The use of cotton trees in African-Jamaican folk religions

As mentioned in previous posts the cotton tree had the reputation for both being the abode of spirits and as a sacred plant. These two strands came together in the use of cotton trees in Myal spiritual practices. In Black Roadways, Martha Warren Beckwith based some of her description of Myal on an account written by an African-Jamaican clergyman, the Rev. Thomas Banbury in the late nineteenth century. Here Banbury described how Myalists (or Mialists as he called them) caught shadows which been trapped by duppies in the cotton trees:

We now give an account of the shadow-catching. This is invariably done at night… The person suspected of having lost his shadow was taken to the cotton tree where it was spell bound, or to which it was “nailed”, as the people expressed it. The mialmen were accompanied thither by a large concourse of people. The victim was dressed in white, with a white kerchief about his head. Eggs and fowls were taken along with cooked food to the cotton tree. The mialmen paraded up and down before the tree, with white cloths over their shoulders; and all the people joining in the chorus. Alternatively the cotton tree was pelted with eggs, and the necks of fowls rung off, and their bodies cast at it. This was done to propitiate the “deaths,” or “duppies” that had the shadow enthralled at the trees, the song and dancing proceeded more vigorously as the shadow began to make signs of leaving the tree. A white basin, with water to receive it, was held up; after they had sung, yelled and danced to their hearts’ content, they all of a sudden caught up the person, and ran home, with him, affirming that the shadow was caught, covered up in a basin. Upon reaching home a cloth was wet in the water, and applied to the head of the patient and the shadow was said to be restored. This is the process of shadow-catching… Many shadows were caught in this way on the sugar estates, and pens in St. James, Hanover, Westmoreland, &c.’

A more basic method to summon duppies was for Myalists to ‘form a circle about the tree and each one beat the earth with a stone in rhythm to a song’.

 

Beckwith also gathered information about the use of cotton trees in Myal religion from contemporary African-Jamaicans. One of her informants, a Maroon Myal man named James White, said that only those cotton trees which had been planted on top of a grave had a significance in Myal: ‘Such trees [were] called “worship cotton trees” and may well be regarded as tombs of the dead.’

Another informant, George Parkes, described how, ‘when a Myal Man sets a duppy, he goes alone to a cottonwood with an offering of rice, chicken, and rum, and cuts marks on the tree with his machete or pocketknife in the shape of circles of crosses which he alone can interpret; then he beats one stone upon another and sings “in an unknown tongue”.’

Parkes’s information is interesting as he describes the Myal person as working alone. Many depictions of Myal from the 18th century onwards tend to stress its communal nature – as illustrated by the example of shadow-catching described by Banbury above. However, Myal as a solitary practice also took place in early twentieth century Jamaica, as Elmira Barrows, a former Myalist, also told Beckwith that some Myal leaders worked alone at cotton trees, dancing, singing and drumming around the tree in order to dislodge spirits.

Barrows gave Beckwith an account of how these methods were used by a Myalman from St. Mary named Fifee Bogle. A duppie called Bomshee had been plaguing a young woman. Fifee Bogle stood drumming and singing under the cotton tree which contained Bomshee: ‘Then Bomshee came down from the tree. Bogle caught him.’ And the young woman was freed from her tormenter.

 

Next time…

I’ll be temporarily abandoning Beckwith’s plant odyssey and head back to the world of spirits to look at duppies, shadows and souls.

 

Sources

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), p. 23.

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), pp. 145-48.