Thursday, 24 May 2012

Bush Doctors and Medicine Women of the Caribbean

In my upcoming novel, Jessamine, Arabella hears of a mysterious woman by the name of Ma Bett who is resorted to by women eager to get pregnant. Later, Arabella meets Ma Bett when she goes to the home of a child who has been the victim of a horrific assault. Ma Bett is a medicine woman, she can cure the sick but she is also much more. During slavery and in the post-emancipation era which is the setting for much of Jessamine's action, black people did not have access to standard medical care (such as it was at the time) but resorted to traditional healers who used their extensive knowledge of plants to cure or treat many illnesses.

Diseases common in the Caribbean during the plantation era included yellow fever, yaws, ulcers, elephantiasis, dropsy (now known as oedama), leprosy, cholera and dysentery. Epidemics often carried off scores of people on a plantation with whites being as susceptible to many of the afflictions as blacks but Europeans quickly noted that Africans were able to treat maladies on their own.

“When [the slaves] are sick, there are two remedies that cure them; the one an outward, the other, an inward medicine,” wrote Richard Ligon in 1673. “The outward medicine is a thing they call Negro-oyle, and tis made in Barbary, yellow it is as Beeswax but soft as butter. When they feel themselves ill, they call for some of that, and anoint their bodies, as their breasts, bellies, and side, and in two days they are perfectly well. But this does the greatest cures upon such, as have bruises or strains in their bodies. The inward medicine is taken, when they find any weakness or decay in their spirits and stomachs, and then a dram or two of kill-devil revives and comforts them much.”

This video below gives an idea of some of the plants used in traditional healing throughout the Caribbean.

In the late 1700s, Edward Long noted that “the chief medicaments among the Negroes are lime juice, cardamoms, the roots, branches, leaves, bark, and gums of trees and about thirty different herbs. The latter have been experienced in many cases wonderfully powerful and have subdued diseases incident to their climate which have foiled the art of European surgeons at the factories.”  He pointed out, however, that “the Negroes generally apply them at random without any regard to the particular symptoms of the disease; concerning which, or the operation of their materia medica, they have formed no theory.”

In the early twentieth century, Bessie Pullen-Burry reported on the bush bath: “This consists of equal proportions of the leaves of the following plants: ackee, sour sop, jointwood, pimento, cowfoot, elder, lime-leaf and licorice. The patient is plunged into the bath when it is very hot, and is covered with a sheet. When the steam has penetrated the skin, the patient is removed from the bath, and covered with warm blankets leaving the skin undried. A refreshing sleep is invariably the consequence, and a very perceptible fall in temperature.”

Nowadays, you can get a bush bath at your nearest spa!

Years later, observers were still remarking on the effectiveness of local remedies. “Anyone who has lived for some time in Jamaica has come in contact with really marvelous ‘Bush remedies,’” Joseph Williams declared. “For example, a throbbing headache is quickly relieved by the application of a particular cactus which is split and bound on the forehead; and a severe fever is broken effectively by a ‘bush tea’ made from certain leaves and twigs known only to the old woman who gathers them and whose only explanation is ‘Jes seben bush, Sah, me pick dem one one.’”

Even now, many people in the Caribbean turn first to the plants growing in their yards and gardens or along the roadsides to treat anything from fevers to 'sugar.'