Some records of the trials of people accused of obeah show that they were involved in collective activity to attack slavery, and that international events such as the revolution in Saint Domingue (Haiti) were widely discussed in Jamaica. One such case involved Brutus, an enslaved black man who had been convicted in 1788 of practising obeah and sentenced to hard labour for life in the Trelawny parish workhouse (prison). By 1792, Brutus had escaped the workhouse and become the ‘Head Captain’ of a group who had escaped from slavery. Such groups were often referred to as ‘maroons’, although Brutus’s was not one of the maroon communities who by virtue of their treaties with the Jamaican goverment could live in freedom. In 1792 he was described as being ‘at the head of a band of runaway Negroes, who had settled on the Black Grounds, in this parish [Trelawny], with no good intention, and might have become formidable, had they not been crushed by the active and spirited exertions of the Militia of this parish, who apprehended him …’. Captain Brutus was captured, tried, found guilty of escaping from prison, and sentenced to death.
At Captain Brutus’s trial one of the members of his maroon community testified against him. Lucky described how the group had formed a town, planted provisions ‘of different kinds and canes’ and communicated with enslaved people living on nearby plantations, who supplied them with ‘rum sugar salt and other necessaries’. According to Lucky, an enslaved man from the nearby Brampton Bryan Estate was ‘the particular friend of Captain Brutus’, and supplied him with a gang of twelve hunting dogs.
In 1792, Britain and France were at war, and enslaved people in neighbouring Saint Domingue had recently begun their revolutionary struggle that would lead to the end of slavery and to independence in Haiti. Lucky’s testimony showed that Brutus and his group were aware of these international events, and the opportunity that they gave for the fight against slavery in Jamaica. Lucky testified that:
as martial law had now taken place the white people would be called out to town to fight the French and Spaniards, it would be then a good opportunity which they meant to embrace of falling upon the remaining white people killing them burning and destroying their properties and altho’ the runaways doth not publish it he really is confident that the Brampton Bryan Negroes and many others will join in the rebellion
We don’t know what Brutus had done that led to his initial prosecution for obeah, but it is likely that his skills and reputation as an obeah practitioner contributed to his ability to become a leader in his maroon community after escaping from the workhouse. Lucky described some of the spiritual methods by which the maroon group built their solidarity and planned their broader insurrection:
the method of these slaves is before they’ll reveal any of their secrets to each other is to mix part of the blood of each in a calabash with water and money which is drunk by the person that is to swear and their oath is that they will not leave them or reveal any of their secrets but if catched to wait patiently until they have the opportunity of rejoining their party
According to Lucky the group also had a ‘fortune teller, who can discover any of the party who will prove false to his oath.’
After his execution, Brutus’s head was severed from his body and placed on a pole at Duncan’s on Jamaica’s north coast, where it probably remained for months as a warning about what could happen to those who fought against slavery. This was a common terror tactic used by the judicial system in Caribbean slave societies.
Brutus at Caribbean Religious Trials
‘West India Intelligence. From the Jamaica Royal Gazette, 21 January 1792’, Diary or Woodfall’s Register (London, England), Wednesday, March 28, 1792; Issue 941 (accessed via Burney Collection online).
The National Archives, UK: CO 137/90 Williamson to Dundas 12 Feb 1792 enclosing ‘Minutes of Examination of a Negro Slave named Lucky the property of Mr James Cotton at Rio Bueno before Colonel William Robertson the honourable Alexander Fullerton and Captain John Gordon this 31st day of December 1791.’