Wed | Aug 23, 2017

The evolution of Myalism – Part 2

Published:Saturday | May 30, 2015 | 5:00 AMPail H. Williams
PHOTO BY PAUL WILLIAMS The male dancer who got into a 'myal' during the Maroon celebrations in Accompong Town on Sunday January 6.
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INCE ENSLAVED Africans arrived in Jamaica, they had been practising their own tribal rituals and social customs. They were deeply tribal, but Myalism, the native religious movement concerned with spiritual healing, seemed to change all that.

"The appearance of the new Myal religion in 1760 symbolised a spirit of cooperation among enslaved Africans of various ethnic backgrounds that had not hitherto been the case in Jamaica ... Indeed, Myalism may actually have fostered pan-African cooperation where once only ethnic division had existed," Monica Schuler writes in Myalism and the African Religious Traditions.

Myalism then became a very important social movement in areas where it was strong, but its evolution sped up around 1791 when Baptist missionaries came to Jamaica to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the enslaved, many of whom became converts and came to be called Native Baptists.

However, the Native Baptists were less orthodox as they imbued Myalism into their teachings, which frustrated the missionaries. Traditional Myalists were to adapt two elements of the Baptist faith to their ideology, the influence of the Holy Ghost/Spirit and water baptism. They regarded possession of the Holy Spirit as important to spiritual rebirth.

Importantly, baptism must be in a river, the abode of ancestral spirits who guide and protect them, thus, "the Afro-Jamaican religious tradition, then, has consistently reinterpreted Christianity in African, and not European, cultural terms," Schuler explains.

This didn't settle well with the Baptist missionaries, who sent a leader to the north coast in 1814 to stem the dilution of the Baptist message. He died shortly after he was posted, but in 1824, Reverend Thomas Burchell was the one installed to do the job, but he couldn't stem the infiltration.

In fact, many of those who had been converted left the Baptist Church.

"Baptist orthodoxy obviously had little to offer them, and they preferred a religion which combined Baptist and Myal elements in a way that deserves to be called Myalist rather than Black Baptist," Schuler writes.

Myalism was seen as a more practical force against witchcraft and the ills of society. These were sins that affect the community, and could be eradicated by Myal.

"For this reason, Myalism was far more relevant to many Afro-Jamaicans than any missionary version of the Christian faith," Schuler says.

So the Myal fervour gained momentum in the 1830s and 1840s on the north coast. The religious rhetoric was anti-European as Africans still regarded enslavement a misfortune caused by European witchcraft. It is widely believed that Myalism played a strong role in the Christmas Rebellion of 1831, led by native Baptist Samuel Sharpe. The uprising and its suppression led to the passage of the 1833 Emancipation Act. Full Emancipation came in 1838, and not 1840 as planned.

But Emancipation brought severe hardship to the ex-slaves, who were not prepared by any stretch of the imagination for full freedom. It was extremely difficult to survive, and Myalists were concerned that they were the victims of sorcery, and in St James and Trelawny, the centres of Myalism, there was an increased Myalist zeal to eradicate the source the suffering, which was believed to be obeah.

Obeah was a traditional practice that Myalists regarded as evil, the fight against which was the essence of Myalism. And the campaign heated up in 1841 when Myal men were invited to Salt Spring village in St James to rid the region of obeah. The Myal ceremonies proliferated to other parts of the parish, Trelawny and Westmoreland. Eventually, the spirit of Myalism spread through the entire island causing great concerns among missionaries.

In the 1840s, the movement became stratified as members were either archangels, angels or ministering angelics. The archangels were the leaders of divination, prophets, while the angels had the gift of detecting obeah. The ministering angelics, operating in groups, would seek out potential converts, dig up buried obeah charms, and catch shadows that were taken by obeah men.

"The Myal task, they preached, was to clear the land for Jesus Christ, who was coming among them ... Clearing the land for Jesus Christ meant eradicating obeah through special public rituals which only Myalists could perform," writes Monica Schuler.

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