Identities criminalized under the black code[1] as being too black, that of the conjure woman and medicine man are similarly repudiated in West Indian schools of thought. They are referred to as “ignorant negroes” repeatedly in a sanctimonious attempt at excommunication by the middle classes designated as “coloured”, “high brown” or “creole”. African syncretic practices being held no higher in regard than incredulous superstition have been very poorly documented as a result of assimilation, legislation and persecution.

Édit du Roi, Touchant la Police des Isles d’Amérique Française (Paris, 1685)

Obeah was passed off as a quack science following the proclamation of emancipation in an effort to escort people out of their blackness and into civility, but its history of use as a science dates back to the earliest indigenous inhabitants of the terrain[2]. That its practice was relegated the term “Obeah” in the hundred years post-colonial lexicon is significant in pointing to the fact that African-syncretic tradition of medicine held no distinction over the many other separate categories of ritual technique ascribed to various subsets of magic and superstition. “Obeah” being the phonetic articulation of the Igbo derived “obi ya”, literally his/her soul, alludes to what one is prohibited from knowing and the act of unknowing that thing rather than a defined convention. What little has been documented of its unified customs, however, reflects an extensive arsenal of folk magic whose use ranges from oracular dream identification to psychic defense.

Rarely seeking expression of his or her soul within institutions incepted to mimic insular precepts of whiteness, the “instruments of obeah” remain fearsome and peripheral icons of class and race to date, whose necessary elimination harkens back to a systematic genocide.

Illustration of Obeah effigy object. confiscated in Montego Bay in 1887 (Robinson & Walhouse 1893)

The birth of this nation is in the death of the indigenous. In order for this to come about, all memory of natural power must be obfuscated from existence. This trademark of colonial settlement is widely studied and reproduced. The model for Apartheid, for instance, is identical to the model used to segregate and re-educate First Nations peoples of Canada is identical to the model used for el nakba in Palestine, and so on. Cross sections of transatlantic reality are universal.

My Siboney Ancestor Narrowly Escaping the Wrath in Cuba, oil on canvas, Lili Bernard, 2007

Houngans have always been critical and imperative to the struggle to free from colonial status the subjects of the new world. Jamaicans are no strangers to wielding our own power. Of all the privileges that exist in this world, none of which the houngan, the conjure woman, the shaman or the obeah man may be a beneficiary, there is at least one he bears and that is the privilege of having been born into magic.

His codices are reproduced at a cellular level. In the fabric of his skillset for acquiring knowledge of the world there is a collective recollection of a natural source: Ntu, Amma, Olodumare. These are reflections of ancestral connection to the beginning of power, the primordial spark of Ashé, Nyama, Nomo. With these fruits of the spirit he bears the rites of the dead, the living and the yet unborn. These are concepts cultivated through eternity. For carrying these ideas in his heart he is outlawed.

Ceremonie du Bois Caïman II (Revolution of Saint-Domingue, Haiti, 1791) Ulrick Jean-Pierre, 1995

Disaccumulation of his precapitalist weltanschauung is essential to revoking his agency as a primary source of cheap labour. Disinherited of powers expressed “in foreign tongue” of “supernatural” forces for personal “gain”, he will become an architect of the mediocrity on which the exploitation of his labour thrives.

In keeping with the tradition of the missionaries this order is exclusively the will of god. Today Jamaica is a predominantly christian territory. Having donned the mask of the civilizer as a way of acting out the role of master, belief in the rule of law as god’s prescription remains an active premise in daily life among the middle classes. That these sentiments are legislated throughout the West Indies[3] indicates our laws are not derived from god however, as the bible states but from aristocrats. Fundamentalism has been instrumental in the deflection of uprising in and around the region.

Archival material speaks of the “ignorant negro” and his soul. Where there is reference made to the ancestors it is compounded with anecdotal lore out of European superstition. The argument for the existence of the soul must be delineated in order for the economic system of orientalism to be sustained. If a man’s rights are as property rather than as person he may retire himself in all endeavours to the singular concern of upward mobility and willingly part with his autonomy. Having been broken from his mother land and his values, trauma of depersonalization settles him into this new role in what Skinner deemed the “schizophrenogenic” environment. This new man will exist at odds with his internal narrative. Having lost everything he will give up anything at the same time having nothing left to lose. It is the same man who will give up his life as a mercenary having identified with the lot of the martyr. His soul’s troubles, having been divorced from the life of his ego, will be treated with an unnatural bane and in this moment he will open himself to death by any means. The health of such a man is always poor for he refuses to know himself.


Image credit The Caribbean Photo Archive, Writing by Zena Nicholson

Endnotes

[1]The black code refers to the law passed by Louis XIV in 1685 which stipulates under article III. that religions outside of the Catholic faith are forbidden from being practiced in the open and are considered a punishable offence in the case of anyone who allows such proceedings to take place.
[2]“Obeah” as a broad term used to decry natural practices of faith and medicine also constitutes the religious way of the island’s indigenous inhabitants before Columbus.
[3]In 1760 the law deeming Obeah a criminal offense punishable by death was implemented, in response to Tacky’s Rebellion, as part of an effort to quash encouraging influences on slave uprisings. Added provisions to this law were made under the vagrancy act of 1833. The law was then made a standalone act in 1854, with further adjustments to the language in 1857, 1892 and 1893 until its final stabilization was written in 1898.

The Obeah act remains in effect to this day.

Sources

Various Authors, “Folklore of the Negroes of Jamaica”, Mico College, 1896

Nguyen, Nam H., “Essential 22000 Phrases in English – Igbo”, 2018

Paton, D., “The Racist History of Jamaica’s Obeah Act”, Repeating Islands, June 17, 2019

Skinner, B.F., “Beyond Freedom and Dignity”, 1971