Polydore, Jamaica 1831

In 1831 in a special slave court in the parish of St. Dorothy, now part of Clarendon, an enslaved man named Polydore was charged with obeah, convicted, and sentenced to transportation for life. The records of the case provide one of the most detailed accounts of spiritual healing from the slavery period.

First page of Minutes of Evidence from the trial of Polydore at St Dorothy Special Slave Court, 1831. TNA CO 137/209, folio 370. Click to enlarge. Courtesy of The National Archives, UK.

Polydore was charged with practicing obeah on a man called Reid Bayley. The main evidence against him came from the testimony of Jane Henry, Bayley’s sister. Henry testified that she originally went to see Polydore to see if he could help her brother who was very sick, to the point where he could ‘neither walk nor ride’. Polydore revealed that he had previously been visited by her brother, seeking help. He said, though,  that he could be of no use to her brother as he had his ‘shadow in the cotton tree and his hand nailed to it.’ By this, Polydore meant that Reid Bayley’s shadow—part of his soul–had been separated from his body and attached to a cotton tree in a magical ritual. The taking of Reid Bayley’s shadow, Polydore told Jane Henry, was organised and paid for by a man from another estate, John Reeve. Polydore offered to try to remove Bayley’s shadow from the cotton tree if Jane brought him two dollars, a cock and a pint of rum. She  did so and Polydore reported he had successfully pulled her brother out of the tree .

Polydore was convicted and sentenced to transportation. He spent five years in prison in Jamaica waiting for the sentence of transportation to be implemented. But in 1836 the Colonial Office in London reviewed the case and decided that Polydore, along with two other men who had been sentenced to transportation for obeah, should be released. This decision was connected to a larger shift in policy that halted the transportation of convicts from the West Indies to Australia, but also entailed criticism of the court’s decision in this specific case. The Colonial Secretary wrote that Polydore had taken advantage of Jane Harry’s credulity. His actions were similar to those of ‘quack doctors’ in Britain: ‘In short it appears to have been a mere case of quackery, with the substitution of conjuration for drugs.’ The Colonial Secretary suggested on the basis of these cases that the law against obeah be altered, and the penalty changed from transportation or the death penalty to ‘working for a short time on the public roads with other criminals, or perhaps receiving a sufficiently severe public whipping’. In the years after slavery, the punishment for obeah was indeed modified, to imprisonment and whipping.


Proceedings in trials of T House, Polydore, and Industry convicted for Obeah. Howe Peter Browne, Marquess of Sligo, Governor of Jamaica, Jamaica No. 315, folios 355-375, The National Archives, UK, CO 137/209.