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Karl Cassel

HIST101-2 Lundin

Context Essay


Vodou: The Rally Cry of the Nation

In Hollywood today, voodoo often plays the role of the exotic and mysterious spirit

worship of the typical tribal people being portrayed. This, however, differs quite a bit with the

Vodou religion that is, and has been, fundamental throughout the history of Saint-Domingue,

now Haiti, and its people. Specifically during the Haitian Revolution, Vodou created a rallying

point for the slaves of Saint-Domingue by establishing a common ground among the vast

diversity of Africans represented, giving the slaves a source of psychological liberation, and

also giving them a sense of human dignity and power amidst their dehumanizing conditions

(Shen, 1). The slave revolts leading to the Haitian Revolution, which is the only successful slave

revolution in history, would not have been successful or hardly possible without Vodou and the

power it created through unity.

To start, the Haitian Revolution is vastly important to history because it involved the

greatest degree of mass mobilization and brought about the greatest social and economic change

that this part of the world had ever seen (Geggus, xi). Before going further, it is important to

understand the situation in Saint-Domingue at this time as Vodou began to increase in popularity.

As the leader in exports of the eighteenth century, mainly of sugar and coffee, there was an

enormous amount of wealth to be had in the plantations of Saint-Domingue (Geggus, xi). As

France began to move towards the Enlightenment Period, steady demand for the delicacies of

sugar and coffee continued to grow, creating an opportunity for plantation owners to increase
their wealth immensely. In return, this increase in demand of goods also created a vast demand

for slaves which would come to almost half a million as opposed to the 30,000 white colonists

(Geggus, xii). These slaves came from numerous countries and cultures across Africa resulting in

a great deal of diversity. For this reason, Vodou took on such importance because it became a

centralizing part of life that all slaves, regardless of their cultural backgrounds, could unite in. As

slaves began to practice Vodou, they implemented various parts of their own, native, spirit

worship to create the founded religion of Vodou that quickly gained popularity throughout Saint-

Domingue (McAlister, 1).

Next, it is crucial to consider the conditions of the slaves at this point in time because this

strengthens their views and commitment to Vodou which ultimately brings them together to

revolt. Slaves were extremely over worked, working sunup to sundown six days per week, and

were often subject to cruel punishments as examples to other slaves (Geggus, xii). Slaves were

not people, but merely possessions or tools which accomplished the work that needed to be done.

Charles Malenfant describes the plantation hierarchy as simply a way to get rich: The overseer

wants to become a manager; the manager to become an estate-attorney; and the latter to make

more revenue than his predecessor (Geggus, 4-5). With this attitude in mind, the plantation

owners were merciless towards the slaves because they were simply possessions that could be

replaced if not productive enough. It is not uncommon for one who is being dehumanized, to

begin to accept it as reality; this was the case of the slaves. This dehumanization was combated

by the strength and unity brought about by Vodou. This religion was a source of psychological

liberation in that it enabled [slaves] to express and reaffirm that self-existence they objectively

recognized through their own labor and gave them a way to express power that they had been so

diminished of (Shen, 1).

As slaves began to rally around this religion of Vodou, power began to increase and the

idea of revolts became increasingly enticing. These ideas, combined with the paranoia of the

whites caused by poisonings and rumored revolts in the Caribbean and Americas, created a

hostile environment towards Vodou from the plantation owners. Gatherings of slaves around

Vodou were forbidden which required slaves to gather at night to perform their rituals and

worship (Dubois, 60). In secrecy, slaves came together and worshipped, danced, as well as

dreamed of freedom through songs such as this: We swear to destroy the whites and all that they

possess; let us die rather than fail to keep this vow (James, 18). This hate that was brewing

inside the slaves as a whole needed an outlet which Vodou provided. Slaves would even perform

their rituals out in public to the sounds of drums and follow up with a meal to elude suspicion of

their night meetings (James, 62). This shows how deeply these Vodou meetings became to them

and the power of unity they instilled. Vodou also helped slaves break away psychologically

from the very real and concrete chains of slavery and to see themselves as independent beings;

capable of revolt and resistance to oppression (Shen 1).

The tensions of this time period were steadily growing between slaves and plantation

managers, maroons and the paranoia they were causing white colonists, and the effects of the

French Revolution among all in Saint-Domingue (Geggus, xix). Vodou continued to fuel the

slaves and give them a hope and unity for the future. Finally, on the night of August 14, 1791 a

group of slaves held, what is said to be, the most influential Vodou meeting of the Haitian

Revolution, the Bois Caimen, in Morne-Rouge (Shen, 1). This Vodou gathering was held in the

middle of an uncultivated, wooded area and consisted of the sacrifice of a black pig

surrounded with fetishes and loaded with a variety of bizarre the all-powerful

spirit of the black race (Geggus, 79). This depiction of a sacrifice to empower the slaves before
their revolt is an immense parallel to vitality that Vodou held to the revolution. This religion that

the many of the slaves had come to accept and practice had not only brought them together in

unity, but also empowered them to revolt. Vodou created a common ground and allowed for a

sense of community, through empowerment, to these slaves in a foreign land who had nothing.

Ultimately, through a series of events including numerous revolts, fighting against white

colonists, plantation owners, and the French military, the slaves of Saint-Domingue came out

victorious under the leadership of Jean-Francois and Georges Biassou (Geggus, xx, xxi). Then

on August 29, 1793 came the emancipation proclamation which came to fruition based on three

developments: an undefeated slave insurrection, the outbreak of war [in Europe], and the

fortuitous presence of a radical abolitionist in charge of the colony [Leger-Felicite Sonthonax]

(Geggus, xxi). Based on the foundation Vodou had created among the slaves of the plantations

and the power it displayed in the overthrowing of the oppressive power, it is hard to ignore the

vitality Vodou held to the nation of Saint-Domingue.

In closing, it is important to ask: What would the progression of slave revolts of the

Haitian Revolution have looked like with the absence of Vodou practice? It is safe to say that

without the foundational glue of Vodou to bring together a diverse group of people and spark an

insurrection, the slaves of Saint-Domingue would have toiled in their captivity for a great deal

longer. It is difficult to ignore the power Vodou played as it was developed and grew among a

struggling people in a foreign land, empowering them to overthrow the French, and make history

through their success. For these reasons, the slave revolts and rebellion of the Haitian Revolution

would not have been successful without the power of unity and source of psychological

liberation that Vodou inspired (Shen, 1).

Works Cited:

Dubois, Laurent, and John D. Garrigus. Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789-1804: A Brief

History with Documents. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.

Geggus, David Patrick. The Haitian Revolution a Documentary History. Indianapolis: Hackett,

2014. Print.
James, C. L. R. The Black Jacobins; Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution.

New York: Vintage, 1963. Print.

McAlister, Elizabeth. "Vodou | Haitian Religion." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia

Britannica, 17 Feb. 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.

Shen, Kona. "The Haitian Revolution 1791." The Haitian Revolution 1791. Brown University, 9

Dec. 2008. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.