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Hilary Sparkes

Shadow worlds and “superstitions”: an analysis of Martha Warren Beckwith’s writings on Jamaican folk religion, 1919-1929


My research

Both my M.A. and PhD research topics developed out of an interest I’d had from undergraduate level in how religion was used in Jamaica to combat and challenge slavery and colonialism. I am particularly interested in the Revivalist preacher Alexander Bedward, who Martha Beckwith interviewed in 1920. It is her photograph of the preacher which frequently appears in articles on Bedward. Through reading Beckwith I became interested in how other anthropologists and folklorists working in the late post-emancipation period discussed Jamaican spirituality and how this in turn has contributed to modern conceptions of the island’s folk religions.

  My thesis is an analysis of Martha Warren Beckwith's work on Jamaican folk religion in the early twentieth century. Beckwith, an American anthropologist and folklorist, made four visits to Jamaica between 1919 and 1924 which culminated in a number of monographs, articles and books. These cover many aspects of Jamaican folk culture: songs and stories, proverbs, festivals, children's games, plant lore and various forms of spiritual practice. Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaican Folk Life (1929) in particular is regarded by some modern Caribbean anthropologists as a pioneering work in Jamaican ethnography(see for example, Sidney Mintz and Jean Besson's comments in Martha Brae's Two Histories: European Expansion and Culture-Building in Jamaica (2002), pages xv and xxii).

I am focussing on Beckwith's treatment of folk religion because of my interest in the way African-Jamaican spiritual practices were used to challenge both slavery and colonial rule. Martha Warren Beckwith was recording Jamaican folk customs and beliefs at a time when the island's ruling classes and the British government were actively trying to discourage any forms of popular culture considered to have African origins. African-Jamaican religions were an area of particular concern and folk religion was still one of the main areas of contestation between the ruling classes and a sizeable section of the African-Jamaican population. In the eyes of many of the upper and middle classes, and the socially aspirational, such practises were viewed as the preserve of the ignorant and superstitious. Furthermore, there were fears they could lead to civil unrest. Since British rule began in Jamaica, African-Jamaican religion had been implicated in a number of revolts and uprisings. Whilst no rebellions or uprisings on the scale of Sharpe's rebellion of 1831 or Morant Bay in 1865 occurred in the later post-emancipation period, Revivalist preachers such as Alexander Bedward and Charles "Warrior" Higgins attracted large crowds to their meetings and both are reported to have used anti-white rhetoric.

Because the majority of those who participated in folk religions at that time rarely left any written material concerning their spiritual beliefs and practises, the works of contemporary anthropologists and folklorists provide much of the information we have about the African-Jamaican religious practises and beliefs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries today. Therefore I feel it is necessary to examine the work and legacy of those such as Martha Warren Beckwith who contributed to the discourse on African-Jamaican religion in that era.

Beckwith was also writing at a time when both anthropology and folklore studies were developing as academic disciplines in their own right rather than being the preserve of amateurs. Therefore an examination of the works of Beckwith not only give an insight into how African-Jamaican folk religions were practised and perceived in the early twentieth-century but also how developments in folklore and anthropology theories and methodologies impacted upon perceptions of those religions.

Supervisors: Professor Gad Heuman and Dr Tim Lockley



1999-2005: University of Warwick – Historical Studies, B.A. Hons

2005-2007: University of Warwick - History of Race in the Americas, M.A (distinction)

2007-present: University of Warwick - PhD

Conference Papers

2013: Society of Caribbean Studies Conference, University of Warwick: "African and authentic or 'psuedo-obeah'?: Early twentieth-century anthropologists' concerns with origins and change in Jamaican folk religion"

2012: Society of Caribbean Studies Annual Conference, Univeristy of Oxford: "The pioneer and the prophets: Martha Warren Beckwith and the folk religions of Jamaica"


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