On the Early Use and Origin of the Term ‘Obeah’ in Barbados and the Anglophone Caribbean

2001 (J. S. Handler and K. M. Bilby) “On the Early Use and Origin of the Term ‘Obeah’ in Barbados and the Anglophone Caribbean.” Slavery & Abolition 22: 87-100.

The medicinal complex of Barbadian (and other Caribbean slaves) fundamentally rested on African beliefs and practices in which the supernatural played a major role. What was called Obeah formed part of this medicinal complex even though Europeans who wrote about Obeah often confused and misunderstood many of its features. For whites, ‘Obeah’ became a catch-all term for a range of supernatural-related ideas and behaviors that were not of European origin and which they heavily criticized and condemned. The supernatural force (or forces) which the Obeah practitioner attempted to control or guide was essentially neutral. However, for the enslaved in Barbados (as elsewhere in the British Caribbean) the force, as accessed by the practitioner, was largely directed toward what the slave community defined as socially beneficial goals such as healing, locating missing property, and protection against illness and other kinds of misfortune; it could even be directed against slave masters, which, from the perspective of the slave community, was a beneficial goal. Although Obeah could also have negative or antisocial dimensions in the form of witchcraft or sorcery, the entirely negative view of Obeah that whites largely promulgated during the period of slavery (probably exacerbated by the fact that it was sometimes directed against them), and that has endured until the present, has distorted the social role that Obeah played in the lives of many enslaved persons, whether of African or New World birth.

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