Ancestress Work: I, Tituba

Continuing with ancestress work this Womanism Month, I though I’d revisit an Afro-Atlantic woman who fascinates me, even if her story is a lesson in archive problematics.

Postcard -- Salem Witch Museum. © Salem witch Museum (1999)

“To: To the Keeper of theire Majests Goale
in Boston

You are in theire Majests names hereby required, to take into your care and safe Custody the Bodys of Sarah Good the wife of W’m Good of Salem farmes husbandman and Titiba an Indian Woman, belonging unto mr. Samuell parris of Salem Village Minester, who stand Charged on behalfe of theire Majests. for theire feloniously Committing Sundry acts of Witchcraft at Salem Village on the Bodys of Elizabeth parris Eliz Hubbert Abigail Williams And Ann putnam of Salem Village. whereby great hurt hath beene donne to theire Body contrary to the peace of our Sov’r L’d and Lady W’m & Mary of England &c King & Queen

Whome you are well to secure untill thay shall thence be delivered by due order of Law and hereof you are not to faile
Dated Boston May the 24t 1692″ Essex County Archives, Salem — Witchcraft Vol. 1 Page 7 (emphasis mine)


In 1692, the village of Salem, Massachusetts entered a paroxysm of suspicion, panic and betrayal.  That February, after suffering from fits and hallucinations, Betsey and Abigail Parris, the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris, accused Sarah Goode, a homeless mother and beggar, Sarah Osbourne, a woman in an inheritance dispute, and Tituba, the “Indian slave” of Samuel Parris, of attacking them with witchcraft.  Over next seven months, 200+ villagers were accused of witchcraft, 25 people were executed (only those who professed their innocence) before the governor ended the trials.

In all of the confusion and in much of the history related to this day, the role and person of Tituba the “Indian slave” remains obscured.  In the only moment of the trial where we can hear her voice, Tituba is accusing Goode and Osborne of witchcraft against her:

“What the Indyen woman saith

they have don noe harme to hur shee saith she doth nott know how the dveill works — Who it it that hurts them the devell frot I know there is fowre that hurts the children 2 of the women are gamer Osburn and gamer Good and they say itt is shee one of the women is atall and short women and they would have hur goe with them to boston and shee oned that shee did itt att first butt [butt] she was sorry for itt: itt was the apearance of a man that came to hur and told hur that she must hurt the Children and she said that 4 times shaps or a hodg or adodge and bid her sarve him she said that shee could nott then she said he would hurt hur shee all soe said that Shee seed a yalow burd that said unto hur sarve me and shee seed 2 catts and they said sarve me she murst more pinch the children

she saith she sends the catt to bid hur pinch them: and the man brings the maid and bids her pinch hir: and they doe pull hur and make hur goe with them to mr putman to perplex them: and they make hur ride upone apoall and they hould the poll and osband and good all soe rids upon poalls and they the 2 women would have hur cill thomas putmans child The 2 women and the man told hur that if she told to hur master they would cutt of hur heed and yester day tetaby abigall sayd that she say athing with wings and 2 leedgs and vanished into the chape of osborn and the indgen oneth the same: and all soe atends osborn a short and hary thing with 2 ledgs and to Whings all soe tetaby oneth that sary good sent a wolfe to scare the dr maid…” Essex County Archives, Salem — Witchcraft Vol. 1 Page 4

Veta Smith Tucker writes:

“First of all, Salem Villagers, learned judges, and bystanders perceived Tituba to be Indian. The clergy and judges made many explicit references to her as Indian. In trial records of March 1, 1692, written by clerk Ezekiell Cheever, she is identified as “Tituba, an Indian woman”; in Joseph Putnam’s personal record of her testimony, Putnam represented her as “Titiba the indyen woman” (Hoffer, 1996, p. 205). It is just as certain, however, that those who encountered her also considered her African because the magistrates also recorded what was commonly known in the Village—that is, that Tituba came from Barbados, another British colony that supplied African slaves to the North American colonies.” (Tucker, 626)

While arguments against Tituba’s African descent abound, the likelihood that the “Indian” in her description is “West Indian” and that she was of some African ancestry is high.  The transhipment trade from the Caribbean to New England in particular was very strong in this period, and along with rum and provisions, it brought slaves to the North.  Tituba, as a female slave, was also part of a demographic of slaves very likely to travel with their owners as domestics, maids and general help.  However, there is a chance that Tituba was of full or part- Amerindian descent–not only did this early period see the circulation of enslaved Carib and Arawak Indians in the Caribbean, but the Indian slave trade to Barbados from South Carolina was also very strong and stopped only because it was believed that Africans were better suited to slavery on the sugar plantations.

What is clear is that Tituba was a woman of color and her racial descent became part of her mystique.  While white accusers “confessions” enabled their re-entrance into the Salem community, Tituba was banished:

“God’s condemnation was visible in the color of her skin. Unlike other accused (White) witches, who upon confession could be regenerated and reintegrated into the community, Tituba wore the dark skin of reprobation. For her, reintegration into the community was unthinkable” (Tucker, 624-5)

Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, artists and writers grappled with her racial identity, conflating it with stereotypical and sensational representations of Afro-Atlantic systems of belief like vodun and hoodoo, and Amerindian religious practices, reading a bestiality on her person and her story which continued to obscure the woman who was.  In 1986, Maryse Conde re-read Tituba’s story, centering the woman in the myth with the first line of the book:

“Abena, my mother was raped by an English sailor on the deck of Christ the King one day in the year 16** while the ship was sailing for Barbados…” (Conde, 1)

Tituba, in Conde’s re-imagining, is a woman caught in the throes of a history she is never able to even fully process.

Tituba fascinates me because she embodies a moment of African and Amerindian vulnerability and oppression and representation.  She reminds me that women of color are so often the victims of this history–and that the boundaries between our different colors become meaningful to the systems of oppression only in the extent to which they can be used to shuffle us against each other.  To Parris and co., it didn’t matter if Tituba was African or Indian or some combination of both–she accused of witchcraft because she was marginal, because she could best be scapegoated, because she engaged in unfamiliar and ostracized religious practices, because her racial descent made her an alien and because there was no one she could call on to protect her from state violence (when she is arrested, even her owner, Rev. Parris refuses to post her bail.  Only thirteen months later, after an anonymous person posted bond, was Tituba released).

It’s one of those stories that makes you want to say, “Well, damn!  How much has changed in 318 years?”

Bibliography:

Condé, Maryse. Moi, Tituba sorcière . . . Noire de Salem. Paris: Mercure de France, 1986.

Ray, Benjamin C. Salem Witch Trials:  Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, 2002, http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/salem/home.html.

Tucker, Veta Smith. “Purloined Identity:  The Racial Metamorphosis of Tituba of Salem Village.” Journal of Black Studies 30 (March 2000): 624-634.

[EDIT:  I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem was translated into English in 1992 by Richard Philcox for University Press of Virginia]

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One thought on “Ancestress Work: I, Tituba

  1. Pingback: Loving Vampire Diaries: Why History, Slavery and Race in Fandom Matters | Nuñez Daughter

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