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Most history books give August 21, 1791 as the date of the start of the Haitian revolution. The slaves in Haiti set in motion an uprising that was so bold and bloody that one researcher calls it “so colorful that not even Hollywood would have to improve upon history” (Corbett 1991). However, many historians cite the revolution as beginning many, many years earlier with the natural unrest of the slaves of the time. Despite the many intervening influences, the voodoo religion greatly impacted the revolution of Haitian slaves.
In order to understand how this impact arose, one must understand some of the basic information behind both the voodoo religion and the history of Haiti. First, the voodoo religion, also known as voudon and vodun, must be examined. The origins of this religion can be traced to Africa Here, 1,000 different tribal groups combined to form the religious base of what is now voodoo (Haeber, 2004). This religion is not written down in a series of laws or explanations, as is Christianity in the Bible, but rather, according to historian Joseph Washington (1972), “written in its members’ hearts, minds, oral history, rituals, priests, rainmakers, elders, and kings.
In such a setting, there were no sacred scriptures, only traditions. Their rituals were what bound them together as communities, much like Kabbalah did during anti-Jewish climate of Medieval Europe.” Now, most religious references sources, acknowledge voudou (voodoo) as the “complex beliefs and practices among the majority of the populace of Haiti” (Pastor, 2004). It is important to note that voodoo is recognized as a true and documented religion, not just a silly form of superstition.
Voodoo, as a religious practice, believes in one god, just like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Three forms of spiritual beings characterize the belief system; these are the iwa, twins and the dead. Iwa are the spirits of family members may reclaim the bodies of people now and again. They interact with human beings. Twins are mysterious opposing forces in the universe, such as good and bad, happy and sad, and the like. The dead are family members who have died buy remain unclaimed by their family. These dead can be very harmful or dangerous. Voodoo ceremonies involve worshipping, respecting, honoring and making sacrifices to the iwa in order to gain healing, to create spells and potions, to initiate new priests and priestesses and to read dreams and foretell the future. Theses ceremonies are led by holy men and women and generally involve a type of sacrifice. The iwa can take over the body of any participant for a period of time as well (Corbett, 1988).
Many of the superstitious ideas of voodoo, such as black magic, pins in dolls, and human sacrifice are the result of folklore. Basically, there are two kinds of voodoo – rada and petro, sometimes called congo. Rada is the family spirit kind of voodoo described above and centered upon the iwa, who are usually kind an helpful. Petro is the blacker voodoo which is comprised of the mean and dangerous iwa. This particular sext of voodoo historically involved sexual initiations, death curses and the creation of murderous zombies. Howver, by “virtually all scholarly estimates one can find, Rada accounts for about 95% of Voodoo, if not more. Thus the spectacular tales of black magic, while very real, are extremely limited. Petro is not the typical Voodoo, but it does exist” (Corbett, 1988). It is this 5% that has made voodoo a frightening idea for many.
Voodoo traveled with the African slaves all across the world, but seemed to find its foothold in the Caribbean and Haiti. Haiti, formerly called Saint-Domingue on the half that was controlled by the French and Santo Domingo on the half that was controlled by the Spanish, was among the wealthiest colonies in the world, with the most profitable sugar and indigo plantation system in the West Indies. Sadly, their system of slavery was among the most brutal and oppressive in the world, which led to a high mortality rate among the slaves and the constant influx of first generation Africans to replace them. As a result, the slaves’ cultural and religious traditions, such as voodoo, remained strong and undiluted (Duffy, 1999). The force of their beliefs propelled them onward throughout their years of enslavement and the revolution that followed.
These slaves sailing to Haiti from Africa were not allowed to take any possessions; the only things they could take were their “languages, folktales, songs, dances and religions” Even though the Catholic Haitian whites forbade them to practice their culture outwardly, they practiced it in secret as their religious beliefs helped them get through the terrible days of slavery. Of course, the Catholic priests attempted to convert the slaves to Catholicism. In order to put up the appearance of acceptance, the slaves pretended to be Catholic, but secretly practiced their own religious; as these religions blended together, the Haitian “brand” of voodoo was formed. This voodoo fostered strong bonds between family, ancestors and community and ultimately gave the slaves the strength and unity for the revolt (Maclean, 2004). These bonds made the revolution possible.
A Catholic figure Moreau de Saint-Mery noted enslaved Africans manipulated Catholic faith to create an arena for the practice of their own primitive religions – voodoo. The moral conduct of some Catholic clergymen was brought into question as they were accused of enabling these practices through the solicitation of fees supposedly for voodoo items, such as “baptizing houses, boats and even blessed charms, amulets or whatever brought the Voudou followers back for service. Some priests were taken away for providing such services and for more importantly comprising their morals and values to the Catholic religion” (Pastor, 2004). As a result, problems were generated in the Catholic Church as well which affected the French nation as well as its Haitian colony.
At this time Haiti was a hotbed of uprising and unrest. Violent conflicts between white colonists from France and their black slaves were common in Saint-Domingue, which later became Haiti. Runaway slaves, called Maroons, undertook a type of guerrilla warfare against whit plantations and eventually organized itself into a powerful and unified force under the leadership of Francois Makandal. He attempted to poison the drinking water of all the whites long before the “official” rebellion but was unsuccessful (Pastor, 2004). These attempts, though failures, did spawn more and more interest in becoming free and in empowering the slaves to revolt.
This revolt against the system of slavery and the French colonists eventually escalated into what is called the Haitian Revolution. For a long time, the Maroons were only successful on a limited scale because the whites and the free, landholding blacks combined to repel them. Soon, the black landowners soon tired of the arrangement and wanted to be equal to and as powerful as the white landowners. This led to a dissolution of their cooperation. Unfortunately for the slaves, tensions between blacks and mulattos impeded the process of creating unified front against the white elitists (US Library of Congress, 2006). However, this tension soon become cooperation.
Officially, the causes for the revolution (and its success) are listed in the book, Voodoo and Politics in Haiti, as
(Laguerre 1989, 66-67)
What links voodoo with this Haitian rebellion is the eventually leadership and organization of the slave’s uprising. In August of 1791, several black leaders joined together to solidify a unified group of fighters. Some of these leaders were Francois Dominique Toussaint Louverture (Toussaint), Boukman, a runaway slave, Georges Biassou, Jean-Francois, and Jeannot. Boukman was a voodoo houongan, or priest. The ceremony, led by Boukman, was sealed with the sacrifice of a pig (Pastor, 2004). This service was reportedly one of the very rare Petro (petwo) services. “Word spread rapidly of this historic and prophetic religious service and the maroons and slaves readied themselves for a major assault on the whites” (Corbett, 1991). The uprising was primed.
Voodoo practices gave the slaves hope that they might overcome their plight. They believed fully that religion would give them victory over their cruel masters and allow them the chance to live out their dreams. This faith gave them strength.
What ensued was a mass execution of white men, women and children in the far northern settlements. All of the white settlements were burned, with nothing spared. However, all of the slaves attempts were not successful; at Cap Francais, the white residents were ready and held their own with each side losing thousands of individuals and acres upon acres of plantation land. It was this battle that truly set the full-fledged Haitian rebellion into motion (Pastor, 2004). For the first time, the white landowners were afraid.
Voodoo was a powerful weapon for the revolution in that it soon terrified white planters and allowed for the mass organization of separate groups of maroons and blacks under the guise of religious practice. High priests and priestesses instilled fear among the plantation owners and other whites through their preparation of potions and poisons and their ability to curse individuals (Duffy, 1999). Troy Taylor cites Marie Laveau, the supposed Queen of Voodoo who notes that
The religion was practiced by the slaves and the free blacks as well and so strong was the power held by the upper echelons of the religion that they could entice their followers to any crime, and any deed. Whether or not these priests held supernatural power or not, the subtle powers of suggestion and of secret drugs made Voodoo a force to be reckoned with. Masters felt the taste of poison in their food, women and men the taste of lust with a handful of powder… and even death was held in check by the use of “zombie” drugs. There was no denying that Voodoo was real, and powerful (Taylor, 2000).
The power that some priests and priestesses could wield reached epic proportions in the folklore of Haiti. Examples include the ability to kill by simply pointing loa fetishes at people or animals. One journalist affirms this phenomenon two hundred years later:
A woman splashed sand into her eyes, a man cut his belly with shards of glass but did not bleed, another swallowed fire. Nearby a believer, perhaps a yam farmer or fisherman, heated hand-wrought knives in crackling flames. Then another man brought one of the knives to his tongue. We cringed at the sight and were dumbfounded when, after several repetitions, his tongue had not even reddened. (Beckwith 1995)
Participants in these occurrences claim to be protected by the spirits and that no harm will ever come to them. This of course struck great fear in the white plantation owners who did not feel capable of such a formidable opponent. Plantation owners and other whites and free blacks were within their rights to be frightened of this seemingly sinister practice that could cause their own deaths at any time.
One particular ritual of voodoo, known as the Candela was particularly feared because it seemed indecent and erotic and might provoke violent or indecent actions. “The secret societies had their own individual formal initiation rituals and consisted of teaching the society, tested their skills of loyalty by sharing information belonging to the group. The individual participating in the initiation ritual must not share any secrets with a group not belonging to this particular society” (Pastor, 2004). Thus, through the Candela, the loyalty of other unknown individuals could be tested and information shared on a regular basis.
The communal bonds of voodoo and its rapid growth and awareness during the revolutionary period created a serious level of suspicion among the whites and other Christians. As opposition and religious tensions mounted, the voodoo community grew more secretive, more loyal, and more determined. As individual began to be persecuted for their religion, the fervor just continued to grow which created a wide gulf between the then French Catholics and the black voodoo slaves (Pastor, 2004).
Soon, rumors or secret and barbaric rituals involving sex, blood, poisons and more began to circulate among the whites. “The dichotomy that developed became more pronounced through time, which led to an unambiguous climate of Black and White, Good and Bad. In colonial Haiti, the slave owners and Jesuits saw the Black slaves as literal practitioners of Black magic, even though the vast majority of Voodoo – 95-percent – is comprised of White magic (houngan), rather than Black magic (bocor) practitioners” (Haeber, 2004). By 1790, fear of this dark voodoo religion spread to the French Louisiana in the current United States. (Slave Religion in Central and South America, 2002).
As a result of the rising level of factions and unrest in Haiti, France took action by naming commissioners to use military action to restore order. While the military intervention did not do much in the way of restoring order, giving free blacks full citizenship status did a little. In 1797 an important figure by the name of Toussaint led the revolt. Toussaint warned that Napolean would burn the entire Haitian nation. During this time the French colony of Louisiana was sold to the United States and populated with the many exiles and refugees from Haiti (Pastor, 2004).
Toussaint’s leadership was admired by nearly everyone.
He was revered by the blacks, and appreciated by most whites and mulattoes for helping to restore the economy of Saint-Domingue. Disregarding French revolutionary laws, he allowed many émigré planters to return, and used military discipline to force the former slaves to work. He believed that people were naturally corrupt, and felt that compulsion was needed to prevent idleness. The labourers, however, were no longer whipped; they were legally free and equal, and they shared the profits of the restored plantations. Racial tensions eased because Toussaint preached reconciliation and believed that for the blacks, a majority of whom were African born, there were lessons to be learnt from whites and Europeanized mulattoes. His ability to control the revolution was a form to restore law in the enslaved colony (Toussaint Louverture, 2007)
As a result, Toussaint was regarded as honorable by both sides of the conflict who “had the regard for human life and passed on with honor and respect and accomplished success and defeats and helped to change the course of history” (Toussaint Louverture, 2007). An opponent of voodoo, he worked for the safety of his own white master and others like him while fighting to bring rights and wages to the blacks. Later, however, he had to send his family to safety in Spanish Santo Domingo and join forces with the French commanders in order to ensure his own safety (Toussaint Louverture, 2007).
Voodoo as a religion thus began as a revolutionary cause and resulted in the establishment, ultimately of the Creole community in Louisiana. Of course, Creole as a language was brought to the French in the 1600s but the slaves use of the language as a means of resisting their owners and other whites entrenched it in their culture. Language was brought by French Buccaneers in the 17th century, and the combination of Indian and Spanish formed Creole which served to isolate others in France. Creole was taught to the enslaved Africans as another form of resistance (Pastor, 2004). Thus, the slaves had a secret language to go along with their voodoo.
Another major contribution to history of Louisiana was the influx of 10,000 Saint-Domingue refugees between 1792-1810. Along with their arrival to New Orleans their Contributions included the sugar industry, establishments of the French Opera, Newspapers, Schools and Colleges with French culture. The refugees also contributed Creole cuisine, Creole language, okra and voodoo to their adopted homeland.
Louisiana benefited economically from the sugar industry that was introduced to the region by white and black St. Domingans (Pastor, 2004). Voodoo beliefs were carried through the slave trade from New Orleans, up the Mississippi delta to Memphis. Voodoo later traveled to Houston in the 1930s and 40s as the railroads and promise of jobs provided more opportunities to these former Haitians (Wenger). Thus, the Haitian revolution eventually impacted the United States by contributing to the rich and unique culture of Louisiana.
“Revolutionary leaders successfully used Voodoo to make Haiti the first black republic in the world and the second nation to achieve independence in the western hemisphere and to make the Haitian revolution the first social revolution in the third world” (Laguerre, 1989). The Haitian revolt was the largest and only successful slave revolt in the Eastern hemisphere and produced the first black republic in the entire world and the first independent country in Latin America (Duffy, 1999). The Haitian revolution was the result of many factors – political, social and religious. However, the voodoo religion practice by the revolutionary leaders and the slaves both served to turn the course of the revolution to create the free nation that it is today.
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