WEST INDIAN SUPERSTITIONS
[Extracted from Contemporary Review, vol. 26, June-November, 1875, pp. 758-774]
IN bringing such a subject before the English public, one has the advantage of entering upon comparatively unbroken ground. The number of these superstitions is be great, that some, at least, will almost certainly be new to every reader of this Review. Even to West Indians themselves, familiar with many of these extraordinary beliefs from their childhood. some mentioned in this article will be new, from the fact that they vary greatly in different islands of the Caribbean group, so greatly that sometimes the superstitions connected with the same thing are almost directly opposite in islands geographically very near each other.
The character, too, of many of the superstitions is such that there is an interest attaching to them not dependent upon the way in which the subject may be treated.
The study of them is, and has always been, to the writer a very fascinating one. It would naturally be so from his profession. But it has other attractions besides its bearing upon professional duties. There is in these things a wide-enough field for guessing as to their origin and meaning. It is but guess-work, as of course we possess but few data to give us any clue to the meaning of many opinions that have always had a firm hold on the minds of the ignorant in these islands, or to the purpose of many practices that obtain among them, whether these be of directly African origin or otherwise.
They are amusing enough from their very absurdity. But he [p.759] who would root them out of negro minds will find he has a harder task than he bargained for. Many generations must pass; education must be much more widely diffused; and religion must become much more of a reality, before the hold of these notions can be even loosened, whether they be only West Indian forms of European or American superstitions, or whether they be direct African importations.
The writer has found great difficulty in inducing people who believed in these superstitions to tell them to him. They have a sort of feeling that these things are in themselves wrong, and therefore they shrink from telling them to "the parson." And they have an instinctive perception that you will laugh at them.
Some superstitions, common in these parts, are not peculiarly West Indian. They have been transplanted bodily, and the only thing to be remarked about them is that they find a congenial soil in the Caribbean Archipelago, and flourish as vigorously as in their native homes.
Such, for example, is the belief about a parson's giving a vessel a bad passage—a superstition that has evidently sprung from the bad results of Jonah's presence in a certain vessel. An old West Indian skipper once told me that he bad remarked that if you carried more than one parson at once you were all right. The old fellow thought that one acted as an antidote to the other. "The trouble is when you have only one, sir," he said to me; "no matter how favourable the wind has been, it is sure either to go dead ahead or to fall off entirely."
Such another superstition, prevalent in almost every Christian land, is that thirteen is an unlucky number at dinner—unlucky, at least, for the one who leaves the table first. This belief is by no means confined to the lower orders. There is no wonder it should be so wide-spread and so deeply rooted when its origin is remembered. Most know that it sprang from the fatal result which attended Judas, the first who left the table at that most wonderful supper ever known on earth—the supper at which the Great Master and his chosen Apostles made the thirteen.
As might be expected, the most abundant of all West Indian superstitions are those connected with dead bodies and funerals.
When one of our people has a sore or bruise of any description, ho will on no account have anything to do with a dead body. The sore is made incurable thereby, or almost so. This notion is very prevalent both in St. Croix and Grenada, two islands widely different in every respect, as unlike in their physical conformation, in the habits and manners of their people, indeed in their character altogether, as two West Indian islands can be. But in neither of them will any person who has a sore, follow a funeral. Even if on the leg or foot, and thus he covered, it matters not. [p.760] Go to that funeral you must not, if you wish the sore to get well. Even if the deceased be so near of kin to you that you must needs be one of the funeral procession, beware how you have anything to do with getting the body ready for the grave. You must not be about the corpse in any way.
Instances of the firm grasp this notion has on the negro mind can be readily furnished by any clergyman in these islands. And it is far from being relaxed even in minds that have received some cultivation. I recollect a black man in the island of Grenada, who was very intelligent, and had read a good deal, and was also a member of the Grenada House of Assembly, who assigned a bruise on his foot as the reason of his absence from a funeral where I had expected to see him. He alluded to it as a matter of course, and was apparently astonished at my being unable to feel that his excuse was a good one. This was a man, who, though entirely self-taught, could quote Shakespeare, of whom he was very fond, with great accuracy, and at much length. Doubtless, even on that occasion, he consoled himself with his favourite author; and, although he did not say so, he thought that there were "more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in my philosophy."
In St. Croix, a very slight bruise indeed is sufficient to make it highly dangerous for you to have any dealings with a dead body. At one of the first funerals I attended here, I was putting on my gown and bands at the house where the corpse lay, and I happened, in fastening the bands, to give my finger a prick with a pin, sufficient to draw a drop of blood. One of the people present earnestly entreated me not to go into the room where the dead body lay in the yet uncovered coffin. "You must not look upon the dead now, sir," said the woman—a good woman too.
Possibly this belief in the harmful powers of dead bodies may be connected with the Jewish notion of the uncleanness that came from touching the dead. Not that there is any repugnance in these countries to touching, or being with a dead body as such. Our people are only too ready to crowd in to see a dead body, to sit up with it at night, to wash it, or aught else, provided only there be no sore in the case. Then they give the corpse a wide berth. Even sore eyes are made much worse by looking on the dead.
But yet, strange to say, the superstition in Barbados is that, if any rum be used in washing the corpse, the person who will use it afterwards for washing the eyes, may then and there dismiss all fear of bad eyes for the future. You are thus safe from cataract, or any other eye ailment—such is the magic power of this disgusting remedy. And, verily, any one who could be found willing to go through such an ordeal ought to have his reward in eyes [p.761] made strong enough to last him his lifetime. Some of the authorities in Barbados, however, hold that it is not necessary for the living to use the very rum which has been used for the dead, so the washing of the sore or weak eyes be performed in the presence of the dead body.
In another respect too, the Barbadian superstition about contact with a dead body differs from the St. Croisian. The touch of a dead hand has a wonderful effect upon all swellings and chronic pains. I believe that, even in Barbados, there ought to be no abrasion of the skin; but of this I am not quite sure. Anyhow, as regards the pain or swelling, any old Barbadian negro woman will tell you how to cure it—ay, even when the "great doctors" have given it up. You have only to get into the room at night with the corpse, take its hand, and pass it carefully over the swollen or painful place. You can then go away quite sure that the swelling will go down, or the pain diminish, contemporaneously with the decay of that dead body in the grave.
But now comes the important point. You must go into the room alone, and remain in it alone all the time, or else there is no more virtue in your friend's dead hand than there was in his living one. Yes, alone you must encounter him. And what, then will you do with the "duppies," as they call ghosts in Barbados, "jumbies," as they say in St. Croix?
It is true you can take a light when you go in to do the rubbing, and we all know that jumbies, or duppies, or whatever they are, can't bear light, except it be pale, dim moonlight. That will be a little help. But still there is a risk. Woe betide him who dares in Barbados pass a light, whether lamp or candle, across a dead person's face, or even hold it over it. Such an outrageously venturesome person would soon have the lamp of his own life extinguished as the price of his temerity!
Alluding, as I did just now, to the practice of washing the dead, reminds mo of a custom prevailing in St. Croix among those who perform that unpleasant office, or who otherwise assist in preparing the body for the coffin. They are almost sure to take home with them, and keep in their own homes, something immediately connected with that body. It may be a lock of hair, or it may be some garment, or even a fragment of a garment. But be it what it may, something must be taken, if the spirit of the dead is to be prevented from molesting those daring ones who ventured to tamper with the place of its late habitation.
Of course it is difficult to give the rationale of any particular superstition. This last may, however, be perhaps explained. At first thought, it seems most natural to believe that the surest way to prevent any visit from a dead man is to take nothing of his with yon. But not so. A liberty has been taken with the body [p.762] by one who is probably a total stranger, hired perhaps for the express purpose of preparing him for his coffin. Now, if you take something of his, something that is either a part of him, or has been on his person, you in a sense identify yourself with him; you establish, as it were, a kind of relationship, and thus the liberty you take with him must seem much less to him.
Kinglake relates, in "Eothen," a similar custom prevailing among the people of Constantinople. When an Osmanlee dies, one of his dresses is cut in pieces, and every one of his friends receives a small piece as a memorial of the deceased. If it be true that the infection of the plague is in clothes, then, as Kinglake observes, this is certainly a fatal present, for it not only forces the living to remember the dead, but often to follow and bear him company.
The disgusting and heathenish practice of having dancing during the night, while a corpse is in the house, prevails among the negroes in many West Indian islands. Revolting superstitions are probably connected with this custom, which seems at once to transplant us to lands where the light of the Gospel has not yet penetrated. All old negroes, when asked about it, say that this custom came from Africa.
We pass now to superstitions connected with funerals, where also we have a wide field—too wide, indeed, to be occupied within the limits of a single article. These are perhaps more plentiful in Grenada, St. Lucia, and Dominica, than in other West Indian islands.
In all the islands rain at a funeral, or on the day of a man's burial, is thought a good sign about him. The old superstition, expressed in the saying, "Blessed is the dead that the rain rains on," prevails here as in Europe.
There is a curious practice, not uncommon among the very ignorant in Grenada. When a corpse is passing through the door on the way to internment, the bearers will let down the head of the coffin gently three times, tapping the threshold with it every time. I have been told that this was to let the dead bid farewell to his house in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. We say to let the dead bid farewell, for that the body is merely the tenement in which the man lived, the machine through which he acted, is an idea which the negroes have in no wise realized yet. They are far, generally speaking, from believing that the living. sentient man is gone, and is living for the present in a separate existence. The body to them is still the man.
Sometimes a gourd, or a small cup, will be thrown into the grave just before the coffin is lowered. It is brought from the house of the deceased, and contains earth, or perhaps, if the people are Roman Catholics, it has holy water, brought from church on Good Friday, and kept hitherto as a great charm.
I have, in Grenada, seen the bearers of a corpse running at a tolerably
athletic pace, and on remonstrating about the impropriety, I was told that the
bearers could not help it, as the dead was running. Both the bearers and my informant firmly believed this; and he
shrewd black man, who could read and write, who was thriving as a cocoa-planter
on a email scale, and was even a communicant of my own church. He proceeded on that occasion in proof of his
statement, to relate to me many cases he had known of this wonderful desire on
the part of a corpse to have a run, as also one in which the corpse had almost refused to go, from an
to some one of the bearers. It had, of course, been always found that, on the
substitution of some one else for the obnoxious bearer, the dead man had gone to
his grave cheerfully enough.
This is another proof bow far from the negro mind is any notion of the person, the individual "I," being anything else than the body itself.
It must be remarked, however, that corpses do not play these funny tricks in every island. 1 have never known them in St. Croix, for example, to have any decided propensity either to run or to stand still, so the bearers have an easier time of it.
In measuring a dead body for the coffin, the thing generally used in Grenada is one of those reeds called "wild canes." These grow in swampy places, and are very common in Grenada. A clump of them looks from a distance exceedingly like sugar-canes. But whether it be the wild cane or any other stick, the measuring-rod is taken to the grave, and thrown in on the coffin as soon as this is lowered. It is worth while knowing, too, that to take the rod that has measured a dead body and measure yourself against it, is certain death at no long interval.
The custom common in St. Croix, and all but universal in Grenada and some other islands, for every person present at a funeral to cast in at least one handful of earth on the coffin, after the funeral service is over, has been variously explained to me, as an asking for the dead person's prayers, as an act of praying for him as a formal taking leave of him, or as a helping to do the last act for him—viz., make the grave. I think the second is the prominent idea in must negro minds, for I have often heard a "God bless you,"' or a "God rest you," accompanying the act. I have also myself heard, along with the throwing in of the earth, the request made for the dead man's prayers. Among the more educated of our lower orders, the last is perhaps the reason—the taking a share in making up your friend's last resting-place. Whether this throwing in earth is an imitation of any ceremony in use among the illustrious body of Freemasons, who certainly cast things into graves, the writer, in his utter ignorance of their tenets, cannot determine. [p.764] Next in our course, we naturally enough come to the superstitions connected with illness. And it is wonderful to think of the risks we run through ignorance, or through our obstinate unbelief of the queer stories we hear.
The only thing more wonderful is the beautiful simplicity of some remedies—remedies not to be met with in any Pharmacopoeia, or any doctor's book whatever. Only think that a few hard red seeds of one of the leguminous plants common here, worn round the neck, will prevent a "rush of blood to the head," whatever that terrible expression means. Only think, too, that a little bit of scarlet cloth round the neck, no matter how narrow a strip it may be, will keep off the whooping-cough. Perhaps the sanguineous colour of the seeds is a sort of homoeopathic remedy—like curing like; but why the cloth cures the whooping-cough, and why it must be scarlet, who can say?
Simplest of all cures, however, is a small bit of paper, carefully made in the form of a cross, then wet, and stuck on a baby's forehead, to take away the hiccough. This is a true homoeopathic remedy in another way. It can't hurt you, even if it do yon no good.
In the island of Nevis there is an unfailing cure for warts. They must be rubbed with a bit of stolen meat. The peculiarity about this remedy is, that it does not matter what the meat is, whether pork or mutton, beef, veal, or venison, or anything eke. It is true it must not be fowl or fish, but meat. But the virtue is in the theft. The meat must be stolen, or you may rub with it until you rub it all away, and no result will follow.
All West Indians are familiar with the use of a wedding-ring for rubbing a "stye," as those disagreeable little boils on the eyelid are called. One can understand the use of the friction or of the heat that is produced thereby. But the thing is that the ring must be a wedding-ring. Not every plain gold ring will do. The reason probably is, that a wedding-ring is something which, once given, can never be taken back. It is therefore regarded as a suitable antidote to these styes or "cat-boils" as the Barbadian negro calls them, for, in my small-boy days, it was firmly believed by my old black nurse, and so taught to me, that if you gave anything away, and then took it back, you were sure of a "cat-boil."
In these cases, one can be one's own doctor, even though you "have a fool for your patient." But there are some horrible troubles, in which you need the aid of an adept. Such, for example, is the presence in the body of bits of broken glass, old nails, and such like, which can be drawn out, rubbed out, squeezed out, or got out somehow through the sufferer s skin by the man or woman supposed to possess some mysterious power. Hard as it may be of belief, it is nevertheless true, that not more than two years ago [p.765] an instance occurred in the chief town of St. Croix, of two old negroes, natives of the island, one of whom was foolish enough to fetch in from the country an Antignan negro man to rub nails out of his wife's leg. The Antignan man was well paid for the job, and after a great deal of soaping, he got an immense number of nails through the old woman's skin. They dropped from her leg freely through his hands into a basin, an indefinite number having been, of course, provided for the occasion by him. If he had not been interrupted by the entrance of an unbeliever, in the person of the old woman's son, who caused him to make a hasty exit through the window, there is no telling what he might have drawn out of her, as nothing was too hard for him to do, or for his victims to believe.
In a multitude of instances the illness comes from the presence of some evil spirit. Rarely, if ever, do we find among negroes any such idea as that the spirits of the departed dead revisit earth with a good intent. Joined with the gross materialism of these people there is yet a strong connection of the agency of spirits, but almost always as doing actual hurt—as being an influence decidedly hostile to having people. The "jumbies" in some islands—notably St. Croix—are evil-disposed. The only innocent propensity they have in that island is to wear ''jumby-beads." These are little red seeds, very bright, and with a black spot on every one. One would presume they are called "jumby-beads" because they are the "particlar wanity" that the jumbies indulge in by way of ornamentation. The same seeds are called "crab's eyes" in Barbados, from their resemblance to the eyes of a very active little red crab well known there. The Barbadian ghosts are not so elaborately got up, it seems, as their St. Croisian brethren.
The power of seeing jumbies is hardly one to be coveted; but it is possessed, whether they like it or not, by those individuals in these islands who are fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to be born with that little membrane called a "caul," which sometimes encompasses a child when born. This membrane is generally kept by the family with the utmost care as long as it will last.
Such is the power of jumbies to hurt little children, that I have been told by a mother whose child was ill that it could not recover, as "do spirits dem bin and walk over de child." But there is a wonderful charm in the mere outside of a Bible or a Prayer Book. Put one of these under the pillow on which the baby's head lies, and you can keep off the most mischievous jumby. This will do for the daytime; and at night a bright light must be kept in the room. Otherwise, the jumbies will take advantage of the dark to do their evil deeds, to take their eccentric perambulations over the child, or to blow in its face. This last is quite s common jumby trick.
But they are poor, cowardly fellows, these West Indian
ghosts, after all. They will
never come near a door that has the "hag-bush" hung up over the threshold. Or
should any ghost, more
courageous than the ordinary run, boldly pass under the magic bush, you can
still laugh at his arts if you have much of it hanging about in the room. The "hag-bush," with which I am familiar, is
the lilac, I have had, before now, to refuse to baptize a sick child on an
estate in St. Croix until all the branches of lilac hanging around the room were
thrown out, as I naturally felt a repugnance to
admit a child into the Christian faith with emblems of heathenism hanging around
I have never found out whether it is the scent or the sight of the lilac which is so disagreeable to jumbies, or whether the anti-jumby virtue is in something more intangible than sight or scent. Nor do I yet know if there is more than one "hag-bush." Probably so, for the lilac is not abundant enough to furnish supply for the possible demand.
Would that this were the worst use to which plants are put by some negroes in the West Indies! There is no doubt whatever that the medicinal properties of many common West Indian herbs are native to them—herbs of whose deleterious or beneficial power science as yet knows nothing. And it is sad to record my firm connection that in many West Indian islands murders are still committed sometimes by the administration of subtle and powerful vegetable poisons, given in such a way as to preclude the possibility of detection.
In Nevis, the poisoner is safe from being haunted by the ghost of his victim if he will go to his grave, dig down to his body, and drive a stake through it. An instance has been known in that island where the family of a man supposed to be poisoned have secretly watched his grave every night for ten nights, with the expectation of detecting his supposed murderer when he came to stake him. No one coming, the idea of foul play connected with the death was given up.
With certain plants and with certain animals there always goes bad luck. The Stephanotus, rich in leaves and flowers though it is, is an unlucky plant in some mysterious way. But, considering of how slow growth it is, you have, at least, a very long time during which the storm is brewing before it actually bursts upon you.
There is another plant, however, that brings much more serious trouble upon any house near to which it grows. And this is of quick growth. It is the plant which a Barbadian may be pardoned for thinking the most beauteous of all flowers. I mean the Poinciana pulcherrima, or "Pride of Barbados," or "Flowering Fence,'' as it is also called. In St. Croix, where it goes by the [p.767] unpoetical name "Doodledoo," it in never used as a hedge. Exceeding beautiful as it is, it only springs up here and there, without cultivation or care. People are unwilling to use the least of the unknown troubles—and all the more alarming because unknown—which will follow the planting of it.
That other splendid and most showy tree, the Poinciana regia—the "Flamboyant," or "Flame tree," sometimes called in St. Croix, "Giant Doodledoo," is not hurtful in itself, but it is remarkable as a tree under which jumblies like to sit. An old man, who transplanted a large one to my rectory, actually charged more for his work on account of the danger that he said attended the meddling with "such a jumby tree."
As regards animals, guinea-pigs may be mentioned as specially unlucky, at least in St. Croix. There are families there, among those from whom one would not expect such things whose children would on no account be allowed to keep these pretty little pets. What precisely is the harm they do is not stated. All yon can get out of any one is, "Oh, they always bring trouble to a house; they're very unlucky." And yet, if the writer of this was a "dab" for one thing more than another in his small-boy days—which were spent in Barbados—it was at keeping guinea-pigs. They were kept by him on a scale so large that he could set up some of his school-fellows as guinea-pig-keepers. He even ran the risk of keeping them sometimes in his desk at school, boring holes and cutting slits in the lid, to give the little bright-eyed creatures air. And it was a great risk to run, for those were the good old "ticking times"—now, happily, almost over for schoolboys. The master of the school was one of those men who are now, it is to be hoped, nearly as extinct as the dodo—men who believed that you could teach a boy through his back, or through the palms of his hands, or the seat of his pantaloons. But yet the guinea-pigs never brought a thrashing upon their owner or his friends.
Some of the boys at this very school were possessed of a flowering plan for making you perfect in your lessons, which may have kept off the trouble the guinea-pigs would otherwise have brought on the school. Although not a negro superstition, it may be mentioned here, being, as far as I know, only West Indian. When you had learned any lesson thoroughly (and some fellows kept the talisman in their hands all the time of learning the lesson), rub the page up and down, or across, with a large seed, called a good-luck seed. Then return it to the pocket, where it ought to be kept. This dune, you need not fear. Be the subject of study what it may, the power was as great in that seed to conquer every harm, and just about as real, as in "Holloway's Pills" to cure every ill that flesh is heir to. The only thing in which the good- [p.768] luck seed could not help was in arithmetic. There memory was of very little use, and so this wonderful substitute for, or rather whetstone to memory, was powerless. But alas! that venerable custom of the good-luck seed has entirely gone out of date. The present generation of Barbadian boys, high and low, I fear know it not. It has gone out with the almost equally absurd practice of making children say lessons entirely by rote. In these days children are happily taught to use their brains more; and in every school worth the name, whether in or out of the West Indies, reasoning and comparison, and other mental faculties higher than memory, are cultivated more.
Birds have apparently more ill-luck attending them than animals. For any bird whatever to fly into your house and over your head, is at least indicative of some ill tidings you are to hear before long. Birds have always had, ever since Solomon's days, a propensity to carry news. He warns us not to cause the king or the rich, lest "a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter." And most of us can remember some "little bird" being jokingly given to us by our grandmothers or some old friend of our childhood as the authority for some piece of news.
But the only news that birds in the West Indies carry is ill news, it would seem. It is reserved for the "black bee," or 'carpenter bee," so-called because he bores holes in wood, to come buzzing with any kind of news he can catch, good or bad. He is a true gossip. Only give him a piece of news, and away he flies, buzzing in the ear of this one and the other one, telling it to every one he meets, whether they want to hear it or not. Your efforts to get rid of him are as vain as those of Horace, when victimized by his friend's loquacity. "Nilagis, usque tenebo, persequar," is the spirit in which the fellow acts. The negro belief about him is that when he comes buzzing up to you, you are sure to hear some news before long. He can scarcely, however, be considered abundant in any West Indian island. There is, to say the truth, such a plentiful supply of human gossips, male and female, in these islands, that there is hardly room for an insect with that propensity.
But to return to our birds. The "black and yellow creeper'' of St. Croix, Certhiola flaveola, sometimes called "yellow-breast," is apt to betoken sickness or trouble if he frequent a house. But he only does this in St. Croix, not having a bad name in other places, except among planters. He certainly has the reputation of stealing sugar, whence another name of his, the ''sugar bird." Even this is, however, questionable. Perhaps he much rather goes after the flies that attack the sugar than after the sugar itself. The gentle little "ground dove," or "turtle dove," as they call [p.769] him in Barbados, Chamæpetia trochila, on the other hand, an innocent bird in St. Croix, whereas his going on the top of a house is a sure sign of death to one of the inmates in Barbados.
The bird who is the great "prophet of evils" is the "black-witch," or "old witch," Crotophega ani. And certainly if it is allowable at all to believe evil of any bird, this must be the one. The singularly knowing look the creature has, with its hooked beak to give emphasis to the queer and malevolent expression of its eyes, the shabby-genteel appearance of its rusty black coat, the unearthly screech it utters, and its entire freedom from fear of man, allowing any one, as it does, to come very close to it—all these things combine to make it a most disagreeable bird. The very name—"black witch"—tells a tale of the unsavoury reputation the bird has. Some among our lower orders not only give these birds credit for supernatural powers as witches, but consider them the spirits of the departed returned to earth in this form. I have myself been told that when they were screaming round a house, they were really the jumbies calling on some one inside to come out and be one of themselves. There are people who will assure you that these old witches are so particular at times as to provide the usual number of bearers for the corpse. When a crowd of them is near a house, and some are apparently set apart from the rest, or are more vehement in their screaming, these are the ghostly bearers waiting to convey the spirit to its abode, just the same in number as those that shall take the body to its long home. This is the most distinct trace I have met with among negroes of the doctrine of metempsychosis.
These black witches are abundant in many West Indian islands: in others they do not exist. It is said in Grenada that they came there by being blown over is numbers from Trinidad or Tobago. If so, one can imagine what consternation there was among the superstitious, when one morning they awoke and found these new colonists and fellow-citizens. How they came to St. Croix is not sure. It is almost the only one of those West Indian islands whose ornithology has been looked into, that has no bird peculiar to itself. All the virgin forests of the island were set on fire by some early French settlers, who adopted this plan to cure it of real or supposed unhealthiness. They took to their ships, and did not return till the fire had burnt itself out. All the fauna of the island probably perished, and of the few varieties of birds in it (and they are very few) the originals must have been imported. Have the St. Croisians then to thank some kind friend for the first wizard and witch? Or did the birds come over en masse, a whole flock of jumbies? Everywhere in the West Indies a superstition prevails among them in reference to spiders. Not that the insect is unlucky, [p.770] but quite the contrary. The mischief is in killing him. The housemaid may sweep down any cobwebs, destroy ruthlessly any web, however old it be, but the spinner of the web she will allow to escape. Woe betide her if with broom or other instrument, and whether wittingly or unwittingly, she kill a spider! She is then certain to break some piece of crockery or glass in the house. The connection is undoubted. But what the connecting link is who can tell? The tradition is a very old one.
A long procession of black ants in a room is a bad sign, especially if among them there be those large ones with white wings, which are called "parson ants," from the resemblance to a clergyman in his surplice. They always, of course, signify a funeral from the house before long.
West Indian houses are subject to the attacks of two or three kinds of ants, in great numbers at times, but superstitious housewives, at least in St. Croix, have two very efficacious remedies for them. First, they try the simple plan of preparing some fowl soup, but not for the family. They must have none of it. It is to be given over entirely to the ants. It must be put on the top of a press, or in some other private place, so that there may be a grand ant banquet, undisturbed by the fear or presence of man. Appeased by this particular mark of respect, the ants will generally emigrate in a body. But should this be impracticable, a plan may be adopted, involving more trouble, but less outlay. Let one ant be caught, some one whose daring or appearance betoken him a leader, let him be wrapped up carefully in a small piece of meat, and then take him with you, either on foot or in some vehicle, as far as possible from your house. Cast him out with his meat, make all speed home, and sleep peacefully with the assurance that the ants will have left you before next day.
Among insects, crickets too play an important part for good or evil, according as they are ''sick" or "money'' crickets, the very names of which indicate the superstitions respecting them. The latter makes a steady, hissing sound, loud enough to penetrate a large room in every part. It is held strongly by our negroes that the presence of this insect in a house is an indication of the approach of money. The melancholy, fitful chirping of the sick cricket, betokens, with equal certainty, the nearness of illness.
But the causes of trouble are not in any wise confined, in the opinion of our credulous people, to plants, or insects, or animals. Inanimate objects have as much, or still more, to do with trouble. And of them there are things which actually bring it, and those which only foretell it. It may be as well to give illustrations of both classes.
The feeling is by no means uncommon that to talk much of the health of a family, is a way to bring sickness on them. In the [p.771] course of pastoral visitation, the clergyman will perhaps say, in a house which there is a large family, that he never has occasion to go to that house for visitation of the sick, be healthy is the household. He will he respectfully, but very decidedly allowed not to speak too much about it, as it has been noticed that if this be done, sickness comes upon the family soon after. And sure enough perhaps it does come, as it must needs come sometimes to every large family. And thus the superstition gets firmer hold. All the many instances in which no result followed are forgotten, and this one case, in which the sickness did happen to follow soon after your congratulatory remarks, is given as a proof how well founded the belief is. On such coincidences rests the public faith in "Zadkiel's Astrological Almanack," a mass of absurdities. The old man who publishes it owes his present large income partly to the fact that his predictions are generally, like the Delphic Oracles, contained in such ambiguous language, that they can be fulfilled in many ways. But still more is the rapid sale of the book due to the fact that the astrologer has been fortunate enough to make some successful guesses. And who, that guesses upon so large a scale, and about so many things, but must be right sometimes?
This objection to speak too much about health may be an exaggeration of a proper dislike to anything like boasting, the same feeling that led Joab praying that the Israelites might be an hundredfold as many as they were, to recommend King David not to see how many they actually were, and thus indulge bin own pride in them.
There is another superstition, deeply rooted in St. Croix, that to add any building to your house—a wing, or any smaller shed—is sure to be followed by the death of some member of the family. Is it possible that the origin of this, too, was the feeling that it was a vain show, this adding to houses, and therefore deserved punishment? Strange notion, surely, of the merciful Lord, who is "not extreme to mark what we have done amiss," but knoweth our weakness, and pitieth "as a father pitieth his children."
To something of the same feeling may also be referred the dislike that exists in certain West Indian islands to repairing an enclosure within which the remains of the family lie. If you do so, it is likely that soon it must be taken down again for the entrance of another member of the family. It is not improbable that the original feeling here was that one had no right to take it for granted that his family burying-place could not be wanted again directly.
But if the last-mentioned superstitions are the development in a wrong direction of certain right feelings, the same cannot be said of the absurdities which I have now to mention.
The mere turning upside down of the calabash that is used to [p.772] bale the passage-boats in St. Vincent, is a fearful thing, betokening sure destruction to the boat, and imperilling the lives of the passengers.
And in St. Croix it is terrible only to open an umbrella over your head in a house, a sure way to bring trouble, either on yourself or on some one in that house. Any reason for this I must leave to some more fertile imagination than my own to suggest.
Now, one can easily see why the present of a pair of scissors should be an unsuitable one, as dividing love. This belief is not at all purely West Indian, but it is greatly prevalent in these islands. It is certainly held that the gift of a crooked pin, along with the knife or scissors, will do away with their ill effects. But authorities seem divided on this point, so it is better to be on the safe side.
"Circumstances over which you have no control" there are which will cause your troubles to come, or, rather, which will show that they are coming, "not single spies, but in battalions." Let a glass break in your house, as glasses sometimes will, without any reason that appears, and you are in trouble. The writer well remembers the consternation among the servants in his father's house at the sudden bursting of one of those large barrel-shades that have now almost gone out of use.
Another pretty sure sign of coming grief is when a horse neighs at your door. This is as deeply-rooted a superstition in negro minds as any I have mentioned, notwithstanding the hundreds of instances in which the sign must prove false. But yet a horse, accustomed to be driven double, and neighing frequently when deprived by any chance of its companion, can carry trouble up one street and down another, and can certainly fill many a heart with dismay.
As might be expected, there are West Indian superstitions enough connected with particular days, notably with Good Friday. It may be known in England that eggs laid on Good Friday will never spoil, but the virtue of Good Friday bitters is hardly known there. Any bitters made on that day have not only the ordinary properties of such a compound, but are invaluable cures for disease. So firm is this belief, that there is among the negroes quite a general making of bitters on Good Friday, which are put up and specially kept to be used in cases of dire illness. Well would it be for the West Indies, to say the truth, if the upper classes believed a little less in "bitters" as an article of diet, and confined themselves more strictly to the merely medicinal use of them.
It would extend this article far beyond its proposed limits if I were to enter at all upon the superstitions connected with dreams. [p.773] Suffice it to say, that of them also will share. We dream in these warm climes for often as, perhaps oftener than, those living in temperate latitudes. And there is the usual amount of nonsense believed about dreams, such an that they go by contraries, and the like. Far be it, however, from the writer to say that warnings are never given in dreams. He would not so impugn the veracity of some unexceptionable witnesses. He would not so question the truth of that saying of Elihu in the Book of Books, that the Almighty "openeth the ears of men, and sealeth their instruction sometimes in a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumberings upon the bed."
In concluding tins sketch of West Indian superstitions, I cannot forbear mentioning one which I have met with among the negroes in St. Croix, and which is at least a beautiful one. It in the belief that the baptism of children ought always to be performed with rain-water. In going to a house for the private baptism of a sick child, and finding only well-water, I have been requested to wait until some rain-water could be got from a neighbouring house. The explanation was given me simply enough by a man: "'Tis de rain-water does come down from heaven." These people have a notion that the spring-water, being "of the earth, earthy," is hardly the fitting vehicle for enrolling children as members of Christ's Church, and subjects of the kingdom of heaven. One would like to deal tenderly with such a poetical superstition, and almost wish to retain it rather than otherwise.
But how shall the hold be shaken of such gross superstitions as from the subject of this article? And all have not been mentioned. Would that they were only so many as could be embraced in the compass of one article! The story of them, though in every point of view interesting, though in some respects amusing, is a sad story after all. While such things are believed by any people, their notion of a personal loving Lord, "without whom not a sparrow can fall to the ground," and by whom "the very hairs of our head arc all numbered," must be very imperfect. Practically, He is looked upon as the great a Being to concern Himself with the affairs of this world—a notion held by some who pretend to be much wiser than poor West Indian negroes, but a foolish and devilish notion surely—or else too weak to be able to control all things. It is well to labour for the enlightenment of those who have such feelings about Him. It is well to use all our influence against every one of these absurd superstitions. It is well to use reasoning, and ridicule. and every available weapon, against them, so that we may compel them to abide in holes and corners for sheer shame, until we can drive them out altogether. But it is best ourselves to live such a life of daily, [p.774] childlike dependence on our God and Saviour, the Almighty Lord, "to whom all things in heaven and earth do bow and obey," as shall lead others likewise to feel that under His care they are safe, that nothing can really harm those that are His, but that all things are ever converging together for the good of them that love Him.
Charles J. Branch.