‘With only slight exaggeration, one can say that the reputation of vodou as a unifying and revolutionary force begins with the ceremony of Bois Caiman.’ David Geggus
There is a scene in the 1967 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians that, somewhat unexpectedly, touches upon the conclusion of the talk I recently gave at the October Gallery. In the scene Philipot, the artist nephew of the murdered Minister for Social Welfare whose body was found at the beginning of the story in the empty swimming pool at the Hotel Trianon, explains to the morose and faithless-realist hotel-owner Brown that he is going to a Vodou ceremony that night to summon the African gods who will help him fight the Tonton Macoutes and overthrow the Duvalier dictatorship. The particular loa to be summoned will be Ogoun Ferraille, a Dahomean warrior and metalworker spirit who has been syncretized in Haitian vodou with Saint Jacques Majeur (or Saint James the Moor Slayer). “My grandmother came from Africa” Philipot tells Brown proudly, “and her gods are the only ones that can help me now. I’ve pretended to be western for too long”. During the ceremony, in which a black cock is sacrificed by an unlikely looking (though reputedly authentic) houngan, Joseph, the bartender at the Trianon, is possessed by the spirit of Ogoun Ferraille, spraying the terrified Philipot with rum and tapping his palms and soles with a flat of a machete before the young painter is initiated into the warrior cult. Ogoun Ferraille, along with Erzulie Dantor, Mambo Marinette and Ti Jean Petro are the four loa most commonly associated with the legendary Bois Caïman ceremony that reputedly ignited the first uprisings of the Haitian revolution in August 1791.
Despite the general acceptance of the myth in most popular accounts of the revolution, some Haiti scholars have disputed whether the ceremony actually took place, and one in particular, Léon-François Hoffmann, proposed in 1991 that the story was fabricated by a “malevolent” French colonist and plantation physician, Antoine Dalmas, whose intention was to denigrate the slaves and distance the French elites from the African insurgents. Hoffmann’s claims were tendentious within the Haitian studies community at the time and the debate was rekindled by the publication of David Geggus’ Haitian Revolutionary Studies in 2002. After taking a thorough look at Hoffmann’s claims, sources and alternative accounts, Geggus concludes that a ritual ceremony probably did take place sometime around August 21st, but that the facts pertaining to it, which are thin on the ground, have been significantly embellished by subsequent historians seeking to emphasize the African and slave-led currents within the revolution (and therefore at the foundation of the Haitian nation).
Dalmas’ account is based on the testimony of three slaves captured after an initial, well-documented public gathering of the “slave elites” (coach-drivers and slave-drivers) from 100 different plantations at the Lenormand De Mézy estate on Sunday August 14th. An alleged smaller gathering took place a few days later in a wooded area called La Caïman (the Alligator) at which a pig was sacrificed, its blood drunk and its hairs taken to make protective amulets. According to Dalmas the captives said that the pig was “surrounded by fetishes” and sacrificed “to the all-powerful spirit of the black race”. And that was it.
By 1953 the Haitian historian and diplomat Dantès Bellegarde would described the Bois Caîman ceremony in ways that had by then become familiar to all elite-educated school children in Haiti:
‘During the night of 14 August 1791 in the midst of a forest called Bois Caïman, on the Morne Rouge in the northern plain, the slaves held a large meeting to draw up a final plan for a general revolt. They consisted of about two hundred slave drivers, sent from various plantations in the region. Presiding over the assembly was a black man named Boukman, whose fiery words exalted the conspirators. Before they separated, they held amidst a violent rainstorm an impressive ceremony, so as to solemnize the undertakings they made. While the storm raged and lightning shot across the sky, a tall black woman appeared suddenly in the center of the gathering. Armed with a long, pointed knife that she waved above her head, she performed a sinister dance singing an African song, which the others, face down against the ground, repeated as a chorus. A black pig was then dragged in front of her and she split it open with her knife. The animal’s blood was collected in a wooden bowl and served still foaming to each delegate. At a signal from the priestess, they all threw themselves on their knees and swore blindly to obey the orders of Boukman, who had been proclaimed the supreme chief of the rebellion. He announced as his choice of principal lieutenants Jean Francois Papillon, Georges Biassou, and Jeannot’. (From Histoire du Peuple Haïtien, 1953)
So how did the story of Bois Caïman develop from such a basic schematic account to the established myth we know today? And more specifically how did the characters Dutty Boukman, houngan, rebel leader and author of the legendary Boukman Prayer, the mambo Cécile Fatiman, the old priestess and the loa Erzulie Dantor, Ogoun Ferraille, Marinette, Ti Jean Petro, all find themselves cast into this “operetta sanguinaire” of Haitian independence?
That’s what I tried to account for at the October gallery talk. It goes something like this:
As Geggus convincingly argues, the two meetings, one large, open and public, the other smaller and clandestine, seem to have been conflated over time. The first historical account of the event, Dalmas’ Histoire de la révolution de Saint-Domingue, purportedly written two or three years after the event but not published until 1814, clearly distinguishes between the two. It was at the first meeting, Dalmas claims, that plans for the rebellion were drawn up. This was followed shortly afterwards by a second, smaller gathering at which a pig was sacrificed and its blood drunk. The second historical version of events, also allegedly based on eye-witness accounts, was Hérard Dumesle’s Voyage Dans le Nord D’Haïti of 1824. Dumesle was a senator from the southern city of Les Cayes and his version, according to Geggus, seems to have drawn on local, oral history. It also distinguishes between the two meetings, the pig sacrifice occurring at the second. Dumesle’s account takes the form of a poetic invocation rather than an historical description, embellished with Hellenic rather than African mythical references. Poetic license seems to have allowed him to introduce a “young virgin” who used the pig’s entrails for divination. Dumesle’s is also the first to include a prayer to Bondie (God), later attributed to Boukman. Hoffmann alleges that Dumesle’s account owes much to a fanciful version of events described by a radical, French abolitionist called Civique de Gastine who published an account in Paris in 1819. It was this text that introduced an anti-Christian tone to the proceedings, dramatizing them with a storm, the divination of entrails and a sworn oath. It may also have been influenced by another Frenchman, Antoine Métral, whose 1818 Histoire De L’Insurrection Des Esclaves Dans le Nord de Saint-Domingue introduced an oration and a young priestess.
The third plausible eye-witness account is Céligny Ardouin’s Essais sur L’Histoire d’Haïti (1853) which includes oral testimony gathered from 1837 onwards, notably from the ex-soldier Paul Ali who he interviewed in 1841. It is not until this version of events that the oath and Boukman are brought together. Geggus identifies the origin of the Boukman Prayer in the writings of another French abolitionist Victor Schœlcher in whose Les Colonies Étrangéres dans L’Amérique et Haiti (1840) Boukman pronounces:
“…This God who made the sun, who brings us light from above,
who raises the sea, and who makes the storm rumble,
That God is there, do you understand? Hiding in a cloud,
He watches us, he sees all that the whites do!
The God of the whites pushes them to crime, but he wants us to do good deeds.
But the God who is so good orders us to vengeance;
He will direct our hands, and give us help,
Throw away the image of the God of the whites who thirsts for our tears,
Listen to the liberty that speaks in all our hearts.”
But in Ardouin’s account there is no evidence of Boukman being a Vodou priest, the ceremony reputedly presided over by an unidentified priestess.
A fourth, and much later account, Étienne Charlier’s Aperçu sur le formation historique de la nation haïtienne (1954), was passed on to the author by the grandson of Cécile Fatiman, wife of the Haitian general and president Louis Pierrot, which casts his grandmother, a woman of mixed Corsican and African descent, as a Vodou priestess in the proceedings. No more details were given. This seems to be the single historical source regarding Cécile Fatiman’s presence at the ceremony.
So up until 1853 the basic historical details of the Bois Caïman ceremony were: i) a secret meeting of rebel slaves at a placed called Caïman somewhere on the Choiseul estate on the Plain du Nord, ii) the presence of the rebel leader Dutty Boukman, iii) a pig “surrounded by fetishes’ sacrificed to the “God of the Blacks” and its blood drunk, iv) its hairs taken as protective amulets for the the forthcoming insurrection and v) the presence of Cécile Fatiman. The Boukman prayer, the anti-Christian tone of the proceedings, the lightening storm, the young virgin, and the reading of the pigs entrails, all appear to be embellishment sprung from the romantic fancies of abolitionist Frenchmen.
So how did this story come to be consolidated as the Vodou foundation myth of Haitian nationalism in the 20th century despite the lack of substantial, historical evidence for it? To answer that we need to fast forward to the reaction of Haitian intellectuals to the U.S. occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934 touched upon in this earlier post. It was then that the first serious ethnographic and speculative historical accounts of Haitian Vodou (or more precisely the religious beliefs and practices of the Kreyol-speaking Haitian peasants and urban poor that still retained cultural elements derived from their African ancestry) began to be written. During most of the 19th century descriptions of Haitian Vodou (variously spelled vaudaux, voodoo, vaudoux, vodun, vaudoun, vodu etc.) tended to be of an extremely negative and sensationalist kind, its presence considered to be a blight of African atavism that condemned the nation to irredeemable barbarism. (Spencer St. John’s Hayti or the Black Republic of 1884 being the most notorious example). In fact there does not seem to have been a remotely sober ethnographic account of Haitian Vodou between Moreau de Saint-Méry’s description of a “Vaudoux” ceremony in his encyclopedic survey of Saint-Domingue from 1797 and Eugene Aubin’s description of “Voodoo” temples and spirits in En Haïti: Planteurs d’autrefois, nègres d’aujourd’hui of 1910.
One of the first Haitian-born writers to study the tradition in depth was Arthur C. Holly, whose Les Daïmons du Culte Vodu (1918) was intended to counter the negative stereotyping of “voodoo” being exploited by U.S. marines in the first few years of the occupation. Holly was a son of the first African-American Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Haiti, James Théodore Holly, abolitionist, Mason and advocate of Black self-governance in the Caribbean. Holly’s tone in Les Daïmons typifies an emerging sensibility among some Haitian intellectuals during the occupation in its criticism of those elite Haitians who feigned the manners of Europeans and Americans and joined them in denigrating and denying the importance of Haiti’s African past (that ‘luminous landmark and the most living and fecund centre of religious humanity’). ‘Now more than ever’ Holly wrote, ‘is the moment to try to cleanse our ancestral cult of the stain which has been put upon it. In this, much of the honor of the African race in general is involved, and much of the dignity of our posterity, of us Haitians’. Defending Vodou against uninformed and widespread accusations that it was a form of Satan worship, Holly invokes the “luminous spirits” that will protect the nation when the tainted image of Vodou is cleansed:
‘And then, from the depths of our valleys, from the gorges of our mountains, from the forests whose century-old trees have shielded the sacred meetings of our ancestors in epic times, will rise in the air, mingled with mysterious effluvia, the songs of joy of the legions of Invisibles who watch over us — as in the past they inspired and protected the invincible founders of our independence — happy to see us reestablish the chain of union and fraternity between blacks and mulattoes in an unalterable sentiment of piety, of love toward the Old Divinities, the Ancestors, the immortal and revivified Mother-country’ (quoted in Seabrook). Holly’s was one of the first of a series of polemical works that would inspire a nascent indigenist current in Haitian letters seeking to place Vodou at the centre of an authentic and independent national culture, one that embraced and venerated its African inheritance.
Another important Haitian writer contributing to the new academic interest in Vodou was J.C.Dorsainvil who, between 1907 and 1908, had written a number of articles criticizing the social hermeticism of the Haitian elites who ignored the general populations ethnic and historical roots. Dorsainvil wrote a generally sympathetic account of Vodou in 1913 – Vodou et Névrose – which claimed that the royal road to the Haitian psyche was through its African past. An official in the ministry of education, Dorsainvil was critical of the educational establishment’s neglect of the racial factors underpinning the Haitian revolution and the true ethnic character of the Haitian majority. As a corrective he penned his Manual d’histoire D’Haiti in 1924, a standard school text book, which contains what is perhaps the first official, government sanctioned and popular account of the Bois Caïman ceremony, at which the revolutionary “intelligence délié” (non-linear intelligence) of Louverture, Boukman and Biassou was transmitted to the slaves. Boukman is identified as a Jamaican-born N’gan of vodou, ‘the principle religion of Dahomeans’, who gathered a large number of slaves in a clearing in the Alligator Woods, close to Mourne-Rouge (Red Mountain) to recite his prayer. During a raging storm, an old negress appeared, dancing and waving a great cutlass around her head, plunging it into the pig and distributing its blood to the attendants. The story was re-told in Jean Price-Mars’ influential Ainsi Parla L’Oncle, published in Paris in 1928, which included a mapou tree (a tree sacred to Vodou rites), cabalistic signs drawn on the ground by a priestess, the sacrifice of a wild boar, the reading of its entrails and a rendition of the Boukman prayer.
The first Anglophone author to transmit Dorsainvil’s version of events to an American audience was William Seabrook (the same writer who introduced the word “zombie” to U.S. culture). Seabrook, who cites the section verbatim in the footnotes of the The Magic Island (1929), also quotes at length from a lecture he attended in 1924 at which Dorsainvil discussed the African roots of Haitian Vodou, correlating its philology and pantheon with contemporary and historical Dahomean culture. During the lecture Dorsainvil emphasizes the revolutionary role of the Vodou cult in Haiti:
‘The colonists tolerated all the noisy dances of the slaves, but feared the Voodoo ceremonies. They instinctively feared this cult with its mysterious air and felt confusedly that it might be a powerful element of cohesion for the slaves. They were not mistaken, for it was from the bosom of a Voodoo ceremony that the great revolt of Santo Domingo slaves began’ (Seabrook p.291).
Dorsainvil and Price-Mars seem to be the principle source of the standard myth for Anglo-American authors after Seabrook, not least C.L.R.James, whose 1938 version of events in The Black Jacobins includes an amended Boukman prayer imploring the slaves to throw away the symbol (rather than the image) of the god of the whites.* George Eaton Simpson cites Dorsainvil in his essay ‘The Belief System of Haitian Vodoun’ (1945), and Maya Deren in turn cites Simpson in Divine Horsemen:The Living Gods of Haiti (1953), repeating the inclusion of the old black woman who performs the sacrifice. Alfred Metraux quotes the Bois Caïman section from Dorsainvil in its entirety in his Voodoo in Haiti of 1959.
But how did particular loa come to be associated with the ceremony of Bois Caïman? The answer seems to lie in the blossoming of ethnographic interest in Haitian vodou inspired by Dorsainvil and Holly which culminated in Price-Mars Ainsi Parla L’Oncle, Melville Herskovits’ Life in a Haitian Valley (1937) and the founding of the Bureau of Ethnology in Port-au-Prince in 1941. As more knowledge of the rites, traditions and belief systems of actual Haitian Vodou was acquired, so authors and intellectuals interested in the African roots of Haitian independence began to speculate on what kind of rite might have been enacted at Bois Caïman. Moreover, the increased international ethnographic interest in Vodou that flourished from the 1930’s to 1950’s led to a rare period in pre-Duvalier Haiti when the strict legal prohibitions on the cult were temporarily relaxed and the traditional religion became one of the nation’s state-sanctioned tourist attractions (see Kate Ramsey’s The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti for an excellent historical account of legislation against “Le Vaudaux”). This in turn seems to have coincided with a growing pan-African and nascent, international Black Power movement for which the Haitian Revolution was a source of historical inspiration and racial pride.
The only recurring details in all accounts of the Bois Caîman ceremony are the name of the location, a gathering of revolutionary slaves and the sacrifice of a black pig dedicated to “the god of the blacks”. This latter element is the basis for most speculation about the religious nature of the gathering. There seems to be two dominant interpretations: one that sees it as a Dahomean blood rite and the another as a Petro rite invoking various violent, warrior loa. Dorsainvil seems to be the source of the Dahomean “blood rite” interpretation, a view shared by Metraux and others, and one shaped by the comparative ethnography of African and Haitian traditions in the 1930’s and 40’s. According to Robin Law, a contemporary authority on the issue, such rites were binding pacts that ensured solidarity, unlimited confidence and secrecy amongst those involved. At times these included the sacrifice of a pig. Given that such oaths had been associated with earlier slave uprisings in the Caribbean and that the Fon (from the Dahomey/Benin region) were more established in northern Saint-Domingue than Congolese, this seems a plausible interpretation.
It has not been universally accepted however because the pig sacrifice is not practiced in contemporary Rada ceremonies, rites associated with Dahomean traditions in Haiti. This has led several authors to speculate that the ceremony was a Petro (Congo) rite, whose loa are considered more malevolent, angry and war-like than those of the Rada rite. Such interpretations seem to be based primarily on the findings of modern ethnography. Maya Deren, for example, has described the Petro loa as embodiments of a “cosmic rage” against the fate African’s suffered because of slavery. She repeats the claim made by Odette Mennesson-Rigaud and Lorimer Denis in an essay written for the Journal of the Bureau of Ethnology in 1947 that “even today the song of revolt “Vive la Liberté” occurs in Petro ritual as a dominant theme” (Deren p.62). This association with the violent Petro loa and the spirit of insurrection, combined with the sacrifice of a black pig, suggests that the rite may have been dedicated Erzulie Dantor, the fiery and violent protective mother deity – syncretized (but only after the uprising of 1791) with the Black Madonna of Częstochowa – whose favorite offering is a black pig.
Similarly the figure of Marinette, another violent, female deity from the Petro pantheon, wife of Ti Jean Petro and close in spirit to the loa Erzulie Ge-Rouge, seems to have entered the myth through an association of allegorical elements combined with the story over time. Marinette is identified in Haitian Vodou with the Catholic figure of Anima Sola whose broken chains are a clear symbolic reference to the breaking free from slavery.
Deren associates Marinette with the old cutlass waving woman who appears in Dorsainvil’s 1924 account of the ceremony, suggesting that this was perhaps the first Mambo Marinette (or the first person to have been possessed by her). But only after Étienne Charlier’s Aperçu sur le formation historique de la nation haïtienne in 1954 did the old black woman potentially possessed by the loa Marinette become retrospectively associated with the reputed mambo Cécile Fatiman. The presence of a young virgin priestess has been part of the legend since 1818. The old black woman seems to have been formally introduced by Dorsainvil in 1924.
More recent ethnographic research by Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique and Eddy Lubin, critical of the “Cartesian logic” of Dalmas’s report, point out that August 14th, the date of the first meeting, and for some of the Bois Caïman ceremony itself, is the annual feast day of Ezili Kawoulo, a spirit associated with secret societies and popularly believed to be the loa that possessed the priestess at the ceremony. It is a feast day shared with Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, patron saint of the colony, after whom the cathedral in Cap-Français was named, and a festival celebrated by slaves before the revolution, notably Christianized slaves from Congo (Ramsey). August 15th is the contemporary date for honoring Kongo loa, including Papa Ogou at Nan Soukri in Gonaïves. Such calendrical correlations would seem to suggest that Catholic saints had as significant a role in the ceremony as “the god of the blacks”, an interpretation complimented by revolutionary leaders like Romaine Rivière (‘Romaine la Prophétesse’), who reputedly received military instruction directly from the Virgin Mary.
Whatever interpretation is given of Bois Caïman, it will necessarily be speculative given the lack of historical evidence about the event itself and the scant knowledge of the actual religious and cult practices of African and Creole slaves prior to the revolution and the suppression of such practices throughout most of the 19th century. What is more certain is that the creation of the myth of Bois Caïman during this period, and its popular consolidation by the middle of the 20th century, served an explicitly ideological and hegemonic purpose: to rescue from potential historical oblivion the central role of African slaves in the most successful slave revolt in modern history and to politically enfranchise the peasant and urban poor majority of Voudouisants. In the period between Holly’s Les Daïmons du Culte Vodu (1918) and Graham Greene‘s The Comedians (1966) the legend of Bois Caiman ceremony had become a national foundation myth in which Vodou was believed to have been a revolutionary force unifying the slaves, their leaders and their ancestral African gods. Like the legend of Saint James the Moor Slayer, stories about the summoning of Ogoun Ferraille and Erzulie Dantor at Bois Caïman seem to have been invented after the supposed event. This does not prevent them from having a real, socially cohesive and ideological power in Haiti. Far from it. Since Vodou ostensibly operates outside the confines of western rationalist scientific epistemes, then established notions of historical causality and facticity can be elided by various forms of revolutionary mysticism, be they Christian, Marxist, Fascist or Vodouist.
Finally I want to ask whether the literary, academic and political focus on the ceremony of Bois Caïman in the 20th century, which perpetuate the legend of a secret, African blood pact and revolutionary Vodou conspiracy, might have distracted attention away from the earlier Sunday feast at which the uprising was actually planned: an open, social and presumably Christian event, at which slaves from different plantations and different tribal cultures came together to eat, dance, make music, share knowledge and news, and forge revolutionary social alliances. The Dahomean ‘blood pact” and insurrectionary Petro rite theories of Bois Caïman were supported by some of the most authoritative voices in the field of Vodou ethnography of the 1940’s and 50’s, and, like the mythical chain of national heroes and leaders, transmitted through Vodou syncretism, rite and ceremonial, they had, by 1966, become components of the theocratic ideology of François Duvalier, in whose Haiti The Comedians was written. (I will leave for another time historical accounts of the role of Vodou in actual battles during the war of independence, suffice to say, judging from historical accounts discussed by Geggus, it does not seem to have inspired the most effective or efficient of military tactics).
Returning to young Philipot and his initiation into the rite of Ogoun Ferraille, the association of Ogun with the spirit of national resistance also seems to have coalesced during the U.S. occupation, when the Cacos rebels reputedly donned the red-sash of Ogun, their patron warrior spirit. It is not clear precisely when Ogun became identified as a national, military hero figure but it seems clear that in the popular imagination of Haitian Vodou the loa, in its multiple manifestations, has become emblematic of actual historical personages from Haitian history. Several authors have noted the pattern of a mythic succession of great leaders (Holly’s “invincible founders of our independence”) – Makandal, Boukman, Toussaint, Dessalines – manifest both in Haitian national politics and Vodou ritual, where their legends are immortalized in song and where, on occasion they manifest during crises de possession. In speeches to his compatriots, Charlemagne Peralte, leader of the Cacos insurgents, called upon the warrior heroes of Haitian independence, particularly that of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who himself, according to some accounts (notably by François Duvalier in the 1940’s), had been immortalized as a Vodou loa within the Petro rite.
The summoning of Ogoun Ferraille as a warrior spirit in times of political upheaval in Haiti was intimated at by Seabrook in The Magic Island, in which he described a terrifying encounter with this particular “God incarnate”. By the time of The Comedians this association of the warrior loa with the struggle for independence and the call to armed resistance had become an established fact within Vodou scholarship (Deren, Denis, Duvalier, Metraux, Rigaud etc.).
Interestingly, because it was impossible to film in Haiti at the time (Duvalier had banned the book and author from Haiti, later penning a pamphlet condemning Graham Greene as a cretin, liar, drug-addict and torturer) the film adaptation of The Comedians was shot in Dahomey, a country described in the MGM promo for the movie as “geographically, culturally and ethnically…the place in the world most like Haiti”.
“Suddenly into this country, so ill-equipped to receive them, came the most glamorous people in the world”
*Like C.L.R James, Aimé Cesaire will later claim that the African slaves chanted a favorite song, the latter suggesting it was chanted at the Bois Caïman ceremony itself.
Eh! Eh! Bomba! Hen! Hen!
Canga, bafio té!
Canga, mouné de lé!
Canga, do ki la!
Both translate the chant as meaning “We swear to destroy the whites and all that they possess; let us die rather than fail to keep this vow”.
The chant, originally cited but untranslated by Moreau de Saint-Méry in 1797, seems to have first been translated into French by Drouin de Bercy’s in his De Saint-Domingue of 1814 as “we swear to destroy the whites and everything they own, will die rather than renounce our oath”. It is presumably from this explicitly anti-vodou source that James found his translation. According to James the colonists knew this song and tried to stamp it, out along with the voodoo cult with which it was linked: ‘In vain. For over two hundred years the slaves sang it at their meetings, as the Jews in Babylon sang of Zion, and the Bantu today sin in secret the national anthem of Africa’ (James p.18). However, as Geggus points out, the best literal translation of this chant is:
Eh, serpent Mbumba
Stop the blacks
Stop the whites
Stop the ndoki
According to Geggus this seems to be an exorcism chant dedicated to a Kongo deity called Mdumba.