Obeah was not illegal until 1760, when the Jamaican Assembly passed ‘An Act to remedy the evils arising from irregular assemblies of slaves and to prevent their possessing arms and ammunition and going from place to place without tickets, and for preventing the practice of obeah, and to restrain overseers from leaving the estates under their care on certain days, and to oblige all free negroes, mulattoes or Indians, to register their names in the vestry books of the respective parishes of this Island, and to carry about them the certificate, and wear the badge of their freedom; and to prevent any captain, master or supercargo of any vessel bringing back slaves transported off this Island.’ The Act was a response to the largest eighteenth century uprising by enslaved people in a British colony, known as Tacky’s Rebellion or the Coromantee War.
The earliest evidence of people being prosecuted for obeah comes from a copy, made in the 1830s, of a document listing trials that took place in the slave court of the parish of St. Andrews between 1746 and 1782. The copy may have been made by the magistrate Richard Robert Madden, who quoted these trials in a section of his 1834 book A Twelvemonth’s Resident in the West Indies devoted to obeah. The prosecutions took place at the court house at Half-Way Tree, now part of the city of Kingston.
The document seems to be complete, except for a gap between 1756 and 1763. Of the 162 trials recorded, five were for obeah. They give very little detail: only the name of the person charged, a description of the charge, and the punishment incurred. Nevertheless they are important as a record of the earliest known obeah prosecutions.
The cases are as follows:
April 1767. Mary, for having nurtured in her possession  relative to the practice of obeah or witchcraft
July 14, 1772. Sarah, for having in her possession, cats teeth, cats claws, jaws, hair, beads, knotted cloths, and other materials relative to the practice of obeah to delude and impose on the minds of the negroes
1776. Solomon, for possession of obeah materials
April 21, 1777. Tony, for practising obeah or witchcraft on a slave named Fortune by means of which the said slave became dangerously ill
July 9, 1782. Neptune, for making use of rum, hair, chalk and stones and other materials
relative to the practice of obeah or witchcraft
Mary and Tony were acquitted, but Sarah, Solomon, and Neptune were all convicted, and sentenced to transportation. At this time an enslaved person sentenced to transportation would be sold to slave traders and taken to be resold elsewhere in the Caribbean. We have no record of where Sarah, Solomon or Neptune ended up.
The charges show the authorities’ understanding of obeah as a form of witchcraft, and quote from the 1760 Act: ‘to delude and impose on the minds of the Negroes’, for instance, was a direct quote. They also give some sense of the materials that might be used by ritual specialist at the time. It is interesting that two of the five defendants in these early cases were women, as in later trials only about 10% of those prosecuted were female. These trials are inevitably partial, however. During slavery, prosecutions of enslaved people took place only in extreme circumstances, because it meant a loss to their owner. Slaveowners tended to prosecute people for obeah only when they felt directly threatened by their arts, or believed they were harming other enslaved people, as in the case of Fortune. The more ordinary, everyday uses of obeah, for instance for healing, are rarely found in slavery era trials.
Mary at Caribbean Religious Trials.
An Act to Remedy the Evils arising from Irregular Assemblies of Slaves, Jamaica 1760, CO 139/21, The National Archives, UK
“Copy of the Record Book of the slave trials of St. Andrew Jamaica from 17 March 1746 to 16 Dec. 1782” enc. in Metcalfe to Russell No 51, 5 April 1840, CO 137/248, The National Archives, UK.
Books and Articles
Madden, Richard Robert. A Twelvemonth’s Residence in the West Indies during the transition from slavery to apprenticeship: with incidental notices of the state of society, prospects, and natural resources of Jamaica and other islands. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea and Blanchard, 1834. Vol 2, p. 69.
Paton, Diana. “Punishment, Crime, and the Bodies of Slaves in Eighteenth-Century Jamaica.” Journal of Social History 34, no. 4 (2001): 923-54. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3789424.
Paton, Diana. The Cultural Politics of Obeah: Religion, Colonialism and Modernity in the Caribbean World. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 17.