A Brief History of Haitian Vodou

Introducing Haitian Vodou

A Brief History

The key to understanding what Vodou is, you must first travel back to ancient Africa. Only by learning about its people and history, can you appreciate its place in today’s modern society.

Some anthropologists estimate that Vodou's roots can be traced back 6,000 years or more.

The word "Vodou" or "Vodu" is from the old language known as Fon, simply meaning Spirit/God. One of the oldest ancestral honoring religions, Vodou began in Dahomey, now known as the Republic of Benin. Its roots span out over many parts of coastal West Africa, from Senegal all the way down the Ivory Coast to Kongo. This also included links to the Yoruban culture of Nigeria. The reason why these regions are so important to Vodou is because these are all tribal kingdoms of Africa where slaves were brought to Haiti.

Ayiti (Land of High Mountains) was the indigenous Taino name for this island.

Columbus lands on HaitiIn 1517 Charles V authorized the draft of slaves imported from Africa. By the mid-1500s, tens of thousands of West African slaves had already been shipped to Hispaniola. As a gateway to the Caribbean, Hispaniola became a haven for pirates. The western part of the island was eventually settled by French buccaneers and freebooters, who ultimately became settlers. Many conflicts arose as a result of this new population refusing to submit to royal Spanish authority. By the mid 1600s the rise of the French influence in the Caribbean was very becoming more and more apparent to the Spanish, who by this time were starting to abandon their original idea of finding rich gold deposits in the mountains, and were beginning to look elsewhere and away from the island.

It was during this time that more of the French had turned their eyes toward the Caribbean. However, their interest was different from that of the Spanish. They saw the beautiful lush and fertile land of the island and saw their riches in the form of crops like cotton and sugar. By the end of the 1600s, France received the western third of Hispaniola which they called Saint Domingue. They sought to establish enormous plantations in order to grow things like sugar, cotton, and coffee. With this in mind where do you think this massive labor force was going to come from? You guessed it: West African slaves.

Arowak womanBy the late 1700s, Saint Domingue had the largest number of slaves than any other colony in the Caribbean. Hundreds of thousands of West African slaves were brought over to Saint Domingue in enormous ships, taking up to 90 days to reach the island from the west coast of Africa. These ships were referred to as "floating tombs" due to the horrific conditions they were subjected to. If the slaves were lucky enough to survive the journey, a new horror awaited them once they reached the shore. Torn from their families and their entire way of life, slaves were immediately put to work on the plantations where they were stripped of their humanity and treated horribly. They were even re-named with Christian names in order to further attempt to completely remove them from their African heritage. All they had left was the memory of their tribes and homelands, and of course, their religious beliefs.

The slave owners’ attempt to remove the Africans from their heritage only turned on them in the end. The slaves’ spirituality became the one thing that brought them and kept them together, so that they would one day conquer the hands that beat them and as a result, finally free themselves from the chains that bound them, once and for all.

The slave owners did their best to wipe out any attempt that the slaves might honor their own religious beliefs. They knew that a common belief system had the power to unite the slaves, therefore turning all that they had gained against them. The Catholic Church made every attempt to diminish all possibilities of the slaves practicing their own African beliefs. According to them, any other belief besides their own was simply devil worship and against God. The Church even required every slave to be baptized in an attempt to convert them. They actually believed that slavery gave them the opportunity to eradicate the beliefs of these primitive African people. History shows that this wasn't the only time the Church committed such atrocities in order to "save their souls.” Any slave caught in service to any of their ancestral beliefs was subject to map of Haitibeating, torture or even death. To avoid these retaliations, they learned how to mask what they were doing, even in plain sight of the watchful eyes of their masters.

So what did they do? They learned to adapt. They had no choice but to adapt to ensure their own survival, and their religion was no exception. However, what the French didn't realize was that nothing was what it appeared to be. They never truly submitted to the way of the whites, but they had to adopt certain ideas to suit their own purposes. They looked for the similarities wherever they were to be found, such as in the icons, symbols and saints. To the slaves, Catholicism was just a different way of expressing some of the things they already knew to be true, so they preserved their beliefs under the camouflage of Catholicism.

Rebellion and Revolution

By the end of the seventeenth century, Vodou had established itself as the religion of the slaves, therefore uniting them under a common bond.

Their goal was by means of a successful rebellion. By the late 1700s, runaway slaves referred to as maroons, were plotting a rebellion against their white adversaries. With the help of a new nation of Spirits, they put their plan into motion which would mark the beginning of their revolution and would evolve into something wonderful that would ultimately give them what they so desperately longed for: freedom and independence.

Haiti UprisingThis was the genesis of Haiti...
On the night of August 14th and 15th, 1791, on the outskirts of Cap Haitian in a secret location called Bois Caiman, an Houngan (Vodou Priest) by the name of Dutty Boukman presided over the leaders and representatives of all the different nations and ethnic groups, bringing them together to make a pact that they would meld and fight until the death.
As the sound of the drums fueled the ceremony, a Mambo (Vodou Priestess) by the name of Cecile Fatiman ultimately became possessed by a powerful spirit who we all know as Erzulie Dantor, Queen of the Petro. A sacrifice was offered to Erzulie Dantor in the form of a female black pick. The pig’s throat was cut by Dantor herself, and the blood was captured and given each to the leaders of all the nations in order to seal the deal. They swore that no matter what, they would rather die than to continue to live without freedom.
Dantor’s message spread like wildfire though the slaves and plantations and by the next week, approximately 2000 plantations had been burned to the ground and about 1000 slave owners were massacred. This was would mark the beginning of a war that would last for more than a decade.

Promises Broken to the Spirits

Haitian FlagHaiti would become the first independent black-led nation in the world. When Haiti finally gained its independence, it came to be shunned by the outside world. For the next hundred years, Haiti was violated by consistent political drama and ultimately cut off from the world. As for Vodou, it would live on under the oppression of one dictatorship after the other, and for the next 40 years after gaining their independence.

The next leaders to come would do their best to drive Vodou into the ground. These leaders, who were no doubt military leaders during the war, were well aware of the power of Vodou and its ability to unite Haiti's oppressed people. Vodou was seen as dangerous to their plans and so they needed to do everything they could to eliminate any possibility of future revolts.

In 1807 Haiti would fall into civil war between the north and south. In the south, it came under the control of Alexandre Petion, who merely tolerated Vodou due to its power to overcome adversity. In the north, a former general named Henri Christophe had banned Vodou completely in order to keep his Catholic subjects in supportive of his plans. After the death of Christophe in 1820, the north and south were reunited in 1822 by their president Jean-Piere Boyer, who was also Petion's former minister. Boyer passed a penal code that classified Vodou as "superstition," thus becoming illegal and subject to fines and even imprisonment.

It’s unfortunate that Haiti would only continue to suffer and the reason for this is because of the suppression of Vodou over so many years by its leaders. The same Spirits that were responsible for Haiti's independence had now turned their backs on those who abandoned them.

In 1847 Haiti's next emperor would be Faustin Soulouque, who was the first Haitian leader to practice Vodou openly. However, his reign was short-lived and ended in 1859. Nicholas Fabre Geffrard, a Catholic and one of the mulatto elites was next to take over. Once again, the ban on Vodou was set back in place. Still, this didn't stop the peasants from practicing Vodou. They merely did as they once done long ago, by hiding it behind Catholicism. But only eight years into Geffrard's rule, he was overthrown and executed by firing squad.

Vodou, as always, had survived. Despite the country’s constant economic hardships, all previous attempts to stamp out the religion had failed time and time again. For about the first half of the nineteenth century, Haiti was cut off from the rest of the world - including the Catholic Church. During this time, Vodou was allowed to grow and develop without any involvement from the outside world. But the fight for Vodou still wasn't over yet.

The Anti Superstition Campaigns

The first Anti Superstition Campaign was launched in 1896 and many more followed - all the way to 1986. These campaigns were designed to not only destroy and desecrate religious sites, holy objects, temples, and sacred trees, but also to imprison Houngans and Mambos and kill their congregations. In 1941 an Anti Superstition Campaign was put into effect, which led to temple raids and massacres. The Catholic Church and the state police were in support of these actions and even required that every Catholic in Haiti had to renounce Vodou as Satanic. But once again the Petro Spirits were called in to handle the problem and the faithful fought back violently. In 1942 the campaign was stopped by President Elie Lescot.

The last of the Anti Superstition Campaigns was to take place in 1986. Under the dictatorship of General Henry Namphy, Catholic and Protestants once again set off to terrorize the Vodouists by means of murder and desecration. This assault on Vodou failed and Namphy was expelled from Haiti two years later.

The United States Comes to Haiti

From 1915-1934 U.S. Marines occupied Haiti, calling it the American Occupation. Following the brutal killing of President Guillaume Sam, Port au Prince was in a state of total chaos. This immediately got the attention of the U.S. Navy. President Woodrow Wilson ordered American troops to seize the capital. Troops landed on July 28, 1915. Believing that Haiti was incapable of governing itself, the U.S. rightfully earned resentment from Haitians. Haitians were forced into unpaid labor on the grounds of "public improvement projects.” Fearing what seemed to be the return of white oppression, Vodouists did what they did and called on the aid of the Spirits. Thousands of armed Haitians called Cacos, waged guerilla warfare against U.S. forces.

Under the leadership of President Elie Lescot, the Marines launched their own campaign to stamp out Vodou for good and took great care in destroying Vodou temples and countless icons of the Spirits.
One author writes:

"It should not surprise us that during the American occupation, from 1915 to 1934, tales of cannibalism, torture, and zombis were published in this country. What better way to justify the 'civilizing' presence of Marines in Haiti than to project the phantasm of barbarism?"
--Joan Dayan, "Voudoun, or the Voice of the Gods," Sacred Possessions

Lieutenant Fraustin Wirkus wrote in his book, “The White King of La Gonave,” and described the damage he inflicted in order to "save" the Haitians from cannibalism and black magic.

Papa Doc, The Duvaliers

Haiti's infamous dictator, Dr. Francois 'Papa Doc' Duvalier, was elected president in 1957. Self-proclaimed radical defender of African culture, he used this to gain support of the peasantry. To him the Catholic Church in Haiti was the ally of the mulatto elites. It is said that he even replaced Catholic priests with his own Haitian clergy. Duvalier made Vodou the official religion of Haiti, but in the end used his own version of Vodou in order to instill fear and control the Haitian people. He was a member of the Secte Rouge, which was a secret society made up of sorcerers which led to many believing he was a sort of black magician. He even modeled his image on that of Baron Samedi, seen in top hat, a white suit with dark sunglasses.

Duvalier also created a group of secret police against any possible opponents. The Tonton Macoutes, armed with guns and machetes, indiscriminately took out any who spoke out against Duvalier. Those who fell victim to the Tonton Macoutes would simply disappear in the night. Some of the members of the Toton Macoutes were in fact Vodou leaders, which he knew would give them an added sense of unearthly authority in the eyes of the public. This image was decorated even more by their choice of clothes, like straw hats, dark blue denim shirts and dark glasses. Duvalier regime propaganda even stated that "Papa Doc was one with the Loas, Jesus Christ, and God himself.” The most celebrated image from the time shows a standing Jesus Christ with hand on a seated Papa Doc's shoulder with the caption "I have chosen him". There was even a Duvalierist variant of the Lord's Prayer.

Papa Doc Died in 1971 and his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier "Baby Doc," took his place as President. By then Haiti and its citizens had had enough of this family, and one more time, the people came together to fight for their freedom and were successful at forcing Baby Doc Duvalier and his family into exile in 1986.

The fall of the Duvaliers marked the beginning for religious freedom in Haiti. In 1987 a new constitution was passed that guaranteed religious protection and freedom for all religions, including Vodou. For the first time in Haiti's history, Vodouists could honor the religion of their ancestors freely and openly, without fear of persecution.

In the early 1990s under the presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the historical place in Bois Caiman where the ceremony took place and gave the slaves their freedom, was finally commemorated for the first time in 200 years.