Diana Paton – Writing and Spiritual Power in the Anglophone Caribbean, 1890-1940

Writing the Empire: Scribblings from Below

An international & interdisciplinary conference

Phillipe de Vigors, ‘Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island, New South Wales, 1849’
Reproduced by kind permission of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney


Event Dates: 25 June 2010
Bristol, UK

Diana Paton – (University of Newcastle)
Writing and Spiritual Power in the Anglophone Caribbean, 1890-1940

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw an intense state campaign in the Caribbean against obeah, a crime conceptually associated with Africa by and legally defined as the “every pretended Assumption of supernatural Power or Knowledge whatever, for fraudulent or illicit Purposes, or for Gain, or for the Injury of any Person.” The campaign was part of an effort to “modernize” the region: obeah was said to represent backwardness and to be an aspect of Caribbean culture that was holding the people “behind”; to be atavistic and African.

This paper uses newspaper reports of obeah trials to suggest that the practices prosecuted as obeah were fully engaged with modernity, and specifically, with modern technologies of writing and literacy. The court cases reveal considerable engagement with the written word on the part of many of those prosecuted for obeah, and of and their clients. Obeah practitioners owned books, wrote and received letters using postal services within colonies and internationally, kept ledgers which recorded information about transactions with clients, and made notes about rituals and incantations in exercise books. They also used writing for ritual purposes. Much of the evidence for the use of writing is fragmentary. Only occasionally does it reveal what people prosecuted for obeah wrote, as opposed to that they wrote. When we do learn the content of letters and other forms of writing, the evidence often poses substantial interpretive challenges. The paper explores the traces left by these different forms of writing, discussing both the methodological difficulties entailed in using them and interpreting them in the context of colonial modernity.

Diana Paton, University of Newcastle,  email
Diana Paton is Reader in Caribbean History at Newcastle University. She is the author of No Bond but the Law: Punishment, Race and Gender in Jamaican State Formation, 1780-1870 and co-editor of Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World. She is currently working on a cultural and political history of obeah in the Caribbean, provisionally entitled Spiritual Politics in the Caribbean History.








share this entry: