In Book IV, Grainger mentions “Obia-men” (379) and “Obia” (381), also commonly spelled “obeah men” and “obeah.” Although obeah increasingly became the preoccupation of authors writing about the Caribbean in the years following the publication of the first edition of The Sugar-Cane in 1764, what exactly obeah was—and how readers should interpret Grainger and others’ references to it—remains a major question.
In 1799, Benjamin Moseley published a work entitled A Treatise on Sugar that included an influential description of obeah. Calling it a “black art” and an “occult science,” Moseley described obeah men or practitioners as “ugly, loathsome creatures” who were “resorted to secretly, by the wretched in mind, and by the malicious, for wicked purposes” (170-171). In doing so, Moseley associated obeah with black magic, an association that lingers even today.
The accuracy of Moseley’s description is highly questionable, however. Moseley was writing after 1760, the year that marked a turning point in accounts of obeah. That was the year that Jamaica saw the oubreak of Tacky’s Revolt, which was one of the most significant slave revolts of the eighteenth-century Caribbean. Named after Tacky, an African who was one of its principal leaders, the revolt began on April 7, 1760, and ended up inspiring other rebellious actions in Jamaica that extended until October 1761. During this approximately eighteenth-month period, at least a thousand to fifteen hundred enslaved persons participated, and they killed sixty whites, while destroying plantation property worth thousands of pounds. Additionally, more than 500 black men and women were killed or executed or committed suicide, and 500 more were transported or exiled from Jamaica permanently.
Because obeah practitioners had played highly visible roles in Tacky’s Revolt, obeah in the years following 1760 became a stigmatized, reviled, and feared practice among colonists. Tacky had planned the revolt with obeah practitioners, who had encouraged the rebels by claiming that they could prevent them from being harmed by bullets. As a result, on December 18, 1760, the Jamaican legislature passed a law that outlawed the practice of obeah and threatened those who violated the law with transportation or death. Obeah also began to be characterized in more extreme and lurid fashion in writings by colonial and European authors, as Moseley’s account indicates. Indeed, prior to 1760, although obeah had been mentioned in accounts of the Caribbean, it was not associated with the threat of rebellion. Rather, it was viewed as a fairly harmless, if deluded, form of superstitious belief akin to European witchcraft or conjuring.
In spite of the tendency of colonists and Europeans to dismiss obeah and obeah practitioners, obeah actually was a complex of religious and medical practices designed to alleviate the hardships of working and living on the plantation. If obeah practitioners did not possess perfect knowledge of disease, medicine, and healing, they probably did less harm to their patients than did European doctors, who tended to use such “heroic” forms of medical treatment as dosing their patients with mercury. Indeed, obeah practitioners could be viewed as “herbalists” or “sages” who used their knowledge of plants and natural cures to help the enslaved deal with the many illnesses and injuries, physical and psychological, that they suffered as a result of overwork, inadequate nutrition, punishment, and abuse (Brown, Reaper’s Garden 146). Obeah men also could be viewed as shamans because they were supposed to be able to communicate with and direct spiritual or supernatural forces. While such direction was often characterized by colonial and European authors as malevolent in intent, obeah practitioners and their followers more likely conceived of obeah as a way to channel non-human forces for their own benefit. Of course, what benefited the enslaved could result in action against the planter, who often was the source of the troubles faced by the enslaved.
Grainger’s representation of obeah is interesting because it was composed in the immediate aftermath of Tacky’s Revolt. As you read, you may want to think about the following questions: How does Grainger represent obeah, and does his description associate obeah with any forms of rebellion? What effects does he see obeah having on enslaved laborers and the plantation? How does he characterize obeah men and those who believed in obeah?
Note: For more on Tacky’s Revolt, see Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761. For more on obeah, see Vincent Brown’s The Reaper’s Garden and Kenneth M. Bilby and Jerome S. Handler’s “Obeah: Healing and Protection in West Indian Slave Life.”
—Julie Chun Kim
- With double night brood o’er them; thou dost throw, 
- O’er far-divided nature’s realms, a chain
- To bind in sweet society mankind.
- By thee white Albion,1 once a barbarous clime,
- Grew fam’d for arms, for wisdom, and for laws;
- By thee she holds the balance of the world, 
- Acknowledg’d now sole empress of the main.2
- Coy though thou art, and mutable of love,
- There may’st thou ever fix thy wandering steps;
- While Eurus3 rules the wide atlantic foam!
- By thee, thy favourite, great Columbus4 found 
- That world, where now thy praises I rehearse
- To the resounding main and palmy shore;
- And Lusitania’s5 chiefs those realms explor’d,
Whence negroes spring, the subject of my song.
- NOR pine the Blacks, alone, with real ills, 
- That baffle oft the wisest rules of art:
- They likewise feel imaginary woes;6
- Woes no less deadly. Luckless he who owns
- The slave, who thinks himself bewitch’d; and whom,
- In wrath, a conjurer’s snake-mark’d staff7 hath struck! 
VER. 370. snake-mark’d] The negroe-conjurers, or Obia-men, as they are called, carry about them a staff, which is marked with frogs, snakes, &c. The
- They mope, love silence, every friend avoid;
- They inly pine; all aliment reject;
- Or insufficient for nutrition take:
- Their features droop; a sickly yellowish hue
- Their skin deforms; their strength and beauty fly. 
- Then comes the feverish fiend, with firy eyes,
- Whom drowth,8 convulsions, and whom death surround,
- Fatal attendants! if some subtle slave
- (Such, Obia-men are stil’d) do not engage,
To save the wretch by antidote or spell. 
- IN magic spells, in Obia, all the sons
- Of sable Africk trust:—Ye, sacred nine!9
- (For ye each hidden preparation know)
- Transpierce the gloom, which ignorance and fraud
- Have render’d awful; tell the laughing world 
- Of what these wonder-working charms are made.
blacks imagine that its blow, if not mortal, will at least occasion long and troublesome disorders. A belief in magic is inseparable from human nature, but those nations are most addicted thereto, among whom learning, and of course, philosophy have least obtained. As in all other countries, so in Guinea,10 the conjurers, as they have more understanding, so are they almost always more wicked than the common herd of their deluded countrymen; and as the negroe-magicians can do mischief, so they can also do good on a plantation, provided they are kept by the white people in proper subordination.
- FERN root cut small, and tied with many a knot;
- Old teeth extracted from a white man’s skull;
- A lizard’s skeleton; a serpent’s head:
- These mix’d with salt, and water from the spring, 
- Are in a phial pour’d;11 o’er these the leach
Mutters strange jargon, and wild circles forms.
- OF this possest, each negroe deems himself
- Secure from poison; for to poison they
- Are infamously prone: and arm’d with this, 
- Their sable country daemons they defy,
- Who fearful haunt them at the midnight hour,
- To work them mischief. This, diseases fly;
- Diseases follow: such its wonderous power!
- This o’er the threshold of their cottage hung, 
- No thieves break in; or, if they dare to steal,
- Their feet in blotches, which admit no cure,
- Burst loathsome out: but should its owner filch,
- As slaves were ever of the pilfering kind,
- This from detection screens;—so conjurers swear…. 
Albion, a name of ancient Celtic origin for Britain or England. The term may also derive from the Latin word for white (albus) and refer to the white cliffs of Dover. ↩︎
Main refers to the open sea. Here, Grainger refers to Britain as the ruler of the sea. See, for example, the eighteenth-century poem by James Thomson, “Rule, Britannia!” ↩︎
In Greek mythology, the east wind. ↩︎
Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), a Genoese-born explorer. The purpose of his famed 1492 voyage was to discover a western route to Asia. He set sight on the island of Guanahani (in the Bahamas) on October 12. Columbus completed four voyages to the Americas during his lifetime. ↩︎
Lusitania’s. Lusitania (now modern Portugal) was an ancient region of western Iberia inhabited by the Lusitani but also by other peoples, including Celtic tribes. ↩︎
Grainger suggests that the symptoms he lists in the following lines (moping, silence, solitude, loss of appetite) are not real and perhaps feigned. One should be cautious about diagnosing historical illnesses retrospectively, but these same symptoms would come to be described as “fixed melancholy” in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Often associated with longing for friends and family, fixed melancholy became a common diagnosis for the enslaved, and physicians expressed concern that the illness would lead to suicide. ↩︎
This and the preceding five lines mark the beginning of Grainger’s description of obeah, a complex of religious and medical practices designed to help the enslaved negotiate the hardships and demands of living and working on the plantation. By a conjurer, Grainger means an “obeah man” or obeah practitioner, who frequently were associated with snakes, lizards, and other creatures in colonial and European accounts. For more on obeah and how it was portrayed, see [internal] “Obeah” on this site. ↩︎
Dryness, thirst. ↩︎
The nine muses of art, literature, and science. ↩︎
A region on the west coast of Africa that served as a center of the Atlantic slave trade. It included parts of modern-day Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, and Cameroon but is not to be confused with the modern nation of Guinea on the western coast of Africa. ↩︎
In addition to referring to a set of practices and beliefs, “obeah” or “obi” also could refer to a charm that would protect or curse an individual. These charms were often made up of a combination of materials that were believed to have spiritual or sacred significance. ↩︎