September 4, 2020 will be the 150th Anniversary of the Ordination of the first Black Native Jamaican to the Diaconate in the Diocese of Jamaica and the Cayman islands formerly known as the Church of England. In my article on 150 Anniversary of the Disestablishment of the Anglican Church I wrote the following:
The Dis-establishment signalled the reception and acceptance of black Jamaicans among the predominantly English based clergy and the beginning of the evolutionary process of descendants of our former enslaved ancestors to lead the Church. The Morant Bay Uprising had generated terrible fear among Colonial Britain that Jamaica might emerged like Haiti in it’s 1791-1804 Revolution, a Black Majority Rule nation. At the appointment of the new governor Sir John Peter Grant, the governing Jamaica Assembly was replaced with full Crown Colony Government (1866-1884). In 1870 after the disestablishment of the then Church of England in June of that year, the bishop of Jamaica, in a most significant action of the Church in upholding the integrity of it’s mission to the Black Jamaican population, delivered a blow to the root of white privilege, with the axe of ordination when the first black Jamaican, Thomas Banbury, was ordained at St John’s Church, Black River on September 4, as a deacon in the new dispensation.
My discovery of Thomas Banbury was due to the colossal work of Historian Dr Joy Lumsden who in examining the writings of the Rt. Rev’d. E L Evans, Bishop of Barbados, in his book, A History of the Diocese of Jamaica, noted that ‘. . . two black catechists ordained by Bishop Courtenay, Thomas Banbury in 1870 [ the same year of the Church’s disestablishment] and Charles Christopher Douce in 1876. Banbury was later Rector of Hope Bay for 29 years and Douce was Rector of Manchioneal, Rural Hill and Boston from 1881 – 1904.'[p30]
Dr Lumsden further wrote that, “both men, identified as Black, were later priested – Banbury in 1873 by Bishop Courtenay and Douce in 1881 by Bishop Nuttall. Further research has identified at least three other Black Anglican clergy ordained in Jamaica before 1904 – R. O. Taylor, C. L. Barnes and A. Cole.”
In pursuing further research as to ascertain what type of person was Thomas Banbury I was led at 0300 hours on the morning of Sunday July 12, 2020 to read the work on Psychic Phenomena Of Jamaica By Joseph J. Williams. In one of his chapters was a reflection of a pamphlet of fifty pages entitled, Jamaica Superstitions; or The Obeah Book written by Reverend R. Thomas Banbury, a native Jamaican, who was Rector of St. Peter’s Church, Hope Bay, Portland, published in 1894.
According to Williams, Fr. Banbury tells us in the Preface that this is a curtailment of what he had
written thirty-five years before, we may accept it as a fairly accurate exposition of the superstitious beliefs and practices that were current in Jamaica in the latter half of the
nineteenth century, at least as regards the country districts with which he was familiar.” The following is from Mr. Williams work:
Mr. Banbury opens his treatise with the following words: “OBEAHISM.
What wicked, immoral, disgusting, and debasing associations are called up in the minds of those who are acquainted with the baneful effects of this superstition in Jamaica at
the mere mention of its name. A superstition the most cruel in its intended designs; the most filthy in its practices; the most shameful and degrading in its associations. It has
not only directed its baleful influence against popular society in the island at large; but alas! it tends greatly to the pulling down of the Church of Christ. There is hardly any of
the people connected with religion whose minds are not to some extent imbued with it~ who do not believe that the influence of obeah is capable of exerting some evil effects either on their minds, bodies, or property; and there are very few we have reason to believe, who do not directly practice it.
Superstition is the parent of idolatry and all the concomitant evils of this sin. What ‘pestiferous Demon’ has swept through the land of Africa with ‘tainted breath’ devouring its inhabitants? It is Superstition.” (51)
In connexion with the importation of obeah from Africa, Mr. Banbury makes the amusing observation: “It is stated that the African obeah-man carried his obeah magic with him under the hair of his head when imported. For that reason the heads of the Africans were shaved before being landed, or if that was not done, he swallowed the things by which he worked in Africa, before leaving.” (52)
As regards the obeah-man himself, Mr. Banbury declares: “He is the agent incarnate of Satan. The Simon Magus of these good gospel days; the embodiment of all that is wicked,
immoral and deceptious. You may easily at times distinguish him by his sinister look, and slouching gait. An obeah-man seldom looks any one in the face. Generally he is a dirty looking fellow with a sore foot. But some few have been known to be decent in their appearance, and well clad. He never goes without a bankra, wallet or bag, in which he carries his ‘things’ He is a professional man that is as well paid as the lawyer or doctor, and sometimes better. It is a well-known fact that in cases of lawsuit the obeah- man is retained as well as the lawyer, and at times he not only ’works’ at home on the
case, but goes into Court with his client for the purpose, it is called, of ‘stopping’ the mouths of the prosecutor and his witnesses and of influencing the judge and jury.
The obeah-man is to be feared in the system of poisoning which he carries on. He is well versed in all the vegetable poisons of the island, and sometimes has them planted in his garden. He is up to the knowledge that vegetable poison is not so easily detected after death as mineral, and therefore prefers to do his diabolica /work with that. He takes advantage also of this to poison by the skin as well as by mouth. He is known to make a thin decoction of these poisons and soak the undergarments of people taken to him, which when taken back, and put on by the unsuspecting owner, the poison is absorbed along with the perspiration, and engenders some direful disease in the system. Many have suffered in this way and have not been able to account for their maladies.” (53)
Before leaving the subject of obeah and going on to consider myalism, Mr. Banbury makes the rather startling statement: “Whilst treating about obeahism and other superstitions of Jamaica, we do not wish to leave the impression on the minds of our
readers that it is only the black people of the country that have faith in them. The majority of the coloured people also come under the category of the superstitious, and even some white people are not exempted. As we have already hinted in setting out, there are but few among the people whose minds are not imbued with a superstitious dread of obeah influences, though they may not enter into the practice of it.” (54)
Five years after the appearance of Mr. Banbury’s pamphlet, W. P. Livingston declared:
“Obeahism runs like a black thread of mischief through the known history of the race. It is the result of two conditions, an ignorant and superstitious receptivity on the one
hand, and on the other, sufficient intelligence and cunning to take advantage of this quality. The obeah-man is any Negro who gauges the situation and makes it his business to work on the fears of his fellows. He claims the possession of occult authority, and professes to have the power of taking or saving life, of causing or curing disease, or
bringing ruin or creating prosperity, of discovering evildoers or vindicating the innocent. His implements are a few odd scraps, such as cocks’ feathers, rags, bones, bits of earth from graves, and so on. The incantations with which he accompanies his operations are merely a mumble of improvised jargon. His real advantage in the days of slavery lay in his knowledge and use of poisonous plants. Poisoning does not now enter into his practice to any extent, but the fear he inspires among the ignorant is intense,
and the fact that he has turned his attention to particular persons is often sufficient to deprive them of reason. Obeahism is a superstition at once simple, foolish, and terrible, still vigorous, but in former times as powerful an agent as slavery itself in keeping the nature debased.” (55)
The Jamaica Assembly had outlawed Obeah in 1760s after the Tacky Wars for freedom. The Obeah Act was last amended January 1, 1898 with operational date June 2, 1898. “Its main purpose was to make it easier to secure convictions for obeah. It made possession of ‘instruments of obeah’– very vaguely defined as ‘any thing used, or intended to be used by a person, and pretended by such person to be possessed of any occult or supernatural power’–proof that someone was a ‘person practicing obeah’. It also made it illegal to ‘consult’ an obeah practitioner, and to publish pamphlets relating to obeah. The Act also defined ‘obeah’ and ‘myalism’ as the same thing.”
A casual walk past a few street meetings in the communities across Jamaica, will include an evangelist with a bullhorn in the hands condemning Obeah. Obeahism as a common sermon topic on the radio or television.
Regardless of our response to the current Obeah Act, whether as a form of racism of the colonial era or real, for the Anglican church’s first Black priest, it was based on “Superstition” which he called “the parent of idolatry and all the concomitant evils of this sin.” Obeahism was the totalizing ideology among the people of his era and he was not afraid to invite the people to an alternative.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann in an interview on “structures of oppression” said that the “gospel faith always has two roles in the face of any totalizing truth. On the one hand, it has to criticize and expose totalizing truth as an idolatry that cannot keep its promise. That means that I believe that the church’s task is to expose what I call “military consumerism” that can never make us safe and never make us happy, and we have to stay at that, because people’s lives are being devoured.
The other task of the church in the face of a totalizing ideology is to invite people to an alternative. That’s very much what Jesus did in the totalizing world in which he lived, and his call to “come follow me” was a call to embrace an alternative way of life.
The church has to invite people to think about and experiment with the fact that neighborly relations, and not the pursuit of commodity, are the goal of our life. That’s an impossible alternative for people in our society to choose, but then, the summons to gospel faith has always been an impossible alternative. There never was a time when it was easy and obvious. When the church is in the midst of this totalizing military consumerism, it’s in a scary place to articulate an alternative, but that’s what’s been entrusted to us in the Bible and in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Rev’d Fr. R. Thomas Banbury was concerned about oppressive structures in the Society that deprived the people of their liberty proclaimed through the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and was moved to addressed them. May we be inspired by his zeal to identify the idolatry that cannot keep its promise, and his faithfulness in proclaiming an alternative way of life where God remains Sovereign over all things and in all things.
Readings for the Commemoration of the Ordination of R. Thomas Banbury to the Diaconate
Old Testament: Jeremiah 21:12-14 Psalm 43:1-6 Second Reading: Colossians 2:15-23 Gospel: St. Luke 4:18
Sovereign God, who called your servant Thomas Banbury to be the first Black Native Jamaican to be ordained in your Church, and who was not afraid to proclaim Jesus your Son as the true alternate way of life among oppressive structures; Grant that we, following his example, may without fear or favour proclaim you above all things and in all things, through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
– Dudley C McLean II, July 12, 2020