Religion and the New Republic

DeepsRepresenting Bois CaïmanBois Caïman as “Religion” > Religion and the New Republic

By Lenny Lowe

From Pratiques Religieuses to Les Sortileges

The relationship between the Revolution and the African-inspired religious practices that the traditional account of Bois Caïman marks would lead to an intense internal struggle over the character of the new Republic of Haiti. It was a struggle that pit even the earliest leaders of the Republic against the popular masses of rural agriculturalists. In fact, this struggle emerged even before the Revolution was completed. In 1800, for instance, the great revolutionary hero Toussaint Louverture “issued a decree outlawing ‘nocturnal assemblies and dances'” in an effort to keep the people peacefully and productively laboring. Then, in the 1801 constitution, Catholicism is declared to be the only official religion for Saint Domingue so as to support the cultivation of “good habits” and Christian social norms.[1] Vodou, it seems, appeared even to the earliest leaders as a threat to Christian “civilization”, and no less a threat to order and civil control. The very resources that organized and motivated the slave insurgents in 1791 had come to be seen as equally threatening to the establishment of a new republican order.

Although Dessalines’s 1805 Constitution declared that the law recognized no “dominant religion” and allowed for the free practice of any religion, this internal conflict between the religious and labor interests of the people and the concerns of the administration would be enacted countless times in the early republic. Following Laënnec Hurbon, Kate Ramsey describes this conflict as based on the threat of “parallel powers.”[2] By the end of 1805, for example, Henri Christophe (then, commander-in-chief of the Haitian army) ordered the military in the north to suppress Vodou dances and arrest their organizers. In an unpublished letter from Christophe, Ramsey finds that he justified these actions because such gatherings had “always been forbidden by every government” because they were “so detrimental to tranquility.”[3] In a formal statement by President Petion in 1814, all dance groups or associations that possess a “hierarchy of position” were prohibited.[4] Here, Ramsey points out the shift away from dances and towards the organizations themselves, whose “kings”, “queens”, “presidents”, “generals” and “senators” posed a real threat to the maintenance of governmental authority.

In the revolutionary period, I suggested that there are profound consequences for Haiti and Haitian Vodou when the ceremony of Bois Caïman is registered as “religion” and thereby enters into Western  discursive categories. One of those consequences is that Vodou then becomes vulnerable to the moralizing valuation of Christianity. The 1835 Code Penal of President Boyer offers an explicit illustration of this, for it sets out to outlaw not a religion, but les sortileges (spells, divination, magic). Included among such practices was listed le vaudoux. So, the initial inclusion of the practices of Vodou into the domain of “pratiques religieuses” (religious practices) (as in Antoine Dalmas’s account of Bois Caiman) now also allows it to be disqualified as true “religion.”

Boyer’s Code Penal was rarely enforced. This may be due as much to the imprecision of the language as to the government’s lack of interest or capacity. Kate Ramsey suggests that, in the eyes of the rural masses, the law was quite possibly unintelligible, having made a huge category mistake.[5] What is now simply collapsed under the rubric of “Vodou” is relatively diverse set of practices that can include both harming and healing, both benevolent and malevolent practices, and both African-derived religious devotion (Ginen) and “magic.” Therefore, most rural Haitians would understand the law to protect them against the occasional abuses of maji (magic), not as concerning their Ginen (Guinea/Africa) practices.[6] Still, the Code Penal demonstrates the confused and ambivalent status of Vodou within Haitian law, and it inaugurates an era of official opposition to Vodou that would last for more than a century.

Saving Face and Controlling the Masses

The association of Vodou with the revolution meant that the new Haitian government did not need to prohibit its practice simply as part of a campaign of respectability. As Laennec Hurbon has suggested, beyond “safeguard[ing] a facade of ‘civilization,’ in order to avoid the denigration of Haiti in the eyes of the foreigner,” such laws were also necessary to “deliver the country from uncontrollable parallel powers, and to reduce to a delinquent or marginal state the most exploited social groups.”[7] Having demonstrated the political potency of the resources of popular religious beliefs, practices, and leadership at Bois Caiman, the new government itself could only understand Vodou as a threat. And, like the French plantation owners before them, the governing elite had come to see Vodou as disruptive to labor productivity.

The event that would forever change the perception of Haiti and its religious practices, however, occurred under the leadership of Fabre Geffrard, a devout Catholic from the South. Following the much-maligned reign of “Emperor” Soulouque, Geffrard was eager to repair Haiti’s image on the world stage and to demonstrate the black republic’s capacity for civilization and progress. In 1863, Geffrard would urge: “Let us rush to eliminate the last vestiges of barbarism and slavery — superstition and the shameful practices surrounding it — from our land.”[8] Having achieved its first official Concordat with Rome in 1860, Haiti would receive its first official clergy since its Independence. It is no coincidence that the arrival of those clergy in 1864 corresponds to the highly publicized trial now known as the “Bizoton Affair.”

L'Affaire de Bizoton: An 1864 case that ended with the execution of eight Haitians for child murder and cannibalism.
L’Affaire de Bizoton: An 1864 case that ended with the execution of eight Haitians for child murder and cannibalism.

The Bizoton Affair refers to the trial of eight Vodou practitioners in the town of Bizoton who were accused of having killed and eaten a young girl named Claricine. In addition to being carefully covered by the Haitian Press (click here for relevant primary sources), the government also invited foreign diplomats to attend the trial. Among them was Spenser St. John, the British consul general, who reproduced a detailed account in his Hayti; or, the Black Republic (1884). (Click here: Vaudoux Worship and Cannibalism to read the relevant chapter). Despite questionable interrogation methods and shaky evidence from witnesses, the eight men and women were sentenced death and shot by a firing squad.

As Laurent Dubois notes, if Geffrard’s hope was to reassure foreign observers of Haiti’s capacity for civilization, it largely backfired.[9] Instead, the publicity of the trial mostly succeeded only in forever fixing an association between Haitian religious practice, criminality, and cannibalism. To the early threat to labor and centralized authority that emerged from Vodou’s association with the Revolution was now added the perceived threat to public safety and morality. The next stage of Vodou’s evolution, however, would introduce a new and especially frightening bogeyman — out of the new “slavery” of American Occupation and industrial capitalist intrusion would march the figure of the zombie.

[1] Ardouin, Etudes sur l’histoire d’Haïti, 4:34 quoted in Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2004) 244.

[2] Hurbon, Laënnec. Le barbare imaginaire. (Port-au-Prince: Éditions Henri Deschamps, 1987), 115; 1. Kate Ramsey, The Spirits and the Law : Vodou and Power in Haiti (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 3.

[3] Unpublished letter from Christophe to Capoix, cited in Ramsey, 51.

[4] Ramsey, 52.

[5] Ibid., 62.

[6] See Karen Richman, Migration and Vodou (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005) for more on the co-constitution of Ginen and maji.

[7] Hurbon, 92-93.

[8] Philippe Delisle, Catholicisme, 22 cited in Laurent Dubois, Haiti : The Aftershocks of History, 1st ed. (New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Co., 2012).

[9] Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, 161-162.



How to cite this article: “Religion and the New Republic,” Written by Lenny J. Lowe (2014), Deeps, The Black Atlantic Blog, Duke University, (accessed on (date)).

3 thoughts on “Religion and the New Republic”

  1. Wow, if I wasn’t Haitian myself and was simply reading form this blog, i’d think there was literally nothing going on in Haiti expect Vodou (since I have yet to see an entry on this blog about Haiti that does not refer to it).

    As a foreigner, I’d also think to myself “look at this bad bad bad Haitian government that condemned the true religion of the people, badly done Haitian leaders, badly done indeed.” Thankfully, I am Haitian and can balance things a bit more since they are part of my immediate experience.

    This leads me to ask this next question: Is there anything, when it comes to Haiti, aside from Vodou, that your education at Duke focuses on? (And by “your” I mean all of you students, because I’ve seen very little diversity in this respect.)

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