Case History 5: Mammy Forbes, the Healer, from Jamaica (20th Century)



















The picture shown is a photograph of a Jamaican woman called Rose Anne Forbes, also known as Mammy (or ‘Mamie’) Forbes, who lived in Jamaica in the early 1900s. For many years Rose Anne ran a ‘balm yard’ with her husband, George Forbes, at a place called Blakes Pen, Clarendon. People would to travel to see Mammy Forbes to get help for various ailments and illnesses they were suffering and she became famous throughout the island as a healer.

The balm yard that the Forbes ran was described in the Gleaner newspaper as a ‘Balming sanatorium’. It was later operated by the Forbes’s daughter, Mother Rita, until well into the 1970s.

Photograph of Rose Anne (Mammy) Forbes, from Martha Beckwith’s book, Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaican Folk Life (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1929). Source: National Library of Scotland.

In 1910 the Gleaner newspaper in Jamaica reported that Mammy Forbes pleaded guilty to a charge of practicing medicine without a licence. According to an account of the court case written at the time (titled, Charge of Practicing Medicine against a Woman, The Gleaner, 5 August 1910), Mammy was warned by the magistrate to ‘destroy all her implements when she got home…for if the police found anything, such as bottles and feathers, and took them to Court, a charge of obeah could be brought against her’.

In addition to Mammy’s court case, George Forbes was also charged with obeah several years later during a court case held in Mandeville and reported in the Gleaner newspaper during April 1916. At that trial, after hearing evidence about a healing ritual that involved words spoken in an ‘unknown tongue’ (that is, in a ritual language), the words ‘praise father, praise son, and praise holy ghost’, a Bible, a basin of water, and the prescription of ‘balm’ liquid, the magistrate in charge of the court ordered that the charge of obeah be reduced to one of practicing medicine without a licence. The prosecuting policemen argued that Forbes should receive a fine that would be high enough to put him and his wife out of business. George Forbes was fined £10, which did not put him and Mammy Forbes out of business but hurt them economically.

Further details about the healing rituals that Rose Ann and George Forbes practiced, and the charges they faced in court, are summarised on the Freedom to Believe website (

Some questions to think about when interpreting this case history

• What types of activities and rituals did Rose Anne (Mammy) and George Forbes participate in at their balm yard in Clarendon?

• Do you think that Rose Anne (Mammy) and George Forbes were healers, or not?

• In your opinion, should Rose Anne (Mammy) and George Forbes have faced court trials for their activities, or not? Please give reasons for your answer.