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Cross-examiNATION: Obeah law built on wrong information

By Alexander Shaw, Columnist

The great Marcus Garvey was careful to note that ‘a people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots’.

History, in its simplest form, may be understood as a story of the past. Stories are usually coloured with emotions, prejudices, and the religious and cultural values of the narrator.

The history of the Caribbean – particularly the transatlantic trafficking of Africans, was mostly recorded by people of the slave masters’ ilk, colour, class and religion.

It is because of this why our historians, that is, descendants of the enslaved Africans, are still searching for closure, as they too are skeptic about some of the literature that we have been fed on – which have helped in the formation of our current values and beliefs.

As the debate gets heated about possibly repealing the Obeah Act, many Jamaicans are guided more so by the wisdom of the village and the emotions of the ignorant, than the contents of the law and history.

But let’s first bring the legislation into context from a legal and historical vantage to benefit those who are victims of historical ignorance.

The Obeah Act of 1898 states that ‘Obeah’ shall be deemed to be of one and the same meaning as Myalism.

Since Myalism is not defined in the legislation, let’s turn to history to have an appreciation of what the legislators of that time intended to criminalise.

As per Gleaner writer and Historian Paul H. Williams, Myalism has been a powerful catalyst for African and Afro-Jamaican resistance to European values and control.

He quoted Monica Schuler who, in her work titled Myalism and The African Religious Tradition, noted: “Myalists believe that all misfortune – not just slavery, stemmed from malicious forces embodied in the spirit of the dead. The Myal organisation provided specialists, doctors trained to identify the spirit causing the problem, exorcise it, and prevent recurrence. All problems, including body illnesses, were thought to stem from spiritual sources, and required the performance of appropriate ritual.”

These people engage their audience with singing, drumming, dancing and consummation of certain liquid and food, as this would allow them to communicate with the ancestral world – their source of protection.

Because of the loud and sometimes chaotic nature of Myal rituals, the Europeans didn’t really like this and some were very much afraid of it. Moreover, their aim of sterilizing the African way of life seems defeated, as here you have people still singing and chanting the African melody.

When Baptist came to Jamaica in the 1790s and began preaching messages of Christianity, many Myal worshippers converted to the Christian doctrine, but kept aspect of the religion and infused it with the European style of worshipping. One historian noted that, instead of using an European interpretation of Christianity, Myals gave it an African interpretation.

There was a stark difference between Obeah and Myalism. “Whereas Obeah could be directed at harming someone through charms and curses… Myalism was really anti-witchcraft. Myalism tried to ward off evil…to allow the slaves’ social strengths to win against the evils of the slave system and its perpetrators,” writes James Walvin in Black Ivory.

Monica Schuler, in Myalism and The African Religious Tradition, states that, in 1841-42, the actions of Myalists were associated with work stoppages. The planters – annoyed by the disruptive elements of Myals on estates, called for the intervention of the police to stop the rituals, but Myalists were not backing down.

According to Williams, the planters took action because they were frustrated by the Myalists’ zeal and fearing that they might lose control. It was a period of great social unrests because of economic hardships, which culminated in the riots of 1859.

There was a resurgence in Myalist fervour in a movement known as the Great Revival in 1860-61. Although it started in the Moravian, Baptist and Wesleyan churches, Myalists were the ones who took it to another level.

Myalism was criminalized in most Caribbean countries, and it was thought to be the same as Obeah.

The Revival movement today is an end product of Myalism. It is not Obeah. Apart from Rastafarianism, it remains the only African syncretic religion.

The Obeah Act incorrectly sees Revivalism (Myalism) and Obeah as one and the same. This needs to be repealed as, quite frankly, they are not the same thing.

To argue otherwise is tantamount to religious intolerance of different groups like many countries of the East, persecuting Christians daily.

This writer is by no way saying we should licence evil doers, as this seems to be the takeaway of many Jamaicans on this subject.

The understanding we now have of obeah is not reflected in the colonial legislation. The Act is repugnant, and ultra vires The Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms – the right to freedom of religion.

The horror stories of Obeah leave a chilling effect on people, and no one wants to openly support this type of practice. But the law is the law. The law on Obeah now is a colonial shackle stifling the Revival movement.

There are rules of statutory interpretation, be it the Literal, Golden, Mischief or Purposive interpretation. Any of the four will lead to the same interpretation in law. Therefore, we either repeal the Act or amend it to reflect the current understanding of Obeah, and not that which the slave masters of the 1800s conceptualized.

Alexander L. Shaw is an educator and an attorney-at-law. The views he expressed are not necessarily those of The Beacon. Email your feedback to him at and to The Beacon at

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