Tituba

Histories of settler colonialism and enslavement are inseparable in the Americas. These twin genocides, at once separate and yet indispensable to one another, have forged to create the bedrock of the United States and many other modern-day countries in the Americas such as México and Brasil. Although we know relatively little about today’s historical figure, her life is demonstrative of how histories of settler colonialism and enslavement were intertwined in the Americas in the seventeenth century.

Tituba was an enslaved woman who was the first woman accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials. Her personal history, as with that of millions of enslaved people in the Americas, is murky as to her ethnic background and her exact biographical details. Born in the seventeenth century, there are two main theories as to where Tituba hailed from. The first, as put forward most prominently by the scholar Elaine Breslaw, was that Tituba was an Indigenous woman of Arawak descent, from the present-day region known as Guyana and Venezuela. The second theory was put forth by Peter Hoffer in 1997, and claims that Tituba was a Yoruba woman – as her name is a Yoruba word. Either of these theories could be true, or neither. She could have been an Arawak woman, a Yoruba woman, an Afro-Indigenous woman, or a woman from various other ethnic groups. Regardless, she was enslaved by Samuel Parris in Barbados and forcibly brought to Massachusetts.

In 1692, several young girls and women from Parris’s household – including his daughter Betty and niece Abigail – began to exhibit symptoms that were classified as bewitchment, and Tituba (along with two other women) was accused of witchcraft. Tituba was put on trial, and provided testimony saying that it was “the devil, for all I know” that had bewitched the four young girls/women. Tituba provided one of the longest testimonies in the Salem Witch Trials, one that went on to influence how the rest of the trials were conducted.

Tituba’s life has been subject to the whims of historians, authors, artists, and the general public since the seventeenth century. Her origins, her testimony, her involvement in witchcraft have all been historicized according to the sociocultural and racial context of those writing her story. At times depicted as Indigenous, at other times African, and at other times of mixed background, Tituba’s story has been twisted to suite the modes of the moment in which any given historian, author, or artist has depicted her. Tituba, as with the broader history of witchcraft in the Americas, is a complicated figure. What constituted as witchcraft? What type of person was accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials? How does the perception of Tituba’s “racial” origin matter to accusations of witchcraft? How should we understand her testimony – that of an enslaved woman of colour/Indigenous woman accused of a spiritual, gendered crime? In what ways do particular gender identities become intertwined in histories of colonial witchcraft? Where do Euro-centric understandings and histories of witchcraft fit (or collide) with other ways of knowing and communing with spiritual worlds that originate in Indigenous traditions or West African traditions?

These are questions that continue to perplex historians of witchcraft and practitioners of various traditions referred to as “witchcraft” alike.

~ M

Bibliography

Barillari, Alyssa. “Tituba.” Salem Witch Trials: Documentary Archive and Transcription Project. Accessed April 22, 2016. http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people/tituba.html.

Breslaw, Elaine G. Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies. New York: NYU Press, 1997.

Hoffer, Peter Charles. The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

 

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Tituba

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