Powers of imagination and legal regimes against “obeah” in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century british caribbean

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Abstract

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, African-derived spiritual practices glossed as “obeah” came to be intensely associated with pathologies of the imagination, first by British Caribbean slaveholders, and then much more widely by others. This article focuses on how early writings about, and legal regimes against, African Caribbean spirit work were shaped by theories of mind-body interaction during the final decades of British Caribbean slavery. Medical ideas about the powers of the imagination had played a key part in the decriminalization of “witchcraft” across Western Europe in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. This study examines how, conversely, medical theories of the imagination influenced the criminalization of obeah as a capital offense in British Caribbean colonies in the context of rising abolitionism and slave rebellion. I argue that the colonial association of obeah with imaginative pathology was used by slavery defenders to explain away high rates of slave mortality and to portray severe measures of social control as paternalistic. Reciprocally, the chapter points to how early writings about, and laws against, obeah informed theories of mental influence on bodily health during this period and thereafter.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)46-63
Number of pages18
JournalOsiris
Volume36
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)

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