We are pleased to present a guest post on the very current issue of Haiti, written by Robert Taber, a doctoral candidate in Carribbean History at the University of Florida. Accordingly, he is well-versed in historical and cultural factors of Haiti, having spent significant time in the country.
Contrary to most people’s reactions to Pat Robertson’s remarks on Wednesday, his reference to Haiti’s “pact with the devil” did not appear out of thin air. As Matt Yglesias has pointed out this was a reference to the Bois Caiman ceremony at the beginning of the Haitian Revolution in 1791. This is not strictly a mangling of history on Robertson’s part. His comments come straight out of a blend of theology and history that, at the grassroots, pervades Haiti’s political discourse. Labeling the event at Bois Caiman a satanic pact touches on the most potent part of a vibrant oral tradition, a national myth that attempts to explain Haiti’s relationship with God and the world.
The French Revolution had been going on for two years when slave leaders gathered in the Caiman woods outside of what’s today Cap Haitien. The fighting between and within the white elite and the free mulatto population presented an excellent opportunity for general revolt. Most of the slaves present worked as overseers or coachmen for their respective masters, giving them freedom of movement and the right to carry swords. Dutty Boukman, a slave originally from Jamaica, and a priestess of disputed identity led a Voudou ceremony where they allegedly charged the gathered slaves “to throw away the image of the god of the whites who thirsts for our tears and listen to the voice of liberty that speaks in the hearts of all of us.” They then made an oath of secrecy and revenge, sealing it by drinking the blood of a sacrificed pig, a ceremony possibly West African in origin. This event bears a similar relationship to the Haitian Revolution as the Boston Tea Party does to the American Revolution—a critical event that helped galvanize the founding generation and forms a centerpoint for revolutionary legend today.
One of the first things that comes to mind in any discussion of Haiti, Voudou is a complex blending of West African and popular Catholic traditions. Paul Farmer gave the best description of Voudou’s place in Haitian culture and society when he thus described a firmly Christian peasant: “Of course he believes in Voudou. He just believes it’s wrong.” The Voudou question strikes at the heart of Haitian religious life. For its practitioners, Voudou offers a pantheon of friendly spirits, or lwas, that offer avenues to healing and hope. For its opponents, including many conservative Protestants and Catholics, it is spirit possession and satanic worship. The two sides disagree on what percentage of Voudou involves curses and malevolence, but both agree that such things are part of the religion. And, for those who oppose Voudou, Boukman’s ceremony in Bois Caiman sold the country to the devil.
For religious conservatives in Haiti and abroad, the idea that the leaders of the slave revolt led and participated in a Voudou ceremony provides a troubling contrast to presentations of the United States’ founding fathers as devout Christians, one that explains their vastly different fortunes. Many view the U.S. invasions and the rule of the Duvaliers as indications of the devil’s two hundred year lease on the country.
I first heard the story of the pact in late 2003. Protests against President Bertrand Aristide were rocking the small town of Petit-Goâve where I was volunteering for an international non-profit. My Haitian roommates explained that Aristide, as a poor Catholic priest, was involved in Voudou and had used the more violent lwa to build his political support. Once the first two hundred years of independence ended with the bicentennial on January 1, 2004, the devil’s hold on Haiti would loosen and Aristide’s support would vanish. I heard similar stories from other residents of Petit-Goâve and later from Haitians in the United States. Voudou had been responsible for independence, and it was responsible for Haiti’s inability to find a place on the world stage, for the reigns of the Duvaliers, for the ineptitude of Arisitide, and for the natural disasters that plagued the country. All of this, they said, would change once the bicentennial came.
Aristide left Haiti in February of 2004, but the happier, more prosperous era my associates hoped for has yet to arrive. Under the interim government of Gérard Lartortue, Port-au-Prince saw an increase in fighting between rival gangs and criminal networks perfect the art of kidnapping foreigners. Major hurricanes slammed the country repeatedly in 2004 and 2008, with the soaring cost of food causing its own problems. Then came this week’s earthquake. For the many Haitians who believe in the pact and the curse, who hoped for its end in 2004, the terrible devastation of Port-au-Prince raises existential questions for which there are few answers.
The history of Haiti is one of remarkable courage in the face of daunting odds. Fears of spreading slave revolt led the global community to isolate newly independent Haiti. In exchange for recognition of its hard-fought independence, France demanded a war-damage payment of 150 million francs—estimated at $21 billion in 2004 US dollars—that Haiti spent eighty years paying. Post-Castro worries about communism spreading in the Caribbean meant that the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations looked the other way as Jean-Claude Duvalier solidified his iron grip. In 1983, The US Department of Agriculture’s concerns about African swine fever led to the indiscriminate slaughter of the pigs that formed the backbone of Haiti’s rural economy. One need not look to supernatural realms to find the devils plaguing Haiti.
The most generous reading of Rev. Robertson’s statement is one of searching for positive direction and building anew. Port-au-Prince last rose out of the rubble in 1770, twenty-one years before the people of Haiti began the West’s only successful slave revolt. We need to begin the discussion of how this rebuilding can match the glory of that remarkable achievement.
Robert Taber is a doctoral candidate in Carribbean History at the University of Florida. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.