Obeah, Race and Racism: Caribbean Witchcraft in the English Imagination, by Eugenia O’Neal

In: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids
Janelle Rodriques Auburn University English Department U.S.A. Auburn AL

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Eugenia O’Neal, Obeah, Race and Racism: Caribbean Witchcraft in the English Imagination. Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2020. 423 pp. (Cloth US$ 45.00)

Obeah, Race and Racism follows on Eugenia O’Neal’s 2001 monograph, From the Field to the Legislature: A History of Women in the Virgin Islands. In it, O’Neal discusses the proliferation of (British) colonial, imperialist discourse surrounding the Caribbean practice of Obeah, arguing that, from first contact with African people (if not before), Europeans have been invested in portraying Africa and Africans as savage, superstitious, and inhuman. With the advent of plantation slavery, Obeah was used as a yardstick to measure the degree of “civilization” among enslaved Africans, and by extension, Britain’s “health” as an imperial power. “Obeah” was demonized in British writing as paganism, devil worship, and sorcery. By extension, Obeah came to stand, discursively, for the Caribbean itself. As much as Obeah reflected African diasporic beliefs and experiences, colonial writing on the subject, from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, reflected the beliefs and experiences of Britons both “at home” in England, and abroad in the West Indian colonies. O’Neal historicizes and contextualizes these beliefs from within witchcraft scares in the Middle Ages to late-colonial adventure fantasies.

The publication of Obeah, Race and Racism reflects the recent increase in studies of Obeah, from the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica’s “Guzzum Power: Obeah in Jamaica” exhibit, staged in 2010, to the Jamaica government, in 2018 absolving Tacky of criminal responsibility for the rebellion of 1760 (Marcus Garvey, George William Gordon Paul Bogle, and Sam Sharpe were also pardoned), and 2019 calls to repeal the 1898 Obeah Act. Moreover, Obeah has already been decriminalized in Anguilla (1980), Barbados (1998), Trinidad and Tobago (2000), and St. Lucia (2004). O’Neal’s work is also indicative of a historiography that, despite being centered around the British metropole, is mindful of the bitter racism at the heart of history writing as empire building. For those of us from former colonies, it serves as a reminder of the dangers of too readily accepting the “facts of history,” absent of critical evaluation of the meaning of this history then, and especially now.

O’Neal draws extensively from travelogues, diaries, newspaper reports, colonial enquiries, novels, short stories, and boys’ adventure papers to demonstrate that the way many of us see Obeah now, as “African witchcraft,” is a product of racist imperial propaganda. She plots the trajectory of these narratives from the beginning of plantation slavery, during which Obeah was largely dismissed as African superstition which, at worst, might result in some idle poisoning; to the years surrounding Obeah’s criminalization (1760, in response to Tacky’s Rebellion); through to the terror inspired in the wake of the revolution in St. Domingue; then to the eventual abolition of slavery and the late colonial period, in which colonial responses to Obeah shifted from “hysterical” to derisive. The Obeahman, formerly a credible threat to empire, became a (still) savage, but largely ineffectual bogeyman to be easily defeated by white right might. At all points during her historiography, however, O’Neal reminds us that, to the British, Obeah symbolized everything that “law” and “justice”—and their corollary, “civilization,” was not.

What is most striking about O’Neal’s findings is the extent to which scenes, dialogue, themes, and tropes were recycled by authors who masqueraded their fear and ignorance as knowledge, and in so doing, attempted to turn fiction into fact. Furthermore, Obeah had become somewhat of an obsession for British colonists. As much as it was demonized, O’Neal demonstrates, “there was no prominent English writer of the nineteenth century who had not heard of Obeah, even if he or she had not written about it” (p. 5). Whether in defense of slavery or in agitation for its abolition, the “virtual avalanche of plagiarism” (p. 49) and embellishment in writing about Obeah resulted in the racist caricature and stereotyping of Black people in the Caribbean that remains prominent today. Then as now, “the ability of black people to gain entry into European civilization stood or fell with the degree of their attachment to the magical practices and beliefs of their ancestors” (p. 159). Obeah practitioners and believers became stock characters, either foolish children or shadowy criminals, to be weaponized in narratives designed to either calm or stir English imperial anxieties.

Obeah, Race and Racism is divided into ten thematic, somewhat overlapping chapters which, though possibly disorienting for readers looking for clear chronology, are all richly researched. While the perspective of the sources O’Neal provides is that of empire, she is diligent in presenting them as concerned less with veracity than with the perpetuation of racist stereotypes. She may not focus on the world that enslaved people built, but she nevertheless retraces Obeah’s triangular journey to provide a rich research guide for how the Caribbean came to be seen in the wider colonial world.

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