Religion and Revolution

DeepsRepresenting Bois CaïmanBois Caïman as “Religion” > Religion and Revolution

By Lenny Lowe

The events of Bois-Caïman are most often understood as a Vodou ceremony. The fusing of religion and revolution in this way has significant consequences for the way that Vodou will be understood both within Haiti and on the international stage. This page explores the way that Bois-Caïman as religion ensures that Vodou will be understood as a threat on several fronts.

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Vodou and the Threat to “Civilization”

Laurent Dubois suggests in Avengers of the New World that, “The story of the Bois-Caïman ceremony symbolizes the place religious practice had in the slave insurrection.”[1] But, what exactly marks the events of that evening as constituting “religion” in the first place? What was it about the practices, utterances, objects, or even the affect of that gathering that helps us to name it as “religion”? While the question may seem to make no difference, the failure to attend to it has significant consequences for Haiti, Haitians, and the development of Vodou over the past two centuries. More than simply signaling the beginning of the long Revolution (1791-1804), insofar as this ceremony is narrated as a religious event, it also serves to fuse together the revolutionary actions of the slaves insurgents with a particular set of practices should have been left behind – either left behind by the progress of “civilization” or left behind by the chasm of the Atlantic. To call this event “religious” opens the event to new interpretive possibilities by introducing new kinds of social relations (and even new non-human agents) and new cultural resources (more than simply the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen). However, to name it as religion is also to make it vulnerable to the binary, moralizing discourse of Western Enlightenment and Christian thought. This discourse never fails to mark its “other” as primitive and fetishistic — even Satanic. The primitive “others” of the Christian West do not maintain proper boundaries between subjects and objects. They wrongly ascribe agency to words and things.[2] Their practices of possession indicate that they don’t even properly maintain their own self-possessed agency.[3] Being marked as “other” by that discourse seems always to be both a resource and a threat, and the history of Haiti and Haitian religious practices reveal both of these at every turn. (See my earlier post for more on this.)

So, if we identify the utterances, the music, the objects, and the gathering of people that is Bois Caïman as “religion”, we have inserted this event into a Euro-American and Christian system of evaluation. But if, as the early sources suggest, Boukman explicitly situated the event in opposition to the “god of the whites”, then the event is from the outset a part of that system. What other choices do we have? I would contend that what matters most is not to remove the event from that discursive system, but rather to recognize the way that Vodou itself is unavoidably shaped by its inclusion in that discourse. For example, within that discursive system, to oppose the “god of the whites” is necessarily to join forces with Satan. It is little wonder that (white) Christians have most often understood the supposed “blood pact” as a pact with Satan, the freedom won by the revolution to be ill-gotten, and the poverty and oppression of contemporary Haiti to indicate a Satanic curse rather than systemic oppression.

I suggest that Bois Caïman must be understood as ground zero for understanding the way that Vodou will be marked as a threat by non-Haitians and foreign governments. Its placement within the discourse of Western Enlightenment and (white) Christianity — whether by Boukman himself or subsequently by our only documentary sources — has required Vodou to hold an oppositional posture to Christianity and thereby also to “civilization.”

Vodou and the Threat of Popular Political Power

Bois Caïman likely did not create Vodou, for such complex cultural forms are surely not made in an evening. Historian Carolyn Fick has confidently named what she sees as “vodou” within the pre-revolutionary slave communities and maroon practices of colonial St. Domingue.[4] To be sure, shared rituals, cosmologies, spirits, and healing and harming practices all played an important role in the building of a shared culture. However, there can be no doubt that the ceremony at Bois Caïman marks something. It has come to mark a moment of “coming out,” when the burgeoning cultural forms of St. Domingue slaves became felt and visible to more than just the slaves. This is why within only two or three years, Antoine Dalmas could offer an account of that night despite the fact that he had never seen it. The event was simultaneously a secret gathering and a moment of profound popular politics.

So, here we see another important consequence of naming the events of Bois Caïman as religion. Freedom of religion is only maintained through the (illusion of) de-politicized religion. But, from the outset, these “religious” practices shot through with political power. This display of popular political power charts another perilous course for Vodou within Haiti’s internal political world. Kate Ramsey, in her investigation of the legal prohibitions against Vodou in Haiti, has suggested this very thing. She writes:

            “To what extent were penal laws against le vaudoux — enacted and maintained by the postcolonial state — designed to contain and control a potential parallel political power in Haiti? […] to what extend and in which ways did the prohibition of many family- and temple-based ritual practices classified as sortileges and pratiques superstitieuses contribute to the political marginalization, economic exploitation, and social stigmatization of this population over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries?”[5]

Here we find the ingredients for the ambivalent position of Vodou both within Haiti and in the global context. If Bois Caïman was a religious event, then it was “improperly” religious by threatening (Christian) civilization and by being overtly political. The so-called “modern West” had no place for religion like this.

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

 [2] Webb Keane, Christian Moderns : Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

 [3] Paul Christopher Johnson, “An Atlantic Genealogy of ‘Spirit Possession,’” Comparative Studies in Society and History 53, no. 02 (2011): 393–425.

 [4] Carolyn Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from below, 1st ed. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990).

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

 

How to cite this article: “Religion and Revolution,” Written by Lenny J. Lowe (2014), Deeps, The Black Atlantic Blog, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/ (accessed on (date)).

 

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