CW: Slavery, racial violence and colonisation.
The year is 1791, and Haiti is established as France’s colonial crown jewel. A foreign export trade built from a brutal regime of slavery results in Haiti producing sixty percent of the world’s exports in sugar and coffee. For its European settlers, it is a land where Christian morals are loosely governed in exchange for the benefits of a booming economy. For its African population, it is hell on earth. And yet, amidst this isle of human misery, a new religion is born from a blending of the traditional beliefs held by the African slaves with roots throughout West and Central Africa. It is not a religion that offers hope of a happier afterlife but is born out of human despair, the need to survive, to be avenged, and a desperate desire to be protected in the here and now. Vodou, known to Westerners as Voodoo, sparked a slave revolution that eventually led to the abolishment of slavery across the Western world. This essay will discuss how two of Haiti’s most dominant religions, Christianity and Vodou, played a role throughout the 16th to the 19th centuries, eventually leading to the 1791 slave revolt.
Spanish Colonialism and the Indigenous Population of Haiti
Christopher Columbus was the first European to set foot on the island in 1492 and named it after his European homeland Hispañola. He left behind a small crew of 39 men with the intention to return in a year, only to discover that they were destroyed by the Taíno and Arawakan people, who made up the Indigenous population and called their island Ayiti. Columbus continued to sail east and founded a new settlement in a territory now known as the Dominican Republic. In 1502, the Spanish returned to the western part of the island and established a second settlement on the north coast called Peurto Real, which was later relocated and renamed Bayaja. As the colonies grew and the Spanish Crown sought to expand its power in the new world, the Indigenous population suffered new atrocities. In pursuit of finding gold that was rumoured to exist on the island, the Spanish subjected the Taíno and Arawakan people to intense labour and torture in their quest to find it. Within fifteen years after the establishment of the first colony, the Indigenous population had suffered extreme losses, with only one-fifth remaining in existence. Reports claim that many poisoned themselves out of desperation to escape their conditions. Still, the biggest death sentence were the foreign diseases that settlers brought with them, to which the Indigenous population had no immunity. After thirty years, the entire population had been destroyed.
However, before the complete dissemination of the Indigenous population and sometime within the first decade of the 16th century, a conquistador by the name of Bartolomé de las Casas witnessed the cruelty experienced by the Taíno and Arawakan people and shortly after dedicated his life to Christian service, becoming Haiti’s first Catholic missionary to advocate for the rights of the Indigenous peoples. In his advocacy to improve the conditions for the Indigenous population, he offered the solution to replace Indigenous labourers with enslaved Africans. And so, with the first shipload of African slaves arriving in 1512, the transatlantic slave trade was born and Haiti became known as the gateway to the new world.
With the slaves came cultural and religious traditions spanning from the different regions across the sub-Sahara to Bakongo, with reports that most slaves in the San-Domingo colony hailing from Cape Lopez and Cape Negre. Stitched together from the varying African regions, these beliefs formed the early foundation of Vodou, which would later develop into the dominant religion of the colonial slaves, the 19th-century peasant class and the modern-day working class. This new set of beliefs and practices were at odds with the dominant Christian beliefs of the white settlers, whereby 1511 the Church had embedded three bishoprics into the cultural fabric of the island, and Christian activity maintained a steady hold until 1685 when the growing population of French colonists began to challenge Spanish rule.
French rule, Code Noir and forced conversion
While the Church maintained power within the Spanish colonies, the governing Catholic law ruled that it was forbidden to enslave Christians. Under this law, Columbus forbade the baptism of its Indigenous population during the early days of their colonisation, and this rule extended to African slaves. It was under this law that Vodou flourished amongst the slaves, allowing slave insurrections to destabilise Spanish power over its plantations, while Spain faced challenges on sea and abroad from England, France and the Netherlands. By 1697, the Spanish ceded reign of the western part of the island to French rule under the Treaty of Ryswick, and a new brutal regime of slavery and religious control began.
However, while the French gained power over Haiti’s provinces, King Louis XIV introduced Code Noir in 1685, a set of laws designed to regulate the practice of slavery in the French colonies. Subsequently, these laws introduced the concept of mandatory baptism and the teaching of Christian doctrines for all African slaves. A practice that seems to operate in contrast to the earlier laws enforced by the Spanish. However, under French rule, the goal to stamp out the practice of Vodou through forced Christianisation was covered by the insidious guise that slavery was justified by the French as the act of ‘saving the souls’ of the African slaves through the process of baptism. Through this narrative of ‘soul-saving’, the French were able to enforce strict control over the religious practices of its slave population.
Coincidently, on certain plantations, a new hierarchy was born out of the baptism of slaves, with unbaptised and newly-arrived slaves named Bossals (savages), which in time would be downgraded to Chevaux (Horses), the longer a slave maintained their status of being unbaptised. Those who were baptised assumed a sense of baseless superiority over their unbaptised counterparts. The colonists, recognising that this division assisted in preventing the slaves from organising against their owners, encouraged this narrative of classist and religious dogma amongst the slaves. This class divide between baptised and un-baptised slaves would later inform the divide between modern-day classes after the revolution, allowing those who operated as the elites of society to differentiate themselves from their lower-class counterparts and assume control of the land.
Yet despite the forced Christianisation, Vodou continued to flourish as its followers adapted their religion to encompass Christian symbolism. Vodou is not on its own, an inflexible religion — born out of a patchwork of beliefs from multiple regions across Africa, Vodoun practices differentiated across each community. Where a more significant percentage of the community hailed from a particular region in Africa, it was the symbols and practices of this region that were dominant for the wider Vodou community in that area, resulting in an religion that was neo-African in nature. The Africans, having adapted their beliefs to their situation of enslavement, continued to adapt their religion to encompass Christian symbolism. A prominent Christian priest at the time, Father Jean-Baptiste Labat, made the following observation:
The Negroes have no scruples. . . . They intermix Dagon’s ark and secretly keep all the superstitions of their ancient idolatrous cult with the ceremonies of the Christian religion. All the Negroes have much devotion for the communion wafer. They eat it only when they are ill, or when they are afraid of some danger. In regard to the holy water, the little bit of water that is consecrated during the Sunday Mass, it is rare that one finds one drop of it when the ceremony has ended; they carry it in little calabashes and drink some drops when they rise (in the morning) and pretend that it will guarantee their welfare against all the witchcraft that might befall them. –– Labat, 1722
So while missionaries observed what was, to them, sacrilegious practices against Christianity; to the African population, it was a method of adapting to their situation of forced religious beliefs while still holding on to a practice that was at its core, African. In essence, the adaptive nature that Vodou took on in adopting Christian symbols is a method of survival. And while Vodou survived, so did the uniquely African communities that the colonists fought to control and disseminate.
Vodou as a threat to colonisation and the 1791 Rebellion
Family and community are central to traditional African religious practices. The slave trade destroyed existing African families as individuals, regardless of their status in their African communities, were sold to different owners. However, Vodou allowed the slaves to maintain a sense of community as practices often involved congregational dancing, drumming and chanting held under cover of the night. These evening rituals, held in secret and away from the eyes and ears of the clergy, involved communities of slaves from plantations which were later joined by Maroons, who were escaped slaves who had successfully managed to survive in the mountains surrounding Haiti. The first Vodou leaders emerged within the Maroon communities, where Vodou was practised openly and without restraint. Presenting themselves as divine beings hailed with a sacred mission to save the African race, these leaders were the first of Haiti’s Vodou hungan (priests) and mambo (priestesses).
One of the first priests was Fracnçois Makandal, the leader of the Maroons and a practising Muslim. Although historical accounts associate the Maroons with Vodou practices, Makandal’s personal practice seems to remain largely unreported. Regardless, he brought tactical knowledge of military expertise and a long-term plan for Haiti. His plan involved organised resistance and a revolution that would expel white colonists from the land. His conviction led him to recruit enslaved Africans from plantations, and his campaign was so successful that a report noted that between 1748 and 1758, for every fifty slaves purchased, as many as forty had abandoned the plantation and joined Makandal within weeks. Makandal posed such a threat to the French that his followers were captured and tortured into providing information on him. One captive led to Makandal’s capture in 1758 and Makandal was promptly burned at the stake. However, Makandal’s devout followers did not lose hope, and it was prophesied that Makandal would be reincarnated within the body of another. Two decades later, that leader was found in Dutty Boukman.
Boukman and the Maroons offered a space for a consciousness of the shared African suffering to be openly expressed and for the hope of freedom to flourish and turn into a desire so strong that not even the political power of the colony or the church was able to contain it. On 14 August 1971, Boukman and Cécile Faitman, a prominent mambo, coordinated a gathering of around 200 slaves for a strategic and religious meeting for the purpose of inspiring a slave revolt. This ceremony was, in its nature, an act of resistance against the policing of Vodou, as it abandoned its element of secrecy. Together, Boukman and Faitman rallied their gathering into a frenzy, committing their followers to the slave revolution through the ceremonial slaughter of a pig. Within a week, 1800 plantations had been destroyed, and 1000 slave owners were killed, as the slaves delivered violent revenge.
Overall, both Christianity and Vodou played a pivotal role leading up to the 1791 slave revolution of Haiti. Ironically, while a Christian missionary had advocated for the rights of the island’s original Indigenous population, this advocacy led to the greater slave trade and diaspora of Africans. Historically, Christianity has always been a white person’s religion, and the pre-revolution events are examples of how Christianity has ultimately been used as a tool to oppress, divide and control. In contrast to this, and always at the heart of survival and resistance, Vodou continued to operate as a direct form of resistance to Christianity — and by extension, colonial— control.
Anderson-Córdova, Karen, Surviving Spanish Conquest: Indian Fight, Flight, and Cultural Transformation in Hispaniola and Puerto Rico (University of Alabama Press, 2017)
Apter, Andrew, ‘On African Origins: Creolization and Connaissances in Haitan Vodou’ (2002) 29(2) American Ethnologist
Blier, Suzanne Preston, ‘Vodun: West African Roots of Vodou’ in Donald J Cosentino (ed), Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou (Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995)
Bolton, Herbert E and Marshall, Thomas Maitland The Colonization of North America 1492 to 1783 (Kessinger Publishing, (2005)
Desmangles, Leslie Gérald The Faces of the gods: vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti (The University of North Carolina Press)
Desmangles, Leslie Gérald, ‘The Maroon Republics and religious Diversity in Colonial Haiti’ (1990) 85(4) Anthropos
Diouf, Sylviane A. ‘The Muslim Factor in the Haitan Revolution’ in Sylviane A. Diouf, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (NYU Press, 2013)
Ferrer, Ada ‘Introduction — The Haitian revolution and Cuban Slave Society’ in Ferrer, Ada, Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution’ (Cambridge University Press, 2014)
Fick, Carolyn E., The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below. (University of Tennessee Press, 1990)
Geggus, David Patrick, Haitian revolutionary studies (Indiana University Press, 2002)
Laguerre, Michael, ‘The Place of Voodoo in the Social Structure of Haiti’ (1973) 19 (3) Caribbean Quarterly
Metraux, Alfred, ‘The Social Framework of Voodoo’ in Alfred Metraux, Voodoo in Haiti (Pantheon, 1989)
Sanders, Richard, Demonizing Democracy: Christianity v Vodoun and the Politics of Religion in Haiti (2008) 63(1) Press for Conversion!
Stark, Rodney, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformatoins, Science, Witch-Hunts and the End of Slavery (Princeton University Press, 2003)