maSlavery traced through Herbalism is one of the major discoveries of my journey as an herbalist. There are so many clues that have been recorded by slave/plantation owners unaware that these practices, words and even herbs could be used to trace the roots and origins of many enslaved ancestors. This article is not a full explanation of the connection more of an overview of what connection exist due to the recorded/oral knowledge.
Through investigation through the American and Caribbean slave documents we know African ancestors were treated as chattel and not afforded the rights of their European and Spanish masters. Some Slave owners cared for their chattel including animals by calling the vet to treat their slaves. Brutal practices such as bloodletting were applied to remove sickness from the body and usually resulted in more illness. Most slaves preferred to be treated by their own, who were referred to as hothouse doctors, or Negro doctors. This information was usually recorded by young women and housewives who treated and cared for the slaves but acted like interns or apprentices recording what they saw and used (in a desire to learn).
A variety of herbs were used for each specific purpose with simple preparations. European medicine did not work well for the slaves, which preferred a preventative form of medicine compared to the reactive medicine of the slave owners. Now the origin of the herbs they used is up for debate mainly because there is no documentation of what specific herbs were native to the region. It is known that during transportation the boats were lined with long grasses and other plant life to absorb the sewage. Unknown to the slave traders, but familiar to the Africans who knew the medicinal value and preparations. Slaves used aboriginal herbs to treat carbuncles, infections and other ailments in the long journey to North America. Many of the slave’s necklaces and jewelry were made of seeds and herbs which are known in specific regions of countries that practiced slavery. The question that I have were these herbs all native to that region or were they introduced via slavery?
Slave medicine was very simple and filled with superstitious rituals. Further research shows that these rituals were a perpetration in order to hide healing methods and sometimes even the practice of herbal medicine. Herbal medicine which was considered illegal in parts of the Americas and West Indies due to fear of poisoning and unexplained illness. In the Caribbean regions Slave medicine was considered to be witchcraft by slave owners who looked down upon it. With little understanding of the herbs and ignorance on behalf of the European doctors, cultural practices were looked down on. This misconception received greater stigma when they confused language meanings of the West Africans (the language barrier of Ebonics) with evil incantations.
When slaves attempted to explain what and why these healing techniques were used, it was called witchcraft and harshly dismissed. Eventually, with the technique of divide and conquer (William lynch); Separating the elders from the young and then slowing down the exportation of slaves. Through documentation it shows European colonials created a breeding program where much of the valuable information was lost in language, customs, socialism and Herbalism. Thankfully, some slave owners documented (mainly woman) herbs and practices of the slaves and incorporated them in their healing routines (journals, writings and memoirs). Some of this information was passed down from generation to generation and some that is yet to be discovered.
Very little is known of these documentations or even where to find information of African herbal remedies; due to the fact that it was illegal for slaves to read, write and have knowledge of herbs. It is in these dark times that Herbalism was partially lost in the culture of enslaved Africans. Because when you cut off a culture from its elders and introduce propaganda of Herbalism being evil witchcraft it creates an ignorance and hatred towards one’s own culture. Enticing a generation to abandon all traditional practices.
What I find interesting is this knowledge was documented by what I consider brave young women and wives who looked past the racism and bigotry. They unknowingly recorded history and practiced what they learned and saw. Slave owners then retaught to the younger generation as a re-education with facts being slightly altered and simple remedies becoming more complicated. When I looked into African Herbalism and western Herbalism the techniques were very similar but aspects of healing were missing. The folklore that connects the spirit of the plant to the healing, the description of the healing spirit and its past tales of cures.
Yes the knowledge was not lost completely, but it was corrupted. Slaves that did orally pass down info hid the healing techniques in superstitious jesters and ritual’s. Claiming fear of evil spirits they created story's to hide their true intentions of healing (due to the penalty of death or social and community rejection). So even then traditional African herbal folklore and rituals were not passed down in order to protect oneself (betrayal from other slaves). This created distrust among slaves that clung to stories from their European masters, believing those who use herbs practiced witchcraft, which was punishable by death in some regions and countries.
The original African term for herbal medicine was deemed as Obeah pronounced O- bee-ah, now that same word provokes fear at the mention. Obeah is connected specifically with fortune telling, casting spells and forms of witchcraft and divination. Originally the meaning of the word comes from the West Africa language Igbo which was a mispronunciation by slave owners and referred to slaves of this origin as jigaboo’s (racist term). Most Europeans felt that the enslaved ancestors were of inferior intelligence and associated these beliefs and herbal practices with occultism. Through the years all forms of superstitious practices and cultural ambiguities were broadly labeled Obeah; due to misunderstanding and language barriers. Now the term is widely known for its strong witchcraft and divination meaning and has no or very little connection with the healing practice of African Herbalism.
During this time as usual, women of opposite cultures bonded; herbals legacy began between house slaves and few female slave owners. Those who did not feel threatened by the slave medicine participated and documented healing techniques; even volunteering to be present for births and treatments. It’s through this act that slave medicine can be traced and studied. Some female slave masters kept detailed notes and though oral history passed down, we do know of strong friendships that collaborate some findings detailing the healing remedies of the slaves.
This was a very dangerous time for African slavery due to the laws that prevented Herbalism (Negro slaves from practicing Herbalism) the colony of Virginia law 1748 which forbade Negros from practicing herbal medicine by punishment of death was severe. It was adapted to a more lenient law by 1792 if during the trial it could be proven that a slave practitioner meant no harm the punishment was still severe (whippings, brandings and disfigurement) but they would walk away with their life. Even though slave medicine was not deterred by these laws, there were cases of uprising and family poisonings that generated great fear among slave owners.
Slave medicine was passed down orally through many female house slaves. But Herbalism was shrouded in secrecy and superstition for protection that passed down with it the knowledge. I never truly understood when I was taught certain healing methods with herbs why I was told to sing or hum a tune while making it. Or to spin around 3 times when picking specific herbs and preparing treatments. I thought it was so ridiculous and embarrassing. These traditions seemed childish, uneducated, which made it seem foolish. I now realize these were protection methods and look out rituals performed to protect themselves out of fear of the penalty of death (for the practice of African Hebraism).
Because we could not write down these herbal practices they were passed down orally through words and actions that did not make any sense to the younger generation. But now with the addition of European Colonial Herbalist notes and oral history pieced together; a clearer picture is beginning to form.
Nefertiti Nikolovski - Small is an Certified Master Herbalist (MH), Certified Reiki Master Level 3 Practitioner and Teacher in addition to a Certified Life Purpose Coach. She lives and operates Big Mama Small's Farm Holistic Practice and Apothecary from her 10 acre Hobby farm located in Trent Hills Ontario.
Certified Master Herbalist , Certified Life Coach, Certified Reiki Master Level 3 Practitioner & Teacher , Hippy loving, Animal Lover, Educator,