Obeah is a term applied to African spiritual traditions used by enslaved people in British colonies in the Caribbean.
There are several theories about the origins of the word obeah – some argue it has Akan origins, others Igbo or Efik.
Debate exists amongst historians about whether obeah was an inherently negative practice or whether it had positive and negative applications. Obeah definitely possessed the power to do harm, given its role in providing justice, which like European legal systems involved serious punishments for wrongdoing. Obeah therefore can be seen to represent spiritual power amongst the enslaved which was not inherently positive or negative. As it was used in aid of resistance by the enslaved and represented an alternative authority to that of the colonisers, it was made illegal and denigrated by Europeans, a stigma which it has carried ever since
Obeah was made illegal following its use in the orchestration of the 1760 Jamaican slave uprising Takyi’s War (1760). A document housed in Lambeth Palace archives, as part of the Fulham Palace papers, gives a good indication of the centrality of obeah to this uprising. A letter was written by the Anglican rector of the parish of Westmoreland in Jamaica, W. Stanford, to Bishop of London, Beilby Porteus. It states that during the uprising the enslaved were
“…under the most powerful influence of Obia or Witchcraft, the fear of which…prevented our best disposed negroes from being faithful in the instant of danger…”
In Takyi’s War, ritual specialists or ‘obeahmen’ are known to have acted as advisers to the leaders of the plot. Obeahmen are known to have administered oaths to the conspirators which were intended to guarantee the secrecy of the plot. This involved drinking a mixture of grave dirt, rum and blood, which would cause death to anyone who betrayed their comrades to the colonisers. One of the foremost leaders in the Maroon Wars in Jamaica 1655-1740, Nanny, was an obeah woman.
Obeah was just one of many manifestations of African spiritual traditions in the Americas. The enslaved were from many different cultures, with different beliefs. As such, several spiritual practices were reproduced in the Americas. These were not exact replicas of the African traditions of the societies the enslaved were taken from, but some resembled closely the practices of a specific culture. The Shango religion in Trinidad, for example, was influenced by the large influx of Yoruba speaking peoples in the early 19th century. Santería which is practiced in Cuba, also closely resembles the Yoruba spiritual tradition, however, there the Yoruba pantheon of deities was fused with the Catholic canon of saints, as the beliefs of the enslaved blended with those of the Spanish who controlled that island. A similar process, led to the fusing of Catholic saints with the deities of the West African spiritual tradition of Vodun, which manifested in the practice called Voodou in present day Haiti. In other cases, the influence of European missionaries led to the adoption of Christianity by the enslaved, but this was invariably fused with African traditions. The Black Baptists, in Jamaica are a notable example of this. The enslaved, therefore, borrowed from Europeans where necessary, but also carefully preserved their traditions, transforming them for their new environment.
Thanks to Isaac Crichlow for his research on obeah.