Devilish Arts?

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Devilish Arts?
Ellen on the uses of obeah & Vodou in slave resistance. Image: Shutterstock.

The recent debates in Jamaica on the legalisation of obeah, a form of African spiritualism, raise fascinating questions regarding the historical relationship between Africa, the Caribbean, and the European slave trade.

Believed to be derived from Igbo culture in Nigeria, obeah has no legal definition as a religion. Rather, it is viewed as a belief system based on the practitioners’ ability to cure sickness using herbal remedies; to communicate with and resuscitate the dead; to steal a person’s shadow; and to ward of ‘zombis.’ Not unlike its West African cousin Vodou, also imported to the Caribbean via the slave trade, obeah has developed a sinister reputation over the years as a devilish art.                 

So how did this reputation come about? As it had in Africa, in the 1700s obeah provided a range of herbal cures and salves for new ailments and injuries experienced by slaves in the Caribbean, with obeah men and women forced to adapt to the new tropical environment and new needs. Obeah also continued to help make sense of traumatic life and death experiences; Old Higue, for example, an evil old woman who sheds her skin and sucks the breath from babies, causing their deaths, has found her way into Caribbean folklore.  

Obeah was also central to slave resistance; nature could cure, but it could also kill.  Innocent herbal remedies could be turned into lethal potions, and planters feared poisoning by household slaves as much as they did rebellion - how easy it would be to slip dangerous, undetectable herbs into a freshly prepared meal - and legislation was introduced to the Caribbean colonies to dealt directly with such cases.  

In colonies where Vodou existed, dolls and sacrifices likewise worried planters far less than its practitioners’ obvious talents for botanical science. Witness the panic of French, British and Spanish planters caused by the runaway slave and witchdoctor Makandal, who waged a terrifying campaign of herbal warfare in the French colony of St. Domingue. Thousands of people were poisoned by his highly organised, clandestine networks of strategically placed household slaves, as he issued thunderous prophesies that Africans would soon rule the island. Terrified that this ‘High Priest of Poison’ would wipe out planter society completely, the French authorities launched a widespread witch hunt to catch Makandal. After a slave woman confessed to his hiding place under torture, he was burned at the stake - although not before dramatically escaping the first attempt to execute him on the day.          

Just as Vodou did in St. Domingue, obeah became central to the violent cycle of repression and rebellion that characterised Caribbean slave societies, and for British planters, the problem did not stop at a psychological fear of poisoning. Obeah practitioners in the British colonies maintained the same privileged status in slave societies as they had in Africa, and this influenced leadership strategies during wars, rebellions and uprisings. Seemingly innocent African style spiritual assemblies of slaves and rituals were all used to disguise the planning stages of rebellions and uprisings. It also served a vital psychological function in keeping up morale among rebel slaves. When, for example, Jamaica’s national hero, the Maroon leader Queen Nanny, was on the verge of surrendering during her guerrilla campaigns against the British in the 1730s, legend had it that the voices of her ancestors and their magical gifts of pumpkin seeds saved the Maroons from starvation and gave Nanny the courage to win freedom for escaped slaves battling on in the Blue Mountains.

Obeah style morale raising continued into later rebellions. During Tacky’s 1760 slave revolt in Jamaica, his obeah man applied white paint to the faces of the rebels to protect them from bullets, and British colonial authorities made a  point of publicly and brutally executing Tacky’s obeah men to prove to slaves across the island that its practitioners were not invulnerable.

Tacky’s Rebellion was the final straw for the British colonial authorities, and new legislation was introduced to try to stamp obeah out once and for all. The 1760 ‘Act to Remedy the Evils Arising from Irregular Assemblies of Slaves’ defined obeah as ‘pretending to have communication with the devil’ and ‘assuming the art of witchcraft’ – despite witchcraft legislation having been relaxed decades previously in Britain. Not that Nanny, Tacky or their followers - men and women all battling enslavement - claimed to do business with the devil in the way we understand it in the West today, but it was exactly the type of language that the planters understood.

The obeah practitioner’s arsenal of alarming and  effective psychological methods of resistance, uprisings and guerrilla warfare, commonly used in West Africa, played a pivotal role in its censure and marginalisation. However, neither the colonial authorities, nor the missionaries that swept through the Caribbean in the late 1700s, ever quite succeeded in displacing it altogether. Well into the twentieth-century, decades after the abolition of slavery, obeah’s rebelliousness continued to surface, with numerous clauses grafted onto existing legislation to outlaw obeah, although as in Britain, with a much greater emphasis on fraud.     

This view of obeah as fraudulent persists in the twenty-first century. Often looked on today with suspicion as an art practised by swindlers and hustlers who exploit the vulnerable - the naïve, the desperate, the dying – we should also bear in mind how the marginalisation of obeah, of its definition as a devilish art, was brought about not just by scientific and medical innovations, or a natural decline in the influence of African belief systems in the region, but also by its close association with slave resistance.          

Jamaica’s obeah debate is an important reminder of the rich tapestry of African culture in the Caribbean, and of its influence on the ways in which Africans fought the brutal system of slavery. While it would be wrong to ignore the ways in which it is exploited, we shouldn't overlook its place in the history of slavery as a psychological tool for warfare, resistance and revolt.