19 October 2012

Duppy, Rolling Calf and a White Witch


My country of birth and heart, Jamaica, is filled with “duppy” (ghost) stories. Tales such as that of River Muma, who sits on a rock combing her hair with a golden comb, luring the enchanted to a watery grave abound. Another Jamaican spectre you may encounter as it races along lonely country roads is the Rolling Calf, covered in hellfire and bound with rattling chains, coming to scare you into madness, or to death.

Obeah, the remnants of African spirituality brought to the island with the slaves, doesn’t produce zombies like Voodoo is reputed to. Instead, the Obeah Woman or Man steals a person`s spirit, hiding it in a cotton tree and using it to make mischief and bring misery to others. In the meantime the person whose spirit was stolen slowly withers away and dies, unless someone with the knowledge and spiritual strength can “dig out” the obeah, freeing the spirit and returning it to its owner.

Ironically enough, probably the most famous Jamaican ghost story involves not the work of an Obeah practitioner, but of a woman alleged to be well versed in the art of Voodoo—Annie Palmer, the White Witch of Rose Hall.

Rose Hall is a plantation house located east of Montego Bay, on the northern coast of Jamaica. Legend has it that the owner of the planation, John Palmer, married Annie, a woman who was well versed in Voodoo. Annie is reputed to have murdered not only John, but also her next three husbands, all of whom died under mysterious circumstances. Apparently not content with a handful of husbands, Annie also had a tendency to take to her bed any slave who caught her fancy, eventually murdering them too.

She in turn is said to have been murdered by her butler, a slave and one of her many lovers. Some legends say he murdered her because he knew if he didn’t, she would kill him in turn. Others say he killed her because she caused the death of his daughter’s lover.

After her death, it’s said that the next owners of the house had a series of unfortunate incidents that culminated with their housekeeper falling to her death from the balcony Annie would stand on each morning to issue instructions to the slave. The house was eventually deserted, and fell into ruin. It was restored in the 1960s and then, in the 1970s, was refurbished and opened to the public for tours.

There is little, if any, historical fact to back up the legend of Annie Palmer. There are no records showing she ever existed and so many variations on the story exist, making it hard to decide which is more likely. Some stories are set in the 1700s, others in the 1800s. Some say she was born of mixed English/Irish heritage but raised on Haiti, where Voodoo is practised, others have her born in France and being taught Voodoo in Jamaica, by the very slaves she used it to terrify and control. She is said to have tortured, maimed and killed slaves without mercy and remained at the house even after death to continue her reign of terror.

I’ve been to Rose Hall, and it’s a beautiful, interesting place, and will say whoever sourced the items displayed in that house did a masterful job when they acquired a particular portrait, billed as being of Annie. Since I can honestly say I don’t think she ever even existed, and know the house and most likely all contents were destroyed by fire during a slave rebellion, I’m sure it wasn’t her in the painting. Yet I stood there, feet glued to the floor, staring and staring, feeling the woman in the picture staring back at me, her black-eyed gaze burning its way into my soul. It took all my energy to turn away.

And to this day that painting haunts me, a lingering, malevolent shadow, the most vivid reminder of my trip to the rebuilt plantation house. Whatever ghosts live at Rose Hall, I bet they found a happy, haunted home in that portrait…
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