Legal Eagle : The danger of the 'balmyard'

August 22, 2016

The early history of Jamaica is much about power and dominance. It seems as if the doctrine was to conquer and disseminate. So in 1494 when Spanish colonists, led by Christopher Columbus, arrived in Jamaica, they met, conquered and enslaved the Tainos, and by contact and association, infected them with their "foreign diseases", which almost wiped out the entire Tainos population.

Then in 1655, the English invaded and defeated the Spanish occupiers of Jamaica. The English brought black people from Africa and enslaved them. In the process of enslavement, the English colonists whipped the men, raped the women, and prevented them from practising their religion and other cultural habits such as obeah. The practice of obeah, or anything resembling obeah, was a serious threat, to the colonial masters. In response to this threat, and out of an abundance of caution for the protection and well-being of the colonists, the Legislature in 1898 promulgated the Obeah Act (hereinafter called "the Act").

The historical background to the legislative ban on obeah is rooted in the activities of 18th-century Jamaica, which included the sugar boom, the First Maroon War, Tacky's Revolt, and the Second Maroon War. The revolt by an oppressed people against their colonial masters continued into the 19th century with the Baptist War, Emancipation, and the Morant Bay Rebellion, among other things. In short, the 18th and 19th centuries in Jamaica represented a period of great uprising and revolt by the oppressed black people. It is said that some of the leaders of the revolts were protected by obeah. Fingers were pointed at Tacky, for instance, as one of those who had supernatural powers and who was practising obeah.

The Act does not define obeah in any detailed way except to say that it "shall be deemed to be of one and the same meaning as 'myalism'." Myalism is not defined in the Act, but an online definition describes it as being a "Jamaican folk religion focused on the power of the ancestors typically involving drumming, dancing, spirit possession, ritual sacrifice, and herbalism".

The Act expressly defines "a person practising obeah" and "instrument of obeah". A person practising obeah means "any person who, to effect any fraudulent or unlawful purpose, or for gain, or for the purpose of frightening any person uses, or pretends to use, any occult means, or pretends to posses any supernatural power or knowledge."

An instrument of obeah is defined as anything used or intended to be used, by a person, and pretended by such person to be possessed of any occult or supernatural power."

Originally, the penalty for practising obeah was imprisonment for up to 12 months and whipping in addition to or in lieu thereof. However, in the Obeah (Amendment) Act, 2013, whipping was abolished as a penalty.

Jamaicans may now be far removed from the thinking and realities of the 18th and 19th centuries, however, it may still be prudent for persons to be mindful that obeah is still outlawed, and so the use of occult or supernatural powers for the purpose of healing, for instance, could be caught within the definition of obeah in certain circumstances.

Until the Act is revised or repealed, persons should think twice before getting involved in "balmyard" activities, whatever their reason for doing so may be.

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