|Obeah, Race and Racism: Caribbean Witchcraft in the English Imagination
|University Press of the West Indies
“Obeah, Race and Racism: Caribbean Witchcraft in the English Imagination" by the West Indian author Eugenia O’Neal is a great introductory book to the mystified world of the Afro-religious practice of Obeah. This is an approachable title for the public that explores the inextricable links between the criminalization of practices and racial delineation; resistance and religion; and faith and fear through the author's objective recollection of facts and opinions from primary and secondary sources.
Obeah, Race and Racism: Caribbean Witchcraft in the English Imagination is a historical account of how the practices of Obeah by enslaved Africans came to be perceived, feared, recognised, and even utilised by European captors. This book gives excellent context for the illustration and adaptation of Obeah throughout the centuries and why it might still be misunderstood even in recent years. Divided into ten chapters, O'Neal's book chronicles the perspectives of plantation owners, British elites, sailors, earlier historians, fetish seekers, and the common folk of the Caribbean from as early as the beginning of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade to contemporary recollections of Obeah from the perspectives of White historians, playwrights, authors, and poets.
The book begins by turning the readers' attention to centuries prior when Obeah and the various accounts of its associated practices began. Making connections with early civilisations in Africa, the rise of fervent superstition, the Renaissance, Christianity in the Middle Ages, and Gothic influences, O'Neal eloquently guides the reader down a long and winding path of stringed encounters. The author provides examples of perspectives of Obeah rooted in European epistemology from real-life accounts, memoirs, journals, diaries, court/trial conversations, novels, fictional accounts, and other written works illustrating both overtly racist perspectives and covert disparagement. Individuals such as Hans Sloane, Edward Long, Joseph Sturge, Thomas Southey, and William Shakespeare, among others, are cited for their accounts and thoughts (as well as their retelling of the experiences of other Europeans whom they interacted with) on Obeah and how it influenced their relations with enslaved and freed Africans. O'Neal concludes by confirming that Obeah as practice, concept, and resistance tool had never been far from the English imagination – a sort of preoccupation that had always persisted and was maintained by the sensationalist lens through which they looked. The author makes the point that Obeah had a profound impact on the development of racist perspectives for more than two centuries. In addition, though the tone towards it has shifted from menace to bewilderment and ridicule, the lens through which it is viewed is still highly racialised.
This book is an insightful read permeated by an occasional story with exciting dialogue featuring colloquialisms and West Indian vernacular in which Obeah is incorporated into everyday life for medicinal purposes, wealth creation, worship, trickery, and other uses. Ironically, sometimes these colloquialisms were employed by the people who considered the practice immoral and "of the devil." The author uses a formal, objective, and direct tone, and this is useful for unequivocally underscoring the book's major premise. O'Neal asserts that Obeah and everything associated with it has not been perceived as it is without being seen as something unique to African descendants or persons of the Black race. In return, this phenomenon has led Obeah to be viewed as something of great danger, awe, and trepidation, as most other things associated with the race are stereotypically viewed and promoted.
This book is definitely intended for a general audience that is desirous of having at least an elementary understanding of how Obeah was viewed by British counterparts in the Caribbean on plantations and overseas. It is completed with an extensive bibliography and index which are quite valuable for anyone interested in learning more about the topic.
Obeah, Race and Racism: Caribbean Witchcraft in the English Imagination prompts readers to really consider how their knowledge of certain cultures and practices have been shaped by the misunderstandings and misinterpretations of others and pens the mental note of learning for one's own self.
O'Neal is an independent writer in Grenada who has previously written From the Field to the Legislature: A History of Women in the Virgin Islands (2001), an excellent complementary read for anyone interested in Caribbean history.
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Cite This Work
Onfroy, A. C. (2023, June 02). Obeah, Race and Racism: Caribbean Witchcraft in the English Imagination. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/review/361/obeah-race-and-racism-caribbean-witchcraft-in-the/
Onfroy, Ashleigh C.. "Obeah, Race and Racism: Caribbean Witchcraft in the English Imagination." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified June 02, 2023. https://www.worldhistory.org/review/361/obeah-race-and-racism-caribbean-witchcraft-in-the/.
Onfroy, Ashleigh C.. "Obeah, Race and Racism: Caribbean Witchcraft in the English Imagination." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 02 Jun 2023. Web. 25 Feb 2024.