Representations

This section highlights just a few of the ways in which obeah has been represented in literature and popular culture from the eighteenth century on. Some reports of obeah to the British authorities contained mythical elements. For example, the 1788 submission to the Parliamentary Enquiry into the Slave Trade about the obeah practice of the ‘Woman of the Popo Country’ has a folk tale quality about it, particularly in its inclusion of the character of a dangerous, old woman, a familiar trope to a British public well acquainted with stories of old, malevolent witches. The story of the Woman of the Popo Country served to inspire fictional accounts of obeah in novels and plays such as the obeah woman in some of the Three-Fingered Jack tales.

The arguments put forward in many prosecutions, newspaper reports, and legal interpretations of obeah – that it was superstitious ignorance, a crime of pretence that fooled ‘ignorant’ and ‘primitive’ people, carried out by secretive and malevolent individuals, and was carried out for financial gain – also appear in fictional narratives of obeah in novels and visual representations. For example, we see the foolish obeah man portrayed in the racist, anti-abolition etching published in 1808 by William Holland, Johnny Newcome in love in the West Indies.

The contribution of spiritual healers to sustaining Caribbean cultural life and sometimes in fighting slavery or colonial rule have been remembered and celebrated in folk tales and within public consciousness in the Caribbean. Nanny of the Maroons is one example; another is the narrative of Mansong or Three Fingered Jack, who in some versions fights for his people with the aid of obeah. Whilst folk heroes were celebrated in British popular representations of Three-Fingered Jack in pantomimes and novels of Jack in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, these re-tellings did not include explicit opposition to slavery as an institution.

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