All posts by Lenny Lowe

PhD Student in Religion in the Americas, Department of Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill. Contributing author to Deep project: "Representing Bois Caïman"

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).




Retirer d’en bas de l’eau: Reclaiming the Dead in Black Atlantic Studies

Lone govi under a tree. Photograph by Aimee Green

By Lenny Lowe

It is often said that writing history is like trying to raise the dead. Nowhere is this miracle more difficult to achieve than in the field that has become known as “the black Atlantic” at the core of which lies the legacy of the transAtlantic slave trade. Its archives are eerily silent in nearly every place that one wishes them to speak. Furthermore, the ethics and politics of remembrance are especially delicate. Search too hard or represent too much, and you are branded a sentimentalist, or worse, a novelist. Remember too little or sound too hopeful, and you risk naiveté and irreverence. The task is supremely difficult, but the enduring presence of so many dead demands that it be tried again and again. In thinking about this struggle, I am reminded of other members of the black Atlantic who set out to reclaim the dead year after year.

In her 1953 Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, filmmaker Maya Deren described a vodou ritual for the reclamation of the dead:

“One of the major Vodoun rituals is the ceremony of retirer d’en bas de l’eau, the reclamation of the soul of the deceased from the waters of the abyss, the world of les Invisibles.”[i]

Deren is here writing about a ceremony that occurs (ideally) one year and a day from the death of an individual. The dead, having been deprived of material form and having gone to rest in the waters of the abyss, are ritually called up from “under the water.” The gros-bon-ange (here understood as the “soul” of the person in contrast to the ti-bon-ange, which is something like a Catholic moral conscience) is placed into a clay jar. This jar, called a govi, becomes its new material form, and it is with this form that the living world will resume its relationship with the dead. The dead individual, once a living and breathing human creature, is reclaimed and reinserted into the social world of the living. This ritual of reclamation is, for those involved, a pressing matter – an obligation.

For Deren’s vodouisants, she suggests that:

“This service for the ancestral dead is not a nostalgia or sentimentality…It is not a moment of return to the past; it is the procedure by which the race reincorporates the fruit of previous life-processes into the contemporary moment, and so retains the past as a ground gained, upon and from which it moves forward to the future. The living do not serve the dead; it is the dead who are made to serve the living.”[ii]

It is not my aim to suggest that this ritual is or is not informed by the memory of the Middle Passage. There is a great deal of evidence from West and Central African cosmologies to suggest that the notion of the watery abyss of the dead is not unique to Africans who survived the crossing. It also seems unthinkable that such imagery would not be, at least, multivalent for the Haitian religious imagination. Still, regardless of how various scholars might assign proper provenance to this ritual practice, I am primarily struck by the ritual’s relevance to the work of the anthropologists and historians of the so-called “Black Atlantic.”

No less than  Deren’s vodouisants, scholars of the Atlantic world are engaged in rituals of reclamation (i.e. the making of monograph-govi, blog post-govi, archive-govi, etc.). Through this work, the dead are reclaimed, revivified and — despite our denials and apologies — they are also put to work for political and professional projects that they did not choose. Certainly, we are justified in our concern over such exploitation of the dead. But, if the long line of figures like Aimé Césaire, Edouard Glissant, and Paul Gilroy have taught us anything at all, it is that the resources for thinking the black Atlantic are to be found in the social worlds of the black Atlantic. Perhaps, then, the govi of Haitian vodou and the ritual of retire d’en bas de l’eau have something to say about our work.

“Heathen” funeral in colonial Jamaica

While it is certainly true that the dead pervade all religious lives, whether as saints, ancestors, or even as the generalized “ambient dead,”[iii] it is also the case that the slave trade generated death on such a scale that it has uniquely structured the worlds of the black Atlantic. Vincent Brown’s The Reaper’s Garden has made this fact eminently clear. For both Europeans and Africans living in colonial Jamaica, the near-constant loss of life both in the Middle Passage and in the new land itself meant that the dead came to occupy a prominent position in the social, political, and economic lives of Jamaicans. In both material and immaterial matters, the dead were undeniably agents. The dead spoke. The dead made demands. It is in the negotiation between the demands of the dead and the exigencies of the living that “real life” in Jamaica was made.

As scholars of the black Atlantic, we are no doubt engaged in similar negotiations, and yet we too rarely imagine the situation thus. We seem to be keenly aware of the demands of the dead (i.e. to be remembered, to be honored), but we are less certain of our own exigencies. Or, perhaps, we are less certain of how much we need their service to make sense of our “real life.” In my view, Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic wrestles with precisely this problem. Namely, it is the problem of Hegel, the problem of dialectics — the problem of the negative. He takes as his aid to meditation on the problem of modernity the 1781 Zong massacre, in which one hundred and thirty-two slaves were thrown overboard to collect insurance money on the “lost cargo.” Baucom’s book is, therefore, fundamentally a book about the process of govi-making, modes of reclaiming the dead. It asks us to consider how we might go about reclaiming the dead without also employing the same typifying logic and “theoretical realism”[iv] that lies at the core of finance capitalism and the massacre it underwrote/underwrites. In an act of performative refusal, Baucom never quite reaches a moment of prescription. Instead, we are left with a few examples of counterdiscourse and anti-dialectical (i.e. affirmative rather than negative) thought. Chief among them is Edouard Glissant, whose philosophy of history Baucom describes as “sedimentary” and accumulative. In Glissant’s own words, it is relational. In Baucom’s reading of Glissant, this is a view of the past that is not past in any recognizable way. Rather, history accumulates, it stacks up. Connections are forged on top of existing connections. History is understood as a process of addition rather than sublation. In this version of history, loss is — unavoidably — a ground gained.

It is here that the retirer d’en bas de l’eau begins to appear to me as a resource for thinking the black Atlantic. Concerning the ceremony, Deren continues:

“An undistinguished member of the family may be neglected and the costly ceremony of his reclamation repeatedly postponed, to be accomplished eventually, without much enthusiasm, only because nothing of heredity’s accumulations should be permitted to leak away, to be lost forever.”[v]

Deren describes what looks very much like a sedimentary poetics whereby history is made to accumulate. Whether those who remain loved or hated the departed soul, death is refused as a loss. The soul of the dead must be rematerialized, revivified, and reincorporated into the social world of the living, for indeed they are (genetically and relationally) already and always present. What resources exist for the anthropologist or historian in the making of govi for the dead? How do we refuse the loss of death without sentiment or nostalgia? Can we find a way to reclaim the loved and despised “as a ground gained”? The risks are, as always, very high. Not even Deren’s vodouisants are immune. She suggests that, as memories fade with the loss of generations, the person in the govi becomes depersonalized, and something like a principle. But, that cannot be the ultimate end:

“And yet — what once was so real, so substantial, cannot be permitted to end in such rarefaction, to vanish forever into the far reaches of history. This abstraction, to function in reality, must become reality; the principle must become the person. And so the process of abstraction, as though meeting, finally, the limits of its own extension, curves back towards its origins: those who cannot remember begin to create, building now from the inside outward, as one might be guided by the clues and logic of a skeleton to construct a figure.”[vi]

It sounds like black Atlantic scholarship to me.



[i] Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (New Paltz, NY: McPherson, 1983), 27.

[ii] Ibid., 27-28. Italics mine.

[iii] Todd Ochoa, Society of the Dead : Quita Manaquita and Palo Praise in Cuba (Berkeley: University of California, 2010).

[iv] Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic : Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).

[v] Deren, 28.

[vi] Ibid., 29. Italics in original.