The practice of harnessing supernatural forces and spirits for one's own personal use, known in some parts of Africa as %u2018Obeye' (an entity that lives within witches), has taken on many names in the Caribbean islands, such as Shango (Trinidad), Santeria (Cuba), Vodun or Voodoo (Haiti), Ju-Ju (Bahamas), Obeah (Jamaica),. Although African slaves usually practiced Obeah for "evil" or rather self-interested, instrumental purposes, this faith also aided them as a source of strength and clandestine resistance. The practice of Obeah is the belief that one can use certain spirits or supernatural agents to work harm to the living, or to call them off from such mischief. Generally, the British used the term Obeah to describe all slave acts and practices that were considered supernatural or evil in nature, such as rituals and fetishes.
Modern historians believe that Obeah originated from the Ashanti and Koromantin tribes of Africa on the Gold Coast, and that imported slaves introduced it to the Caribbean as early as the mid 17th century. Regardless of its use, for %u2018evil' or %u2018good', the Obeah men were treated with the utmost respect and fear by all whom met him. The Obeah man and women played a prominent role in the Caribbean slave societies from the beginning of the slave trade. They functioned as community leaders and teachers of the African folk's cultural heritage. Many Africans believed that the Obeah man had within his power the ability to render someone invincible, resuscitate the dead, cure all diseases, protect a man from the consequences of his crimes, and cause great harm to anyone he wished. Yet the Obeah man's most powerful gift was not his ability to steal people's shadows , as the act of obeah or "hexing" was described, but his intricate knowledge of herbs and poisons. The term Obeah also suggested the word "poison" in the Caribbean plantations, this being the preferred and most effective tool that this practitioner of "magic" had at his disposal. Through the use of herbs and medicine, the Obeah man, was able to "miraculously" cure or poison (obeah) a person to death. Considering the development and practices (bloodletting) of "modern" European medicine at the time, an ill person had a much greater chance of survival by seeking out an Obeah man rather than a white physician.
Obeah was not only used as a source of power through its association with the supernatural but with political power as well, specifically slave rebellions and the other forms of resistance in Jamaica. The Obeah man played a role as an inspirational leader who could entice his entourage, which might number in the thousands, to partake in resistance and rebellions. Because of their relation with "evil," Obeah men were blamed for every mishap that fell upon a plantation or individual. So how did they manage to recruit so many followers? The lure of becoming the follower of an Obeah man was that once initiated into his or her group you would become invulnerable to the white man and his weapons. Although you might appear slain, the Obeah man could, at his pleasure, restore the fallen body to life.
Obeah men played a central role in the conception and development of any serious attempt at rebellion. The Obeah man provided an "ideological rallying point" in sanctioning an open rebellion. He afforded a meeting place for leaders and followers so they could plan their revolts under the guise of religious gatherings, and he maintained the link between traditional African culture which opposed colonial rule and the Creole (Caribbean born) slaves. By far the most important contribution that the Obeah man made to the resistance of the slave system was his direct participation in the preparation of the insurrectionists for war. The Obeah man would first administer an oath to African rebels that would bind them to never reveal to anyone the identity of the insurgents or the plans of the rebellion; to do so would bring upon the individual an agonizing death. A white Jamaican planter, Edward Long, best describes the ritual that the Obeah man initiated in order to administer the oaths:
"Their priests, or obeiah-man, are their chief oracles in all weighty affairs, whether of peace, war, or the pursuit of revenge. When assembled for the purposes of conspiracy, the obeiah-man, after various ceremonies, draws a little blood from every one present; this is mixed in a bowl with gunpowder and grave dirt; the fetish or oath is administered by which they solemnly pledge themselves to inviolable secrecy, fidelity to their chiefs, and to wage perpetual war against their enemies; as a ratification of their sincerity, each person takes a cup of the mixture, and this finishes the solemn rite. Few or none of them have ever been known to violate this oath, or to desist from the full execution of it, even although several years may intervene."
The Obeah man also created a powder that supposedly possessed magical properties that would bestow upon the user of it protection from the white man's weapons. Long gives a detailed account of the capture of an Obeah man who was known to have administered many of these rituals in Jamaica:
"In St. Mary's parish a check was fortunately given at one estate, by surprising a famous Obeah-man and priest, much respected among his countrymen. He was an old Coromantin, who, with others of his profession, had been a chief in counseling and instigating the credulous herd, to whom their priests administered a powder, which, being rubbed on their bodies, was to make them invulnerable. They persuaded them into a belief, that their generalissimo [general] in the woods, could not possibly be hurt by the white men, for that he caught all the bullets fired at him in his hand, and hurled them back with destruction to his foes."
Obviously, this type of power in the hands of a slave made many plantation owners uneasy, to say the least.
Joseph Williams describes the plantation owners' view of the Africans from the earliest days of legislation in Jamaica: "a serious source of danger to the peace of the colony was recognized to be ever present in the assemblies of slaves where the old religious tribal dances were openly accompanied by drumming which aroused the fanaticism of Africans to such a degree as to endanger a general uprising." Before long it was discovered that a second cause of danger, this time a personal one to master and slave alike, was to be traced to the secret poisonings that were ever becoming more common. Beginning in 1684, various laws were enacted in Jamaica as a precaution against slave rebellion. Later, planter legislators enacted laws banning nocturnal "gatherings" and religious practices. In 1816, a law was passed recognizing the coupled danger present from revolt and Obeah, "if there shall be found in the possession of any slave any poisonous drugs, pounded glass, parrot's beaks, dog's teeth, alligator's teeth, or other materials notoriously used in the practice of Obeah or witchcraft, such slave upon conviction, shall be liable to suffer transportation from the island [deportation]."
The slaves in Jamaica, according to plantation owners, were primitive and unintelligent savages, yet they managed to resist the planter's efforts to control and exploit them at every opportunity. The laws of Jamaica are themselves testaments to the efficient and meticulous planning of slaves in their attempt to rebel against the "white man's" institutions. It had taken the planters more than 130 years, from the first law that recognized the threat of rebellion (1684), until they implemented a law that recognized the tripartite association between slave rebellion, obeah, and poisonings. As the years passed and plantation owners began to suspect that the increase in deaths by poisoning was attributed to slaves, they enacted harsher legislation that ranged from mandatory searches of the slaves domicile, "Every master or mistress or overseer of a family in this island shall cause all slave houses to be diligently and effectively searched once every fourteen days," to sentencing slaves to the ultimate punishment %u2013 death. One of these particular laws making the death penalty a mandatory punishment was enacted in the late 17th century:
"whereas slaves have of late attempted to destroy several people, as well white as black, by poison%u2026the said slave or slaves, together with their accessories, as well before as after the fact, being slaves, and convicted thereof%u2026shall be adjudged guilty of murder, as if the party or parties that took or shall take the same had died; and shall be condemned to suffer death, by hanging, burning, or such other way or means as to the said Justices and freeholders shall seem most convenient."
Deaths by poison began to take on a form of covert rebellion amongst those slaves who had rancor and access to their plantation owners or overseers. Most of the slaves who wished to poison someone but lacked the knowledge turned to the Obeah man of the region to execute the act. These types of personal services usually required a form of consideration. Obeah men were usually compensated for their services by their followers in the form of "donations": food, shelter or money. However, at times the Obeah man simply asked for the procurer's pledge to carry out a "favor" at a later date. By accumulating a large amount of "favors" throughout a plantation or region the Obeah man gained personal power and was able to execute his wishes with ease. The Obeah man usually did not directly administer the poison to a victim; he simply called in one of his favors under the guise that he was applying a charm, and ordered that individual to administer whatever he asked to the food of the ill-fated slave or overseer.
Clearly, Obeah men were important in the rousing, organization, and execution of slave revolts and slave resistance in general. Whites feared their power to invoke a rebellion and enslaved blacks were petrified at the thought of falling victim to their magic. Even though these men had many enemies, they were usually never betrayed by one of their own because he was recognized as an important figure in the slave society of the time. The Obeah man played various roles simultaneously. He was a healer and an executioner, he was loved and feared, he was father to all and demon to many. These men under the seemingly innocent guise of "medicine men" came to accumulate power and respect that rivaled that of the largest plantation owner. Even today in Jamaica children still tremble at the thought of going to visit the Obeah man.
By Alexander Giraldo