Tue | Aug 14, 2018

Carolyn Cooper | Criminals not afraid of obeah

Published:Sunday | February 4, 2018 | 12:00 AM

National Security Minister Robert Montague recently apologised for his scandalous challenge last year to criminals: "This minister don't fraida unnu; my uncle is a obeah man." Taking back his words, the minister piously testified, "I am not into devil or evil worship in no way shape or form."

But is obeah really devil worship? The Dictionary of Jamaican English gives two West African sources of the word. In the Efik language of Nigeria, 'ubio' means "a thing or mixture of things, put in the ground, as a charm to cause sickness or death". In the Twi language of Ghana, 'o-bayifo' means "witch, wizard, sorcerer".

The antidote to obeah is myal. That word probably comes from the Kikongo language of Central Africa in which 'Mayaala' means "a person/ thing exercising control". The belief in both obeah and myal is a philosophical acknowledgement that spiritual power can serve good or evil purposes.




For more than a century, Africans in Jamaica freely practised obeah. It was the uprising led by Tacky in 1760 that caused obeah to be outlawed. Tacky was born in Ghana where he had been a paramount chief in Fante land. He actually sold rivals into slavery as spoils of war. He himself was captured and suffered the same fate. In Jamaica, Tacky refused to accept enslavement. He was an overseer and used his role to mobilise support for rebellion.

The revolt Tacky instigated started at Easter when 150 militant Africans attacked the fort in Port Maria. It quickly spread to Clarendon, St Elizabeth, St James and Westmoreland. Tacky was not the sole leader of the extensive insurrection. Akua, a fearless woman known as the Queen of Kingston, also played a major role in the war.

According to the Obeah Histories website, "The fighters forged solidarity through oaths and rituals of spiritual protection that drew on Akan spiritual knowledge." The rebels were advised by obeahmen who gave them powder to protect themselves from the enemy. Proverbial wisdom reminds us that 'belief kill and belief cure'.

Obeah empowered the revolutionaries to wage a six-month war against the planter class. Four hundred freedom fighters, 60 free blacks and 60 whites were killed, according to the Encyclopaedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion.




Trevor Burnard, professor of American history at the University of Melbourne, argues that, "In terms of its shock to the imperial system, only the American Revolution surpassed Tacky's War in the 18th century".

If obeah didn't win the war, it certainly put the fear of God (and Africa) into white Jamaica. In 1760, An Act to Remedy the Evils arising from Irregular Assemblies of Slaves was passed. The act mocks the foolish beliefs of the Africans who are described as weak victims of superstition, delusion and pretence:

"And in order to prevent the many Mischiefs that may hereafter arise from the wicked Art of Negroes going under the appellation of Obeah Men and Women, pretending to have communication with the Devil and other evil spirits, whereby the weak and superstitious are deluded into a belief of their having full power to exempt them while under their protection from any Evils that might otherwise happen. Be it therefore enacted by the authority aforesaid that from and after the first day of June which will be in the year of our Lord One thousand Seven hundred and Sixty one [1761], 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 thereof, before two Magistrates and three Freeholders suffer death or Transportation any thing in this Act or any other Law to the contrary notwithstanding".




If there was no power in the "wicked art" of obeah, why did it need to be criminalised? Did the planters fear not so much obeah as the "many Mischiefs" that could be committed by men and women whose beliefs enabled them to resist enslavement? It wasn't obeah that had to be suppressed. It was the right to freedom. Two and a half centuries later, obeah is still outlawed in Jamaica. Who is the act protecting now?

According to a Gleaner report published on January 24, "The national security minister also made a stunning disclosure that the police have discovered 'altars' to facilitate devil worship in many places where raids have been conducted by the security forces". Robert Montague's disclosure sounds a lot like the obeah act. Pure sensationalism!

Instead of appealing to superstition, the minister needs to use modern methods to fight crime. No hard-core criminal in Jamaica fears obeah. It's time to take the obeah law off the books. It's simply another way of demonising African culture. Not all superstitions are created equal. Just ask Roman Catholics about those holy miracle-working relics! Belief in them is absolutely not obeah.

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.