Past years are always better.
I just wanted to get this out here before we got started. For everyone who is curious, near as I can tell, there are three types of service to the lwa. There is Haitian Vodou, there is American Voodoo, and there is non-Initiated, Solitary Vodou/Voodoo. You’ll notice that the spelling between initiated types is different. I am doing this to differentiate between what I’ve learned in regards to Vodou and Vooodoo, what I glean from American sources and what I glean from Haitian sources. I haven’t yet been directed as to whether my flavor of non-initiate is “Vodou” or “Voodoo” but as I’m American, I suppose “Voodoo” will work here.
I get a lot of questions for resources about the lwa. This is because I’m very open and honest with how I go about this and that I do know a fair bit of Haitian Vodou. My studies, thus far, have been entirely relegated to the realm of Haiti and its religion of Vodou. This wasn’t at the direction of anyone but myself. I am a recon-slanted Kemetic and with that recon background, I took it upon myself to begin learning about the origins of Haitian Vodou.
If not for that venerable, oft-misrepresented religion, we wouldn’t have the American flavor of it that we do today. The city of New Orleans would be vastly different, one may dare say, if the island of Haiti hadn’t had its blood-soaked history. We wouldn’t have enclaves of sosyete in the United States and Canada that we do today. But as much as we should know about the origins of the religious practice, you have to know about Haiti and the history of that country in order to even begin to understand a damn thing about the religious practices. Vodou history and Haiti history are so intertwined, at least during the Revolution and just prior, that without knowing the history of the Revolution and the years of in-fighting subsequent to that, then you may as well pack up and go home.
Whenever you pick up a book about Vodou, and even when you pick up books upon Voodoo, you will find that there will always be a section on the history of Haiti. If nothing else, this will hammer home how important the history, itself, is. With each new book you read, you get a little different perspective on the Haitian Revolution, but the premise is the same. The problem with these minor history lessons are the fact that they don’t explain everything. As I said, the basic premise is the same: there were slaves and they rose successfully to their own freedom. However, bits and pieces, certain instances, certain pitched battles, and previous uprisings are completely buried under the fact that in 1791, the slaves and runaways rose up against the white masters of the island, freeing themselves after 13 years of fighting. (Haiti declared independence on January 1, 1804.)
While the names of important fighting men, like Dessalines and Louverture are important to remember and important to read about, there are other factors that led to the rebellion in the first place. Just as in the United States during our fight for independence, there was a political game afoot that was probably very well known by the slaves of the household, which then directly influenced the constant insurrections of the slaves throughout the island. Just as the American colonists declared English rule and its ridiculous laws – like having to sell its exports only to England and being forced to only by English imports – were established in the then-colony of Saint-Domingue, only instead of English tyranny the free men were fighting against French tyranny.
One of the other misnomers about the Haitian bid for independence is the fact that there were numerous types of people who lived on the island. We often hear about things in terms of black-and-white, literally. There were black slaves; there were white slave owners. People forget that the white slave masters “enjoyed the company” of their female slaves, and children inevitable rose from those unions. And in a lot of those cases, the masters freed those children. If not for learning about the history of Haiti, I wouldn’t have known that. My imagination, when reading the sections in my books about the Revolution, is flush with visions of black men and women, screaming their hatred at an army of considerable fewer white men. (Slaves outnumbered free people, the white slave-masters and their mulatto children, 5 to 1.)
Something else to consider is the fact that the maroon slaves – those who had run away to the mountains to live free – who, ultimately would be well remembered in the form of names like Dessalines and Louverture, were not the only people living in the mountains of Haiti. Although the Spanish conquest of the “West Indies” brought with it genocide and disease, there were survivors of the native tribes there, who had retreated to the mountains. These people were known as the Taíno and their tribe was descendent from the Arawak tribes, at least as far as linguistics is concerned. Though not all aspects of the Haitian Vodou religion hold aspects of this tribe, numerous arenas do. The survival of this tribe has manifested outside of Vodou, as well, in the form of language (barbacoa – barbecue, for example).
Another misnomer is the thought that, just one day, the slaves rose against their masters. The slaves were constantly rebelling. In 1759, there was a successful rebellion, known as the Mackandal Rebellion. François Mackandal was a Haitian Maroon leader, who had a fair knowledge of poisonous plants. The rebellion he sewed with his charisma and knowledge was to poison the plantation owners, their water supplies, and even their animals; whatever it took to get rid of them. The fears of poisoning were rife in Haiti at this time as the African slaves brought extensive herbal knowledge with them and poisonous plants grew unchecked in Saint-Domingue at the time. If a slave had not confessed, after being tortured, of Mackandal’s plan, it is quite possible that the rebellion would have brought about the end of the tyranny much sooner. Instead, it was struck down and the fomentation of rebellion continued until the slaves and maroons united together on that fateful night in 1791 to declare war against their previous masters.
This should clearly denote a few things to someone just entering Haitian history.
- The slaves were always very intent on their freedom.
- The slaves of Saint-Domingue held power over their owners in the form of fear.
- The slaves never, once, thought of remaining in this state.
In other words, they were all fighters. And this is part of what has been sewn into the Vodou religion, as well as the people of Haiti, today. It’s not just a fighting spirit that one can find, not only in the lwa of this religion, but also in the people themselves.
Knowing even a nominal tidbit of Haitian history will provide you with any clue how absolutely shitty life on the island is in comparison to American living. Not only did they revolt against their masters, but there had been constant fighting since then in some form or another. Since the Revolution, agriculture has been the only form of income the country has been able to provide, however during the Revolution, they destroyed much of the fertile soil. In same vein, due to constant conflict among its leaders and a seeming inability by those leaders to have looked beyond themselves, there was no provision made for this country to leave the 18th century. In many villages that are present in Haiti today, things are absolutely no different from their ancestors’ freed lives were.
It is the fighting spirit of their ancestors and the fighting spirit of Haitian people today that keep them going. When family is sick and there is no money, they keep hoping and praying and moving. When there is a fight among brothers for who will inherit the land of their father, the rest of the family keeps hoping and praying and moving. The continue through their daily lives, praying and believing. And in those moments, those dark moments, even without their religion, the fighting spirit of their ancestors is seen so very clearly within them. (Of course, as most of the people needing help in these arenas possibly belong to a Vodou house in the area, the houngan or mambo will ultimately assist them in any of these trials and tribulations more clearly and more resolutely, in some cases, than a Catholic or Protestant religious figure.)
If learning the history of Haitian history isn’t something you are overly interested in, then I suggest you not bother with Vodou or Voodoo in any context. I’m not saying this to be an asshole or self-righteous, but simply stating that in order to understand a religion of this flourishing, intense nature, one must look to the history of the country that bore it. Without knowing even a modicum of what the Vodou books will tell you, then you are doing a disservice to yourself and to the lwa you profess to want to serve. The knowledge of the people who created the religion in the first place, and the circumstances surrounding that creation, should give you adequate ideas about the religion, what your lwa may want from you, and why that lwa came to you.
A quick note on Internet resources, I do not recommend looking to the Wikipedia page for information on the Haitian Revolution. While it is full of very interesting information, there is no telling where that information come from. Anyone can and will edit a page on Wikipedia and so, in this case, I have to recommend that when looking for information you look for “edu” websites. While many of the essays and reports held within will be from students, some of them may even be of their thesis and so, the information will be fully researched and well documented.
- The World of the Haitian Revolution by David Patick Geggus and Norman Fiering.
- Avengers of the New World: The Haitian Revolution by Laurent Dubois.
- You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery by Jeremy D Popkin.
- The Impact of the Haitian Revolution on the Atlantic World by David P Geggus.
- The Haitian Revolution by Nick Nesbitt.
- Haiti: The Revolution of 1791-1803 by Bob Corbett
- Why Were Plantation Owners in Pre-Revolutionary Saint-Domingue So Concerned About Poison? by Unknown Author*
- Fran%ccedil;ois Mackandal by Author Unknown.
- Saint Domingue from Britannica.
- The Louverture Project.
- Taíno Page on TLP.
- What Became of the Taíno? by Robert M. Poole
* I included this as a resource, even though I could not fully access the essay without being a member in the hopes that someone who has an account with antiessays could tell me if it’s fully sourced. I did utilize it in the writing of this article for further information on Mackandal.