Obeah
West Indian witchcraft. The term is believed to derive from
an Ashanti word, obayifo, a wizard or witch, although there are
claims that it refers to Obi, a West African snake god. Author
M. G. Lewis (1775–1818) spent some time in Jamaica, where
his father owned large estates, and reported cases of obeah. In
his posthumously published Journal of a West India Proprietor
(1834), he wrote an entry on January 12, 1816, describing how
ten months earlier a black man ‘‘of very suspicious manners
and appearance’’ was arrested,
‘‘. . . and on examination there was found upon him a bag
containing a great variety of strange materials for incantations;
such as thunder-stones, cat’s ears, the feet of various animals,
human hair, fish bones, the teeth of alligators, etc. he was conveyed
to Montego Bay; and no sooner was it understood that
this old African was in prison, than depositions were poured in
from all quarters from negroes who deposed to having seen
him exercise his magical arts, and, in particular, to his having
sold such and such slaves medicines and charms to deliver
them from their enemies; being, in plain English, nothing else
than rank poisons. He was convicted of Obeah upon the most
indubitable evidence. The good old practice of burning had
fallen into disrepute; so he was sentenced to be transported,
and was shipped off the island, to the great satisfaction of persons
of all colours—white, black, and yellow.’’
Jamaican legislation of 1760 enacted that ‘‘any Negro or
other Slave who shall pretend to any Supernatural Power and
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be detected in making use of any materials relating to the practice
of Obeah or Witchcraft in order to delude or impose upon
the Minds of others shall upon Conviction thereof before two
Magistrates and three Freeholders suffer Death or Transportation.’’
(See also Voudou; West Indian Islands)
Sources
Bell, Hesketh J. Obeah Witchcraft in the West Indies. London
Sampson, Low & Co., 1889.
Emerick, Abraham J. Obeah and Duppyism in Jamaica. Woodstock,
N.Y. privately printed, 1915.
Lewis, Matthew Gregory. Journal of a West Indian Proprietor.
London J. Murray, 1861. Reprint, New York Negro University
Press, 1961.
Williams, Joseph J. Voodoos and Obeahs; Phases of West Indian
Witchcraft. New York Dial Press, 1933.

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