For hundreds of years Jamaicans have been prevented by law from practising Obeah, a belief system with similarities to Haiti’s Voodoo. Now, campaigners and practitioners believe they have a chance to overturn the law.
Until recently, the practice of Obeah was punishable by flogging or imprisonment, among other penalties. The government recently abolished such colonial-era punishments, prompting calls for a decriminalisation of Obeah to follow.
But Jamaica is a highly religious country. Christianity dominates nearly every aspect of life; and it is practiced everywhere from small, wooden meeting halls through to mega-churches with congregations that number in the thousands.
The island claims to have the highest ratio of churches to people in the world.
So the proposal to decriminalise what many Christians regard as black magic, a scam, or even evil, is highly controversial.
Image of Nanny on Jamaica $500 banknote
One of Jamaica’s seven national heroes is Nanny of the Maroons, whose face now appears on the island’s $500 banknote. She led the Maroons, a term for runaway slaves, in their fight against the British in the early 18th Century. It was claimed that she was an Obeah woman because of her skill in guerrilla warfare and military tactics. Warriors believed she could catch bullets with her bare hands; the colonial authorities twisted the tale and claimed that she could catch them with her buttocks.
Obeah thrived during the era of slavery, but it has virtually died out in urban centres, where over half the Jamaican population now live.
It has survived in rural communities though, and finding an Obeah man is a relatively easy task in the hills of St Mary.
Locals point out a property that is surrounded by a corrugated metal fence, painted in bright blue and yellow. It is not exactly a discreet location for a man who takes part in illegal activity. But he is not hiding who, or what, he is.
“I’m an Obeah man, I’m not a science man, I see things,” says the man, who is known by only one name: Judge.
People come to him all day long for the advice that he dispenses from his veranda.
He is in his sixties but says he first got the “gift” as a child when he predicted the death of a neighbour.
“I have nothing to hide, it’s what I do, and that’s my work. If you are sick I can help you; if a man puts a curse on you I can take it off. That’s what I do to help,” he says.
He says he can help with all manner of things, from curing illness to removing curses.
Obeah’s history is similar to that of Voodoo in Haiti and Santeria in Latin America. Enslaved Africans brought spiritual practices to the Caribbean that included folk healing and a belief in magic for good and for evil.
Women wearing clothes stained with blood from a sacrificed animal attend a Voodoo ceremony in Souvenance, Haiti, on 24 April, 2011.
Obeah has similarities with voodoo, widely practiced in Haiti
But Obeah has been outlawed in Jamaica since 1760, so Judge and others like him are technically breaking the law. However, it has been decades since anyone was convicted.
Some politicians argue that if it is right to rescind punishments such as flogging with a wooden switch and whipping with a cat o’ nine tails, the whole law should be repealed.
“We need to get rid of the Obeah act,” says Tom Tavares-Finson, a senator and a barrister.
“If people want to pay for someone to cast a spell or to give them some sort of help, that’s their business.”
The government says it is open to discussing the issue.
“What I’ve suggested is that they should bring a motion for debate in the Senate on the abolition of criminalisation of Obeah, and such a debate would trigger research and discussion that would be good for the society as a whole,” says Justice Minister Mark Golding.
Obeah in the city
Although few people believe in Obeah in the cities, the practitioners have to come to Kingston to stock up on the potions and products they need.
Continue reading the main story
Jamaica’s Obeah legislation
1760: In response to a major slave rebellion, the colonial government outlaws Obeah for the first time in the Caribbean, with the Act to Remedy the Evils arising from Irregular Assemblies of Slaves, defining Obeah as: “The wicked Art of Negroes… pretending to have Communication with the Devil and other evil spirits”
1898: Under the Obeah Law practitioners face 12 months in jail and flogging. An Obeah practitioner is defined as: “Any person who, to effect any fraudulent or unlawful purpose, or for gain, or for the purpose of frightening any person, uses, or pretends to use any occult means, or pretends to possess any supernatural power or knowledge”
1908: Parliament passes the Medical Law, which was intended to regulate medical practice, but was also used frequently in cases to define difference between medicine and Obeah
Sources: obeahhistories.org and Jamaican government
One small chemist in downtown Kingston has most of the regular goods you would expect to see for sale. But it also has some surprising items on the shelves at the back: rows of candles, soaps and sprays called “go away evil”, and potions that claim to either attract a new partner or stop an existing one from leaving.
“The Obeah man or woman send them here with a shopping list; we’re like a pharmacist,” says shopkeeper Jerome, who says he does not believe in Obeah.
But over the years the popularity of Obeah has waned and finding Obeah men and women to reveal what they do is rare.
People who use them, rarely want to talk openly about it. Many of the pharmacists who sell the paraphernalia refused to talk on the record and did not want to be identified.
Customers will mostly ignore questions about their Obeah purchases. But one young woman says she is after something that will “tie” her man, to stop him running off with other women.
“It was something my grandmother believed in. It worked then and it works now,” she says.
But repealing the legislation will be tough. The Church associates Obeah with evil, others believe it is used to defraud vulnerable people, and many Jamaicans believe parliament has more important things to be getting on with, like tackling crime or improving the economy.
It is a sentiment shared by former Prime Minister Edward Seaga. He is an expert in Jamaican anthropology, and does not believe decriminalisation would make a difference.
“People don’t consider it criminal. I don’t remember the last time someone was arrested,” he says.
“These deep beliefs are part of the folklore of the country and they aren’t easy to extinguish. I don’t think criminalising it one way or another will make much difference to its survival.”
Judge, the practitioner in St Mary, agrees. He says he will continue what he does regardless of what the politicians decide.
“They’re all idiots in politics. I don’t vote for any of them, it’s God I vote for. I’ll just keep doing what I do,” he says.
0 thoughts on “INTERESTING ARTICLE- OBEAH WAS ILLEGAL IN JAMAICA”
Met, I’ve learned so much on your site. Until now I had no idea the practicing of voodoo was illegal in Jamaica, but I can certainly see the reasoning behind that.
Vodoun having been one of the oldest spiritual practices with roots going back as far as 10,000 years was the saving grace for our ancestors on the plantation. The slave trade depleted Africa of some of its most brilliant minds, many of which were priests and priestesses. Slave owners being fearful of the spiritual and healing powers of the slaves forbid them from practicing their religion and calling upon their God. The punishment was having their throats cut. Such harsh penalty was used to convert them to Christianity. Yet at the same token, when their children were sick, they would summon the slaves to heal them. Oh the irony!
It was the practice of voodoo that the slaves used in summoning their divinities of War in leading the most brutal of revolts against the slave owners thereby leading to revolution.
The slaves that were brought to Jamaica were from feared warrior tribes in Africa. These slaves could not be subdued and would lead revolts on the plantation in spite of all odds. These are the people from whom we have Nanny and the Maroons. They were so savvy that they could evade the British armies hiding in the hills by staying one step ahead of them through revelations of their voodoo practices.
What’s interesting also in the above article is that for an island with so many churches, we still head the world in terms of highest crime rates.
Because our ancestors of endured so much, I won’t chastise them for accepting the religion of their oppressors as self-preservation was the order of the day. However, I want to point out that black people are the only people on the planet that have accepted their oppressors religion as their own and have been so brainwashed into demonizing their own.
I also agree with Seaga that decriminalizing it will make no difference. Mainly because I don’t even think people were aware that it’s criminal.
Today, I believe most people that claim to practice it as just ripping off vulnerable individuals as the knowledge has been lost.
If I had any desire to actually find an obeah practitioner I would only be inclined to consult with an African or one of those maroons from Acompong. Those people have never assimilated with the Jamaican populace, have their own reservation and are as authentic as they come. I must visit on my next trip to Jamaica.
And here in Africa spirituality and traditional practices are actually celebrated and priestess and priestesses are on the government pay roll for their role in keep the tradition alive! In Nigeria here while there is construction is going on in the streets priests are paid by the local government to keep away the rain so that it will not delay the work or spoil the material, the other day the rain threaten to fall, because it has not been able to for how long because of these powerful priests holding it back and so the wind began to blow violently in protest of the rain not being able to fall the Spiritual leader of the town had to override the government and the other priests, and bring the rain down! Also in the month of August Isese day is held, celebrating tradition, and this is supported by the
government, festivals are held all over and masquerades (something like fi wi John canoe, but more deep) of all kinds come out! Spiritual people babalawos, iyanifas, olorishas all get great respect and it they drive or walk on the street they are hailed and police hold back traffic for them…people are tried in a court of law and imprisoned if charges are filed and proven against someone for witchcraft and juju here in Africa, but the work here malicious or otherwise is like none anyone have ever seen through the diaspora…people just use words and smaddy mad, or call you on the phone with medicine in their mouth and your life gone…power deh yah, incredible unimaginable power, but as usual is how a person chose to use it, because contrary to what people hear about us here Nuff good people, benevolent people deh yah…
@foxy lady, you could not have said it any better, this is why I’m atheist, I refuse to believe in a white god, forced upon us by the white man!
Don’t deny yourself of the existing of the Great Architect. Yes, you [we] were misinformed by the European false teacher. However, instead of saying that there is no god, function with a modus operandi that it is by the Grace of YHWH that you were able to survive the wicked ways of the Europeans and their wicked teaching…
Know the true God [YHWH] and live… We all want to rebel; however, we’ve got to rebel responsibly…
@Anon, no one can impose their thoughts and beliefs on you because at the end of the day, none of us has definitive answers, only our impression and understanding of how things are.
While I don’t believe in any invisible white man in the sky, I do believe in a Creative Force. Perhaps you could listen to Neville Goodard and get an understanding of the metaphysics and how it ties in with spirituality. Never give up on your quest for truth and knowledge.
@Foxy, this in itself is a belief–your belief,
“@Anon, no one can impose their thoughts and beliefs on you because at the end of the day, none of us has definitive answers, only our impression and understanding of how things are…”
There is a God [YHWH], I can’t take you to [Him]; however, He exist and I would be remiss if I were not to share such with the ones.
I don’t have a way to give the ones; just that the Great Architect, the Creator of all creation exist. Nothing exist without a shape or pattern. YHWH is the wind, YHWH is gravity, YHWH is everything that is; for if not for Him, there is no us…
@lalibela, to deny god is to deny ones very own existence!!!
@Lalibela, I’m not here to argue with you or anyone else. Go ahead and attempt to spoon feed anyone with YOUR belief since it clearly gives you a level of satisfaction.
One of the things I admire about Met is her tolerance for people’s beliefs and preferences. Met who is a staunch Christian owns and operates this site, yet she allows everyone else including myself to articulate our thoughts irrespective if she agrees or not. Such a quality is admirable.
So once again, to @Anon, no one can feed you their opinions or beliefs. At the end of the day, you must walk your own path to truth.
@Foxy, I agree with most things that you say and every so, you and I have a difference in opinion and I actually find that to be refreshing. The thought of ‘arguing’ with you never enters my mind.
Our dichotomy in views are what they are differences and nothing else. My respect, appreciation and admiration for you will never sway. It is just that I have come to the understanding that there are somethings that transcend beliefs and individual view points and I will always be wrong if I were to deny such.
You’ve got to understand that is your courage and desire to know for self as opposed to being indoctrinated by another person’s viewpoint/philosophy have you seeming so compelling–not even the blind can deny your light.
However, in our own wisdom, we often lose tract of that which is the absolute and irrefutable truth… Continue on seeker of the light–perfect love negeste [empress]…
There’s two kinds vodoo is bad and obeah could be bad but santeria is good especially if your dealing with a person who only do good things and doesn’t work with black magic. I will never personally deal with black magic or vodoo, only with santeria the good part to help me only or seek advice etc. But like I said not all obeah is bad obeah. That’s my opinion on it.
There is only ONE! What you do with it is something else. I will tell you this. As the daughter of a Haitian father I do not play with the Loas. Ppl who use Vodun for evil are ppl to stay FAR away from. Their souls belong to the devil. I believe anything can be used for good. The tying of men, placing of curses goes against my beliefs. But ppl still do it. In Haiti, Jamaica, Brazil, the US and all over the world.
Obara I normally read with bated breath at the level of your knowledge. Asé
Àṣẹ [email protected] EbonyLoita..the loas are very powerful and wonderful, erzulie danto is one of my main messengers and all of the erzulie’s have given me keys to their realm since I am from water world like them…..again any practitioner who chose the bad road it is their character that makes them do that…the workers of darkness the practitioners believe if they get pay to do the wicked wish of a client, it is on the client because they could make do rituals to cleanse themselves of the act which they performed, kind of like when Pontius Pilate washed his hands symbolically of Jesus death…and it may be so, who knows. Every practitioner of voodoo, obeah, juju whatever name, warns the practitioner to chose the good road, they know the repercussions of evil, but then again
it is their choice,to place a curse is easier than to remove it….but please know and understand that evil has its place here, wha rah??? Yes and I have said it so many times, if you sick you will seek a physician! The bible tells us this (if you just read with understanding) and I refere to the bible not because it a holy book, I am certainly not a Christian, but I believe that there is truth in all doctrines….there is a story about a blind man in the bible when the deciles saw him they askedJesus the christ if he was born that way or if it is some generational curse…Jesus in his wisdom answered and said that God made him so, meaning that his blindness was the work of God so that others would see the work of God within him, Jesus healed him and he could see…the work of God manifested through the Christ to heal this man…if smaddy nuh lick yuh yuh cannot know how to fight….so evil has its place, we only should not fear it but pray against it, or learn from it if we encounter it and through prayer we do not suffer devastation from it! Evil and it’s followers keeps us praying and allows us to remember God, if everything was hunky doori would people remember to serve God?? Ponder that for a moment!
Oonuh please forgive my typo’s I have made it no secret that I am not a typist and am not patient enough to read over my post before clicking the pink box
Obeah, voodoo, juju et al are neither good or bad, it is the practioner and how they use it. Our slave ancestors used obeah to defeat their oppressors, was that bad? For all things there has to be balance, a ying and a yang. I wish just as how they tell of the bad that obeah is used for, they would publicize the good too. Our names, parents, religion, and power were taken away. There is cycles in life and we will regain our strength one day as a people.
Seaga indoctrinated tivoli in obeah. Funny they quoted him and he used it to enslave the minds of the tivoli residents
Met a who tell yu..???..and den Bustamante mek it illegal………afta dem dede a do it