Beyond Comprehension

The catastrophe of January 12th is beyond human comprehension. In fact, it is beyond imagination, in the very precise sense that you cannot want to imagine it.

But it is also produced as incomprehensible by the media: dead black bodies, wherever you look. People without names, without history, without location: mere bodies, all black, all shoveled into mass graves without much ado. So different from our protective sense of bodily integrity in the North; yet familiar, since it is Haiti: exposed to a gaze which at times borders on the pornographic, a country up for grabs. Despite the voyeuristic sensationalism that colors US media about the earthquake, a complex web of factors contributed to the sheer scale of the disaster. Instead of rehearsing the range of factors that produced the catastrophe we are witnessing, I’d like to focus on the historical forces that have cohered in the image of Haiti as a place “beyond comprehension.”

The obvious: Haiti came into being through a successful slave revolution. In 1804 Dessalines declared Saint Domingue independent from France. Taking as its name the indigenous term “Haiti,” this state became the first nation in the Americas to realize a complete reversal of imperial hierarchies: slaves had become masters, disrupting on of the world’s largest industries.

This was not supposed to happen, not in the slaveholding Atlantic where slaves were big business. Half the sugar and coffee consumed in Europe and the US were being produced in the territory of Saint Domingue, the Pearl of the Antilles.

This was not supposed to happen in a different sense, too: slaves cannot liberate themselves. Abolitionism is one thing, a successful revolution that slaves organized and executed is quite another. Slave owners throughout the Atlantic were forewarned: although they pretended that Haiti did not exist, they began to take precautions.

Needless to say, this was not a hospitable environment for the only post-slavery state. Haiti was ostracized, “el fantasma guarico” as they said in Cuba. France recognized Haiti in 1825 in exchange for an exorbitant indemnity. It took Haiti 100 years to pay back that debt. And, trying to rebuild the nation after a devastating revolution that may have killed as many as a third of the 500,000 former slaves took a huge toll on the economy. Meanwhile, Haiti struggled to gain recognition as a sovereign nation. The Vatican refused recognition until 1860, a fact of significant consequence since the church tended to be the institution in charge of education in most post-independence states in the Americas. The United States did not grant diplomatic recognition until 1862–significant because the nation had already been plunged into a Civil War that would ultimately help bring about the legal demise of slavery three years later. As Sidney Mintz once said, the surprising thing is not that Haiti fared badly, but that it fared at all. And actually, when we look at 19th century Haiti, the situation could have been far worse. Unlike most of Spanish America after independence, it was not consumed by fratricidal wars. There was a subsistence economy in place that seemed to work, and a liveable, though massively unequal, political arrangement between the old colonial elites (mostly light-skinned people) and the black masses.

But never mind the relative success of 19th century Haiti: much of the contemporary perception of Haiti continues to be shaped by a revolutionary history that was not supposed to happen: Haiti as a dark and dangerous place, fierce threat to Reason and the Rule of Law. A threat to international security.

You should be surprised by this. You should be saying, “How can that be? 200 years later! After the civil war to abolish slavery, after the civil rights struggles, after black power, after so much effort to overcome racial hierarchies and color prejudice.”

There is of course a lot of history between the revolution and the catastrophe that befell Haiti on January 12th. But the role of religon as a cultural system is perhaps an especially intriguing line of inquiry given the many ill-advised statements that are circulating about the role that Vodun has played in Haitian history.

Here is how a website run by fundamentalist protestants in the US, whose stated mission it is to support “long-term missionaries” in Haiti, describes the Bois Caiman ceremony: “On August 14, 1791, many slave leaders of Haiti held a secret meeting at which they dedicated their country to Satan. Every year since then, witch doctors have met to rededicate the country to Satan, and President Jean-Bertrand Aristide–a Roman Catholic priest–renewed the vow in 2004. When the Haitians won their independence from Napoleon’s armies in 1804, they attributed their victory to voodoo.”

One wishes this website was unusual. Alas it isn’t. Go here for a good selection of sites that peddle such nonsense.

Ok, you might say, these are some religious fringe groups. What does it have to do with contemporary views on Haiti? With CNN or ABC coverage? Well, Pat Robertson, a former republican presidential candidate has shared his version of the story recently with the US audiences: Haiti is cursed because it was founded with a devil’s pact. But more troubling in some ways is a secular version of this view that has sneaked into the opinion pages of the New York Times. “Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized.”

The danger here is not merely that Haitians are viewed as wayward pagans, but that Vodun is, in the words of David Brooks of the New York Times “progress-resistant,” a repressive cultural matric that keeps Haiti from joining the rest of us on the path of progress.

In fact, the Haitian Revolution started in 1791 with a religious ceremony led by a Jamaican born black man called Dutty Boukman. It is said that a pig was slaughtered. Participants were sworn to absolute loyalty in the struggle to kill all white planters and slaveowners. Historians continue to disagree about the exact nature of the event and its meaning. In the Haitian national imagination, however, it marks the beginning of the uprising in the north from where it soon spread through the entire colony. In commemoration of the events, there is now an annual pilgrimage to the site marked Bois Caiman, in the North.

Before going any further, let us just say that vodu is simply one of many syncretic Afro-Atlantic religions. Like Santería, like Candoblé. Much focus on community and healing, some evil spells, to be sure, but also a glorious way to celebrate abundance in conditions of scarcity. And, let us not forget, a living memory of the slave revolution of 1804.

Why is it that a mainstream commentator feels entitled to attribute “progress-resistance” to vodu? If they worry (quite wrongly) about fatalism, why aren’t they worried about Calvinist notions of predestination?

One thing seems clear. In 1804 something happened that was not supposed to be possible. Slaves liberated themselves. It’s the unthinkable, the slave owners worse nightmare. A nightmare, not reality. So, one concludes, it was possible only because of a pact with the devil: Bois Caiman. As another protestant fundamentalist site puts it: “From the time of its freedom, Haiti has been in chains” (cited in Elizabeth Eames’s blog). A remarkable statement: Haitian freedom, freedom from slavery, is actually not freedom. It is because of vodu that insurgent slaves became masters; because of Haiti is irredemiably poor and “violence prone”. Freedom then has to be secured by others: the US marines, Protestant missionaries, and development experts who understand that progress can only be made against the descendents of revolutionary slaves, not with them.

But to the extent that the Haitian Revolution shaped the modern meaning of freedom, its legacy is something that we all share.

This paper was originally delivered at “Haiti in Context: Perspectives on the Current Crisis” a roundtable/teach-in organized by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, NYU, January 20, 2010.


Sibylle Fischer is an Associate Professor of Spanish, Comparative Literature, and Africana Studies and Chair of the Department of Spanish & Portuguese. She is the author of
Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution.

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