Polibius, Bermuda, 1755

Polibius was an enslaved man indicted in the Bermudian Court of Assizes for poisoning in 1755, when there was no law against obeah. If the law had been different he might well have been prosecuted for obeah instead. Polibius was accused of having three years earlier hidden ‘certain Poisonous Matter or Mixture of sundry ingredients wrapt up in some Raggs’, under a step in the yard of Cornelius Hinson, the Speaker of the House of Assembly of Bermuda and one of the most influential people in the colony. Polibius was also accused of hiding ‘a certain Poisonous Liquor or composition of a blue Colour in a certain Glass Phiol [phial].’ A witness at his trial said that she saw Polibius place the mixture under the step and that ‘on inspection it was like blue stone water, and that the Mixture appeared like Grindstone mudd, and the pairings of Nails and hair etc. smelt of Rum.’ According to another witness, Polibius had put the mixture under the stone in order to protect himself against whipping by Hinson. This kind of use of spiritually powerful materials to provide protection against the abuses of slavery was common in slave societies across the Americas.

Polibius was acquitted by the Jury, on the grounds that they were unsure that the materials hidden were actually poisonous. In later years, the Bermuda Assembly changed the law to ensure that similar cases would lead to convictions.

The Bermuda 1764 Act for the Better Government of Negroes etc … Bond or Free contains the following clause, which is similar to legislation against obeah, although it does not use that term:

‘And whereas it is a general notion among the negroes, and other slaves, that Persons’ lives may be affected by certain compositions being laid and placed in the Houses, Beds, and other places, where white people dwell and reside; and whereas such may not actually be found to be a poisonous nature, yet as they are laid with an intent to affect some Person, or Persons, it ought to be esteemed highly criminal highly criminal in the doer or doers thereof.’

The act is notable in its very broad definition of poison, to include things placed in houses or beds that are not in fact physically poisonous, and not taken into the victim’s body. Historian Clarence Maxwell suggests that the new law was a response to Polibius’s case.

Bernhard, Virginia. Slaves and Slaveholders in Bermuda, 1616-1782. Columbia, Mo: University of Missouri Press, 1999.
Maxwell, Clarence V.H., ‘The horrid villainy’: Sarah Bassett and the poisoning conspiracies in Bermuda, 1727–30, Slavery & Abolition, vol. 21, no. 3, 2000, pp. 48-74, citing Bermuda Archives, Book of Assizes, AZ 102-9, 1755-64, pp. 13-17.
—————— Enslaved Merchants, Enslaved Merchant-Mariners, and the Bermuda Conspiracy of 1761.” Early American Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, 2009, pp. 140–178.