Spiritual Politics in Caribbean History

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Historical Studies


The Caribbean has for centuries been imagined in Europe and North America through its African-oriented religious forms, from Jamaican 'Obi' on British and North American stages in the early nineteenth century, through Haitian 'Voodoo' on Hollywood screens of the 1940s, to the wide range of Caribbean religious and healing phenomena available on the internet today. While the word 'obeah' is no longer widely known outside the Caribbean and Caribbean diaspora, in the late eighteenth century it or the term 'obi' (which meant the same thing) was a common reference point in discussions of Caribbean slavery and Caribbean culture, appearing in serious polemical tracts, in novels and poetry, and on the London stage. In the British colonies in the Caribbean and the independent states that succeeded them, it has remained a significant term. Legally defined as a form of witchcraft, obeah has also been understood as a kind of spiritual healing, a term for power, an element of Caribbean religion, and an aspect of the region's culture that is particularly connected to Africa.

The main purpose of this fellowship is to enable me to complete a book entitled Spiritual Politics in Caribbean History: Religious Culture, Obeah, and the State 1760-1980, and to develop relationships with people outside academia in order to communicate the research more widely. The book reconstructs the history of obeah across the Caribbean from the eighteenth century to the 1970s, focusing on the relationship between representations of obeah, which were frequently used to make particular political cases, and the people who were practicing what was described as obeah, who often understood their own practices in other ways. Rather than seeking precise and stable definitions of obeah, it emphasizes that the meanings of the term changed over time and difference in different places. The research will examine the changing and locally specific meanings of the term and the way practices that have been described as obeah--though often not by those conducting them--have been interpreted and used. It will investigate the criminalization of obeah and the various reformulations of the law against it, the enforcement of those laws, and the way in which obeah featured in a series of important debates about the Caribbean and Caribbean people: about the ending of the slave trade; about the abolition of slavery; and about decolonization from the 1930s to 1960s. I have collected details of hundreds of cases from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when people in Jamaica and Trinidad were prosecuted for obeah and other religious crimes (including breaches of the 'Shouters Prohibition Ordnance' in Trinidad, which made the practice of the Spiritual Baptist religion illegal). Analysis of these cases is an important part of the research and will form a substantial part of the book, alongside analysis of material collected from the papers of missionaries, anthropologists, colonial officials, and slaveowners, and from published books, pamphlets, official reports and newspaper articles.

The project is designed to pay attention to discussions of obeah in official and unofficial political and cultural channels, to on-the-ground practices termed obeah, and to the practice of law enforcement, including policing and prosecution. Moving between these different levels of analysis produces a more complex kind of historical writing than either traditional social history, or traditional cultural and political history which focuses on discourse and/or high politics.

In addition to working on the book, I will devote part of my time to producing a website which will make information about, and case studies from, the project more widely available. I will also run two workshops for non-academics who have a role in communicating history to a wider public, and will write an article for the newspaper the Jamaica Gleaner.

Planned Impact

Many people and groups outside academia could benefit from this research, including:

1) interested members of the Caribbean-descended community in the UK, one of the most socially-disadvantaged and excluded groups in the country. There is a demonstrated interest in Caribbean history here, evidenced, for instance, in the many community-led projects that took place in response to the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, and in the supplementary schools run for children of African and Caribbean descent in many communities. This research could deepen historical understanding among interested sections of the Caribbean-descended community.

2) other members of the public in the UK who have a particular interest in history, and in particular in Caribbean history; as with group 1, this research could provide this group with a deeper historical understanding.

3) the wider public in the Caribbean, in particular people who are affiliated to religious communities which have historically experienced prosecution under the obeah laws and other laws regulating religion perceived as African, including members of the Revival community in Jamaica, and Orisha worshippers and followers of the Spiritual Baptist Religion in Trinidad and Tobago. The research could benefit them by providing them with archivally researched information about prosecutions of their forerunners, which might provide additional evidence for such communities in writing and telling their own histories.

4) policy makers in the Caribbean for whom debates about the heritage of colonial law are significant. Obeah remains illegal in much of the Commonwealth Caribbean, although the laws are rarely enforced and it has recently been decriminalized in some countries. There is some pressure to decriminalize obeah where it remains illegal, but moves in this direction are frequently contentious. This research could help to ensure that debates about decriminalization take place in awareness of the history and consequences of criminalization in the past.

5) museum and heritage professionals, arts practitioners and broadcasters in the UK, who are interested in engaging a wider audience for exhibitions and events by including material that is directly relevant to the Caribbean, and in particular by bringing to public attention a wider range of topics about the Caribbean than are usually covered. The research could benefit them by providing access to new material which might be incorporated into future exhibitions, events, and productions aimed at the Caribbean community.

6) museum and heritage professionals, arts practitioners and broadcasters in the Caribbean, who will mostly already have some understanding of the long-term history of the illegality of African-oriented religion in the region, but for whom a deeper knowledge of the contexts in which obeah was constructed and reconstructed as illegal could provide opportunities for new ways of addressing the public.

7) Professionals in the Caribbean and parts of the UK involved with criminal law or health care, who will be likely to be in contact with defendants, witnesses, or patients who seek help from ritual specialists who might be termed obeah practitioners (although most would not apply that term to themselves) in order to influence legal processes or deal with health problems. Such individuals may also understand their problems to result from the use of hostile spiritual power against them. For these professionals, deeper understanding of the history of obeah could ensure that Caribbean ritual practices are understood as part of a long history that has been actively recreated over time in dialogue with British law, rather than as an exotic 'tradition'.

Activities will be undertaken to ensure that all these groups have the possibility of engaging with the research, focusing in particular on rea
Description Obeah was extremely significant in the politics of Caribbean societies and the perception of the Caribbean, as explained in my published work and websites.
Exploitation Route Could inform education and creative work related to Caribbean history. May also inform debates on the law relating to obeah.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://www.caribbeanreligioustrials.org/
Description In 2016 I was awarded a new grant from the AHRC, 'Freedom to Believe: A Theatre in Education Programme on Caribbean Religious and Social History' which has enabled me to work with Talawa Theatre Company to develop and deliver Theatre in Education workshops in four secondary schools, and to create educational resources to distribute via a website. Workshops took place in four schools in 2018. The web-based materials have now been published (see publications). This is having an ongoing impact on teachers and students, who are learning more about obeah and religious crime in the Caribbean, as well as on the theatre company involved and the actors involved in delivering the workshops, whose understanding of Caribbean history have developed as result of their involvement in the project. In addition, the findings from this research were cited in arguments before the Caribbean Court of Justice in relation to the case McEwan vs Attorney General of Guyana, a case relating the legality of 'cross-dressing'. The Court's decision cited the major published outcome of this work in ruling that the Guyanese law criminalizing cross-dressing is unconstitutional.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Policy & public services

Description Citation in Caribbean Court of Justice decision
Geographic Reach South America 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
Impact My work, including The Cultural Politics of Obeah, was cited in the written appeal decision by the Caribbean Court of Justice, finding in favour of the plaintiffs in the case McEwan et al vs Attorney General of Guyana. The decision ruled that the Guyanese law that criminalized 'cross-dressing' was unconstitutional.
URL http://www.u-rap.org/web2/index.php/component/k2/item/77-joint-press-release-on-mcewan-v-ag-of-guyan...
Description Freedom to Believe: A Theatre-in-Education Project exploring Caribbean Social and Religious Histories
Amount £100,784 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/P004660/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2016 
End 08/2017
Description Talawa Theatre Company 
Organisation Talawa Theatre Company
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Worked together to deliver education workshops in schools.
Collaborator Contribution Worked together to deliver education workshops in schools.
Impact Freedom to Believe website and teaching pack at above URL.
Start Year 2016
Description Freedom to Believe workshops at Addey and Stanhope School, Deptford, London 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Four workshops as part of the Freedom to Believe AHRC project, led by Talawa Theatre Company, Held in March 2017. Attended by c. 30 pupils.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.freedomtobelieve.info
Description Workshop at National Archives 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Questions and discussion.

Increased website hits and further knowledge among participants.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description Workshop with Liberation 1838 project 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Questions and discussion.

Several people contacted me afterwards for further information on the topic of obeah.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013