Progress in Jamaica Toward Tolerance of African Cultures

Jamaican Information Service has taken steps to remove current laws making specific crimes punishable by flogging. The practice of Obeah, widespread in Jamaica, is included on that list along with petty theft and larceny. The Obeah Act was passed in 1898 but has remained on the books and has been spuriously enforced to this day.

The Obeah Act was created in order to suppress slaves who feared that Obeah could be used to overthrow them. In the end, it turned out they were right. Many practitioners of Obeah escaped into Maroon communities where they live to this day, practicing Obeah as they did in Africa. Ironically, Obeah was also embraced by early slave owners as well as the new politicians of a democratic, independent Jamaica. Of most note is Edward Seaga, a man who was Prime Minister of Jamaica and subsequently held a position of political power every day of his life. It is no surprise that the Jamaica Observer ran the headilne: “Seaga Weighs in on Obeah Debate“:

Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, under whose administration Myal was elevated to national importance as an aspect of Jamaica’s African religious heritage during and after slavery, said he had no idea that the law had equated Myal with Obeah.

“If that is so, it is totally wrong, Seaga said. “Myalism was developed during slavery as a means for the slaves to express themselves spiritually, because they didn’t have a single language. It is still called Myal in St Thomas, but it eventually became Zion Revival, in other places”.

According to Seaga, Myal was created in Jamaica by African slaves, from a mixture of African religions, cultures and languages.

“Obeah is not a religion, it is a spiritual doctor and it is totally wrong to mix obeah with Myal,” he commented.

Seaga was an adherent and activist int he Myalist community when he secured power as the fifth Prime Minister of Jamaica. This was when Myalism was distinguished from Obeah; Myalism as the religious aspect and Obeah ass the practical, or doctoral, aspect. Seaga’s involvement and sentimentality for Myalism  – which has largely been suppressed like Obeah – shew through.

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Obeah, Jamaican Maroons and Tourism

The Maroons, escaped slaves in the West Indies, were feared by colonists and slave owners for their fearsome fighting ability and magical arts. Those magical arts were, of course, Obeah. Today, Maroon communities live and thrive in Jamaica. However, with the financial crisis impacting the world they too struggle to thrive economically. Tourism – and to a degree Obeah – play a part in this as well. CBS News reports on Charles Town, Jamaica, a community of Maroons who have held onto traditional African rituals, practices and Obeah:

CHARLES TOWN, Jamaica — In a backwoods town along a river cutting between green mountains, quick-footed men and women spin and stomp to the beat of drums. One dancer waving a knife is wrapped head-to-foot in leafy branches, his flashing eyes barely visible through the camouflage.

This traditional dance re-enacts the Jamaican Maroons’ specialty: the ambush. It was once a secret ritual of the fierce bands of escaped slaves who won freedom by launching raids on planters’ estates and repelling invasions of their forest havens with a mastery of guerrilla warfare.

Tourism plays a part in the economic livelihood of the Maroons of Charles Town, but the traditional practices of Maroon spirituality – specifically Obeah – also draw in visitors. These practices attract people not just from the inner-city of Jamaica, but from all around the world. It is also worth noting that this is one example of Obeah breaking the stereotype of being a destructive magic. Here Obeah is demonstrated as a balanced, positive healing force as it accurately should be:

“If a person is mad or if they are sick, we can make a healing dance. Our Obeah is a good Obeah,” Prehay said, referring to an Afro-Caribbean religion that involves channeling spiritual forces and is feared by some in Jamaica’s countryside, where superstitions about shamanism and the occult run deep.

But visitors are very rare in his poor town along a dusty, rutted road about a 45-minute drive from Jamaica’s capital, Kingston. Unlike the other three Maroon communities in Jamaica, Scott’s Hall has no museum, dancing grounds or other attractions aimed at tourists.

May our blessings and prayers go out to the Maroons of Charles Town. Let their Obeah, traditions and culture elevate them to new heights!

Voodoos and Obeahs – Phases of West Indies Witchcraft

Voodoos and Obeahs – Phases of West Indies Witchcraft, an ethnography concerning Voodoo and Obeah released in 1932. Origins on Obeah begin on Chapter 4 and the Development of Obeah begins in Chapter 5, with discussion intermittent in both the preceding and concluding chapters. An important text in understanding the perceived history of Obeah in Jamaica and the West Indies similar to the Malleus Maleficarum’s depictions of witchery in the 15th century.You will not learn Obeah from this book but you will learn what was believed about Obeah by some.