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O B E A H.
To Dr. WEBSTER.
Kingston, Sept. 8, 1834.
My dear Sir, An obeah man was lately committed to the Spanish Town prison for practising on the life of a negro child. It appeared in evidence that he went to a negro hut, and asked for some fire to light his pipe; that he was seen to put some bush (herb) into the pipe, and then placing himself to windward of the child, commenced smoking, so that the fumes were directed by the wind towards the child. Immediately after he went away, the child was taken alarmingly ill: the father pursued the man suspected of obeahing, and brought him back. He was accused of being an obeah man, of having injured the child ; and being threatened with vio
; lence if he did not take off the obeah, he consented to do so, and accordingly performed certain ceremonies for that purpose: the child improved
and he was suffered to depart. The improvement however was only temporary: he was again sent for, and with a similar result.
I have copied the account of his examination by the attorney-general, from the original document. He confessed that he was a practiser of obeah ; that he did it not for gain or vengeace, but
! solely because the devil put it into his head to do bad. He had learned the use of the bush from an old negro man on estate, where master had been poisoned by old man. It was a small plant which grew in the mountains, but did not know the name of it: (he gave some of the dried leaves to the attorney, who showed them to me for examination ; but they were so broken that nothing was to be made of them). He said it did him no hurt to smoke this plant; but whoever breathed the smoke was injured by it: he had no spite against the father or mother of the child, no wish to injure them. He saw the child, and he could not resist the instigation of the devil to obeah it; but he hoped he would never do it any more: he would pray to God to put it out of his head to do it. Such was the singular statement made to the attorney-general by the prisoner ; and the attorney informed me, made with an appearance of frankness and truth which gave a favourable impression of its veracity.
My opinion of this case was, that notwithstand
ing the confession of the man, and the evidence against him, the plant was innoxious in the
it was administered. I did not conceive it possible to smoke a poisonous substance with impunity, which was yet capable, when the fumes of it were only partially inhaled by another, to produce fatal effects. The man's own confession however was subjected to my opinion. The confession appeared to me to be of less importance than the evidence against him. There was hardly an unfortunate witch hanged in England or Scotland for many a year, that was not convicted chiefly on her own confession; and it need not be stated how such confessions were obtained. On further inquiry into this case, I discovered that the threat of the torture of thumbscrewing had been had recourse to by the father of the child and other negroes before the confession was made. But why should an innocent man persist in a confession of guilt extorted from him in a moment of terror, when he is no longer subjected to its tyranny? To this I answer—The impression of great terror is not so easily effaced, even by the removal of the cause that inspired it; the importance of the means in self-defence adopted for its dissipation becomes an exaggerated sentiment, which dupes the enfeebled mind, and actually converts a deceit into a delusion. It was said by Warren Hastings, when he listened to his impeachment in the House of Commons, that such was the overwhelming effect of the language in which the atrocities ascribed to him were couched by his accuser, that he actually believed himself at the time the guilty wretch he was represented to be. If such an effect could be produced for a moment on the mind of an enlightened man, by an accusation that involved not life or limb, a graver accusation that placed both in jeopardy might well have a permanent influence on the uncultivated intellect. The man was not prosecuted.
A negro was brought before me and Dr. Maglashan, one of the local magistrates, previous to August, charged with obeahing the only child of a negro woman, after having caused the death of three others of her children. The mother gave her evidence in a state of great excitement; several of her female neighbours confirmed it, and it amounted to this—that the prisoner's wife had no children, and was jealous of the complainant on this account; that she had persuaded her husband to obeah her children one after another, till they had all died, and had now put obeah on herself, in order to prevent her having any
Dr. Maglashan took the utmost pains to soothe her excitement, and persuade her of the error she was labouring under.
Here there was no charge of poisoning, but of killing by the supernatural agency of obeah: I also endeavoured to convince her of the delusion; but it was only when I called on the man to declare, that even if he had the power to put obeah on her, which was impossible, he would never do it, that she appeared at all satisfied, or the friends who accompanied her. In this instance the man bore an excellent character, and there was no earthly ground for the charge: nevertheless, in former years he might have been hanged on such a charge, for an obeah man. The excellent old gentleman, whose name I had occasion to mention in this case, has since died : happy would it be for Jamaica, if the local magistracy consisted solely of persons like this venerable man; for one more humane, more intelligent, and in every respect more efficient than this gentleman, who, I believe, was one of the oldest inhabitants of St. Andrews, I have not met with. There are two descriptions of obeah ; one that is practised by means of incantations; and the other, by the administering of medicated potions-in former times, it is said of poisons, and these practitioners were called myal men.