Colonial power

Obeah and justice – Records of the Police Court

When enslaved laborers became ill or their sense of justice was stifled, they often sought help in the spiritual world and went to the “Obeah man”. With rituals and magical objects, he could restore health and a sense of justice.
Floor plan of Fort Christiansværn in Christiansted on St. Croix, 1839.
Floor plan of Fort Christiansværn in Christiansted on St. Croix, 1839. Drawn by Carl Ludvig Giellerup and von Friis. Danish National Archives, Rentekammeret (“Chamber of Revenue”), archive no. 303, Kort og tegninger (“Maps and drawings”) 1600-1920, map no. 337.109.

The interrogation records from the police courts are one of the very few places to get insight into the enslaved laborers’ own interpretation of events in their lives. That is also the case with the phenomenon of Obeah, which was shrouded in mystery. Obeah, or Obi, can be described as a set of magical or religious perceptions and practices that existed among enslaved laborers at various places in the Caribbean. It was a Creole phenomenon based on elements from African cultures in particular, but also elements from other cultures. Obeah is known especially from the British West Indies, but consequently from the Danish West Indies as well.

Witchcraft or harmless superstition

The legislation concerning Obeah and the judicial system’s reaction to the use of it gradually changed through the colonial era. In the beginning, the punishment was severe, because Obeah was considered to be witchcraft and thus dangerous. With time Obeah came to be seen as a harmless superstition, which could however lead to other crimes. In the following example, the enslaved laborer Stephan attempted to avenge himself upon the plantation overseer via Obeah. It is evident from the case that the court did not consider Obeah to be particularly culpable in itself, compared, for example, with murder or suicide.

Stephan and the damaged rum

Stephan was Bomba (Driver) at Peter Nugent’s plantation on St. Croix. In the beginning of March 1781, he was accused in Christiansted Police Court of having ruined the plantation’s rum production. The accusation was that Stephan had used Obeah and in addition had attempted to kill his wife and himself. The plantation overseer Mansfield testified that the problem had started when he punished all the plantation’s enslaved laborers for an unexplained theft of the planter’s turkeys. The collective punishment consisted of his having confiscated the enslaved laborers’ personal pigs and cattle. Stephan had then become very uncooperative. And he had let other enslaved laborers understand that he would do something, to make the overseer disappear from the plantation.

The Obeah man Melander

Two other enslaved from Nugent’s plantation, Johnno and St. Croix, testified in court that Stephan had sought out an obio (Obeah man) named Melander on General War Commissioner Beverhoudt’s plantation. Stephan had obtained from him an “Obeah bottle” with white contents. Stephan had thrown the contents in the vessel in which the rum was put for fermentation, and afterward the rum production had been brought to a halt. Not until the system had been cleaned had the production been able to get under way again. Stephan first denied being guilty of the charge but acknowledged that together with his wife, Nancy, he had fled when the rum production halted. The reason, according to him, was that enslaved laborers on the plantation spread false rumors that he had done it, and he feared the overseer’s punishment.

Attempt at murder and suicide

When Stephan and Nancy were found shortly after on the plantation La Princesse, Stephan attempted in desperation to cut the throats of himself and Nancy. That was to avoid punishment, he acknowledged. The attempt at murder and suicide failed. Later in the course of the proceedings, Stephan admitted that he had received an Obeah bottle from Melander and used the contents as the witnesses said. However, Melander flatly refused having had anything to do with the matter.

Fatal outcome

Before the case could be concluded, however, it took an unexpected twist. On Thursday, March 15, Stephan died while he was imprisoned in Fort Christiansværn in Christiansted. The cause is not reported, but the prosecutor presumed that it was due to the wound in the neck. Stephan would have been convicted of both having sabotaged the rum production and attempting to kill his wife and himself. Therefore the court awarded the planter compensation from the government of 170 rigsdaler. Melander was sentenced to 150 lashes at the stocks for having helped Stephan by making the preparation that ruined the rum production.

Christiansted seen from the plantation Peters Farm.
Christiansted seen from the plantation Peters Farm located southwest of the town. Lithograph, 1831. The Royal Library (Danish National Library).