Some Folk and other Lore
Part 16 in a series
Excerpts from Divers Information on "The Romantic History of St. Croix" by Florence Lewison, 1963, St Croix Landmarks Society.
ALL through these early centuries the Negroes of St. Croix developed their own customs and their own secret ways of compensating for the hard and sometimes cruel life. There was the joyfulness of music and dance and religion. Superstition often played a large role in adjusting to the environment as it also still did with the white population. Among the most interesting of the superstitions are those involving our local spirits.
JUMBIES. These supernatural beings were to St. Croix what voodoo was to Haiti and Obeah to Jamaica. No one has ever laid hands on a Jumbie, but they were as prevalent as were New England witches. They fought a losing battle and retreated mostly to a position of respect in folklore, love potions, food beliefs and medicinal lore.
The term carries over in such local botannical names as Jumbie Beads, Jumbie Pepper Bush and Jumbie Cutlass.
Some sixty years ago there stood a huge silk cotton tree at Estate Crequis which bloomed in the low narrow valley where there was a perennial "gut" or watercourse. This tree was a redezvous over the years for the remaining Jumbie believers. It was thought to contain a supernatural force which made the tree walk at night.
One of the trivial but indicative ways a Virgin Islander still propitiates the spirits is never to admit to feeling "fine." He is always "not too bad" or sometimes "nothing worse."
In Carib times the bush kallaloo was often used, and it is now the word for a dish with the plant as one of its main ingerdients. It is thought to be a love plant with match-making abilities. The "leaf of life" is also useful in getting a spouse. The "lucky nut," the "burning love," and the "crazy love" vine have meanings clear to those in the know. Soursop, by local legend, adds virility, but is also a tranquilizer!
THE WEED WOMAN. The ways of the "old life" on St. Croix are fast disappearing, yet there remains one unusual and functional group, known as the Weedwomen, who still practice their ancient healing arts with herbs, simples and drug plants known locally as "bush."
These island practitioners are nearly all women who have little use for Jumbies or any religious connotation in their work. They simply know the sixty or more medicinal plants; know their usages, dosages, their toxic properties and, we hope, their own limitations. The knowledge has been handed down for centuries, but in view of the present generation's lack of interest, it is soon likely to be lost. Two men of our Department of Agricuture, Dr. A. J. Oakes and Mr. M. P. Morris gathered information for several years on the Weedwomen and their usages of medicinal plants, and incorporated it in an article published in 1958 by the Bulletin of the History of Medicine.
The Weedwoman holds a position of respect and admiration in her community; her work is serious and skillful within its range. Combinations of plants are often used as sedatives and to treat fevers, muscular pains, colds, intestinal disorders, etc. The prescriptions include detailed instructions on the parts of plants used, methods of preparation and dosages, along with dire warnings about their mis-use.
Whether there is a logical, medical basis for such practices is at present a moot question. Many of the plants have been studied and tested chemically, and some are in actual pharmaceutical use. Considering the strange, and wonderful, discoveries of modern medicine, who is to say for sure that the Weedwoman with her ancient lore is behind times, or sometimes ahead. Least of all to object are her satisfied customers who have celebrated her in a famous local calypso adapted from an old Trinidadian song.