Everyone kept clear of the cotton trees where I grew up. On the front common – a large open area of flat grass where we loved to frequent – a large cotton tree stood to the east, and in it were birds we would have loved to shoot. But would we go there? Nah.
The cotton tree is the largest tree in Jamaica, and the largest of the largest is said to be in Westmoreland, a humongous giant. It is “one of the largest and most visually spectacular of indigenous trees,” says the National Gallery of Jamaica Blog. “The silk cotton tree takes more than a century to reach its typical size – up to 40 meters high and with the diameter of its trunk up to three meters – and to develop its dramatic buttress roots.”
The reason we Jamaicans kept away from cotton trees was the belief they were the haunts of spirits and duppies (ghosts). Amber Wilson took note of this in her book, Jamaica: The culture. “People used to leave a last meal for the spirit under a silk-cotton tree so the spirit knew it was time to go to heaven.”
One does not know for sure where this belief that the tree was the haunt of spirits and ghosts came from. The Florida Museum of Natural History claims “the Tainos believed that the forest was inhabited by spirits called opías…the spirits of the dead…. They were supposed to come out of the forest at night.” The museum suggests that this Taino belief was adopted by enslaved West Africans, or were fused with West African supernatural beliefs, with regard to the cotton tree. One should note that the cotton tree was important to the Tainos, as its trunk was used to make canoes.
The same general fear/reverence/awe of the cotton tree existed in other parts of the Caribbean as well, such as in Guyana, Trinidad and Surinam, and in parts of West Africa. Silver Torch, a Guyanese based website, reported that in “some Caribbean countries, the silk cotton tree is called the ‘god tree’ or the ‘devil tree.’ In Guyana, it has been called the ‘jumbie tree.’ The tree has been regarded by some as having a soul or a resident spirit. But it was most often… considered to be associated with the souls of the dead, living possibly in its roots and branches.”
The website observes that “in some areas no one would dare cut down a silk cotton tree. In others, before cutting down a silk cotton tree village folk would pour a libation on its roots or ceremonially make an offering of corn, or sacrifice a chicken.”
The Uncommon Caribbean blog reported the following story:
Tales of folks refusing to cut down silk cotton trees for fear of releasing the spirits inside are not uncommon across the Caribbean. One of the more notable ones I’ve heard concerns the construction of the East Coast Highway in Guyana some years ago. Near the village of Mahaicony, there apparently once grew a rather large silk cotton tree right smack dab in the middle of the route where the new highway was planned. Naturally, highway planners sought to cut it down. Bad idea. It’s said that engineers who dared try remove the tree were struck dead! Eventually, the highway was completed. However, at Mahaicony, it was split into two lanes, allowing the silk cotton to continue growing (and providing shelter to its spirits) in peace, in the middle of the road.
It would be interesting to know what the current attitude is to the cotton tree. Do Jamaicans still hold it in fear as in times past?
Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel