- The Cultural Politics of Obeah: Religion, colonialism and modernity in the Caribbean world by Diana Paton
In this insightful and innovative study, The Cultural Politics of Obeah: Religion, colonialism and modernity in the Caribbean world, historian Diana Paton explores the politics and practice of Caribbean spiritual healing techniques known as obeah, and their impact on everyday life. In elite discourse, practices of obeah have frequently been positioned as symbols of the Caribbean's alleged lack of modernity from the era of slavery to the postcolonial period. Yet, despite its persistent presence in Anglo-Creole Caribbean history, the meaning of obeah has never been straightforward, encompassing instead "multiple phenomena" that Paton identifies (1). However, rather than attempting to confine the term within narrow definitional boundaries, Paton instead seeks to understand the political, cultural and social imperatives that drove interpretations and discussions of obeah in its multiple forms. To demonstrate the clear links between obeah and the political status of the region and its people. This book thus examines the "complex history of the construction and reconstruction of obeah as discursive category, legal artefact, and everyday practice" (16).
Despite the recent decriminalisation of obeah in many of the Caribbean islands, its status has changed far less than that of other African Atlantic religions. One of the reasons for this Paton notes, is that unlike Candomble and Vodou, obeah did not have "self-confident promoters and interpreters" to produce "new narratives" and press for change (5). Furthermore, anthropological works on beliefs in the region often tended to focus on the more discrete religious formations, such as Orisha Worship and Revival, ignoring the more amorphous obeah (6). As a result of this oversight, the practice continues to raise anxieties in the region as many fail to recognise its role in everyday life. In an attempt to avoid "reiterating the exoticization" of the Caribbean, which is often at the core of so many depictions of the religion, the book instead seeks to show how certain practices and beliefs, deemed to be obeah, have been regulated, suppressed, discussed and represented by the colonial elite. As Paton notes, obeah has been present in many contested political issues of the region since the eighteenth century, and was frequently mobilised in conflicts as a means of control by colonial authorities within the region (3). As such obeah has been an important category that has often "marked out critical debates about the status of the Caribbean and its people" (2). By investigating the ways in which belief in the practice has been used in the creation of punishment, prosecution and law enforcement, Paton effectively demonstrates how obeah's "existence and reproduction" has been utilised as part of the dynamics of colonial and post-colonial power (8).
Covering a period of two centuries, this book is a result of extensive research on the development and implementation of anti-obeah legislation. Following on from recent academic interest in this area, Paton has carefully analysed hundreds of prosecution records, newspaper reports and court cases to present a rich and varied account of obeah as a practice that was mutually constructed over a long period of time by "multiple parties and in multiple ways" (2).1 A technique which, she hopes, will encourage a move away from previous assumptions that there was a permanent division between the 'always imposing colonizer and the always-resisting colonized' (8). And, despite concerns by some regarding the bureaucratic format of these records, due to fears they obscure the views of "the victims", in Paton's hands, these institutional sources bear witness to the range of activities undertaken for the purposes of spiritual and ritual healings, and how they related both to one another and the law.2 Furthermore, Paton's innovative efforts in using these records to ensure those who experienced obeah in everyday life are included within this book should be commended.
The Cultural Politics of Obeah is therefore a major contribution to the field which will have significant implications for understanding the political dynamic of culture beyond the Anglophone Caribbean. Paton...