The Regulation of Religion and the Making of Hinduism in Colonial Trinidad

By Alexander Rocklin | Go to book overview

4 Outlawing Religion

A Creole witness who had been called to support the case of the
complainant on being sworn put his finger into the “lota” kept for
the purpose of swearing Hindoos and made a sign[.]

Magistrate: What did you put your hands there for?

Witness: I mistook it for the book [the Bible][.]

Magistrate: Nonsense[.] There is no obeah in it (Laughter)[.]

—“Police Court Humour,” Mirror

Obeah is difficult to define. Its widely shared range of meanings includes healing, folk toxicology, the recovery of lost or stolen objects, the control of superhuman and other non-obvious beings and powers, and the claim that one had the power to do any of these things beyond normal human ability (as that was understood by the colonial regime). All of this colonial elites linked to superstition, civil unrest (in particular slave resistance such as poisonings and revolts), and fraud. Colonial officials generally understood that there could not be legitimate religious reasons for someone of one religion to cross what were seen as substantial lines between the beliefs and practices of different groups, whether Hindu or Christian, Indian or African.1 Norm-bending practices that crossed reified lines of religion and race were often categorized as obeah by colonial officials. Obeah was not-religion.

Jerome Handler and Kenneth Bilby argue that, while colonial elites in the Caribbean held largely negative opinions of obeah, for many slaves and their descendants obeah was a morally neutral “medicinal complex.”2 As Stephan Palmié has pointed out, however, “obeah” owes as much to the British legal regulation, beginning with the obeah regulations resulting from Jamaica’s 1760 slave uprising known as Tacky’s War, as to any African traditions that alleged obeah practitioners may have been drawing on.3 From early on, throughout the British Caribbean the regulation of black bodies by anti-obeah laws was intertwined with the colonial delineation of religion and race.4 If obeah was categorized as “African,” then, how did Indians become “obeahmen”? In Trinidad, Indians and Africans shared spirit

-110-

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The Regulation of Religion and the Making of Hinduism in Colonial Trinidad
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Crossing the Dark Water 19
  • Part I - Religion 35
  • 2 - Converting Religion 37
  • 3 - Regulating Religion 73
  • 4 - Outlawing Religion 110
  • Part II - Hinduism 149
  • 5 - Standardizing Sanatana Dharma 151
  • 6 - Making World Religions 192
  • Postscript 231
  • Notes 239
  • Bibliography 271
  • Index 291
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