Interning the Serpent: Witchcraft, Religion and the Law

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Transcript Page 1 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
History and Anthropology,
Vol. 16, No. 2, June 2005, pp. 00–00
Interning the Serpent: Witchcraft,
Religion and the Law on Montserrat in
the 20th Century
Jonathan Skinner
[email protected]
2005 Ltd
(online) Queen’s University BelfastBelfastBT7 1NNUK
This article is an examination of the uneasy relationship between religion and witchcraft
(the worship of the serpent/obeah) on the British colony of Montserrat in the eastern
Caribbean. It looks at obeah in the 20th century as practised by colonial British subjects and
prohibited by British law imposed by British expatriates. Colonial governance is examined
first through correspondence at the start of the 20th century, and then through newspaper
archives and fieldwork reports and experiences throughout the century. The continued use
of anti-obeah laws by the British is shown to be an irrational but effective colonial technology of control.
Keywords: Obeah; Witchcraft; Colonial Governance; Montserrat
Laura Nader’s (1969/1999: 289) call to “study up”, to investigate “the colonisers rather
than the colonised, the culture of power rather than the culture of the powerless” and
to thereby influence the governing bureaucracies, was a rallying cry to anthropologists
that came at the end of the 1960s. It was a call to politically-correct arms that resulted
in a swathe of colonial criticism which cut through the 1970s before turning into a
dialogics of colonialism – to notions of the co-creation of European metropole and
colony – and the colonial consciousness, in the 1980s. This rethinking and revisionist
“games-playing”, to invoke Leach (1982: v), subsequently morphed into a phase of
colonial and postcolonial textual studies in the 1990s (Stoler, 2000; cf. Asad, 1973; Said,
1978/1991; Hobsbawm & Ranger, 1983/1992; Comaroff, 1985, 1992; Taussig, 1987;
Ashcroft Tiffin, 1989; Williams & Chrisman, 1993). What Nader failed to observe was
that British colonial anthropology already had its historical roots in investigating,
Correspondence to: School of Anthropological Studies, The Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast BT7 1NN, UK.
Email: [email protected]
ISSN 0275–7206 print/ISSN 1477–2612 online/05/020000–23 © 2005 Taylor & Francis Group Ltd
DOI: 10.1080/02757200500116139 Page 2 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
J. Skinner
contesting and critiquing colonial practices (Kuper, 1991). For example, delving into
the official correspondence written by research directors of the Rhodes Livingstone
Institute in Zambia (formerly British Rhodesia), Schumaker draws our attention to
Max Gluckman’s correspondence to the British Chief Secretary of Northern Rhodesia.
This extract shows that Gluckman’s view of Zulu research very firmly included
Africans, anthropologists and administrators:
It is not pleasant to be made an object of study, and I can only urge District Officers to
appreciate that when they say they are more interested in, and do more for, the welfare of
the people than the chiefs they must allow themselves to be studied in their role as a most
important part of the modern political administration. (Schumaker, 2000: 341)
In exploring the shared spaces and practices of anthropologists and administrators –
the touring and surveying, the language, the clothes and the expressions (“bushed” is
the bureaucratic version of “to go native”) – Schumaker points out Gluckman’s inclusion of the colonial administrator in his field as the critical difference between anthropologist and administrator in Africa. This small but significant inclusion demonstrates
the long-term existence of what Stoler (2000: 321) refers to as the growth of an “anthropology of colonialism”, a sub-discipline which, for her, is premised on the idea that
“[c]olonial cultures were never direct translations of European society planted in the
colonies, but unique cultural configurations, homespun creations in which European
food, dress, housing, and morality were given new political meanings in the particular
social order of colonial rule.” It distinguishes the anthropological perspective from the
administrative perspective.
As an anthropologist working on one of the remaining British colonies in the 1990s
(Skinner 1997, 2004), my time on the island of Montserrat in the eastern Caribbean
was spent characteristically engaging with Montserratians singing calypsos and
organising social protests, but it was also spent socialising with the expatriate elite of
development workers and administrators, as well as the local poets who were writing
for Montserrat’s independence. My participant observation necessitated shifts between
social and racial groups, led to my guided tours of the National Museum, my sorting
of calypso archives in the local radio station, and my “liming” on the streets of
Montserrat, hanging out and watching social life. In my work I became a “racial zebra”
(Skinner, 2004: 33) moving between racial groups, Bruner’s (1993: 7) “Arab Jew”
ethnographer, and in my subject matter, my work reflected the evolution of colonial
and postcolonial academic interests over the last 30 years.
During my research visit to Montserrat, 1994–1995, I found an island still divided
along colonial racial lines. The twin colonial concerns of land and labour continued to
determine the social and settlement patterns of the 10,000 “Mons’ratian” African slave
descendants and 300 “snowbird” European and North American residential tourists,
expatriate managers and Foreign and Commonwealth appointees. Typical of the black
consciousness movement which diffused down to the West Indies from the north
American civil and human rights concerns of the 1970s, many of the islanders reflected
a burgeoning pan-Africanism, a postcolonial identity in formation: Christian names
were being “Africanised”, traditional African clothes were becoming the preferred Page 3 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
History and Anthropology 3
evening wear after a day in the office in a suit, and the island’s educational establishment taught “national” history to the “brothers” and “sisters” as part of a policy of
consciousness-raising.1 To give a more detailed example, while the majority of the
islanders are devout Methodists, Catholics and Pentecostalists, in June 1991, the
island’s sports officials held a Jumbie Dance to appease the ancestral spirits and break
a losing streak “hex” which they had endured for several years. This spectacle cleft a rift
down Montserratian society, revealing and reviving native practices for the tourists and
the members of Montserrat’s new generations, but deeply offending many Christians
on the island who preferred a night of prayer and condemned the return to such
African savagery (Anon, 1991). It echoes the recent contentious decision of the
Ralaushai Commission in South Africa to revise and reinvigorate beliefs in witchcraft
as a marker of primordial African identity (Niehaus, 2001), and it is reminiscent of
Dessalines’s historical change to the Haitain constitution in 1805 to permit “the freedom of cults” (Dayan, 1995: 85) as a marker of independence after years of Spanish and
French Catholic rule.
Imbued by what Pietz (2000) refers to as the colonial “fetish of civilisation” – a thesis
derived from his exploration of turn-of-the-19th-century British colonial adventures
in Benin, West Africa, the colonial association of African fetishism with sacrifice and
slavery, the polar opposites of the “fetish” of colonial civilisation – and emboldened by
the convictions of their religion, Montserrat’s British subjects betray the ambivalent
identity that “sly civility” (Bhabha, 1994) affords them. Politically and psycho-dynamically, Montserrat is a British island where Britain is the maternal guiding force, to be
revered and detested, to be courted and to be resisted – though many politicians since
adult suffrage in the 1950s have criticised the British colonial governance of their island,
none have stood for independence in local elections. Pietz (2000) goes on to point out
that the idea of African fetishism was constructed by colonial law, and that traditional
institutions and practices were tolerated by British sovereignty and commercial enterprises, so long as they were not a threat to production or civil order and “civil” society.
In other words, fetishism was criminalised in colonial territories such as Ghana and
Nigeria because, as a practice, it could not be reconciled with the white man’s civilising
– née colonial – mission. These legal processes and procedures are, surprisingly, still
enforced on some colonial territories, one of which is Montserrat where the colonial –
Christian/civilising – approach has been part-instilled in the population.
Pietz concludes his ethnohistorical investigations by discussing the imposition of
British law in British colonial Africa: fetishism was distinguished from witchcraft, the
former a “customary procedure for ordering civil society” to be adjudicated traditionally, the latter a criminal offence for the colonial court. Significantly, since the 1736
repeal of the Witchcraft Act in Britain (fully repealed in all respects in 1951), the
criminal in the case was generally the witchcraft accuser rather than the accused. As
Pietz explains:
In British law, the injury done by witchcraft derived from the accusation, not the practice,
and was comparable to the injury done by acts of slander; the criminal aspect of such accusations, that is, the infraction falling under the police power of the state, was the threat of
civil disturbance that might be caused by witchcraft accusations. Pietz (2000: 77) Page 4 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
J. Skinner
Pietz’s interpretation of the law is substantiated by the work of many anthropologists
of anthropology’s colonial era who have shown witchcraft accusations in many African
territories to be akin to a sentence of death for the reviled witch (Evans-Pritchard, 1937;
Marwick, 1964; Gluckman, 1966; see also Niehaus, 2001). Witchcraft was secret,
hidden and unknown, and frequently you did not know if you or your neighbour were
witches. These legal and socio-cultural distinctions are not echoed in the West Indies.
As De Alva (1995) and others have successfully argued, colonialism varies across time
and space: 16th-century Latin America, 18th-century Caribbean, 19th-century India
and 20th-century Africa are distinctly dissimilar from each other; it is also possible to
distinguish Old Empire from New Empire in terms of the shifts in consumption
patterns in about the 1760s from colonial products (sugar, spices, slaves) to industrial
servicing which facilitated the growth of a local free class.2 Moreover, anthropologists
of colonialism Pels and Salemink situate their edited volume Colonial Subjects, a collection on the colonial management of cultural difference, with the following perceptive
and pertinent statement:
Legal, economic, and police relationships developed at different moments in a colony’s
history, shaped by the different subaltern agencies in the field to which they apply, by the
historical context of the colonizer’s initiative, and by the way in which the establishment
of one sector of a colony’s administration precedes the establishment of another. (Pels &
Salemink, 2000: 27)
Plantation economy societies in the West Indies such as those of Montserrat, Antigua,
Guadeloupe, St Kitts, Nevis and Haiti thrived upon the spells, charms, potions, hexes
and curses developed by witch doctors. There, among the imported slaves, were the
imported witch doctors who had their uses amongst the slave workers. The obeah
(serpent worship) that they practised was open and public; they were feared but also
revered by slave, planter and administrator alike.
Colonial Resistance Archived
I have the honour to make the following report upon the Obeah cases which I have tried in
Montserrat since the beginning of 1900, thinking it may be useful to those who have to aid
in its suppression in the Leeward Islands.
Sent from the Commissioner’s Office,3 Montserrat, to the Honourable The Colonial
Secretary on 1 February 1905, Commissioner F. H. Watkins’s letter gives a report into
not just the cases of witchcraft which came to trial on the island over the first five years
of his rule, but also documents the workings of colonial governance and the machinations of the colonial mind (see Figure 1). The letter is held in a colonial file in the
Antigua and Barbuda National Museum, four typed pages with an Appendix list of
cases and sentences, as well as a series of five photo-fit sheets of sentenced obeah practitioners on other islands (see Figure 3).
In the letter, a carefully archived colonial report, each paragraph is a numerical
point – there are 13 in total – the first of which covers working colonial and legal
Figure 1 First Page of Letter from Commissioner Watkins to the Honourable The Colonial Secretary, 1905 (Antigua and Barbuda National Museum Archive) Page 5 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
History and Anthropology 5
Figure 1 First Page of Letter from Commissioner Watkins to the Honourable The
Colonial Secretary, 1905 (Antigua and Barbuda National Museum Archive) Page 6 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
J. Skinner
understandings and definitions of obeah. Point two notes that there have been 20 cases
during Watkins’s rule, implicating the 41 people listed in the “accompanying return”
on page five. Point three details the legal working understanding of obeah. The letter
then goes on to divide and detail the different types of obeah in points four to ten. The
remaining points (11–13) relate to recommendations for policing. Point three reads as
3. Obeah, or the worship of the serpent, is prevalent in all the West Indian Islands, and has
been handed down from generations of slaves deported from Africa. The expression
“Obeah” as defined by the Obeah Act of the Leeward Islands means “Obeah as ordinarily
understood and practised, and includes witchcraft and making or pretending to work by
spells or by professed occult or supernatural power”. Though perfectly well understood by
every inhabitant, obeah is difficult to define, and it is therefore best to leave it as “Obeah”
as ordinarily understood and practised. (Watkins 1905: 1, original emphasis)
From these legal, if obtuse, definitions, the letter goes on to divide obeah into three
kinds: Maleficent, Benevolent, and Precautionary (point four). Points five, six and
seven are examples of Maleficent Obeah, “by far the worst kind … using as it does
vegatable [sic] and other poisons and trading on the worst passions of revenge”
(Watkins, 1905: 1). Point five continues with comments about the threatening of
witnesses and the use of poison on shards of broken bottles and plates. Watkins also
notes the African knowledge of poisons which has been imperfectly passed down to the
present generation. Point six develops the Maleficent Obeah description by detailing
the practice of desecrating corpses and graveyards:
It is the practice for each person consulting the “Doctor man” to bring a separate skull. In
one case before me two skulls, a tibia, an ulna and other human bones were produced in
evidence. A year after, the same obeah man was arrested, and a third skull, decorated with
a band of silver in front with a cross marked in chalk, was discovered in his possession.
Human skulls, when scraped, are supposed to be a deadly poison, which is generally
administered in rum or other spirituous liquors. (Watkins, 1905: 2)
Watkins concludes that Maleficent Obeah is thus the worst form of obeah, one which,
according to point seven, can even involve the sacrifice of fowls or goats, and
sometimes the sacrifice of larger animals, babies, children and adults. Examples of this
“atrocious” “voodooism” come from a spate of killings in British St Lucia, as well as
other “disappearances”: “Certain mysterious disappearances of children and adults in
these islands may, with a certain amount of truth, be traceable to the results of obeah”
(Watkins, 1905: 3).
Benevolent Obeah contrasts with Maleficent Obeah in that it is about healing, curing
and laying to rest the spirits of deceased persons. Often the practice of this form of
obeah “arises from a desire of parents and others to heal their relations of diseases for
the most time pronounced incurable by the local Medical Officers”. In point eight,
Watkins goes on to recount one such healing case:
In one case, the principal “doctor man” was found rubbing a woman with cassava root who
was suffering from cancer, while an assistant danced round having in each hand a plate
containing bones and parched corn mixed with earth, and the rest of those present sang
lullabies and incantations. (Watkins, 1905: 3) Page 7 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
History and Anthropology 7
Perhaps it is of note, here, that Watkins refers to the obeah “doctor man” in inverted
commas, presumably distinguishing the witch doctor from the real doctor. This example
moves on to “a more innocent kind”, namely, to “lay the spirits of deceased persons”.
In point nine, Watkins (1905: 3) explains this activity as follows: “Widows, when anxious
to enter into fresh matrimonial or other complications, are anxious to lay the spirit of
their departed spouses so as not to be troubled by their apparitions.” Finally, in the tenth
point, Watkins concludes his description of the three forms of obeah by considering
Precautionary Obeah. Watkins (1905: 3) chides the followers of obeah for their ignorance in this point when he writes: “Precautionary obeah is used by those who should
know better to keep off marauders from their crops.” He continues: “Miniature coffins
and bottles containing lizards and other objects of obeah are placed on trees with the idea
of frightening away the superstitious, and it often succeeds in gaining the desired end.”
Watkins’s final point about the practice of obeah betrays the colonial desire to
eradicate the practice, and points to the reasons for its slow decline.
11. Although the spread of civilizing influences is beginning to make the more respectable
and sensible of the labouring class regard obeah with ridicule, there is still considerable
difficulty in obtaining direct evidence in open Court with regard to obeah cases. Very many
of the witnesses will deny in court what they have stated to the police. (Watkins, 1905: 3)
From here Watkins goes on to comment upon the court cases he has heard as
Commissioner on Montserrat. He has heard 20 cases which involved some 41 people.
As Watkins (1905: 4) states: “[T]he police are questioned by Counsel and defendants
how they know that such and such an object is an instrument of obeah.” Watkins
deems it useful, then, “to summarise the objects produced in evidence” in his cases (see
Figure 2).
These consist of the following: packs of cards (5); small oval looking glasses (8); tufts
of hair in small cloth parcels (4); coins, chains and rosaries (9); bottles containing assofoetida, rum and quicksilver, garlic, turpentine, castor oil or some other nauseous liquid
(15); powder of bones (4); human remains, skulls, etc. (9); food – Jumby suppers (3);
churchyard earth (5); dead rat (1); goat’s hoof (1); piece of chalk (4); and small coffin
– hung over obeah man’s house (1). The report then ends with reference to this being
an interim report, with a full report to follow into the working of the Obeah Act of 1904
in August, “in accordance with the Secretary of State’s directions” (Watkins, 1905: 4).
Figure 2 Extract from p. 4 of Letter from Watkins to the Honourable The Colonial Secretary, 1905 (Antigua and Barbuda National Museum Archive)
I have,&c.
( sd ) F.H.Watkins.
Containing the Serpent in the Indies
The litigious, lying native became a central object of nineteenth-century colonial, legal
regulation. Each winter an Indian magistrate was dispatched to the Caribbean to adjudicate over the incalculable indentured Indian coolies. That the process of colonial intervention, its institutionalization and normalization, may itself be an Enstellung, a displacement,
is the symbolic reality that must be disavowed. It is this ambivalence that ensues within Page 8 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
J. Skinner
paranoia as a play between eternal vigilance and blindness, and estranges the image of
authority in its strategy of justification. (Bhabha, 1994: 100, original emphasis)
Though concentrating upon witchcraft accusations contained in the editings of Mary
Douglas (1970), Stewart and Strathern (2004) rightly describe the accounts and rulings
concerning witchcraft and sorcery in Africa and India as a colonial discourse on
modernity. And yet, because of their colonial treatments, they are at the same time also
a postmodern undermining of modernity’s civilising grand narrative. British colonial
punishments and imprisonment in India (cf. Dirks, 2000) or Spanish categorisation
and subsequent brutality towards Amerindians are grotesque examples of this (cf.
Taussig, 1987). A further irony is the fact that early modern European nation states had
a history of acting in an inquisitional fashion towards witchcraft claims and cases, just
as many African tribes have a “persecutorial” view of misfortune (Niehaus, 2001: 63),
blaming it upon witchcraft; perhaps it is no small coincidence, too, that anthropologists
Figure 2 Extract from p. 4 of Letter from Watkins to the Honourable The Colonial Secretary, 1905 (Antigua and Barbuda National Museum Archive) Page 9 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
History and Anthropology 9
frame their witchcraft inquiries largely as “cases” heard and presented. Levack (2002a,
2002b) contends that the state machines in 16th- and 17th- century Europe used the
witchcraft trials to promote judicial and administrative centralisation, to attack localism and particularism – including superstitions – and to promote obedience to God
and King. The great witch-hunts ended once the bureaucracy was more settled and
feudal upheavals in the old social order had come to an end. At the same time, the
intellectual revolutions of Cartesian and neo-Platonic thought – that extraordinary
(paranormal) phenomena have natural causes – began to hold sway. This theme of trial
as a system for maintaining public order is one which was developed and extended in
the crown colonies despite Britain’s amendment to the 1604 witchcraft statues in 1736
to stress the “pretence” of witchcraft rather than witchcraft per se.
There are similarities between the Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica (1865) and the
Indian Mutiny of 1857, which Stewart and Strathern (2004) and Bhabha (1994) hold
as emblematic of the power of rumour and superstition in fostering anti-colonial struggle. The consequences of rebellion in the interstitial spaces of Empire were terrible
suppression through disciplinary and regulatory practices, specifically, what Comaroff
(1998: 323) refers to as “colonial governmentality” with its “rational administration”
(a means of control over the development of the native population through the classic
Weberian mechanisms of bureaucratisation, documentation, rationalisation and registration). These dispossessing and dislocating practices found their form in the obeah
laws of the West Indies. Through these laws against voodoo and obeah, such nomadic
thought could be curtailed and ordered society enforced by attacks upon the personal
body in the form of the lash, pecuniary charges, physical labour and physical confinement – the characteristic penalties of a capitalist colonial machine.
In his now classic Voodoos and Obeahs: Phases of West India Witchcraft, Joseph
Williams (1933) chronicles and explains the evolution and suppression of such
practices. According to Williams, obeah could be a derived practice of ophiolatry,
serpent-worship, which spread from Egypt to West Africa and then via the slave trade
to the West Indies. Originally, in Egypt, the snake goddess was worshipped in a cult
which grew from the practice of keeping non-poisonous snakes in granaries to protect
the contents from vermin.4 According to Mannington (1925: 267), obeah is “a
degraded form of religion”, what the abolitionist William Wilberforce (1823: 22) had
once downplayed as “fascinating mischief”, and what the armchair anthropologist Sir
James Frazer (1993) subsumes under the label “sympathetic magic”. This obeah on the
English colonies is voodoo on the Spanish and French territories.
The “professors of Obi” (Williams, 1933: 110) are African slaves with their own folklore, an indigenous knowledge of plants, herbs and spells. They can cure and they can
curse. They can protect and they can destroy. The 1760 Jamaican Anti-Witchcraft law
details the farrago of their obeah materials for the first time:
Any Negro or other Slave who shall pretend to any Supernatural Power, and be detected in
making use of any Blood, Feathers, Parrots’ Beaks, Dogs’ Teeth, Alligators’ Teeth, broken
Bottles, Grave Dirt, Rum, Egg-shells, or any other materials relative to the Practice of
Obeah or Witchcraft … upon Conviction … [shall] suffer Death or Transportation. (Act
24, Section 10, 1760, quoted in Brathwaite, 1971: 162) Page 10 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
J. Skinner
This law came about following the 1760 insurrection of the Koromantin Gold Coast
negroes in St Mary’s, Jamaica, and was reintroduced in 1938. The plantocracy saw how
dangerous the slaves’ use of fetishes and oaths to render them invulnerable could be.
Prior to this anti-colonial and anti-slavery rebellion, citing a British government colonial report (Anon, 1789), Williams (1933: 113) notes that many of the planters had
disregarded the “tricks of Obi”:
Hanging up feathers, bottles, eggshells, &c. &c. in order to intimidate Negroes of a thievish
disposition from plundering huts, hog-styes, or provision grounds, these were laughed at
by the white inhabitants as harmless stratagems, contrived by the more sagacious for deterring the more simple and superstitious Blacks, and serving for much the same purpose as
the scarecrows which are in general use among our English farmers and gardeners.
The anti-obeah laws are a direct result, then, of rebellion and struggle, more so than a
Christian struggle to save souls and to fight evil forces. The laws are for the suppression
and punishment of obeah practitioners, threats to the tense and fragile status quo.
Another anti-obeah force was the 19th-century Myalism revival, a priestly “antidote”
(Rampini, 1873: 131) to obeah deriving from Ashanti tribal religion. The expectation
amongst the more lackadaisical planters was that with the end of the slave trade (1807)
and post-slave emancipation (1834), these beliefs and practices would eventually all
die out.
Assimilation, to quote Mullin (1992: 212), resulted in new generations of Christians
with “impregnated archaic knowledge”. For some, however, their “African-based religiosity” (Lazarus-Black, 1994: 45) was retained. Mullin (1992) continues with the point
that these obeahmen – with their African science – maintained an unofficial power over
life and death. They had the respect, awe and fear of other slaves in the Caribbean, as
well as the planters. Whether anyone disputed the obeahmen’s claims, the consequences of their work were frighteningly real. They didn’t just protect property,
uncover secrets, predict the future, charm overseers in order to prevent punishment,
attract men to women or make themselves useful to planters by putting a hex on black
jockeys. They prevented crops from growing and also led slave insurrections by
mentally, physically and spiritually poisoning their opposition. Their authority came
from their illegitimate status as alienated leaders on the margins of society. To
conclude, Lazarus-Black (1994: 46), in her assessment of law and illegality in Antiguan
society, makes the critical point that obeah is more than magic and witchcraft, religion
and resistance – it was and still is a potent form of traditional judicial practice, one
which is capable of uniting and empowering, “part of a system of illegalities whose
conceptual opposition is not Christianity per se but an entire system of legalities.”
Colonial Assessments of the Contorting Serpent
Frederick Henry Watkins (1859–1928) served as Commissioner for Montserrat, a position upgraded from Administrator in 1888, but one not to advance to full governorship
until 1971. This meant that, as a deputy stationed on Montserrat, Watkins was subordinate to the Governor of the Leeward Islands. At the time of the letter, Watkins had Page 11 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
History and Anthropology 11
been in post for five years: he was writing his letter to the Colonial Secretary in London,
knowing that he would soon face rotation to another colonial position. He was writing
to Alfred Lyttleton, a member of Balfour’s Conservative government – a government
which, ten months later, was to resign and be replaced by Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s liberal Cabinet.5 The Liberal Unionist Lyttleton, a renowned wicket-keeper and
tennis player, and member of a family of colonial governors, had succeeded Joseph
Chamberlain to the office of Secretary of State for the Colonies and served from
October 1903 to December 1905.6 The letter, then, is a diplomatic record, a textual
fragment of colonialism held in a postcolonial national museum, referenced as “Copy.
No. 53/40” (Watkins, 1905, p 1; see Figure 1). In terms of Comaroff’s (1992) historical
ethnography of mission in colonial South Africa, this letter is a shard which should be
anchored in the processes of its production, namely, that of British colonialism creating a colonial consciousness among the planters and former slaves of Montserrat. Held
where it is, for posterity, the letter is part of a colonial archive, one of the primary sites
of state monumentality, a place which, according to Dirks (2000: 175), “reflects the
forms and formations of colonial epistemology”. To continue, it is where “[h]istory
was written by the state to educate and justify political policies and practices, and it was
produced and preserved by the state for future reference in the archive” (Dirks, 2000:
174). Quite why the letter and archive are in postcolonial Antigua is an irony which I
cannot explain other than to note that most records on Montserrat seem to have been
almost routinely destroyed in the natural disasters which routinely befall the island –
fire, flood, hurricane, earthquake and volcano.
The fixity of history naturally favours the coloniser. Though laws change and were
changing at the time of writing, Watkins accounts for the colonisers’/his practical
working knowledge of them. The obeah laws and their context, however opaque they
are acknowledged to be (“Obeah as ordinarily understood and practised”), are outlined
in his letter to a reader who is not expected to have a background knowledge of them.
Watkins’s rationalisation for the laws is equally clearly laid out at the start and the end
of the letter: it is to aid in the suppression of obeah in the Leeward Islands administered
by the British,7 to promote “civilising influences” and to enforce them through clearer
police recognition of obeah artefacts. Further explanations for imposing British values
and practices upon a population of formerly African tribesmen and tribeswomen are
taken for granted and are not deemed necessary. It would appear that the burdens and
complicities of colonialism, the consciousness of the coloniser, are shared between the
writer and the reader, even if the local inhabitants’ working knowledge of obeah is not.
Typical of the coloniser’s desire for knowledge and order and hence control, Watkins
presents a typology of obeah: the bad (maleficent sacrifice and murder by “vegatable
poisons” and “the setting of jumbeys on persons”; Watkins, 1905: 2), the good (benevolent healing strategies which conflict with and undermine the colonial medical
officers, such as “massage with turpentine or cassava roots accompanied at times by
incantations”; Watkins, 1905: 3) and the preventative (using obeah to prevent trespassers). The preventative example reiterates the research on obeah in Jamaica by Bessie
Pullen-Burry (1903: 140), an historical and colonial contemporary of Watkins, when
she writes: Page 12 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
J. Skinner
Some planters adopt Obi to ensure themselves against thieving. They take a large black
bottle, fill it with some phosphorescent liquid, and place within it the feather of a buzzard,
the quill sticking uppermost. This they fasten to a tree on the outskirts of the coffee-patch
or banana-field, where it can be well observed by all who pass near. The dusky population,
firmly believing it to be the work of the Obeah man, refrain their thieving propensities
It is the light-hearted and humorous attitude to obeah that Watkins dislikes and
disapproves of so much. It can lead to slippage in the colonising mission and mandate,
and it can hold up the courts and the “natural” flow of evidence. The ordering and
orderings of obeah continue in point 13 with the list of items outlined above and
extracted in Figure 2. Out of the 20 cases, there were 69 objects cited as “instruments
of obeah” (Watkins, 1905: 4). These objects were all taken, interpreted and framed as
evidence in the court of law. It is surprising that “Food” could be classified as “Jumbey
suppers”, and that “castor oil”, “coins” and “rosaries”, and “Churchyard earth” were
accepted as legal evidence. In India, in the same colonial period, colonial officers were
developing anthropometric fingerprinting technologies for caste groups (cf. Dirks
2000), whereas in the British West Indies, with its particular and peculiar planter
history of grotesque and lascivious misrule – rivalled only by the terrors and atrocities
of the Columbian and Belgian mines and plantations (cf. Taussig, 1987) – both the
planters and the public were still in fear of the rumours and superstitions of old:
poisons on shards of glass, “medicine-laying” for the intended victim; graveyard dirt
thrown at a man to kill him; and small coffins in the trees to keep the shadows caught
by the obeahman. On Montserrat and throughout the British West Indies, the only
further development of the “colonization of subjectivity” (Tagg, 1988) was through
the photo-fit (see Figure 3).
Watkins’s letter shows us that the indigenous obeah ideology was being sustained
despite the introduction of the colonisers’ religion and legal practice. Watkins is
concerned by the number of obeah cases he has heard so far over the period of his
office on Montserrat. The intimation, in Watkins’s letter, is that the numbers are not
tailing off with the end of the slave trade and slavery and that a rigorous and consistent crack-down on the obeah practitioners is necessary. Watkins then closes his letter
with the note that this is but an interim report and that in August 1905 a more
substantial report will be sent to the Colonial Secretary, as requested and needed
following the introduction of an island Obeah Act in the previous year. His Appendix
(1905: 5) is a “List of persons convicted of Obeah under Section 45 of Act No.11 of
1891 from 1900 to 1903” (see Figure 4). Listing 41 people, and covering the time
period featured in the letter, we can reason that this list features the 41 people referred
to in point 12 of the letter. The names, furthermore, all appear to be Montserratian
family names still recognisable during my fieldwork on the island approximately 90
years later.
The sentences range in severity from “dismissal” (one case) and “To come up for
judgement if called upon” (seven cases) to the average sentence of “6 months hard
labour” (22 cases), and the extreme sentence for Charles Dolly on 18 August 1904 of
“12 months hard labour and a flogging of 24 strokes”. The number of cases range from
Figure 3 Sample from a Series of ‘Photo-fits’ Filed with the Letter from Watkins to the Honourable The Colonial Secretary, 1905 (Antigua and Barbuda National Museum Archive)
Figure 4 Appendix to Letter from Watkins to the Honourable The Colonial Secretary, 1905 (Antigua and Barbuda National Museum Archive) Page 13 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
History and Anthropology 13
three (1901) to 11 (1902) in a year and average seven. Hard labour and flogging were
punishments imposed by the coloniser, an echo of those used by the planter to control
their slaves several decades earlier. The gender ratio is interesting in that 35 of the
“convicts” were male, six female, and five of the female obeah practitioners were
Figure 3 Sample from a Series of ‘Photo-fits’ Filed with the Letter from Watkins to the
Honourable The Colonial Secretary, 1905 (Antigua and Barbuda National Museum
Archive) Page 14 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
J. Skinner
sentenced at the start of 1905, a worrying year with so many cases at the start (eight in
number). The gender-neutral idea of fixity can therefore be developed to apply not
only to the process of historicism, but also to the colonial ideological construction of
the obeah practitioner, to Bhabha’s (1994) notion of otherness and difference, not least
the physical restrictions placed upon the prisoner to work.8
Figure 4 Appendix to Letter from Watkins to the Honourable The Colonial Secretary,
1905 (Antigua and Barbuda National Museum Archive) Page 15 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
History and Anthropology 15
A Century of the Serpent Law on Montserrat
One of the white man’s often quoted proverbs is: “Never quarrel with your cook”; the
meaning of which is that the cook can put something in your food in retaliation if you
maltreat him. (Nassau, 1904: 263)
In the middle of my first period of fieldwork on Montserrat, I heard the following
true story from some expatriate residential tourists who lived on the island during
the winter months back in Canada and had employed a cook/cleaner who they were
not happy with. One day, they had had enough of her and so they decided to sack
her when they returned home from a round of golf. When they came in, they found
her in the kitchen preparing her usual Irish stew. The expatriate couple were earlier
than usual and so, when they came in, they happened upon the ingredients of the
stew sitting on the chopping board. The cook had brought a little something from
herself to add to the stew in the hope that her employees would eat it and so, by
contagious magic, the employers and employee would be forever linked together and
her job saved. Alas, it was not to be! Her dried faeces were thrown out into the
garden and she was thrown out onto the street. Had the cook been successful in
creating her stew, then the outcome might have been very different – assuming that
this was only the first time that she had attempted to add a little je-ne-sais-quoi to
the dish.
The current Revised Laws of Montserrat 1962 (Lewis, 1965) with their sediment of
past and future amendments put obeah under the coloniser’s lens, but also give the
reader great insight into the workings of the colonial mind. Though it was not possible
to access the 1891 Obeah Act records, the definition held and in use in 1962 had
changed little from Watkins’s summary and was the result of amendments in 1932,
1949, 1956 and 1961 to the 2 August 1904 benchmark law enforced on Montserrat by
Watkins (the 1891 Act refers to the collective Obeah Act of the Leeward Islands as
opposed to a law for each island). The current Act also makes mention of “the instrument of obeah” in establishing the Act:
1. This Act may be cited as the Obeah Act
2. In this Act –
“instrument of obeah” means anything ordinarily used in the practice of obeah or
intended to be so used in such practice, and anything used or intended to be used by a
person and pretended by such person to be possessed of any occult or supernatural power;
“obeah” means obeah as ordinarily understood and practised, and includes witchcraft and
working or pretending to work by spells or by professed occult or supernatural power.
(Lewis, 1965: 527)
The Act goes on to legislate on the maximum sentence (“not exceeding five years with
or without hard labour”; Point 4, Lewis, 1965: 527), to allow police to enter, search and
seize items from properties, and “to arrest without warrant any person practising
obeah, or reasonably suspected to be practising obeah” (Point 10, Lewis, 1965: 528).
The sentences range from a maximum of six months (fortune-telling or healing, or
publishing and promoting obeah) to 12 months (practising obeah, sponsoring obeah, Page 16 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
J. Skinner
in possession of obeah instruments or hindering the authorities in their investigations),
and fines not exceeding $240.
Newspaper records show that the Obeah Act has been invoked throughout the 20th
century, largely as a means for deporting obeahmen and -women who visit the island
and tour the villages plying their trade. This suggests a shift in its target from the 20
Montserratians sentenced at the turn of the century under the 1891 Act. In terms of
the development of that Christian civilised society mentioned by Watkins, the colonisers have been successful. And yet, out in the field, the obeah potions continue to
swing freely from the trees and gates to ward off trespassers, my neighbour keeps a
cock’s foot hanging from his back door to deter thieves – and visitors and some locals
regularly put their t-shirts on the wrong way around so that the jumbeys cannot creep
up on them. While it is unlikely that minor instances of obeah such as these warrant
sentences in excess of public disapproval and condemnation (a bank teller’s name
found in a colleague’s shoe at work is another contemporary example), a Haitian
visiting the island and going from village to village is likely to be apprehended,
detained and deported. This happened in March 1992 when Joseph Antis was
convicted on a charge of practising obeah and was fined $1,000 and deported (Anon,
1992a). Follow-up reports noted that he still left the island with over EC$10,000 and
that he continued to practise from Antigua, the neighbouring island, where
Monserratians visited him (Anon, 1992b). Apparently, he had toured door to door
offering the following services:
His promises were simple and to the point: “Exorcise the Jumbie (evil spirits) in your body,
home or ground.”
“Bring good luck, promotion on the job, money and marriage.”
“Hurt those who were using evil forces against you”.
In fact he will cure all ailments and ills including your personal economic recession.
(Anon, 1992b: 20)
In the same article, there is the supplementary note that Montserrat “has had a
record for serious Obeah Men who could swell you foot or you belly” (Anon,
1992b: 20). One obeahman was so powerful he used to “sun his money and defy
anyone to touch it”. While other Caribbean lands such as postcolonial Guyana are
making obeah legal as a recognised folk religion, British colonial islands such as
Montserrat – and the British Virgin Islands – continue to oppress the vernacular
belief system.9
The only difference in the application of the Obeah Act in the 1990s compared with
the turn of the century was that in the 1990s it targeted off-islanders. Earlier newspaper
records, for example, regularly noted obeah cases, such as the case of Harry Fenton of
Molyneaux village who was simultaneously sentenced for indecent language and obeah
in 1961:
Indecent Language:
Harry Fenton of Molyneaux $12.00 or 1 month H.L. Page 17 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
History and Anthropology 17
Harry Fenton of Molyneaux was sentenced to 2 months H.L. after pleading guilty to having
instruments for practising obeah in his possession. (Anon, 1961: 3)
It would appear that for some offences, a period of hard labour is equivalent, financially, to $12 dollars. This is not the case for obeah offences which are considered to
be more serious and so cannot be excused through payment. Nevertheless, similar
sentences do give some comparative indication as to how obeah cases were
perceived. For example, in the same week, Daniel Daley, Peter Howson and St Clair
Taylor all received similar sentences to Harry Fenton, but for very different
Daniel Daley of Wapping and Peter Howson were each fined $10.00 or 2 months H.L. for
wounding each other with knives.
St. Clair Taylor of Lees was fined $10.00 or 2 months H.L. for stealing a brown mare
donkey. (Anon, 1961: 3)
Perhaps the shift to sentencing those from overseas reveals the success of colonial
policy on Montserrat, an island which, despite UN decolonisation initiatives (Skinner,
2002), has continued to opt for dependency status. In other words, the enforcement of
the Obeah Act has eroded subscription to the islanders’ folk religion such that all that
remains are off-island visits and tourist/cultural displays.
In the mid-1990s, the obeah and jumbee activities had been almost laid to rest.
However, when the Roman Catholic priest and anthropologist Jay Dobbin (1986)
visited the island during the mid-1970s and the early 1980s, he did find the dying
remnants of the local folk religion, African-derived with a strong folk Catholic or
Protestant influence. Though denied by the many Pentecostals, Methodists, Anglicans,
Roman Catholics and Seventh Day Adventists on the island, particularly middle- and
high-income Montserratians, upon investigation during his stays on Montserrat,
Dobbin (1986) found a number of examples and instances of obeah and jumbee
Nurses and matrons from the hospital told me of terminally ill patients being carried out
into the bush where dances were performed around them. A man asked me for magical
books. People came to the presbytery asking for blessed medals and candles; many were
not Catholic. They insisted the articles be blessed, on the spot. Questioning revealed that
the articles were being used for purposes patently magical. I was embarrassed to find
myself reluctantly trafficking in magical appurtenances. A man was lost in the hills, and
platters of food were set out for the spirits of the jombees in order to persuade them to
bring him back. I saw the lavish display of food and drink set up before the midnight Mass
“for the jombees to come and eat.” (Dobbin, 1986: 15)
Dobbin clarifies our understanding of jombees and the contemporary obeah beliefs on
Montserrat. According to him, jombees are “dee dead”, beneficent or maleficent spirits
who can be controlled by the obeahman, and can even be seen, heard, felt and touched.
If the jombee is beneficent and helpful then, more than likely, the jombee is an ancestral Page 18 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
J. Skinner
spirit, often identifiable as recently deceased kin, “dee loving dead”. However, if the
jombee is a nuisance, evil or unidentifiable, then the jombee is a spirit of “a dead” from
another island, perhaps brought to Montserrat by a local or visiting obeahman
(Dobbin, 1986: 24, 46). Dobbin (1986) concentrated his research upon the jumbee
dance of Montserrat that was merely acted out by the 1990s. Traditionally, a jumbee
dance is a trance ritual for divining, curing sickness and solving personal problems,
described by one of its critics as “neargamancie” (black magic), “part of the sub-subculture of Montserrat” the “Old Serpent” Devil’s work (Montserratian 1991: 9, 11). It
begins like a local drum dance held for a spree, but is held for ritual healing at which a
dancer, usually female, will become so spirited that she is described as “turning”.
“Turning is the local term for the ecstatic dancing when the jombees are said to possess
the dancers” (Dobbin, 1986: 49, original emphasis). Over a period of several years’
research, Dobbin saw several jombee dances, one of which was staged for public audience at the University Centre on the island. I never saw a jombee dance, but I heard of
people talking about the jombees they had met, and the jombee table they prepared on
Christmas Eve for the jombee spirits, usually the deceased ancestors of the household
– a folk tradition the American tourists equated with the food and drink placed at the
bottom of the chimney for Father Christmas.
Significantly, towards the end of The Jombee Dance of Montserrat, Dobbin writes that
the dance ritual has a strong political dimension to it:
It is a creativity born of opposition, resistance, and perhaps even rebellion. Certainly, the
Montserratian folk religion is another case negating that difficult-to-kill myth of passivity
in the face of slavery and colonialism. Where Montserratian police and court records show
dances and obeah to be punished by raids, floggings, imprisonment, fine, and even an
arrest as late as 1961, the jombee religion persisted. Denied political voice and social status
in the past, the Blacks of Montserrat expressed their resistance in the domain of religion.
The jombee religion expressed and still expresses the creativity of the suppressed and
exploited. (Dobbin, 1986: 153)
Here, Dobbin expresses obeah’s creative, religious and functional uses, the matrix of
ideological beliefs and practices mentioned by Lazarus-Black (1994). He articulates
the reason for the legal suppression of obeah. Obeah has always been a threat to
official bureaucratic institutions and practices with its subversive and unregulated
Come the emancipation of slavery and the demise of the plantocracy, obeah survived
as one of the remaining traditional resistance strategies to slave acculturation and colonialism, a tacit informal form of opposition taking place in an “invisible” religious
dimension (Mullin, 1992: 175). As Watkins suggests in his letter to the Colonial
Secretary, obeah per se is an ineffectual practice but with real and worrying
consequences. This is the position probably taken by the officers, such as Commissioner Watkins, who administer the Government of Montserrat on behalf of the British
government. For them, despite the emancipation of slavery, obeah remains an unregulated force of influence. Although, according to the law-makers and law-enforcers,
obeah is just a ridiculous practice associated with African superstitious beliefs, it needs
to be suppressed so that it cannot be used to motivate resistance to the official forces Page 19 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
History and Anthropology 19
and institutions on Montserrat. One such legitimate institution is the Christian church;
Dobbin estimated in the 1980s there to be one church for every 300–400 people on
Montserrat. In this case, in a strongly Christian community such as Montserrat, the
Christian religion is increasingly used as one of the social bases for this colonial world.
That Christianity acts as Peter Berger’s (1967: 30) “nomos” at the centre of the society.
It is one of the social institutions giving out ontological status and working as a universal frame of reference. The cosmic frame of reference claimed by the obeahman is in
direct conflict with that Christian and colonial cosmic frame of reference; it threatens
and undermines the social (superstitions), economic (payments), political (rebellions),
judicial (informal control over people) and religious (folklores) institutions on
Montserrat and other islands in the Caribbean. This conclusion allows me to account
for the continued use of the Obeah Act across the 20th century – in the 1960s, in
Dobbin’s experiences in the 1970s and 1980s, in the paternalistic use of the Act in the
1990s, and in the local government’s recent institutionalisation of a National Day of
Prayer on Montserrat in response to public religious canvassing against cultural events
such as the cricketers’ jumbie dance and natural events such as the 1995 ongoing
eruption of Mount Chance.
Colonial Chimera
Grottanelli (1976) suggests that the witchcraft complex, in which we can include the
colonials’ serpent, is an allegory of social and moral subversion. Obeah is certainly seen
by Watkins and others as a threat to the establishment as well as to the established
Christian denominations on Montserrat. The development and continued use of the
Obeah Act on Montserrat in the 20th century shows, contra Bhabha (1994), that any
mimicry in terms of colonial discourse is one with agency and difference to it, that, to
paraphrase and invert the colonial officer Sir Edward Just in his 1839 address to the
Colonial Office, “[not] every colony of the British Empire [is] a mimic representation
of the British Constitution.” As a colonial creature, an anachronism of law and history,
the colonial island with the serpent laws reflects the Burkean political approach of
contextualising law and maintaining different laws and latitudes in the colonies. It is
this anachronism that the diplomat and author Sir Hesketh Bell (1936, see also 1889)
was pointing to in his letter to The Times in 1936 following a debate about the
bicentennial anniversary of the British Parliament passing the 1736 law abolishing
prosecution for the crime of witchcraft:
It will probably be an additional surprise to many people to learn that while the law in this
country has declined for 200 years to recognise the existence of witchcraft, the legislatures
of some of our oldest and most civilised colonies, to wit, the British West Indies, have not
only recognised the existence and effects of sorcery but, in quite recent years, have made
laws for the repression of witchcraft which, for their severity, savour almost Tudor and
Jacobean times. (Bell, 1936: 8)
Almost 275 years after the abolition of such laws and witchcraft prosecutions, the
Obeah Act continues to be invoked and revered, the practice of obeah feared and
forbidden. Ironically, this transpires in the colonial laboratory of the tropics. Page 20 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
J. Skinner
Explaining the evolution of the horse (Anon, 1972: 8), one common jumbie story on
Montserrat concludes with the judicious comment from one jumbie caught off guard
in the middle of the night by strange noises: “Well my done! Horse eye bright tonight
eh?” On Montserrat, Britain and British law has played a key part in co-creating and
sustaining a modern-day colonial chimera.
This article has benefited from the assistance of staff and curators at the Antigua and
Barbuda National Museum, the incumbent His Excellency The Governor of Montserrat Frank Savage and Royal Montserrat Police Commissioner David Crowther, as well
as the generosity of comments from audiences at the University of St Andrews, the
University of Abertay Dundee and The Queen’s University Belfast. I am grateful to the
Carnegie Foundation for their part-funding of my fieldwork on Montserrat in 1994–
1995, and to the generous hosting of Ms Cherrie Taylor and her sister Laine who not
only welcomed me to the island but also introduced me to the range of orthodox
(Christian) and unorthodox (obeah) religious beliefs and practices currently and
formerly practiced there.
The University of the West Indies Extra Mural Department on the island, the island’s main
cultural centre, had these terms of reference on the bathroom doors.
Mullin (1992) refers to the period 1768–1805 as an era of slave resistance, war and revolution
in the British Caribbean and the American South. The St Patrick’s Day rebellion in 1768 on
Montserrat and the American Civil War can be linked with the change in imperial trading
The Commissioner acted as the officer who administered the government of Montserrat on
behalf of the British government. The person was a deputy to the Governor of the Leeward
Islands. In 1889 the title was Commissioner. The title changed to Administrator in 1956 and
eventually the status of the post advanced to governorship in 1971 (Fergus, 1994).
Etymologically, obeah, obiah or obia refers to those who worship Ob(i), the Egyptian for
serpent (Williams, 1933).
The new Colonial Secretary would be Victor Alexander Bruce, ninth Earl of Elgin, Colonial
Secretary 1905–1908, former Viceroy of India (1894–1899), a position held by his father
(1862–1863 deceased) who had previously been Governor of Jamaica (1842–1846) and
Governor-General of Canada (1847–1854).
Lyttleton lost his Warwick Borough political position to the Liberal T. Berridge in the 1906
general election. He was a descendent of Sir Charles Lyttleton, Deputy Governor of Jamaica
(Governor Windsor left the island to Lyttleton after 10 weeks in post in 1662, a contemporary
to pirate Sir Henry Morgan who became Lieutenant-Governor in 1673) and William Henry
Lyttleton, Governor of Jamaica (1762–1767), and inspired Charles John Lyttleton, future
Governor-General of New Zealand (1957–1962) and Vice-Captain of the English cricket
The Leeward Islands were ruled by the British as a federation between 1871 and 1956. In 1905,
that federation consisted of Antigua with Barbuda, Montserrat, St Kitts with Nevis and
Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands and Dominica. Page 21 Friday, May 20, 2005 7:44 PM
History and Anthropology 21
This is an example of the colonisation and disciplining of the human body – as well as time;
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Ashcroft & Tiffin as per citation or Ashcroft et al as per ref in ref list?
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De Alva as per citation or Klor De Alva as per ref in ref list?
This sentence not understood – please clarify.
Please check this sentence – the speech marks in the original did not tally up (more opening than
closing quotes)
Previously also jumbey (in Watkins, also in general text), jumby (Jumby Suppers) and jumbie (Jumbie
Dance). OK to use jumbee also?
Jombees OK?
Previously Jumbie Dance…
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