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Obeah

Obeah

West Indian witchcraft. The term is believed to derive from an Ashanti word, obayifo, a wizard or witch, although there are claims that it refers to Obi, a West African snake god. Author M. G. Lewis (1775-1818) spent some time in Jamaica, where his father owned large estates, and reported cases of obeah. In his posthumously published Journal of a West India Proprietor (1834), he wrote an entry on January 12, 1816, describing how ten months earlier a black man "of very suspicious manners and appearance" was arrested,

" and on examination there was found upon him a bag containing a great variety of strange materials for incantations; such as thunder-stones, cat's ears, the feet of various animals, human hair, fish bones, the teeth of alligators, etc.: he was conveyed to Montego Bay; and no sooner was it understood that this old African was in prison, than depositions were poured in from all quarters from negroes who deposed to having seen him exercise his magical arts, and, in particular, to his having sold such and such slaves medicines and charms to deliver them from their enemies; being, in plain English, nothing else than rank poisons. He was convicted of Obeah upon the most indubitable evidence. The good old practice of burning had fallen into disrepute; so he was sentenced to be transported, and was shipped off the island, to the great satisfaction of persons of all colourswhite, black, and yellow."

Jamaican legislation of 1760 enacted that "any Negro or other Slave who shall pretend to any Supernatural Power and be detected in making use of any materials relating to the practice of Obeah or Witchcraft in order to delude or impose upon the Minds of others shall upon Conviction thereof before two Magistrates and three Freeholders suffer Death or Transportation."

(See also Voudou ; West Indian Islands )

Sources:

Bell, Hesketh J. Obeah: Witchcraft in the West Indies. London: Sampson, Low & Co., 1889.

Emerick, Abraham J. Obeah and Duppyism in Jamaica. Wood-stock, N.Y.: privately printed, 1915.

Lewis, Matthew Gregory. Journal of a West Indian Proprietor. London: J. Murray, 1861. Reprint, New York: Negro University Press, 1961.

Williams, Joseph J. Voodoos and Obeahs; Phases of West Indian Witchcraft. New York: Dial Press, 1933.

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obeah

obeah a kind of sorcery practised especially in the Caribbean. Recorded from the mid 18th century, the word comes from Twi, from bayi ‘sorcery’.

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Obeah

Obeah


A highly charged and ambiguous term, Obeah (sometimes spelled obia ) refers to various forms of spiritual power. Occurring primarily in the Anglophone Caribbean (and in Suriname, which began as an English colony), it is one of the most widespread words of African origin to be found in the region. Like vodou (or voodoo ) in the Francophone Caribbean, its varying meanings, its shifting significance, and its differing valuation over time mirror unresolved tensions between colonialist and indigenist (or other anticolonialist) viewpoints. As part of this ongoing dialectic, definitions and understandings of the term continue to carry a strong moral charge, either negative or positive, depending on such variables as the ethnic background and social class of the user and the context of usage.

Attempts to find an origin for the word have themselves formed part of this dialectic. Reflecting a common bias, etymologists have generally accepted that Obeah is a kind of evil magic or witchcraft, leading them to search for phonologically similar terms with negative meanings in various African languages. The most widely accepted derivation, from Asante Twi obayi, referring to the antisocial use of spiritual power to harm or kill, has in turn shaped the understandings of scholars and others who have written about Obeah. On the basis of this questionable etymology, some have jumped to the conclusion that it represents the remnant of a particular form of witchcraft or sorcery brought to the Caribbean by Akan-speaking people from the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana). However, others have argued that the term might just as easily be traced to similar sounding words from other West African languages, some of whichsuch as the Igbo term abia/obia (and its cognates in a number of neighboring languages such as Ibibio or Efik)have entirely positive meanings revolving around healing, protection, and other socially sanctioned uses of esoteric knowledge and spiritual power (Handler and Bilby, 2001, pp. 9092).

The earliest known occurrences of the term in writing, from Barbados, date from the early 1700s. By the late eighteenth century, the word had also begun to appear frequently in writings from Jamaica and other British Caribbean colonies. It is apparent from these early sources that during the slavery era Obeah often referred to divination, healing (frequently using herbs), and spiritual protection of various kinds, although it could also have fearful connotations, sometimes being associated with accusations of sorcery. It was not long before whites began to realize that belief in Obeah could be brought into the service of slave rebellions. One result was the rapid introduction of anti-Obeah legislation in Jamaica and a number of other colonies.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, as the influence of Christian missionaries grew, depictions of Obeah became increasingly one-sided and negative. Obeah was now often reduced by writers to a virulent form of witchcraft or sorcery with a single purpose: to harm or destroy its "victims." Such hegemonic ideas formed part of the more general denigration and stigmatization by colonial authorities (and the educational and religious institutions aligned with them) of cultural expressions identified with the black population, especially practices and beliefs understood to be of African origin. But because Obeah practitioners were in direct competition with the purveyors of hegemonic interpretations of Christianity that provided ideological support for the colonial project, they were singled out for attack and bore the brunt of a particularly fervent and sustained campaign of demonization. As a result, as Melville and Frances Herskovits state in Rebel Destiny (1934), "no word of African origin which has survived in the New World has taken on such grim meaning as has the word obia in many of the islands of the Caribbean" (p. 307).

In stark contrast to the negative characterizations of Obeah typifying the literature on the West Indies are the views of obia held by Maroons in Suriname and French Guianapeoples such as the Saramaka, Ndyuka, or Aluku, whose ancestors escaped from coastal plantations during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and created their own autonomous societies in the interior forest. Drawing on African backgrounds, initial plantation experiences, and creolizing cultures similar to those of the enslaved in other parts of the Caribbean colonized by the English, these Maroon peoples were able to fashion and maintain alternative Afro-creole cultures beyond the reach of the European colonial powers that were attempting to establish and enforce cultural hegemony throughout the Americas. As a result, more than two centuries later, theirs remain, in a sense, the least "colonized" cultures in all of Afro-America.

All Guianese Maroons agree on the fundamental meanings of the term obia meanings that are overwhelmingly positive. Among the Aluku (Boni) Maroons, for instance, the primary senses of the term are as follows:

  1. medicine (herbal and other), remedy, or healing power;
  2. any object, or "charm," invested with healing or protective power;
  3. an instrument used for divination;
  4. a god, spirit, or human ghost;
  5. a positive spiritual force that pervades the universe.

Obia, in all of these senses, plays an indispensable part in everyday Aluku life, and has purely positive associations; it is readily and openly discussed and used in both private and public contexts, including major religious ceremonies, and carries no social stigma whatsoever. By the same token, the term has no connotations of witchcraft. Thus, among the Aluku (and other Guianese Maroons), to accuse someone of employing obia would be absurd, for it makes no sense to accuse someone of something that is seen as having essentially benevolent uses. Interestingly enough, rather than obia, the word the Aluku use to refer to antisocial witchcraft or sorcery (analogous to what is denoted by the Akan term obayi ) is wisi, which is derived not from an African language, but from the English word witch (Hurault, 1961, pp. 238246; Bilby, 1990, pp. 200203).

More than seventy years ago, fresh from his fieldwork among the Saramaka, Melville Herskovits noted this discrepancy between Guianese Maroon and broader West Indian notions of Obeah. In his 1930 review of Martha Beckwith's classic ethnography of rural Jamaican life, Black Roadways (1929), Herskovits points out that, "in the literature on the West Indies, 'obeah' is synonymous with evil magic, and Miss Beckwith tacitly accepts this interpretation. On the basis of the Suriname data, to say nothing of some of Miss Beckwith's own statements, this interpretation does not stand. If we take the case among the Bush-Negroes [Surinamese Maroons] we find that obia is a healing principle" (p. 337). Although Herskovits never explored the larger implications of this insight, his assertion that the negative interpretation of Obeah widely found in West Indian literature "does not stand" when compared with Surinamese Maroon conceptionsor even when held up against the understandings of some of Beckwith's Jamaican informantsis borne out by much of what has been written on the subject both before and since, especially if one reads between the lines.

Almost all written accounts, even the most negative, hint at native understandings of Obeah considerably more complex than the stereotypical imagery that reduces it to a form of sorcery or evil magic motivated by "bad mind" and jealousy. A careful re-examination of written references to Obeah in various parts of the Caribbean, from the earliest descriptions to those of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, reveals that most of those who have consulted Obeah practitioners have actually done so for protection and help with illness or other personal problems, or more generally to bring good fortune, rather than to wreak vengeance on enemies or inflict disease and misfortune upon innocent victims. Like fears and accusations of witchcraft in other parts of the world, anxieties regarding the working of malicious Obeah in the Caribbean likely have more to do with interpersonal tensions and mechanisms of social control in particular communitiesin this case filtered through the prism of hegemonic colonial ideologiesthan with the actual practice of Obeah. Those few ethnographers who have worked with self-defined Obeah practitioners and their clients in places such as Jamaica and the Leeward Islands find little if any evidence of sorcery as a modus operandi; on the contrary, their reports tend to emphasize the therapeutic nature of the services performed by such spiritual workers for their "patients."

Over the last few decades, as part of the decolonization process in the newly independent states of the Caribbean, there has been a trend toward increasing tolerance of Obeah in at least some parts of the region. In the 1970s, Prime Minister Forbes Burnham of Guyana attempted to rehabilitate Obeah as a legitimate aspect of African religiosity that had been misrepresented and suppressed by the European colonizers. However, because it was associated with an oppressive, dictatorial regime, Burnham's recasting of Obeah in positive terms, like François Duvalier's reclamation of Vodou in Haiti, did little to further the cause of those who wished to remove the stigma long attached to African forms of spirituality in the Caribbean. In more recent years, colonial laws against Obeah have periodically been challenged elsewhere in the region, and in some cases repealed. In Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, for instance, Obeah is no longer a legal offense; in other countries, such as Jamaica, anti-Obeah statutes remain on the books.

Whatever its legal status, Obeah everywhere (except among Guianese Maroons) continues to be widely characterized and stigmatized as a "fraudulent superstition," and it is still viewed by many as a shameful reminder of a supposedly "dark" African past, although it also has its defenders. Though in the minority, these dissenters continue to speak out against the ongoing representation of Obeah as harmful "witchcraft," seeing this negative imagery as a damaging legacy of colonialism. As a legitimate, primarily positive expression of African spirituality, they argue, Obeah deserves the same legal guarantees of protection from persecution afforded other forms of religious expression.

Without doubt, Obeah continues to play an important role in the lives of many in the Caribbean. A kind of flash point capable of bringing to the surface deep cultural contradictions bred by centuries of colonial domination, it continues to fascinate scholars and creative writers, who recognize in it an important dimension of the human condition in this part of the world.

See also Candomblé; Santería

Bibliography

Bilby, Kenneth M. The Remaking of the Aluku: Culture, Politics, and Maroon Ethnicity in French South America. Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md., 1990.

Bilby, Kenneth M., and Jerome S. Handler. "Obeah: Healing and Protection in West Indian Slave Life." Journal of Caribbean History 38 (2004): 153183.

Handler, Jerome S., and Kenneth M. Bilby. "On the Early Use and Origin of the Term 'Obeah' in Barbados and the Anglophone Caribbean." Slavery & Abolition 22, no. 2 (2001): 87100.

Herskovits, Melville J. "Review of Black Roadways, by Martha Warren Beckwith." Journal of American Folklore 43 (1930): 332338.

Herskovits, Melville J., and Frances S. Herskovits. Rebel Destiny: Among the Bush Negroes of Dutch Guiana. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1934. Reprint, Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1971.

Hurault, Jean. Les Noirs Réfugiés Boni de la Guyane française. Dakar, Senegal: IFAN, 1961.

kenneth m. bilby (2005)

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