‘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?
Below is an illustrated transcript of a lecture I recently gave at the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm as part of the Xism show and ‘Pig Party’ event curated by Roberto Peyre to coincide with a major Vodou exhibition currently taking place there. I will be writing about the Vodou show and the discussion surrounding it in further posts. I will also post a transcript of the lecture I gave two days later as part of the ‘Sacred Matter and Secular Frames’ symposium organized by Lotten Gustafsson, Curator at the Museum of Ethnography and the National Museum of World Culture. Continue reading “Art, Possession and The Revolutionary Unconscious”
In the recent Gasworks meeting at which we established the Haiti-London Konbit list-server it was agreed that a brief history of the current situation would be useful to help coordinate solidarity. This is my first attempt to do so.
I will be presenting a powerpoint presentation of this story at a Free School event on Saturday 13th Feb between 2 and 4pm in the temporary shop space where Andrew Cooper is showing “The Rabbles Furious Struggle Against Inequality” (Shop 76, 5th Avenue, Brixton Market off Coldharbour Lane and Atlantic Road. Near Brixton tube, Victoria line). Please come along and invite any interested parties.
Our Debt to Haiti
“Haiti has no debt with Venezuela – on the contrary, it is Venezuela that has a historic debt with Haiti,” – President Hugo Chavez the announcement of the cancellation of Haiti’s monetary debt to Venezuela, January 2010
In his recent speech accepting responsibility for the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund established by Barak Obama, Bill Clinton made the following telling comment:
“I believe that before this earthquake Haiti had the best chance to escape its history, a history that Hilary and I have shared a tiny part of”
This was not the first time Clinton had given his ‘escape’ speech after a ‘natural disaster’ in Haiti. The first was at the UN headquarters in New York prior to his departure for Haiti in July 2009 on acceptance of his role as UN Special Envoy to the country: “Haiti, notwithstanding the total devastation wreaked by the four storms last year” he said “has the best chance to escape the darker aspects of its history in the 35 years that I have been going there.” Clinton continued, “[Haiti is safer today] because of the work of the United Nations peacekeeping and police forces. No effort like that is without controversy and incident, but they have basically done a good job. I was there in the streets of Cite Soleil. I saw the children walking without fear.” The ‘controversy and incident’ referred to by Clinton stems from accusations of UN involvement in human rights abuses committed by the Haitian police who performed summary executions and widespread false arrests following Aristide’s ousting in 2004.
There are two histories that Clinton, Obama and Bush, along with the dominant mainstream media channels, would like us to forget, and the Haitian people to ‘escape’. The first is Haiti’s history as the first independent Black republic in the modern world and the price it has had to pay for its’ independence ever since, and the second is the terrible role the US and dominant international powers have played, and continue to play, in maintaining the poverty and political disempowerment of the Haitian people.
Here’s a brief sketch of those two stories and the ‘dark history’ that Clinton would like Haiti to ‘escape’.
Background to the Haitian Revolution
Haiti occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola, which was populated by Taíno people at the time of Columbus’ arrival there in 1492. The Taíno population decreased rapidly during the colonization that followed Columbus’ ‘discovery’ due to harsh treatment by the colonial overlords. The genocide of the Taínos by Columbus and his men has been described as one of the most brutal and complete in history.
In 1501 the Spanish colony began importing African slaves to replace the lost Taíno ‘workforce’ it was using to extract gold from the island.
During the 17th century French colonists took over the western part of the island and named it St. Domingo. It was to become the richest colony in the New World, a wealth based on the cultivation and manufacture of indigo, coffee and sugar. The production process was built upon one of the cruelest and most inhuman slavery regimes the world had ever known.
The Taínos and Africans that managed to escape slavery formed maroon communities in the mountains. One of the most famous maroons was Francois Macandal who led a series of successful raids against the colonial plantation owners in the years before the revolutionary slave-uprising there in 1791.
Inspired by the French revolution of 1789 and the ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity – which supposedly underpinned it – the slaves organised a massive revolutionary movement against their masters.
In August 1791 a Jamaican-born, former slave and houngan (Vodou priest) called Dutty Boukman organized a gathering of rebel leaders in the woods of Bois Caïman and, in ritual ceremony, swore a blood oath to overthrow the plantation system. (This is the historical source of recent allegations that Haiti is cursed due to a pact made with the devil).
Here is the accepted historical account of Boukman’s prayer at Bois Caïman:
“The god who created the sun which gives us light, who rouses the waves and rules the storm, though hidden in the clouds, he watches us. He sees all that the white man does. The god of the white man inspires him with crime, but our god calls upon us to do good works. Our god who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us. Throw away the symbol of the god of the whites who has so often caused us to weep, and listen to the voice of liberty, which speaks in the hearts of us all.” (cited in CLR James’ The Black Jacobins)
There is some academic controversy regarding the details and veracity of the story of Bois Caïman. An overview of the debates can be found here.
Revolution and Independence
From the revolutionary struggle that followed the Bois Caïman ceremony Toussaint Louverture, a free black, former coachman and slave driver, emerged as the military commander of the slave armies and became the first black governor of the first nation in the world to fully and constitutionally abolish slavery. Following a 13 year war of liberation the Nation of Haiti was established in 1804, named after one of the Taíno names for the mountainous island. It was the first country in the world to actually abolish slavery and to implement universal human rights and equality to all citizens regardless of colour, property ownership, religion or gender. The great historical, political and social significance of this event has been receiving a great deal of attention in academic circles recently, since the publication of Susan Buck-Morss’ Hegel, Haiti and Universal History and Nick Nesbitt’s Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment. Slavoj Zizek’s attention to these works, as mentioned in the ‘First Post‘ of this blog, has further added to this popular academic interest.
Haiti’s Debt to the World Banking System
No sooner had Haiti won its independence from France than it was faced with a crippling trade embargo imposed by the French. This would not be the last such blockade.
In 1804 US President Thomas Jefferson refused to recognise the new state and instead offered military support to the French to help regain the island. Fearing slave-uprisings in the southern states, the US also placed a trade embargo on Haiti. This embargo was in place until 1862 when the US finally recognized Haiti as a sovereign nation. Abolition of Slavery in the US did not happen until 1865 at the end of the Civil War.
In 1825, in return for recognizing Haitian independence, France demanded an indemnity of 150 million gold francs, five times the country’s annual export revenue. The terms were non-negotiable and the fledgling nation acceded, since it had little practical economic choice in the matter. The country took out loans from US, German and French banks at extortionate rates. By 1900 80% of the national budget was being swallowed up by debt repayments. Haiti was paying for this debt until 1947.
In 2003 President Jean Bertrand Aristide petitioned the French government to repay Haiti for this reparation plus the interest the money would have accrued in that time (a total of $ 21 billion). The French Government refused and one year later, after secret meeting in Montreal between government representatives of France, Canada, the US and Latin America discussing ‘regime change’ in Haiti, President Aristide was ousted in a military coup. The coup coincided with the 200th year anniversary of the declaration of Haitian independence.
The First US Occupation of Haiti
At the outbreak of the first world war the US government was anxious about a small German population (approximately 200 people) in Haiti controlling 80% of the nations wealth. A consortium of US investors bought the National bank of Haiti, the nations only commercial bank and government treasury. In 1915 President Woodrow Wilson sent 300 troops to ‘protect US interests’ in Haiti. Fears that Haiti would renege on loans from US and France under the potential presidency of Rosalvo Bobo prompted a full-blown invasion.
In 1918 the US drafted a new constitution for Haiti which allowed foreigners to buy land, something prohibited in Haiti since the presidency of Jean Jacques Dessalines (1804-6). The US occupation was enforced by US marines until 1934 during which time the US imposed a forced labour regime for the building of public works and blacks were banned from colonial hotels and restaurants. The guerrilla chief, Charlemagne Peralte, was exhibited in the public square, crucified on a door to teach the people a counter-insurgency lesson. Haiti’s social and economic development was effectively halted by this unlawful military occupation.
In a precursor to Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine Major General Smedley Darlington Butler (winner of the US medal of honour for his involvement in Haiti) wrote a condemnation of US military strategy at this time – War is a Racket– pointing to a variety of examples where industrialists, whose operations were subsidised by public funding, were able to generate substantial profits essentially from mass human suffering.
During the occupation the US also began a series of anti-superstition campaigns in an attempt to eradicate the practice of Vodou from the country. Contemporary US based Evangelical Christian missions in Haiti continue this campaign today. In a recent post from Leah Gordon to the Ghetto Biennale list she told how, one week after the earthquake, an evangelist van drove past the site of the Ghetto Biennale in Grand Rue with a huge sound system playing a song which roughly translated as – ‘Haiti has suffered but let us be glad that god has at least killed all the sinners’.
The Duvalier Era
Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier came to power in Haiti in 1956 on a popular black nationalist platform. In 1959 he created a rural militia, the Ton Ton Macoutes, notorious for their brutality, who terrorized the rural population. Hundreds of thousands of rural peasants migrated from the country to rural slums in Port-au-Prince looking for work in sweatshops.
During the Kennedy administration (1961-3) Duvalier renounced all economic aid from Washington and declared himself President for life in 1964. Shortly afterwards there was a shift in US foreign policy towards Haiti as it was seen as an important bulwark against Communism in the West Indies.
During this time US agricultural imports began to undermine the traditional agricultural economy of Haiti.
Francois’ son, Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier took over in 1971. In 1972 he was exposed for selling Haitian blood to private American hospitals for $3 a litre. In 1978 the indigenous Haitian pig was diagnosed as having the African Swine Fever and, under pressure from the US government, was almost entirely eradicated and replaced by an American pig that cost almost as much to feed as a Haitian human.
By mid 80’s fears about the AIDS epidemic destroyed what tourism there was left in Haiti. During this period there was a move on the part of the US States Agency for International Development to move the Haitian population out of the countryside and into the cities for multinational assembly industries in what has been called the Taiwanization of Haiti. Rice was imported from Miami at prices that undercut the Haitian farmers, furthering the tactical destruction of the Haitian rural economy and peasant self-determination.
During the Duvaliers’ combined 28 years in power, up to 60,000 Haitians were “disappeared” by the regime. The American government, via various agencies and banks, lent millions to both dictators. Despite knowledge of their 80% rate of aid embezzlement, no action was taken to remove them until 1986. The Duvaliers regularly signed up to new loans and gave lucrative contracts to American corporations. When Baby Doc fled the country he took an estimated $900m with him. 45% of Haiti’s current debt is interest on loans made for ‘development’ during the Duvalier period. Creditors include the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, the IMF and the governments of the US and France (see ‘Haiti: the land where children eat mud’ – Alex Von Tunzelmann).
Aristide, the Lavalas Movement and the second US Occupation
In 1983 Pope Jean Paul 11 visited Haiti inspiring a popular movement for social change. In 1985 social uprisings began in Gonaïves with raids of food distribution warehouses. Baby Doc flown was out of Haiti in 1986 aided by the US military.
The Fanmi Lavalas (Avalanche Family) movement, led by the Roman Catholic Priest Jean Bertrand Aristide, won the parliamentary elections in 1991 on a platform of land reform, aid to peasants, reforestation, investment in infrastructure for the people, and increased wages and union rights for sweatshop workers.
A year later he was ousted in a CIA funded military coup after which a trade embargo was once again placed on Haiti. President George H.W. Bush granted exemptions from this embargo to many US companies, an exemption which Bill Clinton continued.
Aristide was returned to power by the Clinton administration ‘with a gun to his head’ in 1994, on the condition that he enforced the neo-liberal ‘development’ plan that Haitians call the ‘plan of death’. Washington demanded that Aristide sell-off all of Haiti’s state-owned services including the phone and electricity system, which he refused to do. This is the same plan that the US and International Financial institutions continue to impose on Haiti and the one that Clinton and Obama are still working towards. Which is why, in case anyone was wondering, the US now have over 10,000 armed military personnel in Haiti, ‘securing the disaster’.
In 1995 the IMF forced Haiti, once again, to cut its rice tariff from 35 percent to 3 percent, leading to a massive increase in rice-dumping, the vast majority of which came from the United States. Haiti is now the third-largest importer of US-produced rice, behind only Mexico and Japan.
Aristide’s return marked the second US occupation of Haiti, the Operation to Uphold Democracy, which continued until the 31st of March 1995.
In 2000 Aristide was re-elected by 92% of the votes.
Four years later the US collaborated with Haitian ruling elites and anti-Lavalas rebels to depose and kidnap Aristide. He was flown out of Haiti by US military and ‘security’ personnel. He is currently living in South Africa awaiting his return to Haiti.
Even before the present crisis, Haitians made it clear that they wanted Aristide back. In 2009, they boycotted elections which banned Aristide’s party Fanmi Lavalas from standing – only 3% of people voted.
In April 2004 MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti) was established by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1542 because the council deemed the situation in Haiti to be a threat to peace and security in the region. The mission, which is led by the Brazilian army and made up of approximately 9,000 troops from 40 different nations, is authorized to stay in Haiti till October 2010.
There first mission was to ‘secure’ the Cité Soleil area of Port-au-Prince to control inter-factional violence between pro-Aristide and anti-Aristide gangs.