Friday, 15 January 2010

Pat Robertson, Voodoo and the Haitian disaster

Was Pat Robertson right? I'm not usually in the business of endorsing the views of a dotty publicity-hungry religious fundamentalist. But I think, in this case at least, that the coverage has been a little unfair to him.

Robertson is supposed to have claimed that the Haitian earthquake was a punishment from God for all the Voodoo that goes on there. If so, he would deserve the condemnation that he has attracted from believers and non-believers alike. Of course, Christians used to believe such things. Such explanations, however, went out of fashion in the wake of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Most of the city's population was on its knees in church when the earthquake struck, and the majority of the dead would have spent their final moments crushed under the weight of collapsed stone archictecture erected to the glory of God. Ever since then, the majority of mainstream Christians have accepted that earthquakes are natural events that are just as likely to bury the devout as the sinful.

But Robertson didn't actually say that God blasted Port au Prince as a demonstration of divine wrath. A defensive statement from his Christian Broadcasting Network insisted that "Dr. Robertson’s compassion for the people of Haiti is clear" and drew attention to relief already provided by his "humanitarian arm". What he did claim was that the poor state of modern Haiti - especially as compared with its better-off neighbour the Dominican Republic - has something to do with its history. Admittedly, his explanation of the country's predicament was somewhat too metaphysical for modern, secular tastes. He asserted that, prior to their revolt against French rule (which he placed in the time of Napoleon III, whereas in fact it occurred during the French Revolution around sixty years before Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte came to power) the Haitian slaves-leaders had made a pact with the Devil. In consequence, he suggests, Haiti has ever since been under a curse, living under the shadow of the original sin that tainted the country's birth.

Now obviously I don't believe this. But plenty of Haitians do, and not just Evangelical Christians. Robertson wasn't making it up. The story goes that in 1791 a group of ex-slaves, led by Boukman Dutty, assembled at Bois Caiman to plot their rebellion against slavery and colonial rule. Desiring supernatural aid, and imbued with the beliefs and superstitions of their African ancestors (which had already transmogrified into that blend of animism and Catholicism known as Voodoo - or, more properly, Vodou) they invoked the aid of powerful deities.

Few doubt that the ceremony - which plays a similar role in popular retellings of the Haitian revolution to that of the Boston Tea Party - actually took place. An official Haitian history website describes it as follows:

A man named Boukman, another houngan [Voodoo priest], organized on August 14, 1791, a meeting with the slaves in the mountains of the North. This meeting took the form of a Voodoo ceremony in the Bois Caiman in the northern mountains of the island. It was raining and the sky was raging with clouds; the slaves then started confessing their resentment of their condition. A woman started dancing languorously in the crowd, taken by the spirits of the loas. With a knife in her hand, she cut the throat of a pig and distributed the blood to all the participants of the meeting who swore to kill all the whites on the island.

Like the Boston Tea Party itself, the Bois Caiman rite was probably of far less actual significance than its role in popular mythology would suggest. It sounds much like any other Voodoo ceremony and, in the circumstances, must have been equivalent to a consciousness-raising session. Whatever else it was, it was not a "pact with the Devil". Some historians deny the event happened at all - Leon-Francois Hoffmannn, for example, has argued that the story was invented by "a malevolent Frenchman" seeking to paint the revolutionaries as superstitious savages, only for it to be adopted enthusiastically as a national foundation myth. But the fact that Haitians believed in the ritual - and in its efficacy - in itself speaks volumes of the position of Voodoo beliefs in the national culture. Indeed, given the strong belief - then and now - in the power of Voodoo it would be surprising if some such ceremony had not been held. Haitian historians, moreover, point to strong local traditions about the meeting that have been handed down over generations independently of official accounts of it.

Whatever rites were held at Bois Caiman to propitiate the gods of Voodoo they were - from a secular perspective at least - of secondary importance to the pact of revolution that was agreed by the participants. All revolutions must have such moments where the leading figures come together and recognise - in the words of Benjamin Franklin - that they must all hang together or else risk hanging separately. The meeting of August 14th, recent research suggests, was held not in the Caiman wood itself but at nearby Normand de Mezy, and brought together around two hundred rebel slaves. There was, it seems, a Voodoo ceremony at Bois Caiman - a rather more select gathering - a week later. Significantly, the great revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture seems not to have been present at the ritual, which was allegedly presided over by the wife of Jean-Louis Pierrot who, decades later, became Haiti's president. Presumably it was she who sacrificed the pig. In popular versions, the two events have been conflated.

In Evangelical circles Bois Caiman has long been interpreted in the way Pat Robertson alluded to - as a Satanic pact that left Haiti cursed (the Voodoo deities being demons in disguise). One Haitian theologian has described this as "by far the most popular explanation for Haiti’s birth as a free nation, especially among Christian missionaries and some Haitian church leaders". As an explanation for Haiti's ills, the theory is less one of divine displeasure than an evangelistic strategy aimed (hitherto with little success) at winning the people away from their traditional beliefs.

Interestingly, some Vodoists tell a similar story, albeit from a different angle. A book in my collection by Reginald Crosley, who interprets the belief-system from the perspective of quantum physics (please don't ask) asserts that "many Haitians believe that the country's underdevelopment is the result of the neglect of vodouns". Crosley refers to a 1995 article by one Henri-Claude Innocent, who claims that the Bois Caiman ceremony was carried out by devotees of a "left-hand" (or demonic) Voodoo cult known as Makaya, which draws together elements from various parts of West Africa. The purpose of the ritual was to create an "egregor" or "conglomerate of dark-matter entities" to defeat the French:

That egregor demanded human and animal sacrifices or a lot of blood. According to Innocent, the team offered a slave-master on the sacrificial altar to the Petro-Congo egregor. The conglomerate of dark-matter entities was supposed to be dissolved after Independence by a special national ritual of thanksgiving, but it was not done. The conglomerate persists up to the present time in Haiti and continues to produce havoc and mayhem among the Haitians. Innocent recalls in his article an esoteric rule by which the quantum connection of multiple dark-matter entities or axionic forces is modulated into a stronger and stronger destructive force as time goes on...

The passage goes on to interpret the whole subsequent history of Haiti in terms of a struggle between the devotees of Makaya and believers in a more positive version of Voodoo known as Guinen. It's all rather complicated - "the non-Bizango section of the nefarious conglomerate or egregor, known as the Champwel-Makanda wing, was scattered in small rival groups across the country, like Mafia cartels" - but the basic contention is that the country's political instability is largely due to warring sorcerors casting spells on each other. We also learn that after the revolution of 1986, which overthrew Baby Doc Duvalier, "it was rumoured that the overdue service of thanksgiving at the national level to disband the egregor conglomerate" was going to be held at last, but "the military was opposed to it". As a result, "the country is still in the grip of the Simbi-Makaya aggregate of chthonian dark-matter entities".

Crosley describes this bizarre account - which reads like something out of H.P. Lovecraft - as "an extreme presentation" and admits that Haiti's enduring problems have many less esoteric causes. Nevertheless, this occult version of the country's history, like Pat Robertson's theory about a pact with the Devil, expresses in mythic way the tragedy of a failed state. Haiti's story might have been an inspiration to the world's oppressed - the only nation in history founded by a successful slave revolt. Instead, having thrown off their shackles the Haitians began to forge new ones of their own devising. Poverty, misgovernment and natural disaster conspired together to create the Western hemisphere's worst slum. Amid such misery, the syncretic beliefs that came to be known as Voodoo provided comfort and escape, but they also inculcated a fatalism, a reliance on supernatural aid that never really arrived. In that sense, at least, the country is indeed labouring under a spiritual curse.