'Black Magic' and Diasporic Imagination

Kirsten Raupach

Desert now my country lies;
Moss-grown now my altars rise;
O, my troubled spirit sighs
When I hear my people’s cries!
Hurry, Orrah, o’er the flood,
Bathe thy sword in Christian blood!
Whidah will thy side protect
Whidah will thy arm direct!

(Anon., 1791, 238)

...this is how an anonymous British writer in 1791 imagined the West Indian slaves’ preparation for insurrection and self-liberation. Their ritualistic incantations are portrayed as African-based and savage. They are opposed to white Christianity and pose a threat to the white man’s safety. The slaves’ worship of their African God Whidah evokes a bloody atmosphere of uncontrollable hatred, and merciless retribution and thus reveals the unease and suspicion with which slave masters watched the religious and cultural ceremonies of their African slaves. The perception of black religious belief systems as powerful, exotic and ultimately “other” and its presentation as unintelligible and threatening to the established order, call into question white constructions of European domination and African powerlessness in colonial discourse.

Within the colonial framework the slaves’ survival depended on their ability to resist their complete absorption into the masters’ cultural ideologies. Their resistance to coerced acculturation is most evident in the slaves’ Creolization of African-based religions, which in a dynamic process merged with - but never surrendered to – European Christian religious, social and cultural practices. African-derived elements were preserved and either coexisted or converged with Christian symbols. These heterogeneous diasporan religions – a term coined by Joseph Murphy – share a common African heritage. They were reshaped in response to the demands of the new environment and used as a form of protest against the ideologies underlying European colonialism. (vgl. Olmos; Paravisini-Gebert, 1997, 3)

In providing a repository of collective memory, African-based religious belief systems offered strategies of survival and identity formation, but most of all they could be opposed to the dominant European culture. Especially Obeah, a syncretized religion, played a predominant role in the British Caribbean isles. Less based on communal worship than other hybrid forms such as Voodoo or Santeria, Obeah was considered more subversive, inspirational and dangerous. It threatened to undermine European authority because it involved secret nightly rituals and individual consultations with an Obeah-Man or Woman, which could not always be controlled by the slave master.

In order to understand the powerful and unsettling effect of the slaves’ display of their „Africaness“ in diasporic rituals on the white colonial masters it is useful to take a closer look at the representation of Obeah practices in British literary productions. How did colonial masters respond, make sense of or even exorcise a force that seemed to be so alien to their own culture, and which could not be fully contained or controlled?

Obeah or Obi was a form of African-based religious practice which was mostly found in the British West Indies. It involved magic spells, secret nightly rituals, the belief in the power of talisman amulets, the so called Obeah bags, ingredients such as clay, teeth, hair, bones etc., as well as medical and spiritual healing. It was vaguely comparable to other forms of magical belief systems such as Voodoo in Haiti or the Santeria-rituals practiced in Cuba and other former Spanish colonies. The Obeah man was believed to possess the power to communicate with spirits which are at his disposal, and to achieve good or evil. He could summon these unearthly spirits to cause death, pain, illness, poverty, but also make them undo harm. Thus, his supernatural powers allowed him to manipulate his environment and to shape it according to his own will. During slavery Obeah men were highly respected and feared by their fellow slaves. Obeah fulfilled various important social functions within the black community. Through Obi, a thief could be convicted or a murderer be made to confess his deed. Thus, even within a system of oppression which deprived the individual of his natural rights, social control and justice could be maintained on a microcosmic level.

Obeah worship and the secret rituals performed at midnight marked a spiritual sphere which was carefully concealed from the white master and which, therefore, belonged exclusively to the slaves. To many of them Obeah rituals represented a meaningful bonding-experience. As a strategy of spiritual survival within the foreign Caribbean environment it helped them to keep the common memories of their African past alive and to develop a cultural identity of their own - different from that of their masters. Nevertheless, the veil of mystery and secrecy surrounding Obeah and the exclusion of the white master made the representatives of the dominant culture suspect that Obeah was also a form of resistance and opposition. The profession of Obeah was a self-conscious claim to power. Lawrence Levine in his influential study on Black Culture and Black Consciousness observes:

There were many things white folks did not know, and because of this their power, great as it was, was limited. This, I think, is one of the primary messages of slave magic. The whites were neither omnipotent or omniscient; there were things they did not know, forces they could not control, areas in which slaves could act with more knowledge and authority than their masters, ways in which the powers of the whites could be muted if not thwarted entirely. (Levine, 1977, 73-74)

Obeah indeed played a significant role in slave resistance. When in 1760 a slave revolution known as Tacky’s Rebellion took place in Jamaica, the white perception of Obeah as a harmless phenomenon of black life changed radically. Thirty to forty white plantation holders were killed. Bryan Edwards’ description, written 30 years after the event took place, still reveals the subtle anxieties and insecurities of the white planter aristocracy. Edwards construes the black revolutionaries as savage, vampire-like cannibals without any human sentiment. What made matters worse was the discovery that the rebellion was initiated by an Obeah man who was, according to Edwards,

[...] an old Koromantyn Negro, the chief instigator and oracle of the
insurgents in that parish, who had administered the Fetish or solemn oath to
the conspirators, and furnished them with a magical preparation which was to
render them invulnerable [...]. (Edwards, 1793, 94)

From then on Obeah was viewed as a resistant cultural practice which challenged British domination. Tacky’s Rebellion gave rise to strong official sanctions and to the passing of Anti-Obeah Laws: Drumming and dancing at night were strictly prohibited, and masters had to notify and prevent any assembling of slaves. In addition, slave owners were encouraged to spread the Christian gospel among their slaves and to insist on their conversion. In 1789 these Anti-Obeah-Laws became even stricter. (vgl. Götz, 1995, 114 ff)

Even though it never became clear if Obeah really played a part in the preparation of Tacky’s Rebellion, rumors were sufficient to establish a link between Obeah belief and slave revolution in the white man’s mind. Shortly after Bryan Edwards had published his influential study of Jamaica and the West Indies, and had thus introduced Obeah to a wide British public, the Obeah man as instigator of revolt became a standard motif in British literary texts. Especially during the years of the Haitian Revolution from 1792 to 1804, when one of the leaders, Boukman, was said to be a Voodoo Priest, the subject of Obeah became highly popular in Britain. Novels, poems and theatre productions which dealt with the topic flooded the market. This amazing amount of publications dealing with the subject of Obeah cannot simply be explained as a romantic longing for the exoticism of distant countries. It was, more likely, a reaction to the increasing instability of the colonial set-up which was constantly being challenged by slave revolutions in overseas territories. Such literary productions reflect white anxieties triggered by the on-going revolutionary struggles in St. Domingo. Frequent slave uprisings and fights for national independence followed the French Revolution. The slave revolt in the French Caribbean island of Santo Domingo, which finally led to the foundation of the black Republic of Haiti, and the utter defeat of Leclerc’s troops, ultimately opened the eyes of the British public to the limitations of colonial power and expansionist politics, while at the same time pointing out the dangers of tampering with the established order.

In British literary representations of Obeah, however, the multi-facetted social, moral, and psychological functions these disporic rituals fulfilled for the slave community became limited to one single aspect: Obeah and its inherent potential to inspire slave rebellion.

Haste! The magic shreds prepare—
Thus the white man’s corse we tear.
Lo! Feathers from the raven’s plume,
That croaks our proud Oppressors’s doom
Now to aid the potent spell,
Crush we next the brittle shell—
Fearful omen to the foe
Look the blanched bones we throw.
From mouldering graves we stole the hallow’d earth,
Which mix’d with blood, winds up the magic charm;
Wide yawns the grave for all of northern birth,
And soon shall smoke with blood each sable warrior’s arm.

(W. Shepard, 1797, 415)

In this poem Obeah features as a serious threat to imperial stability and the white man’s safety: "When we with magic rites the white man’s doom prepare." James Montgomery warns the British readership not to delay abolitionist measures any further: "Tremble Britannia! While thine islands tell/The appalling mysteries of Obi’s spell." (Montgomery, [1807] 1850, 26) These excerpts illustrate the various narrative strategies British authors applied in order to come to terms with the unsettling implications of Obeah. Obeah worship is either construed as merely a trivial and, at best, amusing idiosyncrasy of slave life and it is dismissed as irrelevant and meaningless to the enlightened white observer. At the same time, however, Obeah worship was rendered responsible for the slaves’ discontent. The revolutionary scenario presented in these texts is mostly inspired by the perfidious deceptions of Obeah practitioners who manipulate the till then contented and obedient slaves into rising against their masters. Europeans were thus absolved of their guilt.

Most of these poems envision Obeah rituals as group gatherings –which in fact they weren’t – and as dangerous seedbeds of rebellious plotting. Even when written in support of the Abolition Campaign they still reveal severe colonial unease and racial prejudices. Black revolutionaries, in spite of their justified course, were portrayed as savage and coded as heathen primitives, who were in need of redemption from spiritual darkness. Therefore, conversion to Christianity was increasingly promoted as a cure to slave unrest--which of course was just another form of hidden colonialism.

To the white master the unsettling otherness of the slaves became most evident in their religious practices. Interestingly enough, portrayals of diasporan religion were modeled on European concepts of witchcraft. This becomes especially evident in Maria Edgeworth’s portrayal of the Obeah woman Esther in her narrative “The Grateful Negro”. "Esther, an old Koromantyn Negress, [who] had obtained by her skill in poisonous herbs, and her knowledge of venomous reptiles, a high reputation among her countrymen." (Edgeworth, [1803] 1985, 312) Esther prepares her fellow slaves for rebellion and administers the "solemn fetish oath" to the revolutionary slaves. While she sings "incantations" by "the blue flame of a cauldron" she prepares a "bowl of poison" into which the conspirators are supposed to dip their knives. Esther, like the witches in Macbeth is constructed as an old "hag" with "shriveled hand[s]" who viciously "burst[s] into an infernal laugh" while stirring a venomous liquid in a "cauldron" on a "blue flame". Apart from the desire to come to terms with and control the threat of slave rebellions there was also the colonizer’s need to delimit anything that eluded control. The strange and incomprehensible actions of the slaves were translated in terms of the familiar. By modeling portrayals of diasporan religion on European perceptions of witchcraft the ungraspable and threatening other could be contained and reinvented as something known, a force which could be overcome and exorcised – just as occurrences of witchcraft in Europe were now considered as historical past.

Until 1760 the colonial masters paid little attention to the cultural-religious ceremonies of their slaves. Being well aware of the revolutionary potential inherent in Christian concepts of equality, they even strove to prevent the slaves from Baptism. In the revolutionary era the slaves’ conversion to Christianity was increasingly seen as a potential cure to African savagery as constructed in white accounts of Obeah:

Obeah is the witchcraft of the West Indies. The sworn foe of Christianity and civilization, it hinders every effort to uplift the negro race; it is a superstition as degrading as widespread, a standing menace to the social order. But for the strong hand of the British Government, it might at any time incite the mass of ignorant blacks to massacre the mere handful of whites thinly scattered amongst them. (Anon., 1902, 81)

The soothing and consoling effect of the Christian message of salvation was intended to lighten the burden of slave existence by promising a better and glorious life to come. Feelings of hatred and revenge might be soothed and replaced by the New Testament’s message of brotherly love and forgiveness. How little slave-holders knew and understood of the spiritual world of their slaves can best be illustrated by the observations of the Jamaican planter Matthew Gregory Lewis:

The whole advantages to be derived by negroes from becoming Christians, seemed to consist with them in two points; being a superior species of magic itself, it preserved them from black Obeah; and by enabling them to take an oath upon the Bible to the truth of any lie which might suit them to tell, they believed that it would give them the power of humbugging the white people with perfect ease and convenience. (Lewis, [1834] 1969, 374)

Lewis’ insights reveal the short-sightedness of the white mission to convert slaves to Christianity and illustrate the limitations of white influence over the spiritual lives of slaves. The apparent readiness of black people towards conversion was, in reality, a suitable means to manipulate their masters by paying lip-service to their beliefs and by faking the impression of willing obedience. Beyond the sphere of white influence they could thus maintain a space of free agency and power, build a culture of their own and develop an alternative identity: “[...] the missionaries led and guided the slaves far less than they imagined. They congratulated themselves on the way in which the slaves joyfully accepted Christianity in slavery’s last phase, but failed to notice how the new religion was shaped by the slaves in their own needs and ends.” (Craton, 1982, 103)

Enslaved people found elements in Christian worship that resembled their own religious practices of their African heritage and they reinterpreted the new religion according to familiar patterns. The Christian concept of a Supreme Being, the worship of saints, the sensuous services with incense and altars showed strong analogies to black religious beliefs and could thus easily be adopted and fused with non-Christian religious practices.

What appealed most to the slaves was the story of Exodus. The biblical narrative of the Jewish Diaspora - the Israelites who were captured, displaced, enslaved and wronged provided a compelling parallel that could be employed to make sense of their own suffering and diasporic displacement. Moreover, the parallels enslaved Africans constructed between themselves and the Israelites as the chosen people, their rescue at the Red Sea and entrance of the Promised Land provided them with the prospect of hope and thus encouraged endurance. In this respect, the adoption of the Judeo-Christian myth fulfilled the same social functions as the practice of Obeah.

Even the element of subversion and revenge is still present: While blacks envisioned themselves as the Israelites, their white enslavers were cast in a different part of the Exodus story – their role was that of the Egyptian oppressors, their prospect that of defeat, death and destruction. The lyrics of slave songs such as: „My army cross ober, My army cross ober,/ O Pharaoh’s army drownded,“ speak to the retribution blacks envisaged when adopting and reenacting the tale of God’s liberation of his chosen people.

The above examples were chosen to illustrate how black diasporan thinking, rituals of remembrance, social bonding across racial diversity, worship of African Gods, and imagined return to the homeland did in fact challenge conceptions of white superiority in colonial discourse. Obeah worship not only just provided the real potential of slave uprising--the cultural expressions of the slaves seemed to have haunted their masters on a day to day basis. The fact that the theme of Obi permeated British colonial discourse illustrates that the slaves’ voices could not be fully silenced. Obeah becomes a resonant reminder of the instability of an already crumbling system of coerced obedience.

Works Cited

Anon. "Ode: The Insurrection of the Slaves at St. Domingo. Written in the Year 1792." Rpt.

The Courier in The Spirit of the Public Journals for 1797. London: Ridgway 2nd. ed. [1797] 1799. 238-240.

Anon. „Obeah Today in the West Indies.“ Chamber’s Journal 5/215 (1902): 81-85.

Craton, Michael. Testing the Chains. Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies. Ithaca; London: Cornell UP, 1982.

Edgeworth, Maria. “The Grateful Negro." 1803. Rpt. The Norton Anthology. Literature by Women. Ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. New York: Norton, 1985.

Edwards, Bryan. The History Civil and Commercial of the British Colonies in the West Indies. London: John Stockdale, 1793.

Fernandez Olmos, Margarite; and Lisbeth Paravisi-Gebert. Ed. Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santeria, Obeah, and the Carribean. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1997.

Götz, Nicola H. Obeah - Hexerei in der Karibik - zwischen Macht und Ohnmacht. Frankfurt: Lang, 1995.

Levine, Lawrence. Black Culture and Black Consciousness. Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Lewis, Matthew Gregory, Esq. M.P. Journal of a West India Proprietor Kept During a Residence in the Island of Jamaica. London: John Murray, 1834. Rpt. New York: Negro UP, 1969.

Montgomery, James. The West Indies. 1807. Rpt. The Poetical Works of James Montgomery. Collected by Himself. London: Longman, 1850.

Patterson, Orlando. The Sociology of Slavery: An Analysis of the Origins, Developments and Structure of Negro Society in Jamaica. London: Maggibon & Key, 1967.

Shepherd, William. "The Negro’s Incantation." Monthly Magazine (1797). Rpt. The Poetical Register, and Repository of Fugitive Poetry for 1803. London: Bye and Law, [1803]. 2nd ed 1805. 413-415.


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