Editorial: On legitimising Obeah

A recent decision of the Eastern Caribbean Court to the effect that the existing laws against the possession and supply to another of marijuana is an infringement of the guaranteed constitutional right to freedom of conscience of those who follow the Rastafarian religion, has brought into sharp focus the issue of what constitutes a protected religion for these purposes.

The issue has resurfaced in recent days in a slightly different guise with the proposal in Jamaica possibly to repeal the 1898 law, the Obeah Act, whereby “Every person practising Obeah shall be liable to imprisonment, with or without hard labour, for a period not exceeding twelve months, and in addition thereto, or in lieu thereof, to whipping.”

The individual who consults an obeah practitioner is likewise made criminally liable by section 5.

While the Honourable Minister of Justice did not expressly state the reasons for the contemplated repeal, one fellow Member of Parliament was persuaded that it had been outlawed in the first place because of its African origins only. According to a report in a Jamaican publication, the MP for Clarendon stated, “I am awaiting clarification as to whether we’re now moving something that will make obeah legal, or it remains illegal. If it is not legal I have reservations because you can’t deny me my African religious rights…”

He continued, “I don’t want it to be misunderstood by anyone, anywhere, so I am asking for clarification because obeah should never have been illegal at any point, anytime, anywhere.”
It does not appear that there are many so decidedly in favour. An unscientific poll in the same publication evidences a clear majority against the repeal proposal.

And in a story appearing in Friday’s edition of The Barbados Advocate, the Attorney General has confessed that she felt “awkward and uncomfortable” listening to the parliamentary debate on the issue, because “in Jamaica obeah has always been known to a tool of the darkest form of evil that does nothing but harm to others”.

Her perception may be one that is widely shared; although the Act does contemplate that the concept may also be used for gain in its definition of “ a person practising obeah – “A person practising Obeah” means any person who, to effect any fraudulent or unlawful purpose, or for gain, or for the purpose of frightening any person, uses, or pretends to use any occult means, or pretends to possess any supernatural power or knowledge…”

In Barbados, to our best knowledge, there is no current legal prohibition on the practice of obeah; the 1840 Vagrancy Act that had made it akin to an offence of vagrancy having been repealed in 1842 and not having been re-enacted in the successor Minor Offences Act 1998.

In an informative online essay by Messrs. Kenneth M Bilby and Jerome S Handler, “Barbados, Obeah and the Vagrancy Act, then and now: Colonialism Revisited”, the authors posit, “…despite the negative view of obeah and its practitioners persists, a critical examination of these forms of African spirituality strongly indicate that obeah practitioners, some of whom may have been identified as “Negro doctors” at certain periods, played positive roles within the slave community. They were sought after for their divination abilities, proficiency at diagnosing and healing illness, skill in finding missing property, and powers to help avenge wrongs, including its socially beneficial functions. Indeed, the very primary sources that provide information on obeah and emphasise its evil nature commonly indicate, albeit indirectly or implicitly, its positive role in slave communities”.

Its legitimacy is not a public discourse we ourselves will be having anytime soon.

Barbados Advocate

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