What’s “Religion” Got to Do With It?: Religion and Revolution in Haiti

By Lenny Lowe

The now mythic ceremony of Bwa Kayiman that is supposed to have initiated the first stage of the Haitian Revolution in 1791 serves as a sort of gravitational center for thinking about both Haiti and religion in Haiti. And yet, the connection between religion and revolution is most often underdeveloped in at least two ways. First, rare is the text that can actually make much sense of what it means to demonstrate the centrality of “religion” to the Haitian Revolution. Is it supposed to change the way that we understand the mode of revolution, the inspiration for revolution, the agents of revolution, or the significance of the revolution? Most often, the coincidence is cited, but explanatory priority is granted to other kinds of forces. Secondly, the extent to which the events that took place at Bwa Kayiman should be characterized as “religion” or “religious” is, to my knowledge, nowhere critically interrogated. Why ought we call these events “religious” in the first place? What makes dance, music, utterances, and animal sacrifice “religion”? To understand the difference it might make, one has only to consider the way that Haiti’s history might have been different if the slave uprising has been planned on a Sunday afternoon at a meeting of a Catholic confraternity rather than at night around a mapou tree. What if the meeting were led by a young Toussaint Louverture rather than Boukman the “papaloi”, or if the insurrection had been voted upon by an assembly rather than made in a blood pact over the slain body of a black pig? What difference does it make that it was “religion” that was at work at the Bwa Kayiman ceremony and not some other European social category like “politics”, “culture” or “economy”? I suspect it makes a rather significant difference, and thus the combination of these two scholarly oversights concerning this politically potent bit of lore seems even more serious.

Painting of Bwa Kayiman by Ulrick Jean-Pierre

I would like to start with the second issue of naming this “religion,” which, while little more than a series of  reifications, has had a profound impact on our understanding of Haiti and its history. Most people today (excepting, perhaps, Pat Robertson and apparently even the occasional Guardian journalist) would use Antoine Dalmas’ original 1814 account of the Bwa Kayiman to demonstrate the sensationalism of Eurocentric accounts. Still, none have questioned his basic claim that these events are best characterized as “cérémonies religieuses” of “les nègres.” (1:117) For example, in his 1938 The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James confidently asserts that “Voodoo was the medium of the conspiracy.” (86) More recently, in his Avengers of the New World (2004), Laurent Dubois tells us that “[t]he story of the Bois-Caïman ceremony symbolizes the place religious practice had in the slave insurrection,” and that it “serves as shorthand for the complex and varied presence of religion in the planning and execution of the insurrection.” (101) Yet, the way that certain practices and utterances came to be named as “religion” in the first place has a very particular history within Enlightenment-Christian Europe and its encounters with its colonial others. For Talal Asad, this history begins most clearly in the seventeenth century, “following the fragmentation of the unity and authority of the Roman Chuch and the consequent wars of religion.” (40) He suggests it was here that the first attempts were made to produce a universal definition of religion, starting with Lord Herbert of Cherbury in De veritae (1624) who formulated a notion of “Natural Religion” in terms of beliefs, practices, and ethics. Extended by Locke and Kant, the idea of “natural religion” was born in an effort to account for difference and to universalize human experience. However, not unlike the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen that emerged in the same era, this “universal” definition had at its core an exclusionary process and was inherently unrealizable as “universal.”

Lord Herbert of Cherbury

The first reification was to name the events at Bwa Kayiman as “religion” and thereby to subject it to criteria of evaluation according to its “truthfulness.” What holds these events back from being “true religion” or “right religion” is, of course, not dependent upon prime European notion of belief. For, one does not have to dig too deeply into the African-inspired practices of Haitians to discover what they themselves discovered — a profound affinity between the Catholic cosmos and their own. Rather, the problem of these events as religion (and the problem of what is named Vodou today) has much more to do with the practices — the aesthetics, the material objects deployed, the music played, the dances danced, etc. The second reification, the naming of the practices and utterances as “Voodoo”, is perhaps an even more pernicious one. If the notion of “religion” still allowed the utterances, material objects, dances, and songs of Bwa Kayiman to be particular to this night in 1791, C.L.R. James’ naming of them as “Voodoo” enacts a stabilization and an a-historicity that has rarely worked in favor of Haiti or Haitians. The fact that even today few Haitians would identify their practices as “Vodou” should make this point even clearer. So, perhaps the first step might be to seek a new language by which to describe the events of that night, words that are less burdened with European power and more descriptive of Kongo-inspired power, words like dance, song, rhythm, ancestors, the dead, or the mysteries.

The first issue, however, is perhaps the most vexing. It is easy to identify the co-incidence of these “religious” practices and the meeting of insurrectionist slaves of Limbé. It is, however, far more difficult to determine what this co-incidence might mean. When Laurent Dubois speaks of the centrality of “religious practice” in the insurrection, he seems to mean that religious practices provided both the occasion and the social structures of organization that allowed for the planning and implementation of that first slave uprising. Dubois also shows us that somehow this “religion” provided something of the content of the insurrection; the slaves carried ouanga (fetishes or charms) and danced and sang as they fought. But, here, the problem of “religion” as sui generis presents itself again. For, Dubois must qualify this by noting that “[t]hough religious practices facilitated and spurred on insurrection, it was only their combination with careful political organization that made the 1791 uprising successful.” (101) Because the practices and utterances of Bwa Kayiman are “religious,” they are therefore not political and must be paired with political organization to be effective. While these are undoubtedly strategic and descriptive distinctions for the historian, their separation obscures the reasons that readers should care that Bwa Kayiman was “religious” in the first place. Might we not simply consider Bwa Kayiman to have been primarily a political event in which politics implies power and/or powers or primarily a religious event that implies the same?

Perhaps the most compelling response to my honest questions about what difference it makes that “religion” was present at the inception of the Revolution comes in Kate Ramsey’s The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti (2012).  Ramsey’s work seeks to understand why the popular “religious” practices of Haiti have so often and for so much of Haitian history been prohibited by law. She is partly interested in how these laws were used to defend the black republic against Euro-American anti-Haitianism, but also what the “internal politics stakes” have been at different moments. She writes: “This is an especially important problem in light of the role attributed to African-based magico-religious practices, organization, and leadership in unifying enslaved, maroon, and free rebels in northern Saint-Domingue in 1791.” (2-3) She effectively argues that, indeed, the laws against practices such as “sortièges” and “pratique superstitieuses” were designed and maintained throughout much of Haitian history at least in part to “contain and control a potential parallel political power in Haiti” — the rural population. (3)

Ramsey recognizes that, no doubt, Vodou is the now the “religion” of Haitians. But, that designation tells us very little if it is allowed to remain a first-order category. Vodou as religion is also constituted by the historical events that she aims to narrate. By searching out language that more closely describes the particular practices that have come to be named Vodou, she does what Asad asks all scholars to do — namely, to “[unpack] the comprehensive concept which he or she translates as ‘religion’ into heterogeneous elements according to its historical character.” (54) Vodou has come to reside within the Western category of religion, but it still does so uneasily. It is made to oscillate between being a mark of alterity (for Euro-Americans) and the threat of rural, popular political power (for Haitian political elite). In 2003, it was made to occupy the space of “cultural heritage,” but since the 2010 earthquake, it has been pushed once again into the place of primitivism and anti-progressivism.

So, what difference does it make that Bwa Kayiman was “religious”? It seems to make a crucial difference throughout the history of Haiti, both in terms of its internal and external politics. But, if scholars are to make this difference work for Haiti and for Haitians, then we must do better than simply state the coincidence, and we must find better language than simply “religion” for the power therein.


Works Cited

1. Antoine Dalmas, Histoire de la révolution de Saint-Domingue (Paris, 1814).

2. CLR James, The Black Jacobins : Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, 2d ed., rev. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

3. Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World : The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004).

4. Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion : Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

5. Kate Ramsey, The Spirits and the Law : Vodou and Power in Haiti (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).




3 thoughts on “What’s “Religion” Got to Do With It?: Religion and Revolution in Haiti”

  1. I am Haitian and I am so sick and tired of foreigners pretending to care about Vodou because now, its accepted as a “true” religion and everything in Haiti can (and it seems according to you people, “should”) be understood though this matrix.

    There is more to Haiti than this.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I fear that you may have misread the thrust of this article, for indeed, I am agreeing with your suggestion that “there is more to Haiti than this.” I am suggesting here that much of this misconception is born out of the very construction of “Vodou” historically, a point that Trouillot, Ramsey, and others have made before.

    2. it just an article to help understand the basic meaning of its nature. its helping me with school and i to be honest its helped me more than any other website i have found.

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