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Colonial Cases

R. v. Marble [1824]

slave court - witchcraft - native religion - oath of slave - transportation

Slave Court, Jamaica

Smith, Bicknell and Townshend, 9 July 1824

Source: Morning Chronicle  (London, England), 25 August 25, 1824, issue 17271, from the British Library's 19th Century Newspapers site


St. Catherine's, (Jamaica,) July 9.


Immediately after the Quarter Sessions at St. Jago de la Vega, noticed yesterday, terminated, a Slave Court was formed.

Andrew Marble, to James Dawkins, Esq. for practising Obeah, and for having in his possession various articles notoriously used in such practice, was placed at the Bar.

Their Worships F. Smith (Custos), J. Bicknell, and G.H. Townshend, presided.

Edward Graham, a black slave, examined as to his idea of the nature of an oath.

Chairman: Are you Christened? - Yes.

Chairman: If you take the book and kiss it, and swear false, what will happen to you? - I will dead.

Chairman: And where will you go then? - To Heaven.

Chairman: Suppose you swear false, what will happen to you? - Me will purge, and my belly will swell. (This he repeated several times.)

Chairman: He does not understand the nature of an oath. Yes, Massa; know well; belly will swell.

The Chairman desired that he should be examined without administering the oath.

The witness was then admonished, and told, that if he swore false, he would suffer the same punishment as the prisoner would be subjected to. [1]

Witness deposed that his mother was sick. She and the prisoner were conversing together, but did not know what they were talking about. Witness asked prisoner, as he was sent to his mother by the overseer, why he would not go? Prisoner told him he was not a doctor. Witness told him that he did his mother so (made his mother sick). He (prisoner) said he was going to see what he could do, whether he could get her better or not. Prisoner told him the iron in his mother's back stood cross, and if it came out she would be better. Witness explained, that the prisoner meant that there was an iron bar across his mother's back-bone, under her skin. Prisoner said, "she had too many things under her skin, besides the iron bar, for there was toots, and glass, and nough sunte." Witness carried him up to the overseer, who asked prisoner if what witness told him was true, and witness said, "you can't deny it;" prisoner only answered, "I hear you." Heard prisoner say he took teeth from his mother's back. When prisoner first began, he stripped his mother naked, called for water, then rum, and put his mouth to his mother's skin, sucked it, spit out teeth, then glass, and was going on. Witness asked why he bit his mother? He said "to get out the sunte." Witness then made him believe he was asleep (and it appears did go to sleep); when awake he said to prisoner, that before he made his mother cry, he'd rather kill her, as he could not bear to see it; prisoner told witness there was something in the ground which did his mother so, and which he might take out, who refusing, prisoner took out himself teeth, some pieces of glass bottle, and other things, all tied up together; witness asked how these things could catch his mother; prisoner replied, "if you take a hair out of a person's head, and put it into the ground with them sunte, it will catch the somebody the hair came from." Witness saw the articles; prisoner told him to open the bag, but he would not; now, for the first time (the bag being produced), opens it (by order of the Court); one the prisoner's opening it, witness found teeth and other things in it; saw the articles himself taken out of his mother's flesh; he does not now see any fire coal, which he once saw, before his mother died; these things were given to him by witness to be thrown away; prisoner's mother died two days after these things were taken out of her skin; witness now explained himself by saying, these articles are like those given him, but without the fire-coal; has at home what were given him; does not know how the prisoner came to know he had not thrown them away; but when the witness told him he had done so, prisoner said he lied, for he had hid them. "Prisoner too know in and trickify and very clever in Obeah business." He said, if witness gave him breakfast, he would cure his mother, or would witness be satisfied if he could not cure her quite, if she was made strong enough to make fire for him; witness said he would; prisoner asked if witness would pay him then? Witness said, yes, if he was forced to borrow to give him; witness's mother was ill for a very long time, and was thrown up as an invalid; prisoner only took the cure about two of three months before she died; thinks his mother would have died, whether prisoner had been with her or no; prisoner said, that he was set on by persons to hurt her; she was ill for a year and a half of the same sickness.

Charles King, a negro, belonging to Dawkins, who says he is a Christian, and giving rational answers on his examination, of his idea of an oath, was sworn.

This witness, however, was so stupid, that nothing could be made of his evidence.

Anthony James, a Christian, sworn: Was directed by the overseer to take prisoner to the old woman named Pamila; he went with him to the old woman; prisoner asked for salt, which was given him; he went out and got some limes, called for rum, which he got, threw it into rum and salt, and took out a bag from his pocket (which was produced); prisoner opened it, and shewed the witness some soap, berries, chalk, and shell; took six, threw them in the water, when four swam and two sunk; he said there was something in the old woman's skin; he took chalk and marked the old woman's skin; put his mouth to the old woman's skin, held it hard, and shook it like a dog biting, and spit out some glass and teeth, which he said came out of the old woman's skin; witness searched prisoner's mouth, saying, "no, Marble, you have it in your mouth, and make me fool;" found nothing in prisoner's mouth, who again sucked teeth out and glass bottle; swears he saw it with his eyes; would not believe it else; after that he took lime and rubbed all over her, then mixed chalk and lime, and bid her drink, which she refused, saying, if it was good he must drink too, but prisoner would not; prisoner left old woman; she complained of his hurting her, and he was sent again by the overseer to take charge of her. Prisoner is a field negro; knows that the overseer sent the prisoner to take care of her. Mr. McLeod, the trustee of the property, sent the prisoner to attend her; the old woman was sick for two years; complaint was made to the overseer that the old man made her sick; she lodged the complaint; prisoner was put in the stocks; master (Mr. McLeod) told the overseer to send the prisoner to take charge of her; prisoner was sent to attend the old woman until she got better; when witness was asked the reason for prisoner being in the stocks, said it was from the complaint of the old woman that prisoner would not remain with her; Dr. Brown was attending the old woman at the time; after the old woman died, witness carried the teeth and bag to the overseer; witness asked prisoner where these articles were; he said he burnt them, but afterwards being ordered to find them, witness went with prisoner and found them in prisoner's shopmate's house, hid in the top.

Mr. Edward Whittaker sworn: Is overseer of the property; some time in January last, the old woman Pamila, who is now dead, made a complaint to him that this man, the prisoner, had obeahed her. He sent for him and asked him how he had done such a thing, and whether he could cure her. He told witness he was not a doctor, but would try what he could do; witness then told him to go and attend the old woman as she had requested it. In the course of ten days after, Mr. McLeod, who was his attorney, came on the estate, and he acquiesced in the proceeding. After this man had been with her for about one month, he was brought with this glass bottle and hogs teeth in his possession (now produced). The old woman was then alive and came with him, and told him at the same time that the prisoner said he would not attend any longer, unless he was paid as other doctors. [A laugh.] Witness was then coming to town, and he ordered prisoner to go back and attend and cure her. In consequence of his objecting to mind the old woman they placed him in the stocks in witness's absence until his return. When he returned, he immediately ordered him out observing that he would have no frightening of the negroes. The day previous to the woman's death the witness Anthony James, brought the prisoner to him with the remainder of the hogs teeth, and at the same time informed him that the bag which the prisoner usually carried his obeah things in, was not to be found. He asked prisoner what he had done with it; he said he had burned it; he told Anthony James to go back and look for it, and then he brought the bag (which is now produced) with the articles now in it. In the first instance, when complaints were made of the prisoner having done something to Pamila, she said in his presence, it was because she would not be connected with him; prisoner then said he would try what he could do for her; she was ill for 15 months; the doctor had attended her and prescribed for her, but she would not take the medicine, being always possessed with the idea that no one else but prisoner could cure her. The doctor who attended said it was a dropsical case, and did not know but it might it might have been produced form other than natural causes. She used these words before she died, "Andrew had done her so." The doctor prescribed medicine; she would not take but one dose, and that was given by the prisoner. Prisoner is considered an obeah man, though no guilt could be attached to him previously. The doctor is not in attendance.

To a question by the Court: Witness said, that when her teeth were taken out, witness afterwards sent prisoner to take care of her.

To a question by a Juror: Witness replied, that the old woman said, in the presence of the prisoner, that no other but prisoner could cure her, when the prisoner said he would try.

The Chairman said, that the witness must recollect that he had consulted with him as to the necessity of an inquest being held on the deceased. On that occasion the witness had told him that there were none but natural causes to which her death could be attributed, and under those circumstances he had considered an inquest unnecessary; had he stated what he had just said, his opinion would have been the reverse. He wished the witness to account for this variance.

The witness said, that she might have died of the dropsy, of which there were three kinds. She appeared to have water between the cuticle and the flesh.

To a question from a Juror, he replied, that the deceased was sick 15 months before the prisoner attended her; the deceased had said in witness's and the prisoner's presence, that the prisoner did her so because she would not return his affection.

The hog's teeth, broken glass, chalk, fire-coal, dog's teeth, goat's horn, shark bones, soap berries, and three or four alligator scales, with sundry other Obeah tools in the bag, were produced in evidence, and identified as the prisoner's.

The prisoner, in his defence, commenced by stating, that he was not an Obeah man to kill, but an Obeah man to cure (that is, we suppose, as they used to say in England, he was not a black wizard, nor a Whitney white one, nor grey wizard, but a white one[)]. The Court advised him to be silent, and not convict himself.

The Chairman charged the Jury. After adverting at some length on the clauses (the 49th and 53d) of the Consolidated Slave Law, under which the prisoner was indicted, he said, that though the law stated, that if the subject matter of an indictment were set out so as to meet the evidence, that no exception should be allowed as to form, yet he considered the words of the indictment too vague to sustain the count under which the prisoner, being charged "with Obi, with intent to kill and injure certain negro and other slaves," would be subject to lose his life. The law, in requiring that no objection should be taken as to form, was most salutary; but it could not be construed so as to support the present case. The Jury would consider what the Court stated to be their impression, that the words "certain negro and other slaves" did not set out the offence so precisely as might have been done, and as the Court considered necessary. With regard to the charge against the prisoner, of having materials in his possession, notoriously used in the practice of Obeah, there can, we submit (said the Chairman), be no doubt of the prisoner's guilt. This last offence subjects him to transportation. His Honor then read the clauses of the law, under which the prisoner was indicted, and commented on the evidence.

The Jury retired for some time, and returned their Verdict - Guilty of having in his possession materials notoriously used in the practice of Obeah.

On the suggestion of the Coroner, the Jury desired the Clerk of the Peace to amend their verdict, by adding the words "Not Guilty of the other charges in the indictment."

His Worship the Chairman then passed sentence. He thus addressed the prisoner: - You have been found Guilty of having in your possession tools notoriously used in the practice of Obeah; for this offence you are subject to transportation; you have most wonderfully escaped with your life, your offence is most heinous (the prisoner here said in a low voice, "Ees my good Massa, tanke," evidently not understanding his Worship, who thus continued) - but you don't understand me, and it is as well I should be short. He then sentenced him to transportation for life.

The Jury valued the old Warlock at £20.

It appears that this was a love case. The wizard lover was an ugly, stupid, monkey-looking African, his face immensely broad and flabby.


[1]  [Note in original article]: By one of the clauses of the Slave Law, it is provided, that a false witness shall suffer the same punishment as the prisoner would be subject to, if found guilty. It is under this clause, we believe, that slaves not aware of the nature of a christian oath, are admitted to give evidence without being sworn. We doubt, however, whether this is a legitimate construction of the Statute. By the rules of evidence, a witness must be sworn according to his faith, as a Mahometan on the Alcoran; and therefore where a negro thinks kissing the bible will occasion his death, if he takes a false oath, we conclude he might be sworn. If a witness be not sworn, his evidence cannot, we should conceive, be received, according to the rule of law by which even a Peer in similar cases, is not admitted as a witness, but on oath. In criminal cases, the maxim of law is, "that no one is believed who is not sworn." Our contemporaries, who are Magistrates, because they are dutiful to the semibos semivir, will explain this if they can.

Published by Centre for Comparative Law, History and Governance at Macquarie Law School