Rose Ann Forbes, also known as ‘Mammy Forbes’ ran one of the most important balmyards in Jamaica for at least thirty and probably nearly sixty years, at Blake’s Pen, on the border of Manchester and St. Elizabeth. Rose Ann’s husband, George Forbes, was also involved in healing at the balmyard. According to oral tradition, Forbes established the Blake’s Pen balmyard in the 1870s after a vision called her to heal the sick. In 1916 an article in the Gleaner reported that the Forbeses began ‘about 16 years ago this balming business’, suggesting that the balmyard had already become well established by the turn of the century. Balmyards connect healing with revivalist religious worship. In Jean Besson and Barry Chevanne’s words, ‘healing became a major dimension of Revival with the beginning of the “balm-yard”.’
Mammy Forbes and her daughter, although not her husband, have played a significant role in Jamaican anthropology and religious history. The first serious anthropological work on Jamaica, Martha Beckwith’s Black Roadways, described a healing service conducted by Mammy Forbes, while in the 1970s Leonard Barrett wrote about the practice of her daughter, Mother Rita, who took over Blake’s Pen balmyard after Mammy Forbes’s death in 1929. At that point, according to Barrett, the Balmyard occupied seventeen acres owned by Mother Rita. As he described it:
One enters the yard by a rocky path which leads up a small incline to a plateau. Half way up the hill is a square concrete terrace with four poles, one at each corner, each bearing a red, white and blue flag. This symbolises the four winds of the earth.
Neither Beckwith nor Barrett reported on the Forbes’s encounters with Jamaica’s legal system, but newspaper reports reveal that in the 1910s Rose Ann and George were each prosecuted as a result of their healing activity. In 1910 Rose Anne Forbes was convicted of practicing medicine without a license, while in 1916 her husband was charged with obeah, but had the charge reduced to one of practising medicine without a license. Practicing medicine without a license was a lesser crime than obeah. Whereas obeah was usually punished with a prison sentence and often also with flogging, practicing medicine without a licence was only punishable with a fine. George Forbes’s trial also shows that individuals who were not widely understood as obeah practitioners could be vulnerable to prosecution under the obeah law.
Rose Ann Forbes’s 1910 prosecution for unlawfully practicing medicine shows one way in which these two laws might intersect. Although she was not charged with obeah, the Magistrate during sentencing advised Rose Ann to ’destroy all her implements when she got home, and to dress differently, for if the police found anything, such as bottles and feathers and took them to Court, a charge of obeah could be brought against her.’ Forbes was fined two shillings and six-pence, but also had to pay much larger costs of £4 17s 6d.
We know more about the second prosecution, of George Forbes. His case arose from deliberate entrapment. It provides some evidence about the extent and nature of the Forbeses’ healing practice as well as about police techniques. The Gleaner reported on the popularity of what it referred to as ‘Blake’s Pen Sanitorium’, reporting that ‘people from far and near parishes suffering from various complaints travelled by the hundreds to see “Madam” Forbes.’ In this instance, the police were hoping to prosecute Mammy Forbes, but only succeeded in arresting her husband. In February 1916 Theophilus Doreman and Louisa Granston visited Blake’s Pen with the intention of entrapping the Forbeses into illegal actions for which they could be arrested. Doreman and Granston were probably paid by the police to visit the balmyard. Giving evidence at George Forbes’s trial in April 1916, in a Mandeville courtroom crowded with ‘persons from near and far districts who came to hear the cases’, Doreman reported that he treated Granston for a bad leg. Granston first gave him 2/6 to (in Doreman’s words) ‘try the case’. Forbes placed the coins in a basin of water—a common feature of Jamaican spiritual healing. According to Doreman, Forbes waved a Bible over Granston’s head and spoke in an ‘unknown tongue’, then made the mark of the cross on her forehead and palm with a finger dipped in a basin of soap suds. He then instructed her to take three sips from a tumbler with ‘whitish stuff’ and said ‘praise father, praise son, and praise Holy Ghost’. Forbes reportedly interpreted Granston’s bad leg as the result of obeah, saying that ‘no ghost or obeah could trouble’ anyone who ‘came to his Balm’ again.
This evidence was not considered sufficient to secure an obeah conviction. It is not clear why this was so, since some other cases with similar evidence did result in convictions for obeah. Most likely it was because of the importance of Christian symbolism and words in the healing ritual conducted by George Forbes. For whatever reason, during the trial, the prosecution agreed to reduce the charge to one of practicing medicine without a licence. Forbes was convicted and fined £10, paying his fine immediately after conviction. His ability to pay so quickly is another indication of the balmyard’s success.
A few years after these prosecutions, Blake’s Pen balmyard came to the attention of American folklorist Martha Beckwith. It seems that the Forbeses did not tell her about their experience of prosecutions. In 1923 the Vassar Miscellany News described how Beckwith:
spoke of one “balm-yard” that she had visited, belonging to Mammy Forbes, a woman with a remarkable knowledge of herbs. It was, of course, against the law to practice medicine without a license, but Mammy Forbes evaded this by claiming that she only gave advice and people came from all around for medicine and help. Miss Beckwith felt that this mammy, though curing for money, was really sincere in seeking the people’s good, but she pointed out that many religious leaders encourage the belief in “duppies” as the cause of sickness simply to gain the people’s money.
From Mammy and George Forbes point of view, their two arrests seem to have been outweighed by the other occasions on which they successfully avoided arrest—something to bear in mind in considering the prosecutions of the many other healers who we know about only because they were arrested.
Blake’s Pen Healing Center still exists today, and is run by the granddaughter of Mother Rita, although it attracts many fewer people than at its height.
‘Charge of Practicing Medicine against a Woman.’ Gleaner, August 5 1910.
“Under arrest at Mandeville. Resident of Blake’s Pen, Manchester is held as obeahman” Gleaner 7 March 1916.
‘Obeah Worker’, Gleaner 5 April 1916, p. 3
’Cases in the Mandeville Court’ Gleaner 7 April 1916.
‘Miss Beckwith Finds Jamaica Negroes Superstitious’, Vassar Miscellany News, Volume VII, Number 34, 24 February 1923, Vassar Newspaper Archive.
Books and articles
Barrett, Leonard. ‘The Portrait of a Jamaican Healer: African Medical Lore in the Caribbean’, Caribbean Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 3, September 1973, pp. 6-19.
Beckwith, Martha Warren. Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaican Folk Life. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969 .
Besson, Jean, and Barry Chevannes. “The Continuity-Creativity Debate: The Case of Revival.” New West Indian Guide/ Nieuwe West-Indische Gids. 70 (1996): 209-228.