Jamaica

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Jamaica and Saint Domingue, the centerpieces of the eighteenth century British and French colonial systems, respectively, were societies driven by conflict. Built on the dazzling expansion of sugar wealth, these societies reduced 90 percent of their populations to perpetual slavery and consumed the lives of thousands of imported Africans each year. The tiny white minorities that aimed to govern them lived in proximity to, but also in fear of, the African majority that they sought to dominate and profit from. White authorities were particularly frightened by African's use of esoteric spiritual knowledge. ~ Diana Paton
Oliver Cromwell intended Jamaica to serve as a base for plunder, much like Providence Island a few decades before—including the creation of Admiralty courts, so captains could condemn their prizes immediately after the island was taken from the Spanish in 1655. However, Colonel Edward Doyley, governor of the recently conquered military state, struggled to command the men who remained in the West Indies after the Western Design, as well as the new arrivals yearning for a better life on the island. ~ Mark G. Hanna

Jamaica is an island country situated in the Caribbean Sea Spanning 10,990 square kilometres (4,240 sq mi) in area, it is the third-largest island of the Greater Antilles| and the Caribbean (after Cuba and Hispaniola). Jamaica lies about 145 kilometres (90 mi) south of Cuba, and 191 kilometres (119 mi) west of Hispaniola (the island containing the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic); the British Overseas Territory of the Cayman Islands lies some 215 kilometres (134 mi) to the north-west.

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  • In addition to the Baptists, Methodist missionaries commenced a concerted effort to convert Africans in Jamaica around the turn of the nineteenth century. Both groups repeatedly faced impediments by the Jamaican legislature who passed laws specifically prohibiting “preaching of ill-disposed, illiterate, or ignorant enthusiasts” in 1802 (primarily to suppress the colored and black preachers), and generally banning preaching to slaves in 1807. A central component of the official concern about these missionaries was that people of color were serving as leaders of the congregations and converts displayed an unacceptable degree of familiarity and equality between individuals of different races. Missionaries also incurred the wrath of plantation owners by stating that enslaved persons should observe Sunday as the Sabbath and not work. Pressures from Britain forced the Jamaican legislature to allow missionaries to preach to slaves in 1816 but they continued to be wary of black preachers, and in the slave codes of 1823 and 1826 prohibited “ignorant, superstitious, or designing slaves” from giving sermons.
  • [N]ewspaper and journal articles from the mid-nineteenth century suggest that colonial authorities suppressed the practice of myalism, in part, because the unorthodox healing rituals of practitioners were viewed as a form of fraud. Amidst outbreaks of cholera and other diseases, black Jamaicans increasingly sought treatment from myalist healers because western medical care was wholly inadequate to serve the population of Jamaica, with a mere fifty physicians in the entire colony in 1860, a decline from around two hundred on the eve of emancipation in 1833. Colonial officials and missionaries frequently argued that unless the number western medical practitioners increased, Jamaicans would continue to seek treatment from “charlatans” for their ailments. For instance, in 1840, Joseph John Gurney ­ who travelled to the Caribbean as a missionary, observed that myalism prevailed in some parts of Jamaica stating that “deprived as the negroes now are of regular medical attendance, some of them have recourse to these medical quack doctors, to the great danger of their lives.”
  • Jamaica and Saint Domingue, the centerpieces of the eighteenth century British and French colonial systems, respectively, were societies driven by conflict. Built on the dazzling expansion of sugar wealth, these societies reduced 90 percent of their populations to perpetual slavery and consumed the lives of thousands of imported Africans each year. The tiny white minorities that aimed to govern them lived in proximity to, but also in fear of, the African majority that they sought to dominate and profit from. White authorities were particularly frightened by African's use of esoteric spiritual knowledge. In the middle years of the century, these white fears crystallized in each society when heightened activity by enslaved people seemed to threaten the slave system during the events culminating in 1757-58 that became known as Makandal's conspiracy in Saint Domingue, and during Tacky's Rebellion in Jamaica in 1760. Makandal inspired a network of Maroons and plantation slaves whose secret spiritual medicine, understood by slaveholders as poison, was used in religious ceremonies. The combatants involved in Tacky's Rebellion used oaths and spiritually protective rituals to sustain the most substantial armed rebellion in the eighteenth-century British Caribbean.
    These two events, very close to each other in time and in colonies only a couple of hundred miles apart, both involved the ritual use of spiritually powerful substances to strengthen attacks on the plantocracy. They have, however, generally been considered separately by historians. Tacky's Rebellion has been investigated within the category of slave rebellions and in particular as an example of an "ethnic" African rebellion, due to its organization through networks of Akan speakers. The spiritual and religious aspect of the rebellion has been an important element of the story of obeah's development in the Anglophone Caribbean.
  • In response to Tacky’s Rebellion in 1760 in Jamaica, the colony’s House of Assembly passed a law naming a new crime, “obeah.” This important statute led the way in establishing obeah as a phenomenon understood by colonial authorities as a singular and dangerous problem. Investigating the Jamaica assembly’s decision within a wider Caribbean and Atlantic context and alongside the near-contemporaneous “Makandal conspiracy” in Saint Domingue, which was interpreted by French planters as a mass outbreak of poisoning, shows how similar practices came to be interpreted and constructed in different ways in different colonial cultures. The practices used by Tacky’s “obeah man” and Makandal’s followers were conceptually and practically similar, deriving from African understandings of medicine in which substances could be imbued with spiritual power. Why, then, did the French colonists emphasize poison while the British emphasized obeah (which they glossed with the term “witchcraft”)?

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