In Theodore Taylor’s novel The Cay, the old West Indian man who repeatedly saves Phillip and endures the young man’s racism, Timothy, is the novel’s most noble character. Unlike Phillip and his family, who are educated Caucasians from the American South (specifically, Virginia) Timothy is a native of the Caribbean, almost certainly the descendent of slaves, is uneducated and illiterate, and is accustomed to the indignities of a black man living in a white man’s world. His is a culture that embraces mysticism and what is commonly called “voodoo,” derived from the French vodu. After the Phillip and Timothy become stranded on the island following the sinking of the ship that had been transporting Phillip and his mother to the presumed safety of America, Phillip is forced to depend upon this gentle giant whom the young boy has been taught to view as racially inferior. Evidence of Timothy’s superstitious nature, common among natives of the West Indies, especially Haiti, is provided in the scene in Chapter Eleven, when the two characters are hoping and listening for the distant sounds of aircraft that could signal their rescue:
“That night, after dinner, Timothy grumbled, ‘No aircraft! D’islan’ mu ave a jumbi’.”
’Don’t talk nonsense, Timothy,’ I said.
’Devil spirit harass an meliss us,’ he said darkly. ‘An, we do not ave a chicken or grains o’corn to chase ‘im.’
I said, ‘Timothy, you can’t really believe in that.’
My father had told me about ‘obeidia,’ or ‘voodoo,’ in the West Indies. It had come over from Africa, of course. Haiti was the worst of all for it, but there was some practice on all the islands. It was mixed up with religion and witch doctors. I knew he was looking at Stew Cat when he said, ‘Mebbe dat outrageous cat is d’jumbi’.”
“Jumbi” is an evil spirit or curse. Timothy’s strong convictions with regard to ancient superstitions, including the presence of evil spirits, is a product of the culture in which he grew up, and remains a part of who he is.