On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince, Leogane, and other parts of Haiti. The day after this catastrophe, Reverend Pat Robertson, the host of the 700 Club and an influential voice in the American fundamentalist movement, remarked that centuries ago Haitians swore a pact to the Devil in order to gain their freedom from slavery under the French. The moment to which Robertson referred in his comments was the Bwa Kayiman Vodou ceremony that launched the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). Despite the humanitarian efforts of his charitable organization currently assisting Haitians with earthquake relief, Robertson’s remarks strike many as callous and racist. But missing in some of the responses to those remarks in the midst of this unimaginable tragedy, which include condemnations and historical essays, is an important reality of the contemporary Haitian religious landscape which has been neglected thus far and bears analysis: some Haitians (Haitian Protestants, in particular) also believe that Haiti is cursed.
Evangelical Protestantism is a growing religious movement in Haiti which currently represents a third of the country’s population of over 9 million. Increasing numbers of Haitians, both at home and abroad, practice various forms of Protestant Christianity, such as Pentecostalism and the Baptist, Nazarene, and Methodist faiths. For example, the majority of Haitians in the Bahamas practice Protestant forms of Christianity. In interviews conducted with Haitian Protestants in Nassau, Bahamas in 2005, some of my informants claimed that Haiti “got its freedom the wrong way”—that is, because of the Bwa Kayiman Vodou ceremony that launched the Haitian revolution in 1791, the same Vodou ceremony that Pat Robertson referred to as a “pact with the Devil” in his untimely commentary. Vodou, formed between 1750 and 1790 on the plantations of colonial Haiti, is a creolized African religion that many Haitians currently practice. Vodou was important in the struggle for liberation among enslaved Africans because, as Leslie Desmangles rightly observes, the rituals of Vodou provided the spirit of kinship that fueled the slaves’ revolt against their colonial masters.
Part of the Haitian national narrative well known among Haitians and scholars of Haiti is the Bwa Kayiman Vodou Congress led by Boukman. Boukman was a maroon who escaped from a plantation near Morne Rouge and led a Vodou ceremony that was pivotal to the beginning of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). At this ceremony Boukman encouraged enslaved Africans to dismantle the plantation system of Saint Domingue (Colonial Haiti) through the same type of violence that had been wrought upon them. As slaves who produced indigo, tobacco, and, at one point in history, two-fifths of the world’s sugar and half of the world’s coffee, it was not uncommon for slave masters, as Alex Dupuy writes, to “hang a slave by the ears, mutilate a leg, pull teeth out, gash open one’s side and pour melted lard into the incision, or mutilate genital organs. Still others used the torture of live burial, whereby the slave, in the presence of the rest of the slaves who were forced to bear witness, was made to dig his own grave [...]. Women had their sexual parts burned by a smoldering log; others had hot wax splattered over hands, arms, and backs, or boiling cane syrup poured over their heads.” All of these heinous acts were committed to force slaves to perform their duties on plantations.
Within this violent environment, many enslaved Africans resisted and fought against their captors. Therefore, it makes sense that enslaved Africans would reject the religious system (Christianity) forced upon them by slave owners. On August 14, 1791, Boukman uttered these prophetic words at Bwa Kayiman in defiance of the slave owners, which C.L.R. James quotes in The Black Jacobins: “The god who created the sun which gives us light, who rouses the waves and rules the storm, though hidden in the clouds, he watches us. He sees all that the white man does. The god of the white man inspires us with crime, but our god calls upon us to do good works. Our god who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us. Throw away the symbol of the god of the whites who has caused us to weep, and listen to the voices of liberty, which speaks in the hearts of us all.” Boukman, along with others, tore the Christian cross from their necks. Six days later, slaves of the Turpin plantation, led by Boukman, indiscriminately massacred every white man, woman, and child they could find. This act of revolt began a general insurrection that would lead to the Haitian Revolution, the first successful slave revolt in the Western Hemisphere that extended the “rights of Man” (liberty, equality, and brotherhood) beyond Europeans and articulated a common humanity and equality embracing all Haitian citizens.
Although the story of Bwa Kayiman inspires many Haitians and other peoples of African descent who share a similar history of bondage (African-Americans, for example), many Haitian Protestants today find the history of the Bwa Kayiman ceremony offensive and believe that this was the exact historical moment when Haiti was “consecrated to the Devil.” Thus, Bwa Kayiman, by extension, ensured a legacy of misery in Haiti that is evidenced by the underdevelopment that grips it today.
This alternative view of Bwa Kayiman is clearly articulated, for example, by Chavannes Jeune, a pastor and evangelist from Les Cayes, Haiti, and a former candidate for the Haitian presidency in 2005. He is also the catalyst for “Haiti for the Third Century,” an interdenominational evangelical organization whose main purpose is to “take Haiti back from the devil and dedicate her to Jesus Christ.” Pastor Chavannes believes that the nation of Haiti is enmeshed in spiritual bondage because “the country was dedicated by a Vodou priest at its liberation” and “has been in bondage to the devil for four generations.” In this interpretation of Bwa Kayiman, Haitian Protestants like Pastor Chavannes view Vodou as a satanic religion, responsible for Haiti’s underdevelopment, continuing governmental corruption, endemic poverty, and probably the recent earthquake as well.
This radical, revisionist view of Haitian history reveals more about Haitian Protestant views with regard to Vodou than it does about why Haiti is so poor, or why Haiti was devastated by an earthquake. The enduring practice of Vodou, in the view of some Haitian Protestants, is the reason why Haiti is so poor, why its economy is in shambles, and why God chose to “punish” the island and its people with an earthquake. In other words, Vodou is the same as worshiping dyab (the Devil). Some Haitian Protestants who hold this view choose to scapegoat Vodou instead of looking at other parts of Haitian history to explain Haiti’s current misery, such as the multimillion franc indemnity Haiti paid to France, beginning in the nineteenth century, so that France wouldn’t invade Haiti after the Haitian Revolution. We can also look at the period when the Duvalier dictatorship (1957-1986) ruled Haiti through fear and violence, while siphoning millions of dollars of taxes and international aid for itself. While Jean-Claude Duvalier, the second “President for Life” during the Duvalier regime, who ruled from 1971-1986, and members of his circle grew fabulously rich, the majority of Haitians slipped deeper into poverty. The percentage of the Haitian population living in extreme poverty rose from 48 percent in 1976 to 81 percent in 1985. Under the Duvaliers, Haiti became the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.
There are numerous problems with the view that Haiti consecrated itself to the Devil more than 200 years ago. First, those Haitian Protestants who believe that Haiti is in bondage to the Devil recast the entire nation of Haiti as a sinful entity that can only be ameliorated through the conversion of the entire nation to Protestant and Pentecostal forms of Christianity. In other words, Haiti can only get itself back on track if every Haitian becomes some type of Protestant Christian. Conversely, this would require that Haitians reject Catholicism and Vodou, the majority religions of Haiti. Second, the view held by many Haitian Protestants that Haiti is cursed, condemns the slaves responsible for Haiti’s liberation, and by extension their descendants, rather than the slave owners who enthralled them and the institution of slavery itself. Thus, this problematic view of Haitian history suggests that slavery in Saint Domingue was a benign institution, or at least that it did not in fact merit the slaves’ revolt. Third, the revisionist history of Haiti as complicit in its own oppression through a “pact with the Devil” downplays the role black people played in making the Haitian revolution the first and only successful slave revolution in history. As Arthur and Dash write, “over the course of an epic 12 year struggle, the slaves defeated the local whites, the forces of the French Crown, a Spanish and a British invasion, and the massive expeditionary force sent by Napoleon Bonaparte,” with immense credit for these victories being due to Toussaint Louverture, the man who quickly emerged as the leader of the black armies.
Finally, the most important aspect of the Haitian revolution that gets lost in the belief that Haiti is “cursed” is that it demonstrated that black people (people of African descent) are human beings with the right to live dignified lives. This is a struggle that Haitians and other people of African descent are clearly still engaged in throughout the globe. The middle passage (where millions of Africans died in transport to the New World), centuries of chattel slavery, and the subsequent psychological and physical violence occurring on plantations tried to disprove the fundamental humanity of the black people who fought for the right to live free and dignified lives.
Haiti was the first country to articulate a general principle of common, unqualified equality for all of its citizens. The fundamental concept of a common humanity also ran deeply through the early Haitian constitutions. This belief is what connects Haitians with other people around the world, as was highlighted by President Barack Obama in a speech he delivered in the aftermath of the earthquake, which has claimed at least 230,000 lives at present. In the coming months, Haitians will continue to struggle to live dignified lives in the midst of destroyed homes, deceased family and friends, infrastructural challenges, and possible waves of infectious diseases that could claim additional lives. The belief that Haiti is cursed will not help Haiti recover from the devastating earthquake, but combating this growing view by placing it in its proper historical context reveals larger issues of structural inequality—forces which prevent Haitians, and the world’s poor, from living dignified lives in the twenty-first century.
Visit the SSRC’s essay forum “Haiti, Now and Next” here.—ed.