remain alone in the hall.
So much for Father E's account. In January, 1907, On the occasion of my first visit to Jamaica
and just a few days before the earthquake to which reference has been made at the opening of this Introduction, I myself spent a night at All Saints in this very mission house which was supposed to be haunted. At the time, however, I was absolutely in ignorance of its ill-repute, and it was only later that I heard of other incidents similar to the one I have just related. I should note, too, that Father E. knew nothing whatever of my experience when he wrote his own account some time later. After we had both committed the facts to paper we met and talked them over.
All Saints mission is located in a mountain district, looking out over the Caribbean towards Cuba. The night that I spent there found my sleeping accommodations restricted to a sofa in the front room which was of unusual size. It was this very room which in Father E's account is called the hall where the boy was sleeping and where the lady and gentleman so unceremoniously disappeared.
On three sides of this room there were windows and on the fourth a passage led to the rear of the house. This passage was cut off from the room by a pair of swinging doors. It was a bright moonlight night and as there were no curtains on the windows I might easily have read without artificial light. As I put out the lamp, the doors of the passage began to swing back and forth in unison. When I touched them, the motion ceased. But while I felt no pressure of any kind, as soon as I withdrew my hand they immediately began to swing again. I could feel no draft of air and examining all around the
doors I found no explanation of the movement. After about three-quarters of an hour, the doors ceased of their own accord.
Going over to the sofa, I lay down and tried to sleep. While I could see nothing out of the ordinary, I was disturbed by all kinds of sounds. First it was as if someone came tramping across the floor in my direction. That might easily have been imagination. Then a hand or something similar, I could see nothing, seemed to press heavily against various parts of my head and arms. That, too, might possibly have been imagination. But this was no imagination: while the rest of my body was burning hot with fright, the parts touched were left not merely clammy but actually wringing wet with water which I mopped up with my handkerchief in sufficient quantities to be squeezed out. And that, I repeat, was no imagination.
One day a man living about a mile away from Alva mission, came to me and said that he was in trouble and asked me to help him out of it. He said that the spirits had been troubling him and his family for a long time, and that it had become unbearable. "The duppies," he said, "come every night and knock from sunset to sunrise, frightening the life out of my wife and children. I tried to shoot one the other night but I could not. I put a cap on the pivot ammunition in my gun and fired at the place from which the knocking came, but the gun
would not go off. I went into the house, opened the pivot with a pin and tried to fire at the ghost again, but again the gun would not go off. I felt something shaking in my hat rim, which turned out to be the cap I had put on the pivot of my gun. I tried the gun again, firing in another direction, and it went off." I told him that I would go to his house and bless it.
At the appointed time I went to the house. After closing the door, I heard the knocking and all in the room heard it. It was a slow dull knock. The man went out and knocked at the place from which the sound seemed to come, but it was not the same sound at all. I listened to the knocking for awhile but could come to no conclusion as to the source of the sound. I was not in the least afraid or nervous but rather indifferent, having become habituated to sleeping alone in lonesome, outlandish places and hearing at night all sorts of creepy sounds, rappings, knockings, clankings, crawlings, etc., so that this knocking made very little impression on me. I thought to myself, I will bless the house and by so doing I will not commit myself to passing any judgment as to the source of the knocking. When I pulled out my ritual to read the blessing of the house, I was, as far as I remember, trying in my mind to account for the knocking by some kind of insect concealed somewhere in the house. While reading the prayer I suddenly became excited and with great difficulty finished it. I felt as if I had been put under some kind of an exhaust pump that drained me of all my supernatural energy. I felt as if I were injuring someone and tears, or a feeling
of tears, came to my eyes. I tried to conceal what happened to me by saying in a joking way, "Now duppy him gone." My embarrassment left me. I sprinkled holy water in the house and out in the yard and especially in the place from which the sound seemed to come. When I returned into the house I raised my hand to give the common blessing, "Benedictio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi descendat super hanc domum et maneat semper." ("May the Blessing of Our Lord Jesus Christ descend on this house and remain forever.") I found the same excitement come over me and the same difficulty in finishing the blessing, but it was not so strong as the first time. I was told that after I left, the duppy gave two hard bangs and then stopped knocking. Sometime afterwards, I heard the people speaking of its return,--this time it was outside of the house,--and that crowds went up to see it, and some claimed that they saw it. It left shortly after, not to return. I learned later that the wife of the man whose house was troubled by the duppy was a revivalist, one of a religion which is nothing but a form of myalism. If they are not possessed by the devil at times, there is no lacking in appearances of their being possessed.
The following incident was related to me by both parties concerned and their accounts agreed in all details As they are still alive I do not feel free at present to disclose their identity even by initials or
to fully identify the locality itself. It all happened at a particularly lonely spot on a mountain overlooking the sea where a priest made his headquarters in a house that was since demolished by a hurricane. A brother priest who came to visit him was spending the night in a room concerning which weird stories were told, although the occupant knew nothing of the fact at the time.
On retiring, finding that there were no matches in the room, the visitor went in quest of a box and left it with a candle on a table near the door of the room. Three times during the night he was awakened by someone entering the room, striking a match and lighting the candle. Each time he could just make out the figure of a man withdrawing from the room with face averted and closing the door behind him. Knowing that he and his host were alone in the house, he naturally concluded that it was all a practical joke that was being played on him.
On the first two occasions he got up, extinguished the candle and retired again to bed. But on the third perpetration he felt that the joke had been carried far enough. Quickly he sprang from the bed and rushed to the door just as it closed behind the figure. When he reached the hall, the figure had vanished, and going to the far end to his host's room, he found the occupant sleeping soundly, with the door of the room securely locked. On being aroused, the host vainly protested and strove to persuade his guest that he had been playing no tricks, and that the whole incident must have been
a dream. But, on returning to his own room again, the visitor counted on the table three partially burnt matches where there had been no loose matches at all when he retired. Next morning he made his departure from the house as early as possible.
It sometimes happens that the duppy's attacks upon human beings resemble possession by the devil. One day I was asked to come and see some sick children. When I arrived, I found two young girls under a peculiar spell which came about, I was told, in the following manner. Mrs. D. said she was sitting in a room with a girl named J., when three slow raps came upon the jalousies, then came three more slow raps, followed by three more slow raps; then a warm wave passed through the room. At the same time J. leaped into the air crying out, "Old man come," and from that time up to my arrival she had been acting queerly. When I arrived, about three days after the event, she was much better, I was told, than she was at first. While under this strange influence she said, "Old man catch M." The M. in question was a quiet, shy, modest girl of about seventeen years whose father was a Portuguese and whose mother was a slightly brown woman. When she came home she started laughing and kept it up for two or three days. When I came she was hoarse from laughing. The people of the house told me
that a peculiar mutual sympathetic influence controlled J. and M. If one laughed the other laughed, if one had a headache the other had a headache, and so on. I was told that similar occurrences had been going on in this family for years, and that it was attributed to the malicious black-art working of a family enemy.
Some of the effects of this possession, if I may use the word, was that those affected spoke in an unknown tongue. I read Latin at them and they thought the unknown tongue sounded like Latin. Another strange effect of this possession was the impulse to run wild in the woods, climb trees, etc. I was told that in past years those attacked had to be constantly watched, and that at times it was difficult to hold them down, and that they would even work themselves loose from ropes with which they were tied.
I asked J. what had happened to her. Speaking with difficulty and with a guttural sound she said, "A dooorrrg queeezed me," that is, a dog squeezed me, or a dog jumped up against me. I did not think it a case of diabolical possession, nor, did I attempt to exorcise the children, but I read some of the prayers taken from the form of exorcism, and blessed the two girls, the house, and the yard. I remained around for some time, and on my way home, I met the girls returning from a spring with pails of water on their heads, laughing and chatting as happy as larks, apparently well. I never heard of them being again troubled by duppies.
Father p. who died in Jamaica during the "Flu" epidemic, once told me of an experience of his own. He was called to a young woman who was dying. She had been baptized as a Catholic, but had never attended church and had led a notoriously immoral life. He found her unconscious, lying on a couch in a single-room hovel. After sending everybody out of doors, he strove for some minutes to elicit from the dying woman at least some sign of contrition for her misspent life. Failing in his effort, he gave conditional absolution, real zing that possibly the wretched woman, while unable to give any external sign, might still be fully conscious of what was going on. Father p. then prepared to anoint her according to the Catholic ritual which gives even a poor creature like this the benefit of every doubt when eternity is at stake.
Just as he stooped over to begin, a black arm reached around him and struck the woman on the side of the head with such violence that the head was dislodged from the pillow. Father p. turned quickly, but the arm was gone and he was alone in the room with the dying woman. Trying to persuade himself that it was all a trick of the imagination, he started again. Once more the arm reached around and this time it actually threw the woman from the couch to the ground. Father-P. immediately looked for the body to which the arm should have been attached, but as he did so, the arm itself vanished, and he was still alone. Then, as he turned back
again, he found the woman, to all appearances, dead at his feet.
This same clergyman, I have heard, on another occasion witnessed the severe flogging of a woman by unseen hands which left cruel welts upon the body. But, as I never received the story from his own lips, I omit it here, as I am now confining myself strictly to first-hand information.
The weirdest happening in my own experience occurred when I took up residence at my first mission with headquarters at M. The house was a spacious one that was intended ultimately for a school. A large double hall passed down the centre with a range of rooms on either hand. On the side that I occupied, my bedroom was the second from the rear. Next came a vacant room with doors on the four sides including an entrance from the yard. The door that connected this room with mine was always left open for purposes of ventilation. The other three doors were kept locked and were bolted on the inside of the room which had formerly been a bathroom. About twenty minutes past eleven one night, shortly before the Hurricane of November, 1912, I was awakened by a loud knocking at the side entrance. My first thought was that I was needed for a sick-call. Calling to my supposed visitor to wait a minute, I began to dress hurriedly. When I was about half-clad, the knocking changed to a series of
crashing sounds as if someone was forcing an entrance with a crowbar. At this I concluded that thieves were breaking in. Being alone in the house, I flung my shoe against the door and saw it bounce back a couple of feet or so, and I then shouted to the marauders to go away. As I did so, the door crashed open towards me and I sprang back to escape being knocked down. It was a dark night and I saw nothing beyond the door. There was an old gun in the corner of my room. I did not know whether it was loaded or not. But as I turned to get it, still thinking that it was thieves that I had to deal with, I could hear a tramp of feet across the room next to mine and it sounded as if the door into the hall had been forced open in the same way as the outer door had been. Opening my own door that led into the hall, I thrust the gun in the general direction that I supposed the thieves must be, and aiming high, I pulled the trigger. There was a snap and that was all. The gun was not loaded. But as all noise had now ceased, I hurried through my room to gain the side entrance, with the purpose of summoning help, only to find that the door that I had seen crash open was now closed and locked and bolted on the inside and nothing was broken. And it was only then that I realized that I was not dealing with thieves, as my hair seemed literally to stand on end, especially when I found my shoe that I had seen fall well in front of the door actually back against the wall where it had been pressed when the door swung open.
And so it is that, as I ponder upon the weirdest stories of the Jamaica "bush," I find the question arising in my mind: Is it then all hallucination? Or is there some mesmeric influence at work, as more than one critic has suggested in connexion with Haitian voodoo? Or, again, have we here a recrudescence of the diablerie found recorded in the Scripture narrative? What must the answer be? The out-and-out materialist will meet my question with a sneer, perhaps even question my sobriety if not my veracity, and dismiss the matter from his mind as unworthy of further consideration. The devotees of spiritual séances, on the other hand, may seek to turn it all to their foolish ends and claim to find here a verification of the potency of spirits who may be used to impose upon the ignorant and superstitious for the entirely unspiritual purposes of material gain.
For my own part, with full realization of the seeming bathos of the confession, as regards the individual cases considered separately by themselves, I must simply say: I do not know. I state the facts. I admit man's proneness to exaggerate and that even by a process of self-hypnotism there is a possibility of his becoming convinced at times that the figments of the imagination have actual objective reality in the material order of things. I acknowledge no less the power and machinations of the evil one, always subordinate, of course, to the limitations set by Almighty God. And so it is, that in each particular case, if considered by itself, I am constrained to shake my head and admit: I am not sure.
But, taking all the cases cited as a group, the collective evidence, I feel, compels us to acknowledge that we are dealing with some preternatural agencies or forces, call them what you will. All the witnesses cannot have been victims of delusions. I knew them individually, and without exception, they were men of mature years, characterized by sound judgment. They were practical men and distinctively unimaginative. In fact, they were rather phlegmatic than otherwise, and had in each case sifted every possible natural cause as an explanation. In consequence of the years of missionary service which they had seen in Jamaica, they had become accustomed to the creepy sounds of the tropical night in the "bush," that invariably disturb the uninitiated.
However, I do not feel that we have here sufficient data to propound any clearly defined theory as to whether the preternatural forces are influences for good or evil. Consequently, while obeah contacts might seem to imply his Satanic Majesty as the principal agent, I am far from considering this here as an established fact.
So concluded the paper presented at the London Gathering of Anthropologists, and it was so favourably received that I feel constrained to treat the whole matter in more detail since the limited time afforded by the Congress restricted me to a very cursory review of the subject.
It is the aim of the present work, to go more deeply into the question of weird happenings and
superstitions in Jamaica; to examine carefully the curious beliefs, still prevalent in the island; to analyze critically the extraordinary manifestations that are reported from time to time; and, to seek some plausible explanation for the various phenomena. It is the purpose, however, to restrict the study to such phenomena as are distinctively Jamaican, and consequently a residue of the days of slavery and so presumably of African origin. Our field of investigation, then, is Negro culture, which precludes such occult practices as have been acquired through contacts with the Whites as well as European superstitions, however they may have been introduced to the island. For these latter cannot be regarded as peculiarly Jamaican, either in origin or practice. They are ingrafts and nothing more.
To understand properly many of the superstitions and practices in Jamaica, it is necessary to trace them back to their origins in Africa whence they were brought in the days of slavery and adapted to the exigencies of new surroundings and varying contacts. Hence we must determine in the first place just what tribal centres exerted the greatest influence in the cultural development of Jamaica, especially as it concerns the "bush" to-day. And here it should be carefully noted that the word "bush" is a colloquial term for the less accessible country districts in Jamaica. For, in the Isle of Springs, there is neither jungle nor forest. Even the most remote parts of the island are well cultivated and provided with schools and local shops where all necessities and even conveniences may be procured.