The Journal of Caribbean History: Volume 38, Issue 2

Article 1
Obeah: Healing and Protection in West Indian Slave Life

Kenneth M. Bilby
Jerome S. Handler


Obeah encompasses a wide variety of beliefs and practices involving the control or channelling of supernatural/spiritual forces, usually for socially beneficial ends such as treating illness, bringing good fortune, protecting against harm, and avenging wrongs. Although obeah was sometimes used to harm others, Europeans during the slave period distorted its positive role in the lives of many enslaved persons. In post-emancipation times, colonial officials, local white elites and their ideological allies exaggerated the antisocial dimensions of obeah, minimizing or ignoring its positive functions. This negative interpretation became so deeply ingrained that many West Indians accept it to varying degrees today, although the positive attributes of obeah are still acknowledged in most parts of the anglophone Caribbean.