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Atlantic Studies

Review Baluarte. Estudios gaditano-cubanos

Year: 2015 vol. 12 n. 2

Wisecup, Kelly; Jaudon, Toni Wall. On knowing and not knowing about obeahIn  Obeah: knowledge, power, and writing in the early Atlantic World p. 129-143 Caribe
Obeah, religion, medicine, archival work, assemblage, British West Indies


This essay introduces Obeah: knowledge, power, and writing in the early Atlantic World, a special issue responding to recent scholarly interest in obeah and related creole and African-derived medical and religious practices common among enslaved Africans in the pre-emancipation Caribbean. It describes obeah and the epistemological conundrum it posed for colonists in the global Atlantic world, outlining possibilities for how scholars might study the texts that represent these practices.

Murison, Justine S. Obeah and its others: buffered selves in the era of tropical medicineIn  Obeah: knowledge, power, and writing in the early Atlantic World p. 144-159 Caribe
Obeah, medicina tropical, laicidad, Charles Taylor


This article argues that the eighteenth-century cultural interrelation of obeah practices and European tropical medicine demonstrates a profound limit to Charles Taylor’s theory of the “buffered self.” According to Taylor, Western secularity depended upon the rise of a theory of a disenchanted subjectivity. This article suggests instead that the hallmark of Western secularity is not so much a disenchanted subject, but a conflicted relation between a psychology defined by disenchantment and a theory of the body open to a world of invisible and untraceable forces.

Gerbner, Katharine. “They call me Obea”: German Moravian missionaries and Afro-Caribbean religion in Jamaica, 1754–1760In  Obeah: knowledge, power, and writing in the early Atlantic World p. 160-178 Caribe
Cristianismo, Moravia, religiones africanas, Atlántico, curación, Caribe


“They call me Obea” examines the role of obeah within the Moravian mission to Jamaica between 1754 and 1760. While much scholarship has focused on the significance of obeah in Tacky's Revolt of 1760 and later, there has been less attention paid to obeah before it became linked to rebellion and criminalized in British West Indian law. The Moravian missionary sources, a voluminous yet largely unexamined archive of letters, diaries, and account books written by Moravian missionaries and their enslaved and free converts, offer new insight into the significance of obeah in pre-1760 Jamaica. When Zacharias George Caries, the first Moravian missionary to be stationed in Jamaica, arrived in 1754, he was an outsider on many levels. A German Moravian who had toured with the evangelist John Cennick through the British Isles, Caries brought with him a radical vision of the New Birth and a commitment to converting enslaved Africans to Christianity. Three months after his arrival, the enslaved men and women at the Bogue estate began to call Caries “obea,” a term that Caries defined as a “Seer, or one who is able to see things in the future.” What did it mean for Caries to be called “obea,” and how did his behavior contribute to the perception that he was an obeah man? I argue that Caries’ identification as an obeah man demonstrates that obeah was not just an Afro-Caribbean practice – it was also the frame through which Afro-Caribbeans interpreted European religious and medical practices. Several scholars have argued persuasively that obeah conflicts with European methods of categorization that divide “religion” from “medicine” and “true religion” from “superstition.” This article contends that in order to fully appreciate the role of obeah in mid-eighteenth-century Jamaica, scholars must view Christian practice and European natural history as being part of the Afro-Caribbean category of obeah.

McGhee, J. Alexandra. Fever dreams: obeah, tropical disease, and cultural contamination in colonial Jamaica and the metropoleIn  Obeah: knowledge, power, and writing in the early Atlantic World p. 179-199 Caribe
Caribe, obea, humanidades medicas, literatura romántica, transatlantismo, Jamaica, Matthew Lewis, Three-Fingered Jack


In the second edition of Benjamin Moseley's Treatise on Sugar (1799), Moseley, a doctor practicing in Kingston, nests a section on obeah into a discussion of the disfiguring illness yaws, which causes sufferers’ bodies to become “shocking grotesque figures, resembling woody excrescences, or stumps of trees; or old AEgyptian figures, that seem as if they had been made at the ends of the human, and beginnings of the brutal form.” This in turn is part of a larger section on “Miscellaneous Medical Observations” that also includes descriptions of cowpox, leprosy, and plague, illnesses defined by their rapid spread and their highly visible compromise of bodily systems and functions. Because of its inclusion here, obeah is classed as an infectious cultural disease that, like the illnesses Moseley discusses, can spread quickly through colonial populations, threatening the bodily and mental integrity of slaves and white planters alike. Taking a cue from Moseley, I analyze obeah as a cultural contaminant that embeds itself within the colonial and British imagination. Reading the Treatise on Sugar alongside the wildly popular British stage play, Obi, or Three-Fingered Jack (1800 and 1830), which tells the story of outlaw and murderer Jack Mansong, and Matthew Lewis’ autobiographical Journal of a West India Proprietor (1834), in which Lewis constantly struggles to stifle the practice of obeah on his Jamaican plantations, I argue that colonists and residents of the metropole responded to obeah much as they did to infectious agents like yaws and yellow fever – through a mixture of quarantine, suppression, ignorance, and failed treatments that ultimately allowed for its continued spread.

Cottrell, Jeffrey. At the end of the trade: obeah and black women in the colonial imaginaryIn  Obeah: knowledge, power, and writing in the early Atlantic World p. 200-218 Caribe
Obeah, literaturas del siglo XIX, medicina del Caribe, mujeres esclavas, maternidad, trabajo
Siglo XIX


Between the prohibition of the British slave trade in 1807 and slavery’s end in 1833, colonial agents increasingly turned their attention toward enslaved women and the particular ways these women might have utilized obeah practices to resist the theft of both their productive and reproductive labor. Scholars have explored how obeah presented a diverse and often difficult challenge for colonial administration after Tacky’s Rebellion in 1760. However, the relationship between women and obeah has not prominently figured in these studies. This article considers three texts produced between 1788 and 1820 to understand how colonial writers articulated the threat posed by obeah and enslaved women to colonial regulation over this roughly 30-year period. Stephen Fuller’s 1788 “Woman of the Popo Country” traces a relationship between gender and obeah but imagines obeah’s intervention in the colony solely in terms of its effect on productive labor. Drawing on the depictions of obeah as a revolutionary discourse, William Earle’s 1801 abolitionist text Obi; or the History of Three-Finger'd Jack produces a sympathetic black, male hero who comes into being through rejecting the obeah practiced by his mother. Finally, Dr. James Thomson’s 1820 text A Treatise on the Diseases of Negroes as They Occur in the Island of Jamaica understands obeah as a dangerous practice, particularly as it impacts both the productive and reproductive labor of enslaved women. In this way, these texts increasingly imagined obeah as an active participant in the colonial construction of gender that positioned women within an evolving system of biopolitical control. Representations of women are an integral component of obeah fictions and have contributed to the negative legacies associated with reified versions of black womanhood.

Rodriques, Janelle. Obeah(man) as trickster in Cynric Williams’ Hamel, the Obeah ManIn  Obeah: knowledge, power, and writing in the early Atlantic World p. 219-234 Caribe
Obeah, estafadores, Hamel, Caribe, esclavitud, Jamaica
Siglo XIX


Cynric Williams’ Hamel, the Obeah Man (1827) is the first novel written in or about the West Indies to feature an obeah practitioner as protagonist and have that protagonist speak, at length, about himself and his beliefs. This complex treatment of obeah is remarkable, considering the threat it posed to plantation rule at the time. This article will explore how Hamel emerges as a folk hero, a figure of resistance and a trickster. Moreover, it will examine how obeah itself emerges as a “tricky,” disruptive epistemological force. As well as disrupting the narrative’s fictional plantation economy, Hamel (and the obeah he personifies) disrupts its assumptions of the very categorisation of obeah. Obeah allows Hamel sufficient discursive freedom to defy the bounds of the narrative and escape into the realm of myth. With it, he demonstrates the power of religion in the formation of West Indian identity, albeit within the confines of slavery. This article will also explore Williams’ text as a site of anxiety, a text caught between Eurocentric imperialist ideology and acknowledgement of African-Caribbean claims to selfhood. Hamel’s fluidity, which results not only from his position as an obeahman, but also from his position as a trickster, exemplifies the a priori in-between-ness of West Indian culture. Hamel is at once a representation of Williams’ imagination of what obeah might be, and a vehicle for the “unruly subject” of the real-life phenomenon of obeah itself. While the identities of trickster and obeahman are not mutually exclusive, Hamel embodies them both. Reading Hamel as at once trickster and obeahman shows not only obeah’s power of resistance to the contradictions of plantation slavery, but also positions it as both a destructive and an ultimately reconstructive cultural force unique to the islands of the Caribbean.

Jaudon, Toni Wall; Wisecup, Kelly. Interview: Obeah’s cultural politics – a conversation with Diana Paton In  Obeah: knowledge, power, and writing in the early Atlantic World p. 251-257 Caribe

Aljoe, Nicole N.; Dillon, Elizabeth Maddock; Doyle, Benjamin J.; Hopwood, Elizabeth. Obeah and the Early Caribbean Digital ArchiveIn  Obeah: knowledge, power, and writing in the early Atlantic World p. 258-266 Caribe
Obeah, Caribe, archivos, Atlántico negro, humanidades digitales

In conjunction with this special issue of Atlantic Studies, the Early Caribbean Digital Archive (ECDA) – developed at Northeastern University and available at ecdaproject.org – has created a collaborative archival project, “Obeah and the Caribbean.” This project consists, in part, of a digital exhibit of original obeah texts including a number of the primary sources that are discussed throughout the articles in this volume of Atlantic Studies. The ECDA is designed to serve not only as a repository but also as a digital commons and laboratory space for researchers and students interested in the early Caribbean: users of the site can curate, annotate, and discuss early Caribbean materials that are included in the archive. We invite readers of this issue to further engage and experiment with primary sources and to collaborate with other scholars by way of this exhibit and the digital workspace of the ECDA + CoLab. In the brief essay below, we discuss some of the core intellectual issues that inform the ECDA and our project on obeah.

Atlantic Studies
Paper | Numerical version with subscription | Trimestral | United Kingdom Print ISSN: 1478-8810
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