An Obeah Practitioner at Work, Trinidad, 1836

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This record was last updated on 01 Feb 2017

Image Reference

Richard Bridgens, West India Scenery...from sketches taken during a voyage to, and residence of seven years in ... Trinidad (London, 1836), plate 21.

Caption, "Negro superstition, the Doo di Doo bush, or which is the thief." Bridgens describes this scene, which passed under the eye of the author, as " a kind of ordeal . . . among the Negroes, for extorting a confession of guilt from persons suspected of theft or other crime .. . . The injured party communicates his suspicions to the Dadie (as the reputed sorcerer is called), who appoints a time for the trial. A refusal of the suspected person to accept the challenge is considered an admission of guilt . . . . The Dadie twists a band out of the branches of a common shrub, at intervals sprinkling salt on it, and accompanying the operation with some incantation . . . . thus formed, it is passed round the neck of the supposed culprit, who is then called upon to clear himself by oath of the imputed crime. The Negroes . . . . believe that if they perjure themselves .. . the band would remain immovably twisted round the neck, and, by gradually tightening itself, ring from the party an acknowledgment of his guilt . . . . the sketch here given was taken from a scene which passed under the eye of the author" (Bridgens). The ordeal described by Bridgens is clearly based on African oath-taking practices, and the so-called Dadie was an obeah man. Throughout the British Caribbean during the period of slavery (and afterward), obeah practitioners were sought to help discover lost or stolen objects and identify the persons responsible for alleged theft (see Jerome Handler and Kenneth Bilby, Enacting Power, the criminalization of Obeah in the Anglophone Caribbean [university of the West Indies Press, 2012]; the image is discussed on pp. 34-36). The Library of Congress has a black/white copy as well as a colored lithograph, shown here; in other copies of the Bridgens book, the image is in black/white. A sculptor, furniture designer and architect, Richard Bridgens was born in England in 1785, but in 1826 he moved to Trinidad where his wife had inherited a sugar plantation, St. Clair. Although he occasionally returned to England, he ultimately lived in Trinidad for seven years and died in Port of Spain in 1846. Bridgens' book contains 27 plates, thirteen of which are shown on this website. The plates were based on drawings made from life and were done between 1825, when Bridgens arrived in Trinidad, and 1836, when his book was published. Although his work is undated, the title page of a copy held by the Beinecke Rare Book Room at Yale University has a front cover with a publication date of 1836, the date usually assigned to this work by major libraries whose copies lack a title page. Bridgens' racist perspectives on enslaved Africans and his defense of slavery are discussed in T. Barringer, G. Forrester, and B. Martinez-Ruiz, Art and Emancipation in Jamaica: Isaac Mendes Belisario and his Worlds (Yale University Press, 2007), pp. 460-461. Bridgens’ life is discussed extensively along with discussion of his drawings and presentation of many details on slave life in Trinidad in Judy Raymond, The Colour of Shadows: Images of Caribbean Slavery (Coconut Beach, Florida: Caribbean Studies Press, 2016). Raymond’s book, which is an essential source for any study of Bridgens, also includes a number of unpublished sketches of Trinidadian slave life. See also Brian Austen, Richard Hicks Bridgens (Oxford Art Online/Grove Art Online).