The importation of Africans into the Caribbean area as
slaves began in the sixteenth century but expanded greatly
after 1640 when the islands became a major source of sugar
and workers were needed for the plantations. Most of these
people came from the various tribes along the coast of West Africa
from present-day Senegal to Nigeria. The white planters
looked upon Africans with disdain and developed the opinion
that they had no religious life, that they were at best bearers of
a set of heathenish superstitions. Such was not the case. While
a few of the Africans were Muslims, the majority were followers
of the West African religious system, which with relatively
minor alterations from tribe to tribe pervaded the area from
which the slaves were taken.
The West African system acknowledged a supreme divine
power but found its more personalized expression in the various
deities responsible for the harmonious operation of the
natural world. In the West Indies the major deities included
Shango, Ogun, and Eshu (in Trinidad) and Legba, Erzulie, and
Damballah (in Haiti). The Haitian deities (loas) were of two varieties
those of African origin (Rada) and those of Haitian origin
(Pétro). Rites were constructed for both.
There was also a belief in fate, which to a large extent determined
the course and eventual destiny of the individual. A persons
future could be seen through divinatory practices. Also,
by propitiating the messenger to the Gods, who carried words
of the individuals fate, that fate could be altered to one more
favorable. The religion was led by priests and priestesses (variously
termed in the different islands), who performed the rites
for the higher deities; medicine men, who dealt with lower evil
spirits (the cause of disease and harm to individuals); and sorcerers,
who were supposed to attack tribal enemies but sometimes,
for a price, attacked individuals with their magical powers.
The sorcerer (obayifo) worked clandestinely at night. People
wore amulets to protect themselves. The priest supplied the
amulets and often worked to counter the effects of the sorcerer.
In Africa, this religion permeated tribal life. Religious practice
included obeah (magic), possession of certain people by
the deities (similar to mediumship), and communication with
and guidance from ancestor spirits.
In the New World, such religion was at best distasteful to the
European understanding; it was often despised by the ruling
elite. However, some of the planters did not hesitate to make
use of obeah to manage the workers. To prevent theft of crops,
for instance, they sometimes adorned trees around the edge of
a banana or orange grove with miniature coffins, old bones,
bottles of dirty water, and other obeah objects. Then the workers
would not enter and steal. As late as 1908, a case of obeah
was reported in a Jamaican journal
The cause célèbre at Half-way Tree Court, Jamaica, recently,
was the case of Rex V. Charles Donaldson for unlawfully practicing
Obeah. Robert Robinson, who stated that he was a laborWestcott,
William Wynn Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed.
er living at Trench Pen, in the parish of St. Andrew, stated that
on Tuesday, the 8th ult., he was sitting down outside the May
Pen cemetery on the Spanish Town Road. He was on his way
from work, and had a white handkerchief tied around his head.
He was feeling sick, and that led him to sit down. While there
sitting the prisoner came to him. He did not know the man before,
but he began by asking him what was the matter. Witness
replied, I am well sick. The prisoner said, No, you are not
sick; you have two ghosts on youone creole and one coolie.
Witness told the prisoner to go away and was left. He next saw
prisoner on Wednesday 9th. He came to him at Bumper Hall,
where he was working, and he said to him, Man, how you find
me here Oh, replied the prisoner, if a man is in hell self I
can find him; I come for you to give me the job Witness then
inquired, What job and accused told him he wanted to take
off the two ghosts. He would do it for £25, and he killed for
any sum from £25 to £50. He had worked for all classeswhite,
black, coolie, Chinese, etc. Witness said he did not give him any
good consent at the time, but reported the matter after the accused
left to Clark and Wright, two witnesses in the case. Clark
told him he must not scare the man but go home. On Thursday,
the 10th, the defendant came to him at his yard at French Pen.
The accused told him he would come back to him to take off
the ghost. He also told him to get a bottle of rum and 5s. He
(witness) consented to the arrangement. The defendant began
by taking off his jacket. He then opened his brief bag and took
out a piece of chalk. The accused then made three marks on
the table and took out a phial and a white stone. The phial contained
some stuff which appeared like quicksilver. He arrayed
his paraphernalia on the table. They consisted of a large whisky
bottle with some yellow stuff, a candle, a pack of cards, a looking-glass,
three cigarette pictures, a pocket knife, etc. The accused
also took out a whistle which he sounded, and then
placed the cards on the table. He then asked for the 5s. which
was given to him. He placed the coins on the cards around a
lighted candle. The pint of rum which he (witness) had brought
was on the table and prisoner poured some of it into a pan. He
went outside and sprinkled the rum at the four corners of the
house. Accused came back in and said, Papa! papa! your case
is very bad! There are two ghosts outside. The creole is bad, but
the coolie is rather worse. But if he is made out of hell I will
catch him. The prisoner then began to blow his whistle in a
very funny waya way in which he had never heard a whistle
blown before. He also began to speak in an unknown tongue
and to call up the ghosts.
[The following dialogue is taken from court proceedings regarding
Mr. LakeArent there a lot of you people who believe that
ghosts can harm and molest you
WitnessNo, I am not one.
Mr. LakeDid you not tell him that a duppy [Jamaican
ghost] struck you on your back and you heard voices calling
WitnessHe told me so.[Continuing, witness said he had
seen all sorts of ghosts at all different times and of different
Mr. LakeOf all different sexes, man and woman
WitnessYes; any man who can see ghosts will know a man
ghost from a woman ghost.
While it empowered those who practiced it, African religion
had to be practiced undercover, and as a result it underwent
some changes. For example, it took on an overlay of Christianity
of whatever variety was dominant on the plantation. In Haiti,
Voudou resulted from obeahs association with French Catholicism.
In Cuba and Puerto Rico, Santeria emerged its mixing
with Spanish Catholicism. In Brazil, Macumba is a result of its
mixing with Portuguese Catholicism.
African-based religions gained significant favor in the West
Indies because of their role underlying the various rebellions
by which the slaves gained their freedom. Today, they survive
in competition with the dominant Catholicism or Anglicanism.
They are reemerging despite several centuries of negative writing
African-derived Caribbean religion entered the United
States at the time of the Haitian slave rebellion in 1908 and in
the years to follow. Voudou eventually became established in
New Orleans and the surrounding countryside. During the
twentieth century, and especially as immigration laws have
eased during the last generation, numerous people have
moved to America from the Caribbean, carrying their faiths
Bisnauth, Dale. History of Religion in the Caribbean. Kingston,
Jamaica Kingston Publishers, 1989.
Denning, Melita, and Osborne Phillips. Voudoun Fire The
Living Reality of Mystical Religion. St. Paul, Minn. Llewellyn
Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen The Voodoo Gods of Haiti. New
York Chelsea House, 1970.