Fetish Objects and the Imperial Imagination


In 1823, Jamaican planter Cynric Williams toured his home island and recorded his geographic, social, and economic observations during his travels. This was done in hopes of having an accurate catalog of the “actual” realities of the colonial landscape to report to the British Parliament.  Williams was a slavery apologist and sought to maintain its institution in the West Indies, even if the transatlantic slave trade had been abolished.

In one of his entries, Williams and his entourage encounter a lone black man on the dusty road. The man is stopped and searched. There were only a few possessions on his person, including a snuff box that contained “several phials, some filled with liquids and some with powders, one with pounded glass; some dried herbs, teeth beads, hair, and other trash; in short, the whole farrago of an Obeah man” (Williams, 344). The man was, for his crime of possessing these items, was deported to another island, never to be heard from again.

This exchange brings to the table a number of interesting points specific to the imperial representation of Obeah in the long eighteenth century. As a syncretic African-Creole religious practice, Obeah was registered as a threat to the plantation systems that sought to render the enslaved completely powerless. Obeah was a practice that, unintentionally or not, undermined the western discourses that oppressively identified the Africans and African-creoles as simple, barbaric, childlike, etc. Obeah signified cultural independence from the fetters of Atlantic enslavement and contributed to the rich cultural development and autonomous economies of power within the slave communities. What fascinates me most, as I’ve pored over the archival records, court cases, and novelistic depictions of Obeah, are the objects themselves. Dogs’ teeth, parrots’ beaks, cat fur, grave dirt, glass, beads, shells, etc. These are common household items, some would even say quotidian detritus—useless garbage that one would not give a second thought about. And yet, these objects were held in such loathing by the imperial system that they were categorically itemized and prohibited.

The fetish objects of the Obeah tradition signified a great deal of culture power. From contemporary fiction like Hamel, the Obeah Man, Three-Fingered Jack (and many others) to present-day pop culture representations of Obeah, these objects are everywhere. Though Obeah is not considered a major movement in western popular culture, it has haunted our hemispheric history–predominantly as a practice that refused to bow to European systems of colonial oppression. The first act against obeah and affiliated fetish objects, was in 1760 with the fall of Tacky’s Rebellion. Listed among the prohibited objects: “‘Blood, feathers, parrots beaks, dogs teeth, alligators teeth, broken bottles, grave dirt, rum, and eggshells'” (Act 24, Sect. 10 passed 1760).  On December 31, 1784, another Act of Assembly, Clause XLIX states: “‘And in order to prevent the many mischiefs that may hereafter arise from the wicked art of Negroes going under the appellation of Obeah men and women, pretending to have communication with the devil and other evil spirits” the following objects were prohibited: “blood, feathers, parrots-beaks, dogs-teeth, alligators-teeth, broken bottles, grave-dirt, rum, eggshells, or any other materials relative to the practice of Obeah or witchcraft, in order to delude and impose on the minds of theirs, shall upon conviction before two magistrates and three freeholders, suffer death or transportation; anything in this or any other act to the contrary in any wise notwithstanding.”

It is odd to think that such brutal punishment could be rendered to a person in possession of these ordinary items. And yet, that was the case.

In the next few months, I’ll be writing a book chapter on these objects within the British colonial imagination and the cultural capital they aggregated within the slave communities. But my thoughts are with these objects now, circulating around the power they keep.

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