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8. “Instruments of Obeah”: The Significance of Ritual Objects in the Jamaican Legal System, 1760 to the Present

Edited by Akinwumi Ogundiran and Paula S Indiana University Press ePub

Danielle N. Boaz

Many scholars have sifted through colonial documents searching for the “subaltern” voice of enslaved and oppressed individuals in the Americas. These researchers, as shown in the preceding chapter, for example, have attempted to uncover the spiritual practices of African and African-descended populations through deep and critical readings of “outsider accounts,” such as court records, legislative debates, statutes, journals, and newspapers. Unlike many of these studies seeking to reveal the rituals and beliefs of populations that did not document these practices for themselves, I utilize these official records to understand the objectives and strategies of the colonial government in describing and proscribing certain items and actions associated with African religion and ritual practices in the Caribbean. I believe that in order to analyze the origins and development of African culture in the Western Hemisphere, we must first understand the colonial definition, categorization, and suppression of these acts. I argue that the preservation, attenuation, and transformation of African Diaspora religious and ritual practices were shaped through interactions with the legal and media institutions of the colonial government. I focus in this chapter on the efforts of the state of Jamaica to suppress the practice of Obeah (a term used by the British to describe African-Caribbean medico-religious practices). I demonstrate that Obeah objects constituted the subject and focus of these suppression efforts, and the contestations that ensued between the state and Obeah practitioners.

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10. Mundane or Spiritual? The Interpretation of Glass Bottle Containers Found on Two Sites of the African Diaspora

Edited by Akinwumi Ogundiran and Paula S Indiana University Press ePub

Matthew Reeves

Archaeologists of the African Diaspora have been drawn to the study of artifacts with potential spiritual use because of the many possibilities that these objects offer for a deep understanding of Black Atlantic cultural formation. The presence of such items on sites has been heralded as representing everything from African survival to resistance against hegemonic patriarchy (Leone 2005; Orser 1994; Stine et al. 1996; Vlach 1993; Wilkie 1997). Many of the scholars involved in this search have called for careful consideration of the archaeological contexts from which they were recovered (Wilkie 1997). In addition, researchers have also called for interdisciplinary examination of ethnohistorical texts to allow for interpretation (Leone and Fry 1999). In this chapter, I consider how the steps from observation to interpretation are enacted, specifically, how we take an otherwise commonly occurring artifact, such as glass bottles, to determine whether their placement at the site was intentional or a secondary result of disposal, and finally whether the intentional placement reflects their use as spiritual objects or simply for mundane purposes, such as storage. What makes bottle glass an interesting case study is its common occurrence on historic sites. Due to the multiple uses for bottles, their particular use and contents can be a bit enigmatic (Smith 2008: 22–28), but with proper study of context, it is possible to differentiate potential spiritual use of such bottles from those of more routine origins.

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7. Transatlantic Meanings: African Rituals and Material Culture in the Early Modern Spanish Caribbean

Edited by Akinwumi Ogundiran and Paula S Indiana University Press ePub

Pablo F. Gómez

Mateo Arará’s career as one of the most renowned healers of the early modern New Kingdom of Granada began with propitious events four thousand miles east of Cartagena de Indias. Sometime during the 1620s, Arará’s maternal uncle Soo chose him as the heir of the family’s most sacred tradition. Arará would become, as his uncle and many of his matrilineal ancestors had planned, the priest and healer at the king’s house. Three decades later, African ladino (acculturated and Spanish-speaking) translators from the Jesuit College in Cartagena translated Arará’s testimony. In front of Cartagena’s Inquisition tribunal, where he found himself after having been accused of being a sortilego (a conjurer), Arará declared that his healing gifts had been transmitted to him through the womb of his mother (Archivo Histórico Nacional de España, Madrid, hereafter AHN, Inquisición 1021, fol. 340r–341r).

African-born ritual specialists like Arará served as effective mediators of the cultural exchange between Africa and the Americas during the early modern period. His is just one of several histories of African ritual practitioners located in Spanish and Colombian archives. These rich depositories hold unique Inquisition, government, ecclesiastic, personal, and medical records related to populations of African descent coming from early modern New Kingdom of Granada (modern-day Colombia; see map 7.1) and several other Caribbean spaces. This chapter highlights the richness of available evidence related to the material culture of populations of African descent in early modern Spanish Caribbean records, and its value for the study of ritual practices in the seventeenth century black Atlantic.

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16. “As Above, So Below”: Ritual and Commemoration in African American Archaeological Contexts in the Northern United States

Edited by Akinwumi Ogundiran and Paula S Indiana University Press ePub

Cheryl J. LaRoche

Ritual objects excavated from African American archaeological sites blend elements of ancestral culture, spiritual intent, memory, and modern philosophy in revealing the dynamics of spiritual and cultural continuity (Idowu [1962] 1994; Mills and Walker 2008; Ogundiran and Falola 2007). Simultaneously, modern ceremonial expressions at sites such as New York’s African Burial Ground and Philadelphia’s President’s House sites stir deep expressions of public emotion in tribute to once-forgotten ancestors. Contemporary actors engaged with these sites honor ancestors to effect the present and influence the future.

In historic contexts such as the African Burial Ground, excavated objects of tribute establish evidence of ritual or ceremony later interpreted by archaeologists. For the most part, spiritual intent must be inferred through the written record, intentional artifact or skeletal placement, sequencing, and/or three-dimensional patterning (Mills and Walker 2008). Artifacts of ritual or spiritual expression recovered from archaeological sites, however, consign discussions of spiritual mediation to the past. From this temporal distance, the efficacy, spirituality, and intent of past ritual acts are hypothesized and theorized in the present. By theorizing ritual within historical frames and archaeological contexts, one need not confront the question of spiritual potency or the purported efficacy of objects or practices. This chapter questions the efficacy and consequences of ritual practices beyond the ritual itself. Ritual acts tend to be seen, teleologically, as part of pre-Enlightenment, pre-modern practices that either lacked or have lost their potency in the present. Bringing the discussion of “non-empirical powers” or ritual efficacy into contemporary moments and our lives necessitates acknowledging or, at the very least, questioning the potential “power from unknown sources” that are implied in ritual performance (Turner 1970: 54). Modern ritual and ceremonies held at archaeological sites force professionals and the public alike to assess their relationship with spiritual mediation. “Layers of complexity,” according to Mills and Walker, exist at the intersections between and within “memory and materiality, knowledge and practice, subjects and objects, and the past and the present” (2008: 5).

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9. Charms and Spiritual Practitioners: Negotiating Power Dynamics in an Enslaved African Community in Jamaica

Edited by Akinwumi Ogundiran and Paula S Indiana University Press ePub

Paula Saunders

In recent times, the focus of African Diaspora archaeological research has moved to examine the spiritual-based practices of people of African descent throughout the Diaspora (see, e.g., K. L. Brown 1994, 2001, 2004; Fennell 2007b; Russell 1997; Stine et al. 1996; Wilkie 1997, on spirituality and ritual paraphernalia). The results of these studies often produce more questions than answers, and demonstrate the many complexities involved in examining such places of ritual activity, as well as the impossibility of creating standardized theories and methodologies to deal with such complex sites. As a result, archaeologists are still attempting to find ways to address the use of spirituality as one of the means whereby oppressed women, men, and children in the Diaspora negotiated power, resistance, and discourse inherent within the colonial state, as well as how these practices may be seen in the archaeological record.

This chapter presents some findings from the enslaved village at Orange Vale coffee plantation, located in Portland, Jamaica. This research applies an interdisciplinary approach by combining documentary, archaeological, and oral sources. In addition to information on daily living conditions and settlement patterns within the enslaved African village, additional findings include (1) the recognition of various levels of power negotiation, and (2) clues to the enslaved people’s ritualized spiritual practices through their use of charms. Further, this research underscores the importance of including descendant communities throughout the archaeological process, as well as the need to engage oral traditions in the interpretation of past societies, particularly for marginalized groups excluded from “official”—that is, written—stories of the past.

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