A Spiritual Healer, Paramaribo, Suriname, ca. 1831
Pierre Jacques Benoit, Voyage a Surinam . . . cent dessins pris sur nature par l'auteur (Bruxelles, 1839), plate xvii, fig.36. (Copy in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University)
Using her spiritual powers, a healer is helping to cure a child who is not present. After engaging in certain ritualistic behaviors, she gives the mother, who stands before her, a herbal decoction, made in the pot in front of her; the mother is told to drink the decoction several times and then is given some herbs which she is to give her child. These healers, who are regarded as oracles by the Negroes, are usually older black women who are called Mama Snekie, Mother of Serpents, or Water Mama. The author observed one of these women at work, and describes (p. 26) the scene he witnessed, including the furnishings of her house. Although his description is relatively brief and sparse in ethnographic detail, it nonetheless represents a rather unique first-hand account of an African-type spiritual practitioner (what might have been called an obeah practitioner in the British Caribbean) at an early date. Benoit (1782-1854), a Belgian artist, visited Suriname around 1831 and apparently stayed for several months. The 100 lithographs in his book (hand colored in the John Carter Brown copy), accompanied by textual descriptions of varying detail, are derived from drawings he made during his visit, which included time in Paramaribo, the capital, as well as trips into the interior visiting Maroons and Amerindians. Forty of his lithographs, with our translations from the French text, are shown on this website.
Benoit, Pierre Jacques
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