Cotton Trees (ceiba)


In last month’s post I looked at how bamboo was used as the haunt of duppies and this month I continue the theme of duppy habitats with Martha Warren Beckwith’s  take on the mighty Cotton Tree (sometimes called the Silk-cotton or Cottonwood Tree; Latin = Ceiba).

Beckwith wrote that in Jamaica Cotton Trees could reach 150 feet in height. Duppies lived among the tree roots, emerging between “seven in the evening to five in the morning” and “then again at midday…” (Beckwith, p. 89)

She was told by her interviewees that African-Jamaicans feared the Cotton Trees and wouldn’t chop them down without making an offering of rum. Trees that grew in graveyards were especially feared and any mice or lizards that lived in such trees were believed to be spirits of the dead (Beckwith, p. 145).

Other folklorists and anthropologists writing in the late post-emancipation era (1880- 1938) commented on the link between duppies and Cotton Trees. At the end of the nineteenth century, Alice Spinner noted how Cotton Trees were left alone as they were believed to be the abode of duppies. Fallen branches were not used as fuel because of the fear there may be duppies in them (Spinner, p. 317).

Links between Cotton Trees and duppies continued into the twentieth century. In the 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston was told that Cotton Trees should not be planted too near a house for fear that duppies would inhabit the trees and ”throw heat” on the people as they come and go about the house’ (Hurston, p. 25).

cotton tree2 002

Origins of these beliefs

What prompted the link between Cotton Trees and duppies? Beckwith, keen to take a scientific approach to folklore, looked for a rational explanation, wondering if:

 “the fact that the yellow snake in Jamaica… sleeps in hollows of fig and Cotton Trees is perhaps one reason for the fear of … the duppy-haunted precincts of the cotton tree” (Beckwith, p. 122).

Alice Spinner and some other researchers of Jamaican folklore in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, believed the connection arose from trace memories of trees as ancient deities and therefore a source of religious worship. She thought this association to have originally come from Africa (Spinner, p. 324).

In a similar vein, Thomas Banbury likened African-Jamaican lore concerning Cotton Trees to the Druidic worship of the oak tree in Britain:

“It is still held in veneration by the blacks, and some fears still entertained of it. So great was the veneration and dread entertained of the cotton tree, that it was a difficult matter to get one cut down, the negroes believing that if they did so, the “deaths” which took up their abode at its roots would injure them. The cotton trees were believed to have the power of transporting themselves at nights, and holding conference at a rendezvous with one another” (Banbury, p. 19).

Moving into the twentieth century, one of Beckwith’s contemporaries, the American anthropologist, Joseph John Williams pondered if duppies actually derived their name from the Ashanti word for particularly large tree roots.

He also wondered if African-Jamaican attitudes towards the Cotton Tree as home of duppies related to the belief in some parts of West Africa that Sasabonsam, a large human-like, ogre-ish creature covered in long red hair, was believed to live in Cotton Trees (Williams, pp. 61, 156).


Next time… More on the Cotton Tree’s African connections




Rev. Thomas Banbury, Jamaica Superstitions; or the Obeah Book: A Complete Treatise of the Absurdities Believed in by the People of the Island (Kingston: Mortimer Co. De Souza, 1894).

Martha Warren Beckwith, Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969, of orig. edn, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1929).

Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (reprint, with a new foreword by Ishmael Reed, New York: Harper & Row, 1990, of orig. edn, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincourt Inc., 1938).

Alice Spinner, A Reluctant Evangelist and Other Stories (London & New York: Edward Arnold, 1896).

Joseph John Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: Dial Press, 1934).

Image credits:  picture by H.R.Sparkes