Ten, Ten The Bible Ten : Obeah in the Bahamas

Dr. Timothy McCartney
Nassau: Timpaul Publishing (1976)


Colonies of the New World were valued to the extent to which they contributed to the prosperity of the colonial power to which they were attached. Essentially, countries of the West Indies were held tenaciously because the European mother country needed products which they could not produce in their climate. Of course, this was not the only reason why, after Columbus' rediscovery of the New World, Europeans came to the West Indies. Some wanted to escape religious persecution, others sought to become wealthy as the promise of gold and silver offered the prospects of getting rich quickly (as an aside, it would appear to the author, that politics in the West Indies today hold this same promise); also criminals and prisoners of war were transported into the region where they were compelled into forced labour, while others came simply because of the love of adventure.

The West Indies became sugar producing and tobacco producing countries to replace mining, which was originally the principal source of wealth. The native Indian (Arawaks and Caribs) population was almost depleted as a result of working these mines therefore, labour was desperately needed to work the new plantations, and so Negro labour was sought.

As European tastes changed from tobacco smoking and snuff taking, coffee, tea (which they obtained mostly from the East Indies) cocoa, nutmeg, etc. had great demands. The West Indian islands were ideally suited for growing all these products - hence an added need for labour.

The Portuguese, as early as 1503, were importing labour from Africa and selling them in a slave market in Lisbon. Negro slaves were, initially, more a novelty for the European rich, but as the demand for labourers increased and as the Spanish Empire was now extended in the Americas, the Portuguese sold these slaves to the Spanish. Other countries, the Dutch, then the English and French, who also had now found the New World and had established colonies, also became involved in the slave trade. The rivalry between England and France, which in the 18th century developed into wars in the West Indies, North America and India, led to an intense trade rivalry in Africa. Added to this fact, European slavers had to bargain with African slavers, who not only found capturing their own race to sell a lucrative act, but also as an excuse to wage war and extend their power.

It may be useful, at this juncture, to briefly look at the African slave trade and its' significance to the Bahamas, but, more particular, to the subject of Obeah as we develop it.

Historians cite six specific areas from the Western African continent, stretching from Senegal to Cape Negro. These areas were:


Conditions along the
'Middle Passage' between Africa and the West Indies, were appalling.
Ships were overcrowded and in the holds slaves were packed closely.
Under such conditions, contagious diseases such as smallpox, itch and
dysentery were prevalent and killed large numbers. Slaves were fed
and given exercise on deck. Doctors provided medical attention. Some
captains were kind and some were harsh. In any case, the desire for
profits dominated all other considerations. The journey lasted from
five to eight weeks if the weather was favourable, and longer if it was bad.

The Portuguese, and later the Dutch, actually started the slave trade in this area. They preferred the tribes in this region which were situated south of the Senegal and on either side of the Gambia. The principal tribes were the Mandingos, the Gallofs (known as also Wallop and Walloff) the Fulas (or Fulani, Poula, Fulbie or Pholey) and the Jolas (or Feloops or Floops).

This area produced relatively small numbers of slaves compared to other areas of Africa. The British Governor of the Senegal, Barnes, stated that the number exported annually from the area during the 1780's was between 1,400 and 1,500.17

When the Europeans arrived in Africa, there were tribal wars, so better armed tribes and those who were more skilled in fighting captured opponents and they were usually made slaves. There were several types of slaves, viz:

17. Evidence of J.Barnes. Board of Trade Records to 1833. (B.T. 6:9- 1788).


(a) Those born into slavery and belonging to a household. The children of these slaves were also perpetuated into slavery, and became part of a family's tradition, to the point that their life style was a pattern that they were accustomed to, and their masters would not readily part with them.
(b) Those captured in war or tribal raids, as previously mentioned.
(c) Free-born children sold into slavery by parents during famine or extreme hard times to obtain food and sustenance.
(d) Those individuals sold into slavery to redeem debts.
(e) Freemen who were enslaved for committing certain crimes mainly, murder, treason, adultery and witchcraft.

This area, commonly known as the Ivory Coast or Grain Coast, has been defined as stretching for two hundred leagues from the River Sherbro, round Cape Palmas to the River Ancober near Axim. 18

The entire region is occupied by three main linguistic groups. To the southwest is a group of tribes speaking the Kru Branch of the Kwa sub-family of African languages. These include the Bakwe, Bassa, Bete, Dida, Grebo, Kru, Sapo, Wobe, etc. To the northwest of this group, in the region of what is now Liberia and Sierre Leone, are tribes speaking the Atlantic sub-family of African languages. 19 These include the Sherbro, Bullom, Temme, Goia, Kissi, etc., and there is the third group designated by Murdock, the 'peripheral Mande,' which includes the Dan, Gagu, Guru, Kono, Mende, Vai, Ngere and Gbande. Although their languages differ greatly, all these people have had considerable mutual contact with each other and there is a striking degree of cultural uniformity among them." 20

There was relatively little slave trading in the areas of the Grain and Ivory Coasts during the late 17th and 18th centuries, the Europeans considering the Africans there particularly "barbarous and uncivilized", perhaps because the natives wisely prevented them from coming ashore, going instead to the anchored ships in their canoes to trade. 21 Slaves taken from this area (and in the other areas also) were kidnapped by pillaging parties or captured in petty wars, a great many of the latter specifically waged for the purpose of obtaining slaves.

At the beginning of the 18th century, there were twenty-four European forts on this Coast. Of these, twelve were Dutch, eight English, two belonged to the Brandesburgers, two to the Danes. 22

This gave an indication of slaving activity and the popularity of the location for bringing in slaves to this region.

18. SNELGRAVE. William. "A New and & Exact Account of Some Parts of Guinea (1734). Introduction.
19. MURDOCK. C.P.. "Africa: Its Peoples and their Culture History",pp. 222-29, 265-69.
McCulloch. M., "Peoples of the Sierre Leone Protectorate".
20. MURDOCK. McMULLOCH, op. cit.
21. PATTERSON. Orlando. "The Sociology of Slavery." GRENADA Publishing Co,LONDON, p. 118.
22.CLARIDGE. W. W.. "A History of the Gold Coast and Ashanti" Vol. I pp. 181-208.


Most of the peoples of the Gold Coast belong to the Twi speaking group of the Kwa subfamily of African languages. The largest linguistic sub-division in the area is the Akan. To the north of the Akan, in the hinterlands, are the less developed Guang peoples; and to their northeast are the speakers of the "Togo remnant languages". To their east are the Ewe speaking Ga and Adangme peoples. 2 3

At the beginning of the 18th century, the most powerful of all the Gold Coast Kingdoms, Ashanti, began to make its bid for power among the larger coastal states.
Another Akan tribe, the Fanti, were powerful at this time, also, and they earned themselves the reputation for being the most unscrupulous and efficient traders on the Coast. At times, they played off the Europeans against each other, as in the Dutch-Kommenda wars. 24 Miles, who knew the Fanti well and could speak their language, informs us that the Fanti slaves at least "one-fourth or nearly … who beyond a doubt are for Debts and Crimes of different descriptions … the chief of their crimes are Debts, Thefts, Adultery and Witchcraft." 25

This area roughly approximates to what is now known as Dahomey.
The inhabitants of this region were Ewe speaking, but many of the slaves that came from this part of the Coast were derived from the Yoruba speaking peoples of the Oyo and Benin empires and were known both on the Coast and in the Americans as Nagos (or, as some writers report it, Nangos or Nangoes).

Snelgrave, 26 who knew the region very well, stated that "above 20,000 negroes were yearly exported from thence and the neighbouring places of the English, French, Dutch and Portuguese." Most writers agree that more slaves were exported from this area than the rest in the 18th century.

Benin had a long history of trade in slaves with Europeans, but internal strife and the slave trade depleted the population and ravaged the country.

In the regions of the Niger and Cross Deltas the main tribes were the Ibos and the majority of these slaves came from the inland region. It is significant that before the Slave Coast gained prominence by its huge slave exports, this region, between 1776 and 1784, exported about 14,000 annually from Bonny and New Calabar. 27

The rest of the West Coast of Africa, down to Cape Negro, is included in this region. 28 The number of slaves from the Cameroon and Gaboon tribes found their way to Jamaica, and the rest of the West Indies were insignificant since the English at first seemed to neglect this area.

23.MANONKIAN, M. "Akan and Ga-Adangme Peoples of the Gold Coast" pp. 1-10.
24. CLARIDGE. W. W. op. cit. pp. 150-151.
25. MILES. Richard (Evidence) Board of Trade Records B.T. 6:9 pp. 443-44.
26. SNELGRAVE. William, op. cit. p. 4.
27. PENNY "Evidence of. . . 1788 'G.T. 6:9f 270.
28. PATTERSON, op. cit. p. 124.


The French and the Portuguese did most for the slave exporting and it is estimated that between 1776 and 1784 between 13,000 and 14,000 slaves were being exported from the Congo and Angola each year. It appears that as the last quarter of the 18th century, the Dutch had emerged as a serious competitor to the French in this area. 29

We can clearly see then, that not only was the geographical area where the West Indian slaves came from a wide one, but the peoples were a great potpourri of races, tribes, cultures and languages.

For our purposes therefore, it would be useful to look (in chart form) at the principal areas of the Western African continent where Bahamian ancestors came from and also the main tribes found that were transported to the New World!

Senegal &
(or Senegambia)

Wolof (or Gallofs)


Sierra Leone and
the Windward Coast
(Ivory Coast or
Grain Coast)


The Gold Coast (Ghana)

Akan (eg. Fanti)
Twi peoples


The Slave Coast
(Togo & Dahomey)

Fon ) peoples
Twi ) Congos
eg. Nagos (or Navgoes)


Berin and the Area of the Niger & Cross Deltas


South Western Africa (Cameroons)


29 Edwards, B. "History of the West Indies" Vol. 2 p. 61


The colonial powers had their preferences in tribes and races.

The Spanish preferred the strong Yorubas of Western Nigeria. The English thought that the clean limbed intelligent Ashanti and Fanti from the Gold Coast were the best, although they also believed these people were "more prompted to revenge and murder the instruments of their slavery." The French favoured the Dahomeans (Whydahs) and partially peopled Saint Dominique with the powerful Congolese and the Ibos, although the last were said to be suicide prone. For house slaves, the French preferred the gentle Mandingos. They employed a greater number of house slaves than colonists on some islands.

The number of slaves shipped to the West Indies can only be estimated up to the abolition of the slave trade. It is estimated that 1,900,000 slaves arrived in the English island. The French imported about 1,650,000 slaves ito the West Indies and their settlements in North America. The Dutch took 900,000 to the Guianas and their small West Indian islands. These are the figures for arrivals after the hazards of the trans-Atlantic crossing, but, of course, they do not include those who were killed during collection in Africa or who died on the long sea voyage.

It is thought that during the whole European slave trade, a quarter of which was concentrated on the West Indies, no less than 20,000,000 Africans were sold out of Africa. 30

The Bahamian educator, Dorothy Ford, argues that "the slaves who were brought to the Bahamas were either the most peaceful groups or else the environment of the Bahamas encouraged an easier adaptation to the Western Hemisphere, and from these groups emerged a people who are less violent, more humourous, and generally more friendly than those from the other Caribbean areas." 31

30. AUGIER, F.H., Gordon S.C. HALL, D.G. RECORD, M. "The making of the West Indies" Longman Caribbean Ltd., 1960 p. 67.
FORD, Dorothy. "New World groups: Bahamians" As seen through their myths, mirth and music. Printed by the Nassau Guardian (1844) Ltd,. 1971 "Forward".


Whether one totally agrees with this statement is a matter for much discussion, but it is a fact that aspects of Bahamian slavery differ somewhat to the system of slavery as found in other parts of the Caribbean. Ford continues,: 32 "The Bahamian is the product of a mixture of races (and tongues) not one of whom came to these shores for anything more barbarous than running away from oppression, seeking a lucrative living (legal or illegal), transplanting plantations (in which the Bahamas soil often refused to co-operate), or simply adventuring for the sake of adventure. And it is into these general categories that the groupings of the islands fall. The adventures from England settled in the areas around Eleuthera; the plantation owners (mainly Loyalist Americans from the south) settled in the fertile Out-Islands (Exuma, Andros, Cat Island ); and the traders, pirates, buccaneers and profiteers generally settled for New Providence, where the action was."

The first recorded blacks to arrive in the Bahamas came in 1656 and they were all free men. A document found between Registry Book C, pages 166-78 in the Registrar General's Department is believed to be a copy from the 1671 Census, and this list gives the first mention of slaves and negroes in the Bahamas.

It is believed that the majority of Bahamian negroes came from the more northerly parts of West Africa, but no one has, for certain, been able to find any patterns of living or any strong African traits to point to a definite tribe, at least no one has recorded an actual tribal life style and beliefs. There were three types of negro immigration:

1. Those negroes who were never in slavery (small minority).
2. Those negroes who came with the Loyalists (the majority group) and slaves sold into slavery here.
3. Those negroes transported into slavery after slavery was prohibited, when the British intercepted the ships and brought many of these slaves to the Bahamas as free men. These were so "lost" that they became "indentured" to white and free blacks to re-adjust to the new Bahamian life.

It is reasonable to believe that the minority negroes of Nos. 1. and 3. above, were the perpetuators of African culture, and whatever exists today of African culture came primarily from these groups. From these groups also, came the wise men, leaders, healers and Obeah men and women.

In New Providence, where eventually the majority negroes lived, we know that the areas of Gambier, Adelaide, Fox Hill and the Grants Town area as negro enclaves of strong African tradition.

Most Bahamian historians claim that African tribes who peopled the Bahamas were Ibos, Yorubas, Mandingos, Nangos, Congos, Fullahs and Hussas.

In Fox Hill (or Sandilands Village), this area was divided into four "towns" identifying two distinct African tribes: Nango Town, Joshua Town, Congo Town and Burnside Town. Major H. MacLachlan Bell 33 claims that the "Bahamas received Africans from many tribes who were Moslem and for centuries had been under Moorish rule; Congo negroes who had got swamp lands as their home; Ebos who are the least intelligent of the African tribesmen,

32 FORD ibid. Page 1.
33 BELL. Major H. MacLachlan. "Isles of June" U.S.A. 1934.



Mandingos, Nango Bars, Fullahs and Haussas. These last three were fighting men of magnificant physique and unquestioned courage. Behind these people lay generations of aboriginal life - sometimes in semi-slavery or, again, under the rule of the Arabs. Behind the Haussas and the Fullahs there is a battle history that cannot be ignored. They had men with the gift of leadership; heroes around whom folklore and legend had grown. The Bahamian negroes of today are an inter-mixture of all these strains, so their physical proportions are remarkably good. A deep copper tinge, aquiline noses, lithe and more athletic figures are their possessions.

There must have also been some Ashanti and Fanti, because the English preferred these tribes, and they are found in all English speaking Caribbean countries. From most of the material around, especially a few customs that have remained up to the present, the author is of the opinion that the Yoruba tribe must have been well represented in the Bahamas. For example, the Bahamian Asu or the Yoruba Esusu is essentially the same thing. Originally, it is a Yoruba society that deals with monetary matters only and it helps its members to save and raise money thus” 34

"Every member shall pay a certain fixed sum of money regularly at a fixed time (say every fifth or ninth day). And one of the subscribing members shall take the total amount thus subscribed for his or her own personal use. The next subscription shall be taken by another member; this shall so continue rotationally until every member has taken. Should one of the members who has taken the Esusu fail to continue to pay the regular subscription, such a member must be held responsible for his or her subscription to the remaining members who have not yet taken their own Esusu. Payments shall be enforced as in case of debt. But if a member who has not taken Esusu fails to continue, another may take up his place, and where that one takes the Esusu, he shall refund to the first man (his predecessor) the amount subscribed by him (the first man)."

In 1974, the National Women's Movement, headed by Dr. Doris Johnson, instituted an Asu scheme that would enable its members to purchase low-cost houses. And just this year, their headquarters, "Asu House," was established in a modem building on the corner of Shirley Street and Kemp Road.

Bahamians, especially those who live in the Fox Hill area, still eat dishes, such as "akaro" and "moi moi," both made from black-eyed peas, and "agridi" which is made from corn.

Even though the author believes that Yorubas* were very much in evidence, they must have been the more educated or sophisticated types that either rejected or did not place much importance on their religion, because there is no religious practise like "Shango" as is found in Trinidad, nor are there evidences in the Bahamas of the retention of any of the Yoruba gods or saints as is also found in Trinidad, Cuba, Grenada and other West Indies islands.

This evidence is also supported by my friend Antonia Canzoneria who lived in Africa for over 15 years and is now resident of the Bahamas. Here are her comments to me: -

"Here are some of my conclusions based on my studies on Bahamian history:

34. AJISAEE. A. K.. "The Laws and Customs of the Yoruba People" Kash and Klare Bookshop. Lagos, Nigeria. 1946.
* This view is shared. without exception, by most native Africans living in the Bahamas today


"I believe there are other reason, for the difference in voodoo worship here and in Jamaica and in Haiti and Trinidad other than different tribes. I think I was told that Shango worship is strong in Trinidad, though I may be wrong - I know it is in a certain section of Brazil. That is the extension of the worship of Shango which originated with the Yorubas, though it has spread to other tribes in Nigeria. There are many evidences of the presence of the Yoruba tribe.

"Anyway, I think the differences are due to the pattern of settlement and to the religions which the whites brought to the different countries. Catholicism, especially as practised in the days of slavery, was mostly ritualistic incantations in a language which had no meaning to the participants. There was no real attempts to affect a change of heart and mind. Protestantism, especially the Methodist and Baptist forms, aimed directly at a change of direction of the inner life.

"In the Bahamas the ratio of black to white was one to one or even less blacks until the influx of the loyalists from the States. Therefore, in general, the ways of the whites would have more influence on the blacks. Also, until the loyalists came, there were very few large plantations, therefore, fewer congregations of large numbers of blacks. Too, that would mean less buying of blacks directly from Africa.

"True, blacks were brought into the Bahamas directly from captured slave ships, but that did not begin until the slave trade was outlawed in 1807, and the really large numbers do not seem to have come until the 1830s. Therefore, I believe that most of the blacks that were here came with their masters from Bermuda or the States, and there was quite an attempt in the States, at least, to convert the blacks - much of it being conducted by blacks themselves, and resulting in some theology which would not be recognizable as being that of white groups of the same persuasion, but which would have exalted Christ and denounced idol worship.

"Since very large groups of slaves were brought in by the loyalists in 1783-85, the large numbers of Africans from slave ships would not have the same isolation pattern that they would have had otherwise. Also, numerous attempts to settle these Africans in villages of their own, both in New Providence and on other islands failed because of the difficulties anyone faces who tries to farm this poor soil. The only village which did not disintegrate was Headquarters, which became Grant's Town. This village was so close to the town of Nassau that the Africans there could work for the whites and thus mingle with the blacks already in the colony, and have a greater exposure to the activities of the whites. Since blacks were regarded as a very low class, they would naturally try to emulate those who were considered high class.

"I also want to tell you of an observation made by my mother, who was here during Christmas week. She is from Mississippi and I think I have told you that her relatives are the most racially prejudiced people I know. We were driving along one day and she said, "The people here are different." I asked. "How?" She said, "I don't know the word for it unless it is 'free'. Even the little children. They hold their heads up - even the little children." Then she added, "I like it." She has never been as prejudiced as her relatives, but when prejudice was the general climate, she was more so. It isn't now, and she is less, in fact, I don't see much prejudice in her at all now. However, I wondered if the life attitude of blacks in the States could be to "hold their heads up" - without defensiveness (how would that be possible!) - if they would not be more naturally accepted by the whites than they are now. Not all whites, I know."

There were definitely Congos in the Bahamas. In 1910 35 a letter written by Dr. A. R. Holly, who had a ministry in the Bahamas during the turn of the century, was published in which he

35. "Bahamas Handbook", Etienne Dupuch, Jr., Publications, 1970. pgs. 98,99.


said: "Among themselves, the negroes are charitable and even provident. They all belong to the mutual help societies which provide funds for burying the dead, for relief in sickness and act as savings banks. The affairs of these benefit associations are conducted with remarkable shrewdness and honesty. Noteworthy amongst them is the Congo United Society. It has an adult membership of more than 690 besides a juvenile branch. It was founded by Congo slaves toward the close of the slaving period. Although many of its members are illiterate, the affairs of the Society are administered honestly and fairly."

Years ago, there were many other societies reflecting the African tribal origins of many Bahamians.36 The Ibo Society, that used to meet on Meadows Street, folded quite a while ago. The Fulani has broken up and formed other societies. The Yoruba Society is still supposed to meet on Meadow Street. "At least one African-inspired society - the Hausa - re-organized and changed its name around the turn of the century. It became the Knights of King George Society."

To summarize, then, from the preceding available literature on the Bahamas and scratches of information picked up from older Bahamians, the following profile will now be attempted with regard to the Negro population of the Bahamas, taking into consideration political and socio-economic conditions, under these headings: (1) Pre-Slavery, (2) Slavery and (3) Post Slavery.

(1) Pre-Slavery
The population of the Bahamas was very small and, often, a transient one. The majority population during this period were white. The islands were populated by the Eleutheran Adventurers and their descendents, some Indian strains, free negro seamen who either "jumped ship" or decided to stay voluntarily, former negro and white indentures who escaped from the other Caribbean islands, domestics (white and black) who were a part of the more affluent black and white householders, white and black pirates, buccaneers and profiteers, and escaped criminals. The Bahamas was, before this time, a Spanish colony, but not much attention was 'paid to it. Other richer islands, Hispaniola, at first, then Cuba, became the focal point of trade.

"The Bahamas, technically a province subordinate to Cuba, lapsed into obscurity, known only for its rocks and shoals, so fatal to navigation; a place to be feared and shunned." 37

The small total population were comparatively free from racial or social taboos. There were three basic classes of blacks, whites or others. Thiere were those individuals who came with appreciable supplies and money. These constructed small homes but fairly comfortable; lived from fishing and farming. There were periods, though, when the poor yield from the land would cause them to revert to either piracy or profiteering.

The poorer classes just barely eked out a living. They existed from limited farming, fishing or odd jobs for the more affluent. These individuals lived in what could be termed "mud huts," many of these circular type African structures held together with limestone and with thatched roofs. In a particular compound, there was nearly always a cooking area with a "dutch oven," a hole in the ground for excretion and an area where animals like pigs or chickens were kept for their own consumption. Conditions for the poor throughout the world, where there was rigid

36. Ibid. Page 107.
37. CRATON. Michael, op. Cit.
* It is believed that the Bahamian island of Cat Island (almost 100% Negro) was populated mostly by Ibos.


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