Between History and Myth: Three Perspectives on the Role of Religion in Haiti’s National History and the Haitian Revolution
Generally, there are three main interpretations of Haiti’s national history and the watershed historical moment of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), in which the dynamics between religion, myth, and history became a scholarly and intellectual investigation and curiosity. The three perspectives of the unfolding events leading to the Haitian Revolution and the successful birth of the Haitian state and concurrently the ultimate abolition of slavery in Saint-Domingue include the Protestant version of Haitian History, the Vodouist version of Haitian History, and the Secular (non-theistic) version of the Haitian History. The goal of this short essay is to briefly recapitulate these three ideological approaches, and to articulate an alternative view.
First, the Protestant (Christian) version of Haitian history states that in August 14, 1791, a group of enslaved Africans gathered in a secret Vodou meeting at Bois Caiman (a little place outside of the city of Cap-Haitien, Haiti, and about two to three miles from the entrance gate of Plaine du Nord), sacrificed a pig as part of their religious-Vodou ritual, and dedicated the country of Haiti to the Devil so they could be free from the tyranny of slavery and French colonization. Protestant Haitian Christians have interpreted this historic meeting as a demonic pact. From that point on, Haiti has been cursed because of that (1) historical pact their African ancestors made with the Devil, and (2) that the Vodou religion to which Haitian ancestors committed themselves is an evil religion. Consequently, many Haitian Christians and Church leaders, both in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora, equate Vodou with devil worshipping and directly associated the Afro-Haitian religion with stricken-poverty characterized Haiti’s contemporary society and the plight of the majority of Haitian population. Vodou does not truly liberate people; rather, it keeps its adherents in in profound spiritual bondage and material poverty.
Second, the Vodouist perspective of Haitian history argues that in August 14, 1791, a group of enslaved Africans, many of whom were Vodou priests and Vodouizan, gathered in a secret Vodou meeting in a plantation plain called Bois Caiman, made a pact among themselves—not with the Devil as the Protestants claim—and swore to be free or die. Vodouizan also contend that most of the military leaders and commanders of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1803) were also Vodou priests who not only mobilized the rancorous enslaved population to freedom and independence, they provided encouragement, spiritual comfort, and eventually led Haiti to become the first independent Black-Republic in the Western world. As a result, in the Vodouist interpretation of the Haitian history, the Vodou religion is interpreted as the catalyst that empowered the slaves toward freedom out of slavery and independence from French colonialism. Vodou is both Haiti’s (ancestral) spiritual and cultural heritage which all Haitians should promote and preserve. People in this tradition also maintain that Vodou is the religion of the Haitian majority, and it is the faith that sustains the Haitian people from the beginning to the present.
Finally, the Secular (non-theistic) version of Haitian History affirms that Bois Caiman is a fabrication and national myth in Haitian History. It never happened because there were no contemporary eyewitness accounts that attested to the historical credibility and accuracy of that nocturnal meeting, and that it is difficult to know exactly what really transpired in the night of August 14, 1791, if it even happened. The written accounts of the historic night should be understood as pseudo historiographies which were written many years after the actual event took place by travel writers and historians who fabricated the story of the Bois Caiman event. These written accounts should be seen as embroidered accounts of an acceptable national myth. The alternative idea advanced by proponents of this school of thought is that generous number (about 30 to 40 %?) of the African slaves, who were transported to the Saint-Domingue island in the period of the Haitian Revolution—that is at the end of eighteenth century—came from the kingdom of Kongo; they were prominent soldiers and men of war who possessed incredible military skills and strategies, and knew how to win a war. The success of the Haitian Revolution of 1804 can only be attributed to African military genius—not to religious piety or dependence to a Supreme Being/God.
Toward a More Inclusive Interpretation of Haitian History: An Alternative View
Both Protestant and Vodouist interpretations of Haiti’s national History and the Haitian Revolution acknowledge the theistic or divine element of Haitian History. The non-theistic secular interpretation rejects the doctrine of divine providence in human history because, in a sense, it contradicts the critical nature and study of human history and the clear delineation between observable historical facts and myth-making/fiction. The Vodouist version of Haitian history champions ancestral cultural traditions and practices, and see Africa as the center piece of Haitian cultural and religious identity. By contrast, the Protestant version of Haitian history undermines the ancestral religious traditions and spirituality of the Haitian people because it contradicts Christian morality and the belief in the only Triune God. In fact, the Protestant narrative attests that when an individual is converted to the Christian faith, his/her national identity and racial identity do not matter anymore because in Christ, God is creating one race, one people, and one collective Christian identity. Protestant Haitian Christians also stress that Jesus is the substance of Haitian identity because in him, God is also creating a new Haiti in contemporary Haitian society. Vodou is the antithesis of Christianity. Haitian Protestant Christians unapologetically affirm that Christianity is the only true religion of the living God and the true religion of human liberation. Finally, the Protestant perspective maintains the idea that Haiti is cursed because at its beginning, the founders failed to dedicate the country to God, but did so to the Devil.
Beyond the explored three multiple viewpoints of Haitian history, as highlighted in the aforementioned paragraphs, the Islamic version of Haitian history and the Haitian Revolution has been neglected by both Haitian and Haitianist historians and thinkers. Recent studies on the Haitian Revolution and the religious culture of the Africans in the time of the Haitian Revolution have demonstrated the Islamic element of the Haitian Revolution, and the fact of Islamic piety in the colonial life in Saint-Domingue. However, the Islamic interpretation of the Haitian history is not a new perspective; proponents of this school of thought maintain that a large number of the enslaved population at Saint-Domingue and iconic leaders of the pre-revolutionary era (i.e. Francois Makandal) and the Haitian Revolution (i.e. Dutty Boukman) were fervent adherents (i.e. Fatima) to Islam. Some of these slaves came from countries that had enjoyed an incredibly Islamic influence and political rule and peace such as Senegal (i.e. the Askia dynasty of Sudan), Ghana (i.e.The Mossi Empire of modern-day Ghana), Nigeria (i.e. the Bornu Empire), etc. In contemporary Haitian society, the Islamic perspective of the Haitian Revolution has attracted a new cadre of Haitian intellectuals who rejected both the Vodouist and Christian interpretations of Haiti’s national history and the Haitian Revolution. This attitude is also due to a reinterpretation of Haitian history in the light of the Islamic past of the Caribbean nation, and that Islam continues to spread progressively its wings in various parts of the country.
In all of the four perspectives discussed above, there’s a high level of hermeneutical exaggeration of Haitian history, the historical data, and the Haitian Revolution, which is presented to us as “historical certainty.” The individuals who prefer a religious interpretation of Haiti’s national history and the Haitian Revolution emphasize the importance of their own religion in the success of the unfolding events of the Haitian Revolution and the triumph of human freedom, and human rights and dignity in global history. They also accentuate the functional role of religion in the process of social and political transformation, and the reversal of human oppression and political tyranny. It is impossible for the champions of this view to conceive the human experience and human history without the divine imprint and God’s direct intervention in gearing human actions and modifying certain historical events toward his desired goal in the best interest and good of all people. On the other hand, the secular approach of the Haitian Revolution counters the theistic thesis.
In addition, first of all, the Africans who gathered in the night of August 14, 1791 to plan their freedom and independence from white rule and the labyrinth of slavery did not make a pact with the devil. It is an “evangelistic strategy” that right-wing Haitian Protestants promulgated to win converts and create collective fear among the Haitian people. The Protestant Haitian narrative seeks to foster a new national consciousness in the Caribbean nation in order that Protestant Haitian Christianity might win Haiti for Christ and transform Haiti into a (Protestant) Christian nation. (Interestingly, from the founding moment of the new Haitian state, in the first Haiti’s Constitution, Catholic Christianity was declared the official religion of the Haitian state; technically, Haiti began as a Christian nation—not by individual confession or commitment to the Christian faith and values—but for political expediency and affiliation with the so-called “Christian nations” in the Western world). White American and European missionaries created this tragic narrative to demonize the Vodou religion, disvalue the African element of the Haitian culture, and Christianize and westernize the Haitian people. Haitian Protestant Christians unashamedly believe this discourse; they even own it and now boldly proclaim this peculiar narrative about the ambivalent role of religion and history in Haitian history. This attitude is such a terrible strategy to proselytize people to Protestant Christianity. There are more effective and biblical ways to win the “lost Haitian soul” for the Kingdom of God and its Christ. We reject the Protestant interpretation of Haitian history; it is pseudo-history. Haitian Christians do not have to lie about or exaggerate the religious history of Haiti to magnify God and validate the truthfulness of the Gospel message to their fellow Haitians. God is bigger than human history and religion, which we have created.
Secondly, the meeting that took place in Bois Caiman in August 14, 1791, was not strictly a “religious gathering;” rather, it was a “political meeting” that was inspired by various religious forces: African traditional religions, Christianity, and Islam. The summit did happen although it is impossible to demarcate with accuracy the precise historical elements and details of this historic event. This is where history and fiction meets.
Finally, we should embrace a more inclusive interpretation of Haiti’s national history and the Haitian Revolution, which would affirm the remarkable contributions of both enslaved and free African Christians, Muslims, and African Vodouists to the freedom and independence of the Haitian people from colonial bondage, political totalitarianism, and the institution of slavery. The faith of the Africans who were brought to Saint-Domingue was not monolithic nor have the Africans subscribed to a homogeneous interpretation of religion. A lot of countries, which Haitian ancestors came from, were already Islamized and Christianized—such as Kongo, Gabon, Angola, Senegal, Sudan, Ghana, Nigeria, etc. The enslaved population that was compulsorily transported to the island of Saint-Domingue to work in the New World’s agricultural plantation system were ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse. They were fervent Christians, Muslims, and Vodouists. Some were even non-religious for since the beginning of creation and time men and women have challenged the social construct of religion and even rebelled against God their Creator.
*To learn more about this important topic, I recommend two important articles: “The Rhetoric of Prayer: Dutty Boukman, The Discourse of “Freedom from Below,” and the Politics of God,” Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion 2:9 (June 2011):1-33, and “Redefining cultural, national, and religious identity: The Christian–Vodouist dialogue?” Theology Today, 2016, Vol. 73(3) 241–262
Link to the first essay (PDF document):
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Link to the second essay (PDF document):