Contributed Essay: Obeah and the Early Caribbean Digital Archive (Atlantic Studies, Vol 12, 2015)

Obeah and the Early Caribbean Digital Archive (Atlantic Studies, Vol 12, 2015)

In conjunction with this special issue of Atlantic Studies, the Early Caribbean Digital Archive (ECDA) – developed at Northeastern University and available at – has created a collaborative archival project, “Obeah and the Caribbean.” This project consists, in part, of a digital exhibit of original obeah texts including a number of the primary sources that are discussed throughout the articles in this volume of Atlantic Studies. The ECDA is designed to serve not only as a repository but also as a digital commons and laboratory space for researchers and students interested in the early Caribbean: users of the site can curate, annotate, and discuss early Caribbean materials that are included in the archive. We invite readers of this issue to further engage and experiment with primary sources and to collaborate with other scholars by way of this exhibit and the digital workspace of the ECDA + CoLab. In the brief essay below, we discuss some of the core intellectual issues that inform the ECDA and our project on obeah.

A Treatise on Sugar: With Miscellaneous Medical Observations by Benjamin Mosley first appeared in London in 1799: it is, manifestly, a text concerned with instructing its reader in the cultivation of sugar on plantations in the Caribbean with the use of slave labor to do so. What this text produced in abundance, however, may not have been knowledge about sugar so much as obeah narratives. Embedded within Moseley’s text is the first iteration of the tale of “Three-Finger’d Jack” or Jack Mansong, a maroon slave who, according to Moseley, relied upon obeah to exert and sustain the authority of his revolt against the plantocracy in Jamaica. Moseley’s narrative of Jack became the basis of a pantomime, two novels, and later a melodrama that appeared in England and the USA. Reprints of these texts, as well as pamphlets, engravings, sheet music, and even playing cards, appeared, all retailing the tale of Jack and his obi. 1 1. For examples, see all notes As Diana Paton’s extensive bibliography of texts concerning Mansong (including reprint editions) indicates, at least sixty-one versions of the Three-Finger’d Jack story have appeared in print. 2 2. Paton, “Histories of Three-Fingered Jack: A Bibliography by Diana Paton.”View all notes It is worth underscoring that this tale – so widely disseminated in a variety of genres – first appeared in an agricultural and medical treatise. The apparent topical dissonance between obeah and sugar production is significant – indeed, we might take this dissonance as emblematic of a clash between Afro-diasporic and Enlightenment European knowledge regimes. Obeah – described, alternately, as a religious, medical, legal, sorcerous, or military/revolutionary practice by European writers – engenders what we might call a category crisis in western European enlightenment knowledge systems. 3 3. The editors of this special issue – Toni Wall Jaudon and Kelly Wisecup – have both written insightfully about the nature of the knowledge crisis that obeah engenders. Wisecup notes that, “Colonists’ encounters with obeah and their descriptions of those encounters disrupted their own epistemological and ontological categories, which separated natural and supernatural phenomenon and posited definitive boundaries between states of life and death” (“Knowing Obeah,” 406). Jaudon, in turn, points out that “obeah practitioners seem[ed] to live at once within the space of the colony and, somehow, beyond it … It is [the] assumption of a stable, shared common ground that obeah contested for colonial authorities” (“Obeah’s Sensations,” 729). See also Stephan Palmié, “Other Powers.”View all notes

Importantly, this category crisis is one with material dimensions that are related to the archive on which “knowledge” is based. An archive is a repository of materials that are brought together in the name of knowledge: an archive is a knowledge event. And the archive, in turn, serves as the basis for the creation of new enunciations of truth and fact. Michel Foucault, for instance, defines the archive as “first and foremost the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events.” 4 4. Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, 145.View all notes But in the case of obeah and more broadly, the history of the Black Atlantic, there is much that cannot be said. The Atlantic, argues Simon Gikandi, is a “deep crypt” in which are immured the voices and lives of the enslaved peoples whose forced labor in the Caribbean was the engine of capitalist modernity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The story of Jack Mansong’s obi, as we have seen, is buried – encrypted – within the “science” of sugar production; the knowledge produced by Moseley’s document aims at increasing productivity for European monocultural exploitation of Caribbean ground and African labor. Within that text is another story, however, concerning Jack and “all his Obi.”

[...] (Head over to Atlantic Studies to read the full essay, and other works included in this series: Volume 12, 2015 - Issue 2: Obeah: knowledge, power, and writing in the early Atlantic World)

Works Cited


  • Aljoe, Nicole N. Creole Testimonies: Slave Narratives from the British West Indies, 17091838. New York: Palgrave, 2012.
  • Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge, translated by Alan Sheridan. London: Routledge, 2002.
  • Gikandi, Simon. “Rethinking the Archive of Enslavement.” Early American Literature 50, no. 1 (2015): 81102. doi:10.1353/eal.2015.0020.
  • Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe 26 (2008): 114.
  • Jaudon, Toni Wall. “Obeah’s Sensations: Rethinking Religion at the Transnational Turn.” American Literature 84, no. 4 (2012): 715741. doi:10.1215/00029831-1901418.
  • Palmié, Stephan. “Other Powers: Tylor’s Principle, Father Williams’s Temptations, and the Power of Banality.” In Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing, edited by Diana Paton and Maarit Forde, 316333. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.
  • Paton, Diana. “Histories of Three-Fingered Jack: A Bibliography by Diana Paton.” Accessed January 11, 2015.
  • Wisecup, Kelly. “Knowing Obeah.” Atlantic Studies 10, no. 3 (2013): 406425. doi:10.1080/14788810.2013.809228.

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