In early June, Jamaica’s Minister of Justice, Delroy Chuck, suggested that the government might repeal the 1898 Obeah Act. The Act makes it illegal to be a ‘person practising Obeah’, which it defines as: ‘any person who, to effect any fraudulent or unlawful purpose, or for gain, or for the purpose of frightening any person, uses, or pretends to use any occult means, or pretends to possess any supernatural power or knowledge.’
The backlash was swift. Many Jamaicans vocally stated their opposition to repeal, on the grounds that obeah is evil. Chuck qualified his statement, and Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced that his government would ‘not be distracted’ by discussions of obeah. Still, the debate has disturbed assumptions that the illegality of obeah is a settled question.
The divisions within Jamaica about the status of the law stem from the double meaning of the term. In everyday use, obeah names hostile spiritual practices that many Jamaicans fear. Yet the wording of the law and its historical use by the judicial system targets a much wider range of activities. Obeah was initially criminalised to protect slavery against uprisings; the current law was made to symbolise Jamaica’s hostility to its African connections and to suppress poor people’s religion.
Until the 1950s, Jamaicans were regularly prosecuted under the Obeah Act for all kinds of religious rituals. In the early 20th century, balm healers, Revivalists, Garveyites, and people who later joined with Leonard Howell to form Rastafari were all prosecuted for obeah, even though many of them were resolutely hostile to obeah themselves. Readers can examine evidence from hundreds of cases on my research website, Caribbean Religious Trials. A few obeah cases involved people trying to harm others, and some, especially in Kingston, involved efforts to defraud people. The vast majority did not. When police constables disguised themselves and sought out the help of those they wanted to prosecute for obeah, they told stories about ill health and problems with love, employment, or business, not about efforts to harm their enemies.
Over the last generation, many laws against obeah have been quietly repealed or revised away. Obeah was decriminalised in Anguilla in 1980, Barbados in 1998, Trinidad and Tobago in 2000, and St Lucia in 2004. In Guyana, the government last year announced its intention to remove the crime of obeah from the criminal code. In Jamaica, the last conviction for obeah that I found was that of Cindy Brooks, in 1964. The last arrest for obeah I located was in 1977.
Although the law is no longer used, in Jamaica, talk of its repeal produces concern. Obeah, as well as naming a broadly defined crime, is also a term for hostile spiritual practices that many Jamaicans fear. Yet those who think of obeah only as an active evil presence should look more carefully at what the Obeah Act prohibits and why.
Obeah was first made illegal in 1760, as part of a sweepingly repressive act passed in the aftermath of Tacky’s Rebellion, the largest uprising of enslaved people in the 18th-century British-colonised Caribbean. The law was a direct response to the fact that the rebellion’s leaders were advised by obeah men who attempted to give them courage, solidarity, and spiritual protection. Along with prohibiting enslaved people from holding weapons and restricting their ability to congregate, the law made obeah a crime punishable by death if done by any ‘Negro or other slave’. Those prosecuted under it were enslaved people whose actions damaged slavery, either because they were aimed directly at slaveholders or because they harmed other enslaved people – and thus might reduce the value of slaveholders’ property.
The law against obeah lapsed with the end of slavery in 1834. The Jamaican government, like other Caribbean governments, acted quickly to ensure that obeah remained a crime. The 1833 Vagrancy Act prohibited obeah. The first stand-alone Obeah Act, passed in 1854, made obeah a crime punishable by flogging and imprisonment. It equated obeah with ‘myalism’, thus defining obeah not just as acts meant to cause harm but as connected more broadly to religions with African origins.
Further changes to the law took place in 1857, 1892, and 1893, before stabilising in the Obeah Act 1898. This legislation, with minor amendments, remains in force today. The 1898 act was intended to make it easier to secure convictions. It maintained the equation of obeah and myalism, and defined the crime of being a ‘person practising obeah’ as: any person who, to effect any fraudulent or unlawful purpose, or for gain, or for the purpose of frightening any person, uses, or pretends to use any occult means, or pretends to possess any supernatural power or knowledge.
Even more important, the 1898 act introduced the legal category of the ‘Instrument of Obeah’, which it defined extraordinarily broadly as “any thing used, or intended to be used by a person, and pretended by such person to be possessed of any occult or supernatural power”. The burden of proof now fell on those in possession of an ‘instrument of obeah’ to prove that they were not practising obeah.
In one typical case from 1928, Zachariah Kerr of Westmoreland received a nine-month prison sentence for practising obeah. The evidence against him was that Kerr had told another man that he could cure him, gave him a bottle of salt water, lit three lamps, spoke in an ‘unknown tongue’, suggested that the man seeking help join his church, and accepted five shillings. Norman W. Manley took the case to the appeal court, but lost. The judge concluded that Kerr’s actions did contravene the obeah law: the ‘unknown tongue’ (supernatural power), the salt water (instruments of obeah), and the five shillings (for gain) between them satisfied the legal requirements.
This sweeping definition could theoretically apply to almost any form of religious activity that makes use of material objects and where religious specialists accept financial contributions. The Caribbean Court of Justice recently ruled, in its 2018 decision on the gendered clothing law in Guyana, that broad and vague wording of colonial-era laws is unconstitutional. It decided that a law so vague that its application is arbitrary breaches the rule of law. Similar criticisms could be made of the Obeah Act.
In practice, the law was used almost exclusively against poor Jamaicans, mostly black but also sometimes Indian. This was not accidental. Those who supported harsh obeah laws, including many middle-class Jamaicans, intended that the law should intervene broadly in everyday cultural life to wean Jamaicans away from beliefs and practices understood as connected to Africa. For instance, an anonymous correspondent in the Gleaner in 1890 called for a harsher obeah law, complaining that belief in obeah was “an indelible stigma on the land we live in”. One context for the tightening of the law was the increasing power of independent black-led religious movements, including Bedwardism and Revivalism. The law’s supporters also wanted to prove to the outside world – and specifically, to observers from Britain and the United States – that Jamaica was a ‘civilised’, ‘modern’ place, by which they meant that its people rejected their connection to Africa, their blackness.
The experience of Smith’s Village, a poor West Kingston community that was home to many adherents of the African-Christian Revival religion, shows how this worked in practice. (Smith’s Village was rebuilt in the 1930s and renamed Denham Town.) Police repeatedly raided the area during the first third of the nineteenth century, arresting Revivalists for obeah. In one obeah case the sentencing magistrate made the connection to Revival explicit. He sent four people to prison with the words: ‘I shall keep you at a place where you won’t have any revival for some time.’
The primary function of Jamaica’s Obeah Act has been to reinforce class and race hierarchies. Repeal would make little difference to everyday life, because the act is never used. But it would indicate that the country no longer endorses a law initiated to protect slavery and renewed to symbolise Jamaica’s hostility to its African connections. It would be a rejection of cultural colonialism.
This article was first published in the Jamaica Gleaner and is republished here with their permission.
For those following the obeah debate in Jamaica and interested in reading more: here is an initial #obeahsyllabus (starting with but not limited to my work). Thanks to publishers who have made much of my work (temporarily) free to access [THREAD]
— Diana Paton (@diana_paton) June 18, 2019
Three chapters of Diana Paton, The Cultural Politics of Obeah (Cambridge University Press, 2015)are free for a limited period. Chapters 5 and 6 (free access) are based on analysis of all the obeah arrests and trials reported in the Jamaica Gleaner and the Port of Spain Gazette from 1890-1939 and show how everyday activities prosecution was used.
Diana Paton’s research on obeah can be explored further online at Caribbean Religious Trials. Notes on the trials themselves, and some transcripts, are in this database, so people can do their own research. Obeah Histories also tells some of the stories of thousands of people in the Caribbean subject to prosecution for their religious and spiritual healing practice.
On the first law against obeah, passed in 1760: Diana Paton, “Witchcraft, Poison, Law, and Atlantic Slavery.” The William and Mary Quarterly 69, no. 2 (2012): 235-64.
On why laws against obeah are so hard to shift, especially compared to other restrictions on religious freedom: Diana Paton, “Obeah Acts: Producing and Policing the Boundaries of Religion in the Caribbean”, Small Axe 13 (2009), 1-18.
Diana Paton and Maarit Forde eds., Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing (Duke University Press, 2012).
Four important articles by Jerome Handler on obeah, two of them with Kenneth Bilby, are available here. Handler and Bilby show that before c. 1760 the implications of the term ‘obeah’ were generally positive or neutral.
Bilby and Handler document the development of obeah law across the Caribbean in Enacting Power: The Criminalization of Obeah in the Anglophone Caribbean, 1760–2011 (University of the West Indies Press, 2012)
Vincent Brown on the ‘Spiritual Terror’ used in Jamaica to try to awe enslaved people, and their counter-practice of obeah:Slavery & Abolition 24 (2003), 24-53.
On a similar period, Sasha Turner examines poison and obeah accusations during slavery alongside each other: “The Art of Power: Poison and Obeah Accusations and the Struggle for Dominance and Survival in Jamaica’s Slave Society”, Caribbean Studies 41 (2013), 61-90.
J. Brent Crosson argues, based on ethnographic fieldwork in Trinidad, that obeah today is a ‘justice-making technology’: “What Obeah Does Do: Healing, Harm, and the Limits of Religion”, Journal of Africana Religions 3 (2015), 151-76.
Highlights of this special issue of Atlantic Studies on ‘Obeah: Knowledge, Power and Writing in the Early Atlantic World’ include Katherine Gerbner ‘They Call me Obea’, on obeah in Moravian-influenced communities in Jamaica in the 1750s.
Randy M. Browne, “The “Bad Business” of Obeah: Power, Authority, and the Politics of Slave Culture in the British Caribbean”, The William and Mary Quarterly 68 (2011), 451-80.
For comparative perspective, Kate Ramsey’s The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti (University of Chicago Press, 2011) shows the similar but different legal/cultural/moral trajectory of Vodou.
And for early classic articles, see: Donald W.Hogg, “Magic and “Science” in Jamaica”, Caribbean Studies 1 (1961): 1-5 and W. F. Elkins, “William Lauron DeLaurence and Jamaican Folk Religion”, Folklore 97 (1986), 215-18.
This article was updated soon after publication on 4 July 2019.