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have a great disinclination to speak on the subject of obeah, or of poisons.
The gall of the alligator they esteem a virulent poison. A plant called whangra, used by obeah men, is of a deleterious quality.
They speak of a poison which may be concealed under the nail, which could be administered by merely putting the finger into any liquid for an instant. It is a curious circumstance, that the lower classes of the Irish have a superstitious idea that "the black" under the nail is a poison. Whether the negro poison, described by Phillips in his African Voyages in 1694, is of a description similar to that known to the negroes in the West Indies, is doubtful. Phillips says, the quantity of it necessary to produce death, in one case, will cost the price of four slaves.
Negroes are said to have frequently committed suicide, by the practice of "dirt-eating." I believe those who practise it are, in all cases, labouring under a disease of the stomach, which depraves its functions. The clay they chiefly eat, is a species of marl, white and friable,—a greasy soluble earth, which Brown says, is "the most certain poison, and, when used for any length of time, is so absorbed in the circulation, as to obstruct all the minor capillaries of the body, and to be found even concreted in the glands, and the smaller vessels of the lungs, so as to be sensibly
perceptible to the touch." It is probable that the knowledge of many of the poisons of these islands has been derived from the natives by the Maroons one of the Charaib poisons was extracted from a climbing plant, which was pre-eminently termed bejuque-the Charaib word for liane. That prepared from the juice of the Manchioneeltree was formerly used by the natives for poisoning their arrows. Tavernier states, that the Indians, by concentrating their poisons more or less, could cause death to ensue at any desired period: the negroes are said to have had the same power. According to Ramusio, the most virulent of the poisons in use amongst them was the ejected saliva of a particular serpent, when irritated. The barbarous use of poisonous arrows was never had recourse to, perhaps, on an occasion less to be regretted than when the first Spaniard in the New World, the Count of Fogeda, fell by a poisoned arrow in pursuit of gold.
The sensitive grass plant which abounds here, according to Piso, is one of the poisons which kill slowly, "making people cachectical, shortwinded, and melancholy till they die."
The Manchioneel-tree, Raynal calls the most deadly in its poison: it generally grows on the sea-shore, and renders the water of a dark-brown colour, for a considerable space in its vicinity; which colour arises from the tanning, and not from
any poisonous ingredient, as is commonly imagined. It is said the poison, which is the milky juice that exudes through incisions from between the bark and the trunk, when dried, preserves its deleterious properties for a hundred years. The Indians used it for their arrows: the rain that drops from the leaves after a shower, is said to raise blisters on the skin; and the air is so contaminated underneath its branches, that it is dangerous to sleep under its shade. Humboldt perceived the faint, sickly smell of its malaria at some distance from it: the great antidote to this poison is salt.
Cassava, the flour of the Manioc or Jatropha Manihot, is prepared from the tuberose root of the plant. In its raw state it is an acrid poison. When the roots attain their proper size, they are plucked up; they are scraped, washed and grated: the poisonous principle is in all probability destroyed by the process of roasting the coarse grains in this state the flour is converted into cakes; and thus an active poison becomes an article of wholesome diet. Brown says that salt of wormwood is a sure antidote to the poison of the Manioc. The roots yield a quantity of starch called tapioca, which is exported by the Brazilians in large grains. The common Acacia or Acacee bush, which abounds in the lowlands, and goes here by the name of Cashaw, is productive of
more fatal accidents to cattle than any In dry weather the cattle feed on the tender shoots without injury, though the milk is supposed to be rendered rank by this food: horses likewise in dry weather may be fed with impunity on the pods, of which they are extremely fond, with impunity, provided they do not get water for some hours afterwards. Brown says the pods are impregnated with a sticky astringent gum, which may be easily extracted. In Egypt there is a preparation made from the immature pods of the Acacia, called Acacia veravel, which is used as a demulcent. There are a variety of opinions here as to the nature of the poison of the Cashaw pods. Some say that the germ of the beans develope themselves in the stomach of the horses: there is one thing very certain, that in dry weather, and when the horse is kept for some time without water, the poison is inert: when the poison has begun to act, I have known strong lime-water produce immediate relief; but frequently there is no time for the remedy. I purchased a horse of my friend Capt. O. of a Thursday in perfect health, and on Saturday he was dead, from eating Cashaws. There is a plant more suddenly destructive to horses than the Cashaws-namely, Nightshade, which I have seen produce fatal effects in the course of half an hour. There are farriers who pretend to have an infallible antidote to
this poison. In the first instance a very strong solution of common salt should be administered.
In my next letter I will give you some account of the superstitious practices and incantations connected with the use of ingredients generally supposed to be of a poisonous nature.
I am, my dear Sir,
Yours very truly,
R. R. M.