On August 14th 1791, on the French island of Saint Domingue, a Voodoo priest named Boukman held a possession trance where he declared to his faithful slave followers that the spirits desired the eradication of the white man. Thus, on this night, the Haitian Revolution began. (Laguerre 1) Voodoo’s origin is rooted in the influx of African slaves to the French sugar colony of San Domingue. After the arrival of African slaves to the island of Saint domingue, the slaves experienced religious turmoil.
Many African slaves brought their religious beliefs and rituals with them to Saint Domingue; however, it was mandated by the French government to baptize the slaves in the Catholic Church. Many Jesuit missionaries attempted to convert the slaves to Catholicism through teaching them how to read the bible, pray, and how to participate in Catholic rituals (Ferere 39). This overlap of forced Catholicism upon the slaves and the African religions of the slaves resulted in a new religious hybrid: Voodoo.
Many of the crossing over of French Catholicism and African religions can be seen in the Voodoo deities. For instance, many images Catholic saints are used to represent numerous Voodoo gods. One of the most powerful Voodoo gods, Papa Legba, is represented by Saint Anthony due to their similar features such as a white beard and the use of a crutch (41). This overlap of these religions was not by accident, it was by any means intentional. The use of Catholic deities and rituals helped the slaves mask their cultures and gave them the ability to have a sense of identity outside of slavery, which became a very important catalyst for the Haitian Revolution.
Regarding the topic of the catalyzing factor of the Haitian Revolution, I have observed that the current scholarship is incomplete in the observation of the unity the Haitian revolutionaries found in Voodoo.
While Scholar Franklin Knight argues the volatility in the colony due to the French Revolution resulted in the Haitian Revolution (Knight 109); Scholar Thomas Ott argues the social turmoil between the classes in the colony sparked the Revolution (Ott 11). These inconsistencies lead me to ask the question: what unifying factors of the Haitian colony catalyzed the Haitian Revolution? Although many scholars argue that the foundation of the Haitian Revolution is rooted in the volatility that the French Revolution caused, I argue that the unique catalyst for the Haitian Revolution was the unity that the Voodoo religion provided the slaves. Voodoo catalyzed the Haitian Revolution by creating an underground political institution, providing slaves with a shared cultural identity, and establishing the concept of a divine right to eliminate the white man.
A potential answer to this question is the social instability between the freed black people and the rich white people and the absence of French leadership the colony faced due to the French Revolution. Scholar Theophilus Stewart expresses that starting on August 9th, 1791, there was extreme unrest throughout the Saint Domingue colony. This was mainly due to the unrest resulting from the French Revolution and the inability to treat the freed black people of France and Saint Domingue as equals to the white man.
The free black people were upset at the French government for not providing them the rights outlined in the National Assembly and in the 1685 Code of Noir. The freed black people believed that the rights outlined by the National Assembly, which was a result of the French Revolution, should apply to them because the Code of Noir declared that all freed black people and white French citizens should have equal rights. In addition to this, the newly appointed governor of the colony had little to no power to enforce laws due to the unrest and volatility of the French Revolution. As a result of the French Revolution, many of the leadership in France was dying as the revolutionaries were killing off anyone who was apart of the monarchy and wasn’t willing to reform to a democracy.
This led to the new appointment of the governor to have little to no direction from the French government, thus he had little control over the people of the Saint Domingue colony who were at unrest as a result of the French Revolution. The slaves took this volatility in their social order and political structure in Saint Domingue to their advantage, and on August 22nd, 1791, the Haitian Revolution began. Without the disordered nature and lack of leadership due to the French Revolution, the slaves would have had no basis or ability to rebel (Steward 28-29). The slaves had little to no resources to help them with the starting of a rebellion as they were closely watched over by their owners. Thus the outside influences that were then imposed on Haitian society at the time such as the volatility of the French revolution’s impact on the social and political aspects of the colony must have been the main unifying source for the slaves.
While this may be partially true; there are many weaknesses to this claim. It is true that the lack of leadership and the social issues due to the instability of the French Revolution helped the slaves rebel, but it couldn’t have been the overarching catalyst of the revolution. The slaves needed a unifying force to organize and execute a rebellion, the lack of leadership and social unity between the freed colors and the white people couldn’t provide that unity for the slaves. The instability of that the French revolution caused in the colony’s society and politics would have only been a small part of the overarching catalyst. The slaves needed a unifying force within their own subculture what provided them the stability and motive to rebel, not unrest and volatility alone.
This unifying force can be found in the desire of the slaves to separate themselves from their French masters through Voodoo (Laguerre 8). The burning desire for a sense of identity out of slavery was much more powerful than the instability and lack of leadership in the French colony. The instability and lack of leadership didn’t provide an underlying motive or ability to organize due to the fact that the slave owners were still watching over them and keeping tabs on them because they were valuable to the slave owners. The ability to organize and provide the slaves with the motive of freedom from the terrible conditions that they had to live with originated in Voodoo.
The underground political institution provided by the Voodoo religion, provided the slaves the ability to organize political rebellions. The slaves faced extreme brutality from their owners. Many of them became frustrated and wanted a way to reach freedom. Many of the slaves came from Africa and brought their traditions with them such as their ideas of deities, religious political order and rituals (Mckay 673). For example, the slaves organized on Saturday nights under the supervision of a Voodoo priest to perform rituals and part take in traditional African dance called the Calenda. In these ceremonies, the Voodoo priests would use these gatherings to make the slaves aware of their enslaved position and facilitated ways to overcome this injustice (Laguerre pg. 10-11).
This underground hierarchy of priests and followers provided the slaves with the order and direction they needed to have a successful slave rebellion. Priest’s ability to organize the slaves and give them direction to organize slave rebellions and plot against their white plantation owners and the colonialism of the French government, made the priest the very first political and military leaders of the new culture that was soon to take over (10). Every successful rebellion, and revolution needs a directing and dictating force, and in terms of the Haitian revolution, the Voodoo priest played that important role as they provided the slaves with a secretive governing force and hierarchy which helped propel them into the first ever successful slave rebellion in history.
In addition to the political organization Voodoo provided, it also gave the African slaves a sense of identity which helped unify them to begin the Haitian Revolution, as Voodoo maintained many of the cultural traditions of their African tribes. Voodoo is heavily based on languages, songs, and dances that are of African origin. For instance, a very famous Voodoo hymn is originated in the Kikongo language (Fick 57). Many of these Voodoo hymns were used before battle, and many researchers believe that a Voodoo hymn originating in Kikongo language was professed the night before the rebellion, in 1791 on the north side of Saint Domingue. The translation of the hymn depicts “tying up” in reference to the white man (Fick 58). This ability to maintain their African culture provided the slaves an identity independent outside of their status as slaves. This African identity that they were all able to unify under Voodoo became a taste of freedom from their enslavement. Slavery was dehumanizing, and the ability to obtain some form of human connection to your culture gave the slaves the power to fight back against the values forced upon them by the plantation owners.
Lastly, the Voodoo religion provided the slaves with the divine right to take over Saint Domingue, which resulted in the sense of stability the slaves felt as they knew the Voodoo gods were on their side. Many of the teaching and prayers of the Voodoo priests had a common theme that the spirits of the Voodoo religion wanted the slaves to help eliminate the white man. For instance, On August 14th, 1791, the Voodoo priest Boukman had a secret ceremony in which he told the congregation of slaves that the Voodoo spirits needed the help of the slaves in fighting the French to abolish slavery.
Right after the ceremony was over, the slave revolutionaries and priests went into the main towns of Saint Domingue and killed all of the white people (Laguerre 1). This use of the instruction from the Voodoo spirits to fight for their freedom gave them the confidence to rebel, thus initiating the Haitian Revolution. With the power of the gods on the side of the slaves, they felt invincible and knew that some greater power, more powerful than the white plantation owners, was on their side. This new sense of validity in their fight through the very gods they worshiped helped propel the slaves into the revolution, as they knew that they would be successful as they were fulfilling the will of the gods.
I think filling in this omission of the unifying factor of Voodoo as a catalyst for the Haitian Revolution is important because it sheds light on a more intricate view of the motivations of the revolutionaries, and if, as scholars, we don’t fill this omission, we risk belittling the African cultural influences that impact history. Most scholars attribute the Haitian Revolution to the influences of the turmoil that faced France during this time. Throughout all the history, we as historians have given African heritage and culture little to no validity as a catalyst for many of the worlds phenomena in history.
This may be due to our Eurocentrist upbringings, or the systematic racism that has poisoned our society, either way, it is holding us back from the true reasons for the phenomena that we study in history. If we only focus on the ways that Europe influenced the major events that have occurred in history, we will be left with gaping holes in our research due to the reality that Europe isn’t actually superior. Thus, I believe it is crucial to look deeply into how African culture influenced one of history’s biggest anomalies: The Haitian Revolution. I argue that Voodoo, which is deeply rooted in African heritage and culture, was the main catalyst for the Haitian revolution as it provided an a shared cultural identity, an underground political institution, and the divine right to eliminate the white man.