Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Obeah: Healing and Protection in West Indian Slave Life1

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Obeah: Healing and Protection in West Indian Slave Life1

Article excerpt

The word obeah found across the anglophone Caribbean is probably one of the most widely known African-derived terms in the region.2 However, there is little consensus among scholars on its meaning and significance, although many conceptions of obeah, both in the past and in more recent years, stress its antisocial and evil nature as witchcraft or sorcery. Indeed, the term obeah has come to be endowed with a malevolent/malign social power - much like the "bad words" (swear words) which can lead to legal sanctions if publicly uttered in Jamaica or other West Indian societies.

Obeah is not an organized religion. It lacks a more or less unified system of beliefs and practices involving, for example, deities or gods, communal or public rituals and ceremonies and the physical spaces or sites where they occur, or spiritual leaders of congregations/congregants, as in Haitian Vodun/Vodoo, Brazilian Candomblé, Cuban Santería, or the Orisha religion (formerly known as Shango) in Trinidad. Rather, obeah is a catch-all term that encompasses a wide variety and range of beliefs and practices related to the control or channelling of supernatural/spiritual forces by particular individuals or groups for their own needs, or on behalf of clients who come for help. Originally, on the seventeenth-century slave plantations of the British Caribbean, these beliefs and practices drew on a number of common and broadly related African models or belief systems, including sacred traditions and medical knowledge, modified over the years by the New World environment, including its plant and animal life; European practices, beliefs and material culture (e.g., glass bottles, rum); and the social conditions and community tensions that existed under slavery.

Although the specific beliefs and practices embraced by this term varied from place to place, obeah everywhere shared at least two fundamental characteristics: (1) its practice involved the manipulation and control of supernatural forces, usually through the use of material objects and recitation of spells; and (2) it was primarily concerned with divination (e.g., foretelling, finding lost or stolen goods, ascertaining the cause of illness), healing and bringing good fortune, and protection from harm - although it was sometimes used malevolently to harm others. The practice of obeah usually involved specialists, often skilled in the use of plant medicines, who were sometimes paid fees by individual clients. The practitioners as well as their clients could be men or women. Until fairly recent times, obeah practitioners were not uncommon in most of the anglophone Caribbean, and generally practised their art clandestinely because of wider societal disapproval or prohibitive laws that existed for much of the colonial period.

Perhaps it will help to arrive at a clearer understanding of this highly charged word if its meaning is examined in one specific Afro-Caribbean setting. Since it is generally agreed that the term obeah and its primary referents are of African origin (see below) we start by considering a Caribbean region known for displaying a particularly high degree of African cultural influences. No area fits this description better than the interiors of Suriname and French Guiana, where present-day Maroons maintain semi-autonomous, so-called "tribal" societies. Their enslaved ancestors escaped from coastal plantations into the interior forests during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and founded societies beyond the reach of their enslavers. At present, among the Aluku (Boni) of French Guiana, where Bilby has conducted over three years of fieldwork during the 1980s and 1990s, the word obia has several meanings, the most common being "medicine, remedy or healing power". For the Ndyuka Maroons of Suriname, the term obeah, the historian Silvia de Groot wrote over 30 years ago, refers to a "supernatural force with healing and protecting magic power". Virtually all other reliable sources on the Surinamese Maroons, including the Saramaka, agree with this definition of obeah as a positive form of power that plays an important role in everyday life. …

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