Many people arrested under the obeah laws were members of religious communities who were prosecuted for group worship and/or healing activities. This was the case with the prosecution of Rosabelle Rennalls, Joseph Stephens, Julius Walters, Joseph Thomas, George Morgan, Miriam Henry and Leonora Thomas for participating in a religious healing meeting at Beggar’s Bush Pen balm yard near Spanish Town, Jamaica. The balm yard had been operating for several years—according to one witness, it was present in 1896. All but one of the defendants were convicted of ‘being persons practising obeah’.
The case arose because a man named Charles Shirley, who disliked the religious community at Beggar’s Bush and thought they were ‘no meeting at all … nothing but obeah being practised’, reported Rennalls and the others to the police. The group formed a well-structured community: Charles Shirley stated that the twenty-four-year-old Julius Walker (sic) was the parson, Joseph Thomas the leader of the choir, and Miriam Henry a person who ‘works the spirit’. Rosabelle Rennells appears to have played a significant leading role as well. The magistrate trying the case referred to the group as practicing ‘revivalism’, and many of the details given of their religious practice, including a table laid with spiritual goods, singing, talking in a ‘strange language’, and walking in a circular motion, suggest their affiliation with Revival religion. Revival developed in the 1860s in missionary-led communities, and developed its own dynamic as a distinctive religion that drew on both African and Christian religious practice and belief. The case shows the harassment that Revivalists faced in the late nineteenth century.
In response to Charles Shirley’s report, the police set up a plot to entrap and arrest the balm yard members. Two policemen went with Shirley and a man named John Fullerton to the balm yard in order to ‘detect these people for practising obeah’.
Fullerton said that all of the accused except George Morgan were at the balm house, singing and walking around a table holding bottles of an unidentified liquid, while Joseph Stephens beat a drum. The table was laid with kerosene tins of liquid medicine, bottles, and cans, and the house also contained rings, a clock, and a Bible. According to another witness, Rosanah Walker, who lived nearby, the group were singing Sankey Hymns, and each drank a wineglass of the medicine. Ira Sankey was an American composer of revival hymns, which were popular in the Caribbean. Walker also said that the group used ‘strange language’ that she ‘could not understand’. Charles Shirley said that Rennalls passed ‘a Bible over the pan of liquid under the booth’.
When Fullerton arrived, according to another witness, Rosanah Walker, Rosabella Rennalls came up to him to find out what he wanted. Fullerton stated that he was sick, and then went into a hut with Rennalls and the other defendants. Inside, according to Fullerton’s testimony, Rennals told Fullerton that his sickness was the result of obeah, and gave him some liquid medicine to cure him. Fullerton paid two shillings for the medicine. Rennalls refused to tell Fullerton who had put the obeah on him, saying that when she had done so in the past, this had caused trouble: the people accused of obeah often would ‘come back and abuse her’.
This was the moment Fullerton had been waiting for, because Rennalls’ acceptance of money from him in exchange for medicine, and her claim that the medicine would work to remove obeah, was good evidence of obeah in Jamaican law. After he had been given the medicine, Fullerton grabbed the pan in which Rennalls had put the 2 shillings he had paid. He ran out of the house into the yard, where he ‘bawled out loudly’. Charles Shirley and the two policemen who had been hiding nearby, came out of their hiding places and arrested the whole congregation.
The group fought back. One of them, Joseph Thomas, said that he had been expecting the police to come for ‘long time’ and expressed his determination to continue with his religious practice: ‘if we go to prison for 20 years we will go on with it again’.
The group was tried at Spanish Town magistrates’ court where they conducted their own defense, including cross-examining the prosecution witnesses. Their defense included casting doubt on the motives of Charles Shirley, who they suggested had previously recommended to others that they visit the balm yard to cure their relatives. All except George Morgan were found guilty of obeah, and sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment, with the men additionally sentenced to being whipped, with twelve lashes. The presiding magistrate congratulated the police. The group’s supporters, probably other members of their religious community, were in court that day, and when the sentences were announced they shouted and cried creating, according to the Gleaner reporter, ‘the greatest disorder’.
The case suggests divisions among ordinary Jamaicans about religion and healing. One of the witnesses, William Walters, was the father of Julius Walters, the group’s ‘parson’. He disparaged the group and their religion in his evidence, stating that ‘The accused’s Religion is jumping up and turning round and barking like a dog and saying ‘glory Hallelujah’ and ‘Hip Hip Hurrah’’.
Like many defendants in obeah cases, Rosabelle Rennalls and her fellow worshippers clearly did not think they were obeah practitioners. Rather, they were people who were concerned about the dangers of obeah. Rennalls believed that illness could be caused by other people’s practice of obeah, and for this reason prescribed medicine to remove the spiritual affliction. This was a very common dynamic in cases like these.
‘Spanish Town: Obeahism and Revivalism’, The Gleaner, 28 June 1899.