Where Does Obeah Come From?
—Nathaniel Samuel Murrell
in Afro-Caribbean Religions: An Introduction to Their Historical, Cultural & Sacred Traditions
Where can we trace the practice back to in Africa?
Just like the people and language of the Caribbean, the practice is unique to its place, as the result of mixing cultures and circumstances due to colonization. While Obeah is not uniform or universal in its practice, it is inclusive. Because of the endless iterations of cultures, ethnicities, and colonizers coming together, all with different roots and belief systems, it would be nearly impossible to have uniformity in any way within the Obeah community. Instead, it sought out acceptance of all practices of Obeah.
With multiple sects and origins coming together, it created what philosopher and historian of religion Nathaniel Samuel Murrell called a cultural “symbiosis.” Many colonized people from different backgrounds were able to interact and relate through shared common beliefs and culture. Thus resulting in greater harmony and a sense of solidarity against colonizer rule.
How might maps and visualizations help us better understand?
In this way, maps can be incredibly helpful in understanding how people traveled across the Atlantic and arrived in the Caribbean. Still, what is critical to remember is that the movement was never final, and many people including the colonists, free Black people, and enslaved people, continued to travel across the Caribbean and the rest Americas after reaching their original destination. With that, practices, religions, and cultures changed and continued to influence one another in limitless permutations. This undoubtedly influenced how Obeah was shaped and how it was taken up. For us, it becomes clear that given the nature of the archive more broadly it might be hard to definitively trace influences in their entirety and accurately; however, maps and other archival artifacts might continue to help point us in the right direction. Using digital tools and what Saidaya Hartmann coined as "critical fabulation" in her work "Venus in Two Acts" (published in Small Axe) we can begin to imagine how Obeah came to be in the Caribbean.
What are the alternatives to maps and the archive in discovering Obeah's origins?
In undertaking this research with these live subjects, it is important to be careful of how one classifies and contextualizes it— in order to avoid replicating the horrors of colonial knowledge extraction from the Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people in the Caribbean,it is important to give proper credit to the speaker and to regard their stories not just as 'hearsay' or otherwise, but to treat it as valid, intellectual, and valuable information. Although we cannot undo what has already been done, taking up decolonial practices and methodologies in one's pushes us into a better direction, and ensures a more positive future for the study.