Obeah and Other Powers

The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing

Obeah and Other Powers

Book Pages: 376 Illustrations: 9 illustrations Published: April 2012

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Caribbean Studies, Religious Studies

In Obeah and Other Powers, historians and anthropologists consider how marginalized spiritual traditions—such as obeah, Vodou, and Santería—have been understood and represented across the Caribbean since the seventeenth century. In essays focused on Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, and the wider Anglophone Caribbean, the contributors explore the fields of power within which Caribbean religions have been produced, modified, appropriated, and policed. The "other powers" of the book's title have helped to shape, or attempted to curtail, Caribbean religions and healing practices. These powers include those of capital and colonialism; of states that criminalize some practices and legitimize others; of occupying armies that rewrite constitutions and reorient economies; of writers, filmmakers, and scholars who represent Caribbean practices both to those with little knowledge of the region and to those who live there; and, not least, of the millions of people in the Caribbean whose relationships with one another, as well as with capital and the state, have long been mediated and experienced through religious formations and discourses.

. Kenneth Bilby, Erna Brodber, Alejandra Bronfman, Elizabeth Cooper, Maarit Forde, Stephan Palmié, Diana Paton, Alasdair Pettinger, Lara Putnam, Karen Richman, Raquel Romberg, John Savage, Katherine Smith


“[This] book ... should give anthropologists and other scholars of religion considerable pause and motivation.” — Jack David Eller, Anthropology Review Database

“A clear introduction and the well-developed, carefully composed chapters redeem the book…. [T]he book offers a great deal. Smith’s chapter would be a welcome addition to a gender and women’s studies classroom. Likewise, Savage’s contribution would work well in a history of medicine course. Putnam’s essay is required reading for students interested in Atlantic history. Finally, Richman’s chapter would fit well in a religious studies course.” — Karol K. Weaver, Bulletin of the History of Medicine

“Each and every chapter of Obeah and Other Powers is a gem in its own right, and yet this splendid collection is also much more than simply the sum of its parts. Indeed, the volume achieves an impressive level of sophistication in Caribbeanist historical anthropology and Black Atlantic religious studies, and its release — along with the publication of Jerome Handler and Kenneth Bilby’s Enacting Power — makes 2012 something of a watershed moment in the study of the dynamic and rather unruly set of spiritual beliefs and ritual practices so often glossed as obeah in Afro- Atlantic studies.” — Keith E. McNeal, Hispanic American Historical Review

“In bringing together such a strong group of scholars to consider the production and reproduction of Caribbean ritual, spiritual practices, Paton and Forde have made a significant contribution to advancing scholarly understanding of this important subject and indeed to Caribbean history and studies more generally." — Juanita De Barros, Journal of Colonialism & Colonial History

Obeah and Other Powers… is likely to stimulate much interest and debate as scholars continue the difficult task of sifting through hostile representations of Caribbean religious beliefs and practices to better understand those beliefs and practices on their own terms.” — Randy M. Browne, History: Reviews of New Books

"Obeah and Other Powers brims with useful insights." — Terry Rugeley, Ethnohistory

"The book achieves what it promises in the introduction. The combination of historical and contemporary, ethnographic discussions of the complex relationship between religion and power makes this book a useful source for scholars, not only of Caribbean tradition." — Bettina E. Schmidt, Journal of Religious History

"For these researchers, the focus on religious values and beliefs existing on the periphery of Caribbean societies is a strong affirmation that all religions are worthy of study. What they have done is to provide readers with an understanding of the experience of people who practice these religious rituals and an acknowledgement of some of the historical and geographical processes that have brought change in those beliefs. Indeed, they are convincing in their assertion that religion is adaptive and that these African-derived religious beliefs and values are still very much alive and are still shaping and being shaped by the cultures of the Caribbean."
  — Annette Palmer, Journal of African American History

Obeah and Other Powers is an excellent and welcome contribution to scholarship on Caribbean religions. Too few works explicitly address the three themes taken up in this collection, the significance of state power in shaping the environment in which Caribbean religions were practiced, the role of practitioners in shaping their religious traditions, and the role of mobility and the permeability of borders in shaping the definition and interpretation of obeah, Vodou, Santería, and Candomblé. This last premise enables the contributors to analyze these religions in conjunction with one another and as overlapping, rather than separate, phenomena.” — Aisha Khan, author of Callaloo Nation: Metaphors of Race and Religious Identity among South Asians in Trinidad

"The contributors to this outstanding collection share the refreshing ambition to historicize local knowledge and to embrace the opacity and persisting mystique of Caribbean spiritual realities—from the colonial occult to enchanted modernities." — Richard Price, author of Travels with Tooy and Rainforest Warriors


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Diana Paton is a 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 editor of A Narrative of Events, since the First of August, 1834, by James Williams, an Apprenticed Labourer in Jamaica and, with Pamela Scully, Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World, all also published by Duke University Press.

Maarit Forde is a Lecturer in the Department of Liberal Arts at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Foreword / Erna Brodber ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction / Maarit Forde and Diana Paton 1

Part I. Powers of Representation

1. An (Un)natural Mystic in the Air: Images of Obeah in Caribbean Song / Kenneth Bilby 45

2. "Eh! eh! Bomba, hen! hen!": Making Sense of a Vodou Chant / Alasdair Pettinger 80

3. On Swelling: Slavery, Social Science, and Medicine in the Nineteenth Century / Alejandra Bronfman 103

4. Atis Rezistans: Gede and the Art of Vagabondaj / Katherine Smith 121

Part II. Modernity and Tradition in the Making

5. Slave Poison / Slave Medicine: The Persistence of Obeah in Early Nineteenth-Century Martinique / John Savage 149

6. The Trials of Inspector Thomas: Policing and Ethnography in Jamaica / Diana Paton 172

7. The Moral Economy of Spiritual Work: Money and Rituals in Trinidad and Tobago / Maarit Forde 198

8. The Open Secrets of Solares / Elizabeth Cooper 220

Part III. Powers on the Move

9. Rites of Power and Rumors of Race: The Circulation of Supernatural Knowledge in the Greater Caribbean, 1890–1940 / Lara Putnam 243

10. The Vodou State and the Protestant Nation: Haiti in the Long Twentieth Century / Karen Richman 268

11. The Moral Economy of Brujería under the Modern Colony: A Pirated Modernity? / Raquel Romberg 288

Afterword. Other Powers: Tylor's Principle, Father Williams's Temptations, and the Power of Banality / Stephan Palmíe 316

Contributors 341

Index 345
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5133-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5124-5
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