This article asks why negative stereotypes of obeah have proved so persistent, seeking the answer in a detailed examination of changing colonial constructions of obeah. It compares the history of anti-obeah laws with that of the Shakerism Prohibition Ordinance in St. Vincent and the Shouters Prohibition Ordinance in Trinidad and Tobago. Adherents of these latter religions mobilised arguments in favour of religious freedom to campaign for the repeal of the Ordinances, while similar arguments proved harder to make for obeah. `Obeah Acts' argues that this is because the colonial production of the crime of obeah discursively isolated those aspects of Caribbean spiritual practice that match terms defined as antonyms of or precursors to religion—“magic,” “superstition,” “witchcraft,” separating these aspects from others that conform more easily to an idea of “religion.” This colonial construction of obeah played an important role in positioning the Caribbean and its population as “backward” and “primitive,” and thus in countering Caribbean people's claims for political rights.

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