Sancho Notorious Practitioner and Disciple in the Art of Obeahism
I had some unpleasant travelling in an uncovered corial one week in the rainy season. My assistants were three small Indian boys. The journey was three tides each way, which took us three nights of six hours and three days each of the same time of six hours. The burning sun alternated with frequen
t showers in the daytime, and we had heavy showers during the night. To add to our inconvenience, two of the boys made themselves sick by scouring the bush in the neighbourhood of Hittia, and eating freely of the wild fruits they found there, and then surfeiting themselves on sour milk at the settlement of a hospitable family. We could get no one to hire on the way; and so, cutting palm leaves and covering our invalids from the sun and rain, we wearily paddled onwards. The adverse tide met us and added to our difficulties. But as a rule disagreeable things, like other things, come to an end, and we reached Saints’ Lust at last.
Our kind friend Mrs. Hartmann physicked the sick boys, and sent over to Zion and Prosperity, or “Sodom and Gomorrah,” as people persist in calling the place, to engage a hand if possible. The messenger soon returned to say- that one “Sancho “would go with us for a certain consideration. This was good news. I sent over immediately to say that we would call for him at the turning of the tide; and with my mind, so far, at ease, I went in to rest and to partake of the hospitality of the Hartmanns.
When I called for Mr. Sancho (he insisted on the title), I found him, with the exception of a Lapp or loin cloth (substitute for the fig-leaves), quite naked. His skin, which should have been black, was generally of a dirty brown hue, as if suffering from skin disease: but he appeared to possess some pretension to dandyism, as his hair was oiled and carefully platted. I suspect his clothes, if he had any, were delayed at the washing, and he was then settling a lingual account with his washerwoman. He was much excited, gesticulating with a cutlass in his hand, and vociferating in the Dutch Creole talk of the river. The woman—the object of his wrath—did not seem to think her case unjustifiable, for she was equally loud and furious.
I called out to Mr. Sancho to say that the tide was going, and to request him to nurse his anger, and postpone the passé des langues until his return. He laughed and said “the woman was too bad;” then giving her some directions in a subdued voice; he got into the corial, much to my relief. I confess that I soon became very ungrateful for the help he was giving me, and began to resent his sitting between the wind and my—olfactory organ. Mr. Sancho had not been with us five minutes when he turned round and begged that I would give him a prayer- book. “What for?” I said. He wanted to learn the religion of the Church that he might join. “What religion had he been learning hitherto?” The religion of the chapel. “Why did he not continue?” His fellow-members were too bad, and told lies upon him. “Why not appeal to the catechist?” He was no better than the others, and didn’t do him justice. “What was the lie?” That he, Sancho, was an obeah man. “Was he then an obeah man?” No! He was a good Christian, and helped people out of their troubles, as we are all commanded to do. I advised Mr. Sancho to return to his chapel and make the truth of his innocence apparent to all his brethren. An indifferent student of the religion of the chapel, I said, would probably make a bad churchman, and we were not particularly anxious to include him in our small number, even although, by his own statement, he possessed the odour of sanctity; but that at any rate, if the sanctity were questionable, the odour was undoubted.
But notwithstanding his denial of obeah practices, Sancho was a notorious practitioner in the art, and had a school of disciples. He was a terror to the people, who obliged him to the utmost of their power in his most insolent demands. Apart from the antagonism of Obeahism with Christianity, any one who knows the depth of its wickedness cannot refrain from detesting it, and hoping not only that the laws may be vigorously enforced, but that diligent search might be made to detect and bring these evil-doers—both the ” doctor ” and his patients—to condign punishment.
Once I met Sancho at an Indian settlement, and knowing his object there, I drove him off with a threat of arrest. The magistrate was asked to have him sent off the river. “Cuibono?” he replied. “When I was first appointed to the district, I instituted a crusade against obeah men, and cleared the river for a time; but it only made an opening for others, who with the prestige which accompanies a new doctor of any type, drove an increased business. No, no! Bring Sancho before me on a specific charge, and with proof of his guilt, and he shall be “catted,” if you will; but be advised, and let obeah die out of itself.” Of course I disagreed with him.
I knew an obeah man in another part of the country, who supported his family in comfort and luxury, and educated his children on the earnings he derived from his vile art. But his prosperity was exceptional. Twelve months after my first acquaintance with Sancho, he could just crawl into his corial and paddle from settlement to settlement, compelling the Indian women to bring down to him cassava, fish, and firewood : at this time his feet up to his knees were bandaged, and the ulcerous flesh was dropping off. Six months more, and he persuaded a half- bred Arawak, who had taken lessons from him, to receive him into his own banal, and feed him, under the most terrible threats of evil. He shortly after died there, and the owner of the dwelling, fleeing from the dead, was persuaded to return with some others, and bury the remains of Sancho.
The truth of the adage that “a prophet has no honour in his own country” is exemplified in the mutual faith of Indians in Negro Obeah, and of Negroes in Indian Piai-ism. When the blacks and their descendants of all colours (who may be faithful to the traditions of Obeahism) seek— without obtaining—the expected aid, they resort to the Indian piaiman and so likewise the Indian, failing to get the required relief from the doctors of his tribe, applies to the black bush doctor.
Source: Dance, Charles Daniel (1881) “Sancho the Obeah-Man”, in “Chapters from A Guianese Log-Book, or, the Folk-Lore and Scenes of Sea-Coast and River Life in British Guiana: Comprising Sketches of Indian, Boviander, and Negro Life, Habits, Customs, and Legendary Tales, with Historic Notes, Political and Natural”. Georgetown, Demerara: Royal Gazette Establishment, 1881: Pages 41-43.