Most people prosecuted for obeah during slavery were enslaved. Their trials took place in special ‘slave courts’, which only tried slaves. Few records remain of these trials. However, from the 1820s, Caribbean colonies sought to transport people convicted of serious crimes to the penal colonies in Australia. In order to implement such sentences, the colonial governments had to write to the British imperial government with details of the evidence presented in court. As a result, we have information about a few people who were sentenced to transportation, including some who were transported for obeah.
A Grenadian man called Pierre was one of those sentenced to transportation for obeah. Pierre was not enslaved but was a ‘free black man’, born in Africa, and around fifty years old.
Despatch sending Pierre’s petition and last page of the petition, TNA CO 101/78, folios 13 – 30. Images reproduced courtesy of The National Archives, UK
It was unusual for an African-born enslaved person to become free in the British Caribbean colonies; Pierre may have acquired the money to buy his freedom through spiritual work. In 1833, shortly before the abolition of slavery, he was sentenced to 14 years to be served in the hulks in Woolwich, England and thereafter 14 years to be served in New South Wales. This sentence was extremely unusual. Most transportees were sentenced to seven years penal labour. The long sentence indicates that his crime was understood to be particularly serious.
The case notes sent to the Colonial Office suggest that Pierre worked as a healer, seeking to cure illnesses and other problems perceived to be caused by obeah. He must have been widely respected, since he was described as ‘entirely dependent on the precarious earnings of his nefarious arts’. The prosecution seems to have come about when enslaved individuals living on La Sagesse estate complained that obeah was being practised by others, rather than by Pierre. Pierre was prosecuted for his work in relation to two sick children. In the first case, an enslaved witness called Joseph said that:
he went to Prisoners house [i.e. Pierre’s house] for remedies for sick child of this witness. Prisoner scraped some alligators teeth, put in a little sugar and rum and warm water and gave it to the child – he told witness the child had been poisoned.
Joseph also stated that Pierre:
cupped Susan’s foot with a small part of a calabash, into which he held a piece of lighted and greased paper; first having cut the foot some slight cuts with a razor: he brought blood into the calabash, which he threw into a plate – and there was a scorpion in the blood: Prisoner said Louis Pierre had put the Scorpion in the Womans foot. Susan had lived with Louis Pierre, and had left him.
Pierre gave Joseph a piece of paper containing a brown powder, and told him to give it to the child in a mixture of rum, water, and sugar. Joseph stated that the medicine did neither good nor harm, and that he paid Pierre with a fowl and a quarter dollar.
Further witnesses called Pierre Marie and Lydia:
gave evidence to the same fact of cupping on the back of Lydia’s neck from which he drew, or took out, a live frog – which was killed, as Lydia swore by holy water – Pierre Marie said one frog;- Lydia said two
In addition, Pierre Marie
said he went to Pierres house with Florentine to get a remedy for childs sickness – it was the scraping of the stag’s horn, rum – honey and water and that many black people go to Pierre.
Lydia said that she heard Pierre was a doctor. She had paid him with half a bottle of rum, a candle, and a yam.
The jury, finding Pierre guilty on this count, noted that he ‘is proved by all the evidence to have pretensions to cure diseases’; and that ‘these are obeah Practices – and the pretence of secret knowledge, as to Obeah practiced by others is a wicked charge of crimes to others, which excites fear, and makes dangerous impressions on the minds of credulous persons like negroes.’
The second charge was similar to the first. A witness called Charles visited Pierre with his sick son, referred to in the documents simply as ‘boy’. Pierre ‘looked into a book – said David had made Boy sick – scraped stags horn in rum and sugar and water.’ Charles stated that Pierre’s actions helped his son, so he took him back on a second occasion, on which Pierre gave him wood to boil in water and ‘more stags horn and rum to be given to the child.” Pierre then cupped the child’s head and stomach and removed fish bones from his body. He said ;the child would die if he did not take the medicine’. The boy’s mother, Jennette, also described the incident, stating that ‘much blood came from his ear – Prisoner gave him stags horn & rum and cupped him – she did not see the bones taken from the head and stomach – she was too much distressed and crying.’ As Lydia had done earlier, Charles described Pierre as ‘a Doctor.’ Drawing on a creolized religious framework that employed African spirits within a Christian idiom, he added that Pierre ‘could not have done what he has done without assistance of good spirits – that all he has done is by permission of God – that God gives him the sense to do what he has done.’
The evidence in this second case suggests that Pierre and others living on La Sagesse believed that a man called David had been using spiritual power to hurt others. One witness stated that ‘his fellow servants have great fear of Obeah – means Obeah by David’ and said that he had asked the estate’s attorney to ‘send for a Catholic Priest to drive Obeah away’ because of his and the other slaves’ ‘great fear.’ This witness described a divination process, stating that Pierre looked into his little book, and ‘called a bad name – examined the book well before he called the name – it was David.’ Pierre, he said, ‘is able by the book to tell Who hurt the Child.’ On cross examination the witness claimed they were ‘not afraid of Prisoner, nor are the Slaves – believes an Obeah man can do harm but not good – Believes Prisoner acts as a Doctor.’ Joseph, who had testified in the earlier case stated that Pierre had told him and other slaves that ‘they had poisoners on that Estate – and they required a Roman Catholic Priest to say prayers against them.’ For this incident Pierre also received a fourteen year sentence of transportation, making a total of twenty-eight years.
Pierre was unusual for a black defendant at this time in that he was represented by a lawyer. This lawyer petitioned the Grenadian authorities on the 30th January 1834, arguing against his conviction. James Stephen, the Assistant Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, responded to the petition with some sympathy, questioning the length of the sentence and arguing that Pierre’s ‘real crime is nothing more or less than that of having practised as a Quack Doctor.’ In contrast, the Governor General of the Windward Islands, Lionel Smith, said he could not reduce the unusually severe sentence because the ‘Attorney of one of these Estates having represented, if Pierre was restored to liberty he felt certain many of his Slaves would abscond and destroy themselves through dread of the supernatural powers he had long pretended to and practiced.’ There is a gap in the evidence here. None of the testimony of the enslaved people suggests that they feared or ‘dreaded’ Pierre; rather, they trusted him and considered him to be a ‘Doctor.’
Despite Stephen’s disapproval of the sentence, he allowed it to be implemented. Pierre was sent to England in March 1834. Although he was supposed to spend the first fourteen years of his sentence in England, he only spent one year on the Woolwich hulks. He was transported to Australia on 26 August 1835, as one of 269 convicts sent from England to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) on a ship called the Layton, arriving in December 1835. He died just over two years later, on 22 March 1838, having lived on four continents: Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and Australia.
Petition from a ‘free Black man’ called Pierre, together with judges notes. George Middlemore, forwarded by Sir Lionel Smith, Governor of Windward Islands, The National Archives, CO 101/78/5, Grenada No. 5, Folios 13 – 30.
State Library of Queensland, Convict Transportation Register: Australian Joint Copying Project. Microfilm Roll 90, Class and Piece Number HO11/10, Page Number 135 (70) and HO 11/10 [Australian Convict Transportation Registers – Other Fleets & Ships, 1791-1868 – Ancestry.com database]
Tasmanian records digitised as part of the UNESCO Memory of the World, Archives Office of Tasmania, CON18-1-13_00111_L
Tasmanian records digitised as part of the UNESCO Memory of the World, Archives Office of Tasmania, CON 31 (the conduct registers of male convicts arriving in the period of the assignment system, from 1803 to 1843), CON31-1-35_00223_L