Diana Paton is Reader in Caribbean History at Newcastle University in the UK. She is the author of No Bond but the Law: Punishment, Race, and Gender in Jamaican State Formation, 1760-1870, and an editor of Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing, both published by Duke University Press. Her research on obeah can be explored further at www.obeahhistories.org
By Diana Paton
On 26 February, the Jamaican House of Representatives approved the Obeah (Amendment) Act 2012, which removes flogging from the punishments that can be imposed on people convicted of practicing Obeah. The Act was one of three that will eliminate flogging from Jamaica’s penal system, allowing the country to ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. One might also speculate that, in amending the law on flogging—which is no longer used—the Jamaican government hopes to reduce the pressure on it in relation to other areas of concern about human rights, especially the death penalty, the use of excessive force by security forces, and the rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people.
Introducing the Acts, the Attorney General stated that flogging and whipping were a legacy of the era of slavery. Yet although Obeah’s illegality is just as much a legacy of slavery—and of emancipation— as is the use of flogging in the penal system, the Jamaican government does not propose to repeal the Obeah Act of 1898 itself.
The initial criminalization of Obeah was a counter-insurgency measure, a response to rebellion by enslaved people. Tacky’s Rebellion in Jamaica in 1760 took months to suppress. The rebels, led by Akan people from what is today Ghana, built solidarity through oaths administered by an ‘obeiah man’. In response, Jamaica’s House of Assembly passed an ‘Act to Remedy the Evils arising from Irregular Assemblies of Slaves’. This law, the first to explicitly prohibit Obeah, included the provision that:
any Negro or other Slave who shall pretend to any Supernatural Power, and be detected in making use of any Blood, Feathers, Parrots Beaks, Dogs Teeth, Alligators Teeth, Broken Bottles, Grave Dirt, Rum, Egg-shells or any other Materials relative to the Practice of Obeah or Witchcraft in order to delude and impose on the Minds of others shall upon Conviction … suffer death or transportation.
Most other Caribbean colonies eventually followed suit, and by the time slavery ended in 1838, only a few did not have laws prohibiting Obeah.
Flogging was similarly a routine part of the system of slavery. In every slave society it was lawful for slaveholders to order enslaved people to be flogged. In addition, the slave courts frequently ordered floggings for enslaved people convicted of crimes such as running away.
Despite this history, the provisions for flogging and against Obeah that remain in Caribbean criminal law are not simply ‘legacies of slavery’. It would be more accurate to say that they are legacies of emancipation. The end of slavery redefined the relationship between those who had been masters and those who had been enslaved, making both parties private individuals. It was no longer lawful for one of those individuals to inflict violence on another. And all the laws governing enslaved people lapsed when the system of slavery itself became illegal, including almost all laws against Obeah. For a brief period in many colonies, Obeah was no longer illegal and flogging as punishment for crime did not exist.
But the relatively liberal penal systems of the immediate post-emancipation era did not last. As planters adjusted to life after slavery, they implemented a whole new series of laws to control the newly freed population, as well as the indentured labourers then arriving from India. Flogging began to creep back into criminal law as part of a new post-emancipation form of colonial government. In Jamaica, flogging was abolished as a punishment for crime in 1840, but was reintroduced in 1850 for crimes involving sex, including sodomy, bestiality, and rape. Governments around the Caribbean passed new laws against Obeah in the second half of the nineteenth century, culminating in an intense period of legislation between 1890 and 1905. The Obeah Act currently being amended in Jamaica was passed in 1898, while the colony of the Leeward Islands passed an important Obeah Act in 1904. In Guyana, an ‘Ordinance to repress the commission of Obeah practices’ was passed in 1855, and Obeah was incorporated into laws against vagrancy from 1893. Most of the Obeah Laws authorized flogging for men as a punishment.
These new laws against Obeah differed from their slavery-era predecessors. During slavery, the penalty for Obeah was usually either death or transportation. In practice, ‘transportation’ usually meant being sold to slave traders into a different slave system, although during the 1820s and 1830s some Caribbean enslaved people were sent to Australia as transportees. The post-slavery penalties for Obeah were still significant—prison sentences, floggings, and sometimes fines—but were considerably less than the older punishments. The new laws were also different in that they were less focused on suppressing rebellion, more concerned with transforming Caribbean culture. Their advocates argued that the repression of practices of spiritual healing that were collectively referred to as Obeah would help transform the region from—as they saw it—a backward and uncivilized place to one that was modern, respectable, and civilized.
Obeah laws after emancipation were much more vigorously enforced than those during slavery had been. Across the Caribbean, people who would never have been prosecuted for Obeah during slavery found themselves facing prison sentences and floggings in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Felix Grosvenor, an assistant teacher at St Augustine’s lower school in Buxton, Demerara, was arrested for practicing obeah after he admitted placing a crapaud in a box and a phial containing ‘dirty-coloured liquid’ in an office as a ‘lark’ (Port of Spain Gazette, 11 March 1919). I have found no report of the outcome of the case, which may have been dropped without trial.
But many cases did go to court. A couple of years earlier, in Jamaica, William Brown was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and twelve lashes after he attempted to heal a woman by spiritual means. Brown’s ritual involved attempting to remove duppies that he said were afflicting the patient. He spoke in an ‘unknown tongue’ and made use of ‘two eggs, a white saucer, seven limes and a piece of cedar wood’, which he placed in a washing pan (Jamaica Daily Gleaner, 21 April 1917).
In Jamaica, where I have most thoroughly researched the application of anti-obeah laws, prosecutions for obeah were regular until the end of the 1940s, and then declined. I found an average of 15 obeah cases a year reported in the Daily Gleaner between 1890 and 1949, considerably fewer in the 1950s, and only nine cases since independence in 1962. (No official records were kept of these cases, so the historian must make use of newspaper reports as sources.) The most recent Jamaican conviction for Obeah I found was in 1964, with a handful of subsequent arrests (Gleaner, 26 March 1964). Clearly, although the independent government of Jamaica did not repeal the Obeah Act, those responsible for enforcing it took some kind of informal decision that people should no longer be prosecuted for obeah.
Also in 1964, a man named Skrinauth Tiwari, described as a ‘Hindu Priest’, was convicted in Georgetown under the obeah laws (Gleaner, 22 October 1964). He allegedly had claimed to ‘possess supernatural powers which enabled him to heal people’. As this example shows, laws against obeah were by no means used only against those of African descent. Although explanations of what obeah was usually included the claim that it was in some way ‘African’, and ‘obeah’ for many symbolized the Caribbean’s connection to the African continent, in practice the activities that led to prosecution for obeah drew on a wide variety of cultural antecedents. These included beliefs from a variety of African societies about the power of ancestors and spirits in the lives of the living, but also incorporated traditional healing rituals with European, Amerindian, and Indian roots, and increasingly integrated new religious ideas, such as Spiritualism and Theosophy, that developed in the late nineteenth century and were taken up especially strongly in the United States. American companies, particularly the Chicago-based De Laurence company, became the suppliers of choice of books of esoteric knowledge, many of which were reprints and translations of medieval European books.
Many in Guyana believe that Obeah was long ago decriminalized there, because of Forbes Burnham’s widely reported 1973 speech in which he stated that he would repeal the obeah laws. They were, he claimed, part of a Guyanese tendency to ‘look down on our way of life, our expressions of joy or sorrow, our ancient forms of worship and our mysteries’ (Guyana Graphic, 2 November 1973). In fact, Burnham never followed through on this statement, and Obeah remains illegal under the Summary Jurisdiction (Offences) Act which uses similar language to the Obeah Ordinance of 1855. The maximum penalty is twelve months imprisonment, along with a flogging for men and solitary confinement for women, and a fine of between $10,000 and $20,000. However, a number of other states, including Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados, have revised their penal laws to remove the crime of Obeah from the statute book.
it matter that Obeah is a crime, or that flogging is still a potential punishment for it and other offences, if these laws are hardly ever used? Aren’t there many more important things for people in the region to worry about? I would argue that it does indeed matter, even though there are of course many other issues of concern. These laws form part of a penal system built as a partial replacement for slavery, which criminalized many aspects of ordinary Caribbean people’s everyday lives. This penal system included corporal punishments that were exclusively used in the colonies, thus emphasizing the different and inferior status of colonial peoples. And by criminalizing spiritual healing practices that were symbolically associated with Africa, this penal system reinforced the idea that Africa and African culture were contemptible and barbaric. The continuation of laws against Obeah into the present suggests that, despite much rhetoric about the celebration of diversity, the ideas that underlay such laws remain significant today.