Knowing obeah

Kelly Wisecup*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


This article reconsiders the archive of colonial literatures about obeah, an Afro-Caribbean religious and medical practice that enslaved Africans employed for a variety of purposes, including healing, discovering deceit, and poisoning people, and that colonists associated with insurrection after Tacky's Rebellion in 1760. Scholars have argued that the literatures of obeah constructed meanings for obeah as witchcraft and as a deceitful practice; as a consequence, these literatures are said to offer no insight into the practice of obeah as Africans employed it. This article examines the process whereby colonists attempted to incorporate obeah into their systems of knowledge only to find that obeah evaded their systems in ways that exposed the inadequacies of colonial epistemologies. Colonists such as planter Bryan Edwards and physician Benjamin Moseley sought to control obeah by defining its natural, observable causes and making obeah into evidence for their theories of Africans' physical and mental characteristics. However, they discovered that the supernatural entities that obeah practitioners acknowledged and drew upon evaded observation, thus producing textual uncertainties within their histories. Such uncertainty is thematized in William Earle's novel, Obi; or the History of Three Fingered Jack, as a tension between literary forms. The Caribbean's entangled systems of knowledge and being are reflected in the archive of writing on obeah, in textual uncertainties and in generic hybrids. As a consequence, the literatures of obeah reflect both colonists' attempts to identify obeah's natural causes as well as their struggle to account for the supernatural and non-human entities on which obeah practitioners drew.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)406-425
Number of pages20
JournalAtl. Stud. Lit. Cult. Hist. Perspect.
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2013


  • Caribbean
  • Eighteenth-century literatures
  • Medicine
  • Natural history
  • Novel
  • Obeah

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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