" William Earle’s novel Obi or, the History of Three-Fingered Jack is an important literary text for its cultural treatment of Obi religious practices found in the British colony of Jamaica. Influenced by the Enlightened thinkers of the Eighteenth Century, and the Romantics who stemmed from their philosophies, Earle’s novel reflects the conflicts of a nation torn between ideologies. The concept of slavery was difficult for the Protestant British to digest and therefore they altered their perception of African slaves in ways that allowed them to feel comfortable with enslaving a whole race in accordance to their own theological views. The treatment of their slaves, as well as the religious practices of the slaves, by the British varied as they struggled to make peace with it. This struggle is a psychological process closely related to Kant’s discourse on the Sublime. The British fell into the trap of subreption, causing them to inaccurately portray African-slave practices in their literature as reflected in Obi.
In Kant’s discourse on the Sublime, the human mind can only handle certain things that are within the parameter of the Reason that we have accumulated from our experiences and ideologies.
But because there is in our Imagination a strive towards infinite progress, and in our Reason a claim for absolute totality, regarded as a real Ideal in our faculty for estimating the magnitude of things of sense, excites in us the feeling of a supersensible faculty. And it is not the object of sense, but the use which the Judgment naturally makes of certain objects on behalf of this latter feeling, that is absolutely great; and in comparison every other use is small. (109-110)
It is not the institution of slavery that the British of the late Eighteenth Century had a difficult time apprehending—they were very comfortable with it decades before—it is the institution of slavering as it affects the Enlightened mind that caused the alteration in slavery interpretation: “the sublime is not to be sought in the things of nature, but only in our Ideas” (109). Apprehending animal-like treatment of human beings was beyond the ability of people who thought that humanity existed in all races; therefore it was natural to Romanticize the Africans and distort their religious practices in ways that legitimizes the continuation of slavery.
The early eighteenth-century saw a large change in the use of slaves. Plantation farming began to grow as an economical source for Britain during the “sugar revolution” and as a result their demand for workers increased. Originally, the desire was to employ lower class Europeans, but their death rates were too high and as an alternative African slavery was utilized. With the body of slaves reaching high percentages of the work force on plantations, and the French Revolution bringing socialism into British philosophies, keeping the old view of slavery was near impossible.
Savages, having no civilized society, might be taken to be “natural men” and thus “uncorrupted men” or even “good men.” This was, perhaps, more a part of the romantic movement than of the Enlightenment in its earlier phases, bit it led Europeans to weaken their natural Xenophobia. (Curtian, page 150)
Before the Enlightenment and discourse on social change, the British did not have ad open struggle on the topic of slavery. As this struggle grew, British literature began to reflect these thoughts, and the Romanic Slave was born.
Earle’s novel Obi is a book filled with Enlightenment jargon, and consequently his imagery of slavery is Romanticized. The argument that Captain Harrop gives for enslaving Makro and Amri is that they are savages and it would be better for them to live a life of servitude under an Enlightened Empire than to live their lives in ignorance in the wild:
He soon have me to understand that I worshiped a false god…He told me the glorious sun was but a substance created by his God …He told me of the enlivening power of the sun, ‘I’ cried he ‘feel its warmth in my heart…You yourself’ applying to me, ‘feel the same influence…So the charitable man spreads his kindly rays around, revives the depressed, becomes a father to the orphan, a husband to the widow; by him are the afflicted comforted, the ignorant enlightened, and the poor relieved. Oh! Amri, a charitable man is the noblest work of God. (77)
Harrop’s speech to Amri was given before he knew that he was ever going to find a way back home and therefore has an air of his genuine personality. Though his ideas do not follow the concept of native Africans being a uncorrupted and pure people, as Curtain states was a popular theory, his believe is that the Africans are naïve and since they do not worship the correct god he therefore, as if they were orphaned children, acts as a father and educator. As a merchant in the slave trade, Captain Harrop could not afford to feel much mercy for those whom he enslaved, but Earle gives him moments of tenderness towards Amri and Makro that shows that he too is touched by the Enlightenment.
Earle’s development of the slave characters owes much to Aphra Behn’s novel Oroonoko, written more than a century earlier during the Restoration period. Behn was writing during a period when xenophobia was very much a part of British ideologies; therefore, in order to convey her hero, Oroonoko the African slave, Behn was forced to westernize his character:
His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat; his mouth the finest shaped that could be seen, far from the great turned lips which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes. The whole proportion and air of his face was so noble and exactly formed that, bating his color, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome. (2187).
In everything except color, Oroonoko is the greatest embodiment of Western hero. To set him about other Africans, his is a prince of an African nation. With royal blood and Roman features, Behn was satisfied that her audience would be able to find some way to connect with her African hero. Earle did the same, although his audience did not require as much convincing to read a story about a slave: “His face was rather long; his eyes black and fierce; his nose was not like the generality of blacks, squat and flat, but rather aquiline, and his skin remarkably clear” (72). What makes Earle’s novel so different in the treatment of slaves from Behn’s is Enlightenment jargon the discussion of the religious practice of Obi.
Behn’s novel follows the stoic Hero through his Romeo and Juliet love story and his failed rebellion. The stoicism that Jack shares with Oroonoko is noticeable, but Jack is not stoic purely because of his inner greatness, as Oroonoko is, but because of his powerful Obi. The foreign practices are how the British view and separate themselves from the slaves. Earle’s aim is not to put Jack on the same level as the Europeans, but to see his differences as a way to understand his enslavement. Because of Earle’s desire to reconcile what he wants with what he actually exists. Subreption caused the British to falsely report encounters of Obi to each other on the plantations and consequently back in Britain to gain legal and moral support. Such practices were used in all slave -holding societies that did not use pure human degradation in order to oppress people into servitude. Orlando Patterson in his book Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study:
The slaveholder camouflaged his dependence, his parasitism, by various ideological strategies. Paradoxically, he defined the slave as dependant. This is consistent with the distinctively human technique of camouflaging a relation by defining it as the opposite of what it really is…The slaveholder retaliated ideologically by stereotyping the slave as a lying, cowardly, lazy buffoon devoid of courage and manliness: the slave became, in his slave holder’s mind, the “Graeculus” of ancient Rome…the “Quashee” of eighteen-century Jamaica. (337-338)
Patterson, a pioneer in the study of slavery, calls the transition from a “free” person to a slave “Social Death”, the slave does not stop breathing, his heart does not stop beating, but who he is becomes lost in a new reality found in the slaveholder’s hands. The formula that Patterson is referring to in the previous quote is the generic style for a society transforming into a slave-holding society. When Britain reached the end of the eighteenth century they were attempting to work their way through the stereotypes, which can be found with Earle’s character Quashee.
Though not a large character, Quashee holds great significance for Earle because, when he becomes Christian, he changes his name to James Reader. Before he became Reeder, Quashee was merely another African slave of minor worth to the story. His indicated that he was a stereotype of the disgruntled slave. He was no match for Jack and Jack’s Obi, and his determination seems purely stubborn and selfish. As a Maroon, it was necessary for Quashee to capture Jack to maintain his freedom. But as a Christian, Reeder was bound by theological duty to quell the unrest that was caused by an unnatural “Black Magic”. Earle, though clearly interested in the reaction that the Obi had on the slaves, did not bring his story to a battle of religions. The Christian symbol that Reader wore around his neck was more powerful than Jack’s Obi, and Earle’s Jack instinctively knew it: “Jack started back in dismay; he was cowed; for he had prophesied that White Obi should overcome him, and he knew the charm, in Reeder’s hands, would lose none of its virtue or power.” (156) To Earle, it is almost as if he does not believe that the Obi holds any truth for Jack or any of the other slaves.
The choice not to recognize the full beliefs that the slave had in their religions was part of the alteration the British created in their perception of the slaves. Earle gives Amri and Jack British idiolects—they speech in perfect Enlightened terms and as if they were Europeans masked with black skin—while at the same time calls them unenlightened:
Oh! Thou great Creator, look down upon those unenlightened savages! see them entwined within each other’s arms, while the mingled tear of friendship, the grateful effusion of two noble hearts, deprives each of the power of speech. But these are savages and worship an imaginary god; they are black men, and slaves, unworthy of the appellation of men. (146)
It is evident in this soliloquy that Earle deeply wants to be on the side of Jack, but that his inability to allow a rational being to be a slave deters him from allowing Jack to be a full hero. In the following lines, Earle begs for some kind of reconciliation to be made by his fellow enlightened thinkers:
Ye sons of Christianity, versed in enlightened schools, that teach you to distinguish and to adore the great Creator, emulate their great example, for ye have no such heroes among you. (146)
The encounter between Jack and Mahali, to which Earle is referring, happens in the forest and during the night, both are settings for mystical and non-Christian practices to take place. By admitting to the greatness of Jack and Mahali under the guise of the dark and wild, it is almost like not admitting to anything at all.
To the British, Obi was not real, and they tried not to allow people to think of it as real. They hid by saying that the slaves “seemed” to be afraid of it. An article from the New York Times published in 1912 recalls a story from a plantation in the West Indies that the plantation owner ignored the “local superstitions and act[ed] according to the mandates of a white man’s nature.” Since the owner ignored the woman’s cries of the woman and uproar occurred among his field hands—which he refers to as “Quashees”. The solution was to get rid of the woman, which eventually allowed the owner to calm the rest of his workers. Earle treats Jack’s Obi as a tool to inspire fear into Jack’s naïve enemies, but his real power comes from what Patterson calls “zest for life and fellowship”. (337) Since most real relationships are taken away by the institute of slavery the bond between mother is child is extraordinarily strong: “The fierce love of the slave mother for her child is attested in every slaveholding society”. (337) Jack becomes enraged towards his rebellion because of the story Amri tells him of the betrayal of her and Makro by Harrop. The Obi came later in the story, as an attempt to understand the psychology of the slaves.
The encounter with Obi in the book is with Jack’s grandfather, Feruarue, who was charged with stirring up the slaves against their masters:
I was brought to their market, and sold. In my heart I secretly vowed revenge, and for that purpose, studied Obi.
I acknowledge I spirited up he slaves to rebellion; I acknowledge I struck terror to the hearts of many that refuse their aid, but how I effected this remains with me, and with me shall expire. (99)
The settlers on the plantation were unnerved by Feruarue’s statements; they determined that he was using some form of witchcraft on their slaves. But just as the Sambo Amri presents Harrop with in token of friendship and good health, the Obi charm is part of the religion practiced by the slaves in Jamaica. Obi is still believed and practiced today by descendants of slaves from the Caribbean:
One such tradition is that of obeah, a magico-religious practice representing a synthesis of African spirit worship and European Christian principles. Obeah is widely known and, at least so some degree, continues to be believed and practiced by Canadians tracing their origins to Trinidad and Jamaica. (Butler, 155)
The continuation of Obi into the twenty-first century clarified Earle’s misrepresentation that Obi was not completely believed in by the slaves. Earle does not allow the African slave characters to be fully integrated in their own religious practices because he must maintain that Africans are not fully Enlightened and therefore easing his mind to the concept of slavery.
Earle’s struggle with Jack is that he wants to view him as a man under the ideologies of the Enlightenment, but cannot do so comfortably because the institution of slavery is legalized in his country, and thus he must try to find some kind of rationalization for it. Because Earle cannot smoothly rectify the slavery under the social ideals of the Enlightenment he: “finds the whole power of the imagination inadequate to its Ideas” (Kant, 118). In his mind, as well as other people in Britain, he creates for himself a tangible, but wavering, concept that can be worked through using his Sense and Reason. The concept is still wavering for Earle because it is the object of slavery as an institution that he is struggling with, but how the humane person can forcefully control another rational being. The struggle that is present in Obi is the same struggle that Kant says is the process of experiencing the Sublime. As Earle tries harder and harder to reconcile his opposing beliefs, he alters the reality of them creating an alter reality that he relays to his readers. The misrepresentation by the recorders of plantation history caused a great falsification in the treatment of African’s as people with their own beliefs and matured in their own ideologies.
Behn, Aphra. Oronooko. 1688 The Norton Anthology: English Literature eighth edition, Ed. Stephan Greenblatt. New York: W. W. W. Norton and Company, 2006.
Butler, Gary. “Personal Experience Narratives and the Social Construction of Meaning in Confrontational Discourse” The Journal of American Folklore Vol 115, No. 456 (2002) pp. 154-174.
Curtain, Philip D. The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex Second edtion. New York: Cambridge Unversity Press, 1998.
Earle, William. Obi or the history of Three-fingered Jack. Ed L. W. Conolly. Broadview Editions, 2005.
Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. USA: Harvard University Press, 1982.
“Witchcraft in the West Indies” in The New York Times (1857-current file); Feb 4, 1912 ; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times.
 Kant, Emmanuel. The Critique on Judgement
 All terms used come surrounding Kant’s philosophy come from his definition, as he uses them in his writings.
 Curtain, Philip D. The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex. Second edtion. New York: Cambridge Unversity Press, 1998. Chapter 6.
 Butler, Gary. “Personal Experience Narratives and the Social Construction of Meaning in Confrontational Discourse” in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol 115, No"