Bois Caïman as a “curse”

by Sandie Blaise

Deeps > Representing Bois Caïman > Music and Bois Caïman > Bois Caïman as a “curse”

 

Most references to the Bois Caïman ceremony in music are positives ones. As the event led by the vodou priest named Boukman that launched the slave revolts in August 1791 that led to freedom and independence from France in 1804, it is used as a symbol of resistance. Roots music in the 1970s referred to the ceremony as a way of showing that they were resisting the Duvalier totalitarian regime like their ancestors resisted their oppressors almost two centuries earlier. In response to the government’s subversion of the vodou religion as a way to control people and its association with violence, the social and cultural “mouvman rasin” also re-appropriated vodou elements as part of the traditional Haitian heritage and incorporated them in its music. Bois Caïman, as a secret gathering of slaves born in Saint-Domingue or Africa is also used in music as a symbol of unity of the Haitian people as a whole and throughout the centuries, linking contemporary times to the late 18th century and the heroes of the Haitian Revolution, but also to the other Caribbean islands and Africa.

 

Vodou and Roman Catholicism

Because of its colonized past and the legacy of French colonization, Vodou – as the traditional religion of the West Africans who were brought to Saint-Domingue on slave ships – and Catholicism – as the religion of the colonizers – have coexisted in Haiti for a long time to form what anthropologists call “religious syncretism.” Elizabeth McAlister writes that even though in theory, “the received way of thinking about Vodou and Catholicism is to imagine them as a pair of binary opposites,” in practice, “it may be more helpful to imagine these two traditions occupying either end of a continuum.”1 Both religions evolved in Haiti according to a process of creolization that led to the development of Haitian religious culture containing multiple and shifting symbols and practices within its spectrum.2 Even though Haitian Catholicism and Vodou have always been politically opposed, history shows their intertwining, and their mutual appropriation of symbols. Michel-Rolph Trouillot stated in 1990 that Haiti was 85% Catholic, 15% Protestant, and 100% Vodouist. 3

 

The Christian demonization of Vodou

However, the steady arrival of waves of American Protestant and Pentecostal missionaries in Haiti for the past thirty years has been shuffling the deck. Instead of simply introducing their god to the Haitians, their missions reveal to condemn Roman Catholicism as corrupted by Vodou, and to demonize the latter, equating the Afro-Haitian religion with a satanic cult. Interviewing Pentecostal believers, ethnomusicologist Melvin Butler writes that “on one major front, they join forces to wrestle under the broad banner of Christianity against the dominion of Vodou. On others, they close ranks to fight an intra-Christian or even intra-Pentecostal battle.” 4

Even though Protestants and Pentecostals are very critical of the Catholic Church’s coexistence with Vodou, missionaries and clergy from both religions nevertheless agree on the political representation of Vodou as “the pagan, Satanic superstition of the poor, dark, nonliterate, and disenfranchised majority.”5 

As it is often the case with tragedies, the earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010, boosted proselytism.6  In this New York Times article from Feb. 15th, 2010, journalists Marc Lacey and Ian Urbina quote Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of World Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary who “said there were about 1,700 missionaries permanently based in Haiti. The number of missionaries making short-term visits is more difficult to estimate, but some organizations say it is as high as 10,000.” In addition to declaring that the Afro-Haitian religion has no spiritual foundation, some Christians went as far as blaming the Bois Caïman ceremony for angering God and causing the earthquake. On the very next day after the earthquake, evangelist Pat Robertson argued that Haiti was cursed due to the pact the slaves and Boukman made with the devil when they held the Bois Caïman ceremony and swore to either live free or die. He also argued that the earthquake could be “a blessing in disguise, [because] there may be a massive rebuilding of that country.” The evangelist probably had in mind that part of the rebuilding of the country would actually take place on the religious field through a “rebuilding” of beliefs. Following his argument, since the slaves who got together for Bois Caïman “swore a pact to the devil” and said “we will serve you if you get us free from the French” – “true story” he adds -, which explains why “they have been cursed by one thing after the other,” and why Haiti is “in desperate poverty” whereas the Dominican Republic is “prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etc.” Such a simplistic shortcut is beyond unfortunate and shows how poorly informed about history Pat Robertson is. 

 

 

Unfortunately, he is not the only one who publicly expressed his opinion on the earthquake as a divine sign chastising the Haitians for their “satanic deal.” In a Winnipeg Free Press article from Feb. 13th, 2010, Paisley Dodds interviewed another evangelist; Reverend Florian Ganthier, who declared that “People who practice voodoo are living in the shadows” and that “this earthquake was a sign to all those who do not accept Jesus Christ in their life.” In this Telegraph article from Feb. 1st, 2010, Nick Allen writes that even though Max Beauvoir, Haiti’s “supreme master” of voodoo “rejected the suggestion that the earthquake was an act of God” and said it was a natural disaster, “many voodoo followers still believe[d] it was a punishment.” Announcements on the radio stations have probably not helped either since “Christians have also been inundating radio stations asking anyone who has committed a crime to confess,” in order to “sav[e] the nation from future disasters.” Quoting an evangelical station, Allen also confirms that “11,000 people had rung up to pledge themselves to God since the earthquake.”

For Felix Germain, the high rate of conversion that has happened over the past thirty years is “not only is responsible for accentuating the blame game—Vodou is the cause of poverty and the earthquake—but also fosters hate from young Haitian Christians, who interpret the message of the pastors who demonize Vodou from a literal standpoint.”7

To read more about Bois Caïman as a curse or “culture,” go to this page.

 

Representations of Bwa Kayiman as a “curse” in music

 

The oldest Haitian konpa/jazz band named “Orchestre Septentrional” was created in 1948. Still touring and performing nowadays, the band released a song named “Bwa Kayiman” on their 32nd album in 1987 (complete discography here). The cover of the single is a painting representing the ceremony. [For more information on the representations of Bois Caïman in Visual Art, go to this page]

bwa kayiman cover

Clearly addressing the Bois Caïman ceremony as a curse, the role it played in Haiti’s independence but also in the “damages it created,” the lyrics illustrate the way Vodou practices can be demonized through Christian beliefs labeling Bois Caïman as a satanic deal. (References to the ceremony and to its demonization are in bold, my translation in italics)

 

Orchestre Septentrional d’Haiti – Bwa Kayiman (1987)

 

Bwa kayiman, zafè gwo sakrifis ki te fèt avèk kochon an

Bois Caïman – it’s this big sacrifice that was made with the pig

pou Ayiti te pran endepandans

so that Haiti became independent

n ape mande si bèt sila pa te yon move zòdi

We are wondering whether this animal wasn’t a bad one

ki te rale espri malen sou peyi la

that brought the evil spirit to Haiti

pou te ba li yon dous anmè

to give it a bittersweet taste

ki te wete l anba pye blan

that took it from under the whites’ feet

pou l te vin anba men li

to put it under the spirit’s control

se dwe sa k fè depi 1804, se trayizon, madichon pou Ayiti

That must be why Haiti’s been cursed since 1804/it’s been a betrayal and curse for Haiti

 

Avèk yon bon lide

With a good idea

Boukmann te pran sa l jwenn pou l te  ban nou libète

Boukman took what he found to give us freedom

sa te kapab yon erè

It may have been a mistake

sanble bèt sila pa te yon bèt beni

It seems like this animal wasn’t a blessed one

se sou li Jezi te lage move espri ki t ap fè dega

and it’s on it that Jesus cast the evil spirit that has caused damage

pou touye inosan

to kill innocent people

sa se yon verite ke nou dwe medite

that’s a truth upon which we must meditate

pou fè solèy leve sou Ayiti

in order for the sun to rise over Haiti

Bwa Kayiman se dèt endepandans

Bois Caïman is the independence debt

Lè n fin peye l Ayiti va sove

When we’re done paying it off, Haiti will be saved

Fòk nou konnen ki akò Boukmann te gen

We must know what was Boukman’s agreement

pou nou fè sa ki nesesè pou Ayiti demare

So we can do what’s necessary for Haiti to start over

Si nou byen gade, sa gen lontan pye nou lib

If we look closely, we’ve been free for a while

Se tout bon Ayiti pa janm avanse

It’s all good that Haiti never went forward

Bwa Kayiman se dèt endepandans

Bois Caïman is the independence debt

Lè n fin peye l Ayiti va sove

When we’re done paying it off, Haiti will be saved

 

Madichon sila, fòk jwenn mwayen pou n dechouke l

This curse, we must find a way to uproot it

pou peyi la chanje

in order for the country to change

Bwa Kayiman se dèt endepandans

Bois Caïman is the independence debt

Lè n fin peye l Ayiti va sove

When we’re done paying it off, Haiti will be saved

Se yon mesaj ki pou pase de bouch an bouch

It’s a message that must be spread

pou tout moun konsantre nan priyè pou wete malediksyon ki sou tè d Ayiti

so that everyone focuses on praying for getting rid of the curse that’s on Haiti

Granmèt n ape mande w kote ou ye

Lord we are asking you, from where you are

Ou-menm ki tout verite, sove Ayiti

You, who are the truth itself, save Haiti 

 

Want to cite this page?

“Bois Caïman as a ‘Curse’,” Written by Sandie Blaise (2014), Representing Bois Caïman, The Black Atlantic Blog, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/ (accessed on (date)). – See more at: http://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/sample-page/storytelling-and-representation-of-bois-caiman/music-and-bois-caiman/bois-caiman-as-a-curse/

 

 

  1. Elizabeth McAlister. “Madonna of 115th St. Revisited: Vodou and Haitian Catholicism in the Age of Transnationalism.” Division II Faculty Publications. Paper 16. 1998. p. 137
  2. McAlister, p. 153
  3. See Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Haiti, State Against Nation: The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism. New York: Monthly Review Press. 1990.
  4. Melvin Butler. “The weapons of our warfare: Music, Positionality, and Transcendence Among Haitian Pentecostals.” Caribbean Studies, 36(2). 2008. p. 26.
  5. McAlister, p. 137.
  6. Felix Germain, “The Earthquake, the Missionaries, and the Future of Vodou.” Journal of Black Studies, 42(2). 2011. p. 255.
  7. Germain, p. 257

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