A Butler in Vere, Jamaica, approx. 1770s
The experience of an enslaved brother and sister in eighteenth-century Jamaica demonstrates family connections and relationships of support that could existed amongst enslaved people. It was described in the evidence about obeah provided by Stephen Fuller, the Agent for Jamaica, to the 1789 ‘Committee of Council appointed for the Consideration of all Matters relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations’–the first parliamentary enquiry into the Slave Trade.
Fuller described a slave owner in the Jamaican parish of Vere (now part of Clarendon), who owned two women who had ‘suckled Two of his Children’, as well as a man who ‘who served him in the Capacity of Butler or Waiting-man’. A child being cared for by one of the women died. Fuller described how the woman ‘misbehaved’ after the death of the child, and was eventually ‘turn[ed] out of [her Master’s] House, and … ordered to work among the Field Negroes’.
The woman forced out of the house was the Butler’s sister. Fuller explained that the Butler was ‘highly incensed’ at his sister’s treatment and ‘shewed some Symptoms of Discontent, which were not much regarded’. A few days later, however:
the Water of a Well from which the Family had their daily Supply, was observed to be very much discoloured, and intolerably fetid. His Master, imagined these might be the natural Effects of Stagnation, ordered the Well to be drawn till it was supposed to be nearly drained. But notwithstanding this Operation, the Water still continued ill-coloured, nauseous to the Taste, and offensive to the Smell. A Man was then let down, who brought up a white Fowl in a very putrid State, without Beak or Claws, which had all been cut off. This Fowl was proved to have belonged to the Butler’s Grandmother, residing upon or near the same Plantation. On further Examination, a large Quantity of Indigo Seed was fished up from the Bottom of the Well.
The slave owner suspected that the fowl had been deliberately put in the well and started a search of enslaved peoples’ houses. At the house of a relative of the Butler it was reported that
a Calibash or Bowl was found, out of which a greenish Liquid had been recently emptied. This Circumstance brought to mind, that a Phial containing a Liquid of similar Appearance, had been noticed in the Butler’s Pantry, who, upon the first Rumour of a Search, had conveyed it away.
Later, a Cook reported to the slave owner that he had ‘overheard the Butler threatening Revenge, and vowing that he “would buy some Obi to put for his Master.”’ The Cook was worried that he might himself be poisoned, or be suspected of using poison. The Cook’s evidence led to the Butler being convicted of a crime–probably either obeah or poisoning–that led to his being sentenced to transportation. Fuller concluded ‘the Rectitude of his Sentence was confirmed by the Man’s free Confession immediately before he was put on board Ship.’
We only know about this case because of its appearance in Stephen Fuller’s pro-slavery submission to the enquiry into the slave trade. Stephen Fuller and his co-authors may have exaggerated the story to emphasise the danger of ‘Obi’ and the need, from their point of view, for tight control of enslaved people. Still, the Butler’s use of ‘Obi’ to defend his sister and attack his owner’s family is plausible in the context of other evidence about Caribbean slave society. The case certainly suggests the importance of connections between brothers and sisters, and the fear of slave-holders that those they owned possessed secret knowledge that they could not fully control.
A Butler in Vere at Caribbean Religious Trials
‘Paper delivered by Mr. Fuller, respecting the Evidence generally required for the Conviction of Persons who have been tried on the Charge of practicing Obeah,’ in Report of the Lords of the Committee of Council appointed for the Consideration of all Matters relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations, 1789, pp. 219-220.