There was an ordinance decreeing: ‘Slaves accused of poisoning, witchcraft or sorcery to be immediately arrested and tried by a Civil Commissary.’ In 1832 an additional ordinance proclaimed that ‘Practicing Obeah or pretending to be Obeah People, or pretending to administer, or educe to be administered pounded glass, or other toxic substance or matter’ was punishable with thirty-nine (39)lashes of the whip or two (2) months confinement for the first and second offence. However there was to be a criminal trial for a third offence.
In 1844, Henry Hegart Breen stated that obeah was practiced mainly for trivial matters, but later, obeah-men had taken to the maiming of male children and other revolting practices. The year 1841 had seen a disturbing case of alleged obeah which caused much fear and controversy.
A mother left her two year old son in the care of another woman who lived in a cottage in an unplanted area in Grande Cul-de-Sac valley where the child wandered away and went missing. Search parties could not recover the child, but the following Sunday a laborer found the boy’s body in his plantain field about half a mile from the cottage in an advanced state of decomposition. The mother and a local magistrate were notified and assuming the toddler had died of hunger and exposure to the elements they buried him on the spot.
However, three days later, a newly appointed coroner summoned a jury based on the fact that the child could not have crossed the ravines between the care-taker’s cottage and the plantain field by himself. The body was exhumed and inspected by a doctor who reported that the boy’s private parts had been cut off and his neck showed marks of strangulation.
Some people believed the soft tissue had decayed naturally and they accused the jurors of being exceedingly eager in announcing willful murder. Nonetheless, three men were arrested on suspicion of murder for the alleged purpose of attempting to poison balls/bullets to engage in a duel. (Did you know the charge for that particular case was explained in the Palladium Newspaper of April 10, 1841?)
“If a quarrel or duel had to occur, the key participants immediately went to the obeah-man and secured a charmed ball/bullet guaranteed never to miss its target or the obeah-man would also immerse them in a cauldron and made them invulnerable to pistol shots. In this cauldron of hell-broth, the members of a murdered human being must be the chief ingredients.” However, it was also said that one Maitre Jacques murdered an infant in the Valley of Grand-Cul-de-Sac for the purpose of obtaining body parts.
Once again it was alleged that in that Grand-Cul-de-Sac Valley, a man named Malalou had worked with one Servé Cornau to produce magical bullets/balls for a duel between two men. Cornau was also accused of having exhumed bodies from a burial ground with the assistance of one Adelson. Their dwellings were searched and in them were found phials of unaccountable decoctions, oils and rams’ horns stuffed with indescribable substance.
Malalou and Cornau were arrested on the charge of having poison balls to engage in a duel, but were released a few days later when the authorities realized that it was no crime to poison balls to be used in a duel. A newspaper report went on to say that within two to three months, there were no less than four instances of the mysterious disappearances of children in different parts of the island. It was generally believed that these children had been sacrificed to the occult purposes of the professors of obi. While suspicions were frequently voiced, obeah practices were by nature secret and insidious, making them difficult to prove and consequently few were ever convicted.
One man who died in the gallows in an obeah conviction was actually believed to be innocent. He held so much faith in the protective power of an obeah-man that he declined to plead his innocence. Historian, Henry H. Breen recorded this unusual case which occurred in 1841. A young woman in the Mabouya Valley, named Eucharisse had been murdered in her bed by a man named Aurelien Martelly. With the help of an obeah-man named Alphonse Guis, Martelly had convinced Eucharisse’s landlord Louis Elie, to allow him to enter Eucharisse’s room so he could sexually assault her.
In the struggle that ensued, Martelly did not only rape Eucharisse but he strangled her to death. The following day, blame fell on Elie the landlord but the obeah-man assured him that no blame would come to him. Based on the strength of this promise, Elie forfeited to plead his innocence to the judge and jury. Although everybody in Mabouya knew that the real murderer was Martelly, such was the prevailing fear of sorcery, no one had the moral courage to come forward and therefore Elie was convicted. Louis Elie was hanged on October 22, 1842.
By 1871, obeah was still so influential that Administrator Sir William Des Voeux (1869-1878)felt that it necessary to draw up a new ordinance saying that the “system of pretended sorcery and real intimidation called (obeah) is exceedingly prevalent in St. Lucia. I doubt indeed whether there is any other English island, except Trinidad where the fear of it is so general or where the belief in it exists among persons so high in the social scale.” Planters also accused each other of holding interview with the devil.
Des Voeux’s ordinance contained detailed description of ‘obeah’, ‘obeah-man’ and ‘instruments of obeah’ as well as exact measures of punishment: six to twelve (6-12) months imprisonment with hard labor, whipping, solitary confinement and cutting of the hair. It was under this new piece of legislation that in early 1876 ‘one of the most terrible obeah-men,’ Adolphe La Croix was convicted and hanged.
Des Voeux later wrote: “One who had long been reputed to be a dangerous obeah-man was convicted before the Supreme Court on the clearest evidence of murdering a little child with the object of using the body for some of his abominable rites. The principal witnesses against him were his own children who were examined separately. The body of the victim was mutilated in a peculiar way, which was sworn to be the method employed for obeah purposes.
It came out subsequently, when after the man’s death people were no longer able to speak out, that this wretch, Adolphe La Croix, by name, had previously disposed of one of his own children in the same horrible manner. Further, it appeared that it was in the immediate neighborhood of this man’s house that a child had disappeared, for the discovery of whom I had for some years before offered a large reward without success.”
During the course of the twentieth century, a rise in literacy levels, better general education, Anglicization, influence of the mass media and the advent of strongly doctrinal protestant denomination have conspired to somewhat reduce the influence of obeah in St. Lucia.
The old-time practice of sleeping with all doors and windows tightly shut is said to have its roots in the fear of malignant spirit beings.
In every community people can usually point out a suspected obeah man or woman. Even in the twenty-first century, magical characters such as jan gajé, vyé lam, maji nwѐ, mové lam, lѐspwi, bolom, ladjablѐs and papa bwa continue to populate the magical universe of St. Lucia.
Source: A History of St. Lucia by Harmsen, Ellis, Devaux – 2012
This feature runs every Tuesday and Thursday. It is compiled by daughter of the soil Anselma Aimable, a former agricultural officer and former correspondent for Caribbean Net News, who has a deep interest in local culture and history. Send ideas and tips to [email protected]