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My first year in Martinique, my roommate developed unexplained marks on her neck, back, and legs. According to a friend of ours, a dorlis had attacked her in her sleep. The dorlis is said to be a male practitioner of black magic that transforms to an evil spirit to assault, or even rape women while they sleep. Another time, I was driving through Lamentin with a friend we passed by a four way intersection on the highway. She told me that practitioners of black magic often place their hexing wares (dead animals, coffins, inscriptions, etc.) at four-way intersections—apparently it enhances the strength of the spell.
Though not a readily discussed topic in Martinique, you will eventually hear someone talk about this black magic, or “Quimbois”. As a student I took Caribbean history courses and I have always found “magic” particularly interesting. I blame Harry Potter. Even though I don’t believe in magic as it were, I still wanted to know more about these occult beliefs people in Martinique don’t talk about.
Origin of the Word
The origin of the word “quimbois” is unsettled, but the most accepted explanation is that it comes from “tiens bois”—French for “to control wood”*—due to the ritualistic usage of plant roots in decoctions. “Quimboiseurs” (those who practice Quimbois) use supernatural forces in rituals, which are said to be for questionable ends. Alternatively, they also allegedly have powers to make predictions, to cast spells, or to heal afflictions. Due to the assumed relationship between quimboiseurs and the devil, in a country where 85% of the population is Roman Catholic, it’s rare to hear people talking about black magic. Even those who think it’s nonsense approach the topic with apprehension, if not ignore it altogether.
History Lies in Slavery
During slavery, the practices Africans brought from the people of Central/West Africa such as the Yorùbá and Bakongo resulted in the development of syncretic organized religions such as Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santeria, and Brazilian Candomblé. These practices are most closely related to West African Vodun as practiced by the Fon and Ewe. On the other hand, the people of the Ashanti region (an empire in West Africa) were brought to the Caribbean almost exclusively by the British; the French and Spanish believed that these Africans were more likely to rebel.
Therefore, occult practices such as Obeah (Jamaica) and Hoodoo (African-American) formed as an adaptation of ancestral knowledge to the landscape (in terms of both vegetation and the realities of slavery). Quimbois falls somewhere in between; there are similarities between some of its supernatural creatures and the spirits of Vodou, but since it’s not an organized religion it has more in common with Obeah and Hoodoo. This seems to be a contradiction as Martinique is a former French colony; however, throughout Martinique’s history there were multiple British occupations of the island that would have impacted slave origins.
Other Creole Practices
Similar to other creolised practices, Quimbois continued its development as a form of resistance against slavery. According to Jean-Baptiste Mathieu Thibault de Chonvallon, a French botanist, “They (the Africans) brought the knowledge of many poisonous plants with them from Africa and spread it amongst our slaves…When they want revenge against their masters, they poison the other slaves, the cattle, the horses and the mules needed for cultivating the plantation, they kill their own family…”
The slaves used poisonous plants from Martinique: the Manchineel tree, Cordyline, lemongrass roots, oleander roots, and even snake venom. Often, no obvious cause of death was revealed from autopsies of the poisoned, and so colonists thus surmised that the slaves prepared poisons in accordance with a secret practice developed in a group of poisoners.
The knowledge, groups, and ancestral rituals evolved and were passed down from generation to generation. Even if people prefer not to discuss it, these beliefs and practices are linked to parts of the culture of Martinique and are hard not to acknowledge.
Today, elements of Quimbois are found in traditional celebrations, medicinal remedies, certain products (aphrodisiac drinks in the markets, for example) as well as in the everyday superstitions. Manman dlo is a mermaid who capsizes boats and has an underwater statue in her likeness in St Pierre. Furthermore, many people know how to protect against a dorlis: sleep with your pyjamas inside out. The Caribbean is permeated with numerous superstitions and spiritual practices inherited from Amerindian, African, European, and Hindu beliefs, and Quimbois is no different.
* I decided on this translation based on my research of quimbois. Practitioners masterfully use plant materials to exert a certain effect, therefore illustrating a sort of control over them. In French, one can say, “Il tient bien sa classe” – he has good control of his class.