Did the Haitian revolution start with a “pact with the devil”?
This was my response to a comment on a Hacker News thread. I’ve added proper links and rounded off a few rough edges and presented it here as it’s rather OT there. The issue I’m addressing mainly is whether it is fair, as Pat Robertson has claimed, to say that Haitians made a “deal with the devil” when they initiated the bloody revolution against their French oppressors.
My heart yearns for peace for those Haitians afflicted with such great loss at this time and I urge you to give wisely of your charity to help as you see able. UK Donations to the Disaster Emergency Committee can be made through BT.com; other countries try Google’s Haiti relief page.
Haiti’s political foundations
“the superstitious claim that the misery in Haiti is a direct result of a pact with the devil”
[excerpt from the Original Comment; my response follows]
I’ve heard this name Pat Robertson a few times on the ‘net. I assume he’s in the USA? Can anyone give an audio/video link to his talk where he suggests Haiti’s slaves shouldn’t have overthrown their French masters as they did?
What did Pat Robertson say
Robertson’s comments appear on a show called The Young Turks (TYT). If you listen to what Robertson says, rather than the commentary, then here is the progression:
- Haitians were under the heel of the French colonialists
- Some Haitians [in 1804] made a deal with the devil for release from slavery
- They were cursed because of that deal
- Bad stuff has happened to Haiti since, including this earthquake
“[…] Something happened along time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know Napoleon III [enlargement gesture] and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said “We will serve you if you get us free from the french”. True story. And so the devil said “OK it’s a deal” and, er, they kicked the French out. The haitians revolted and get themselves free. But, ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another… desperately poor.
“That Island of Hispanola is one island. It’s cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti on the other side is the Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic is, is, prosperous, healthy, full of resourts, et cetera. Haiti is in desperate poverty. [gestures] Same island. Ah, they need to have, and we need to pray for them, a great turning to God and out of this tragedy I’m optimistic something good may come. But, right now we’re helping the suffering people and the suffering is unimaginable.”
One response from Haiti. For those keen on logical arguments nothing in this response refutes Robertson.
Notes on Robertsons “deal with the devil” claims
Robertson doesn’t say it’s the Haitians fault – though I’m sure he would say it was the fault in part of whichever small group made the pact in (1), above, 200 years ago. Nor does he say they shouldn’t have revolted; just that they did it wrong. He seems genuinely concerned to me. He rightly notes that Dominican Republic is a lot better off and they share the island with Haiti. This last point makes the tragedy of Haitian poverty as much about politics as anything else.
The Devil? A metaphor?
If you don’t believe in the Devil then you can ignore his statement as it will be nonsensical to you. To the TYT guy I’d say that he shouldn’t be too shocked – people do “make deals with the Devil”. Robertson may also be using it as a metaphor for rejecting the Gospel but this seems unlikely.
Evidence for a deal
Voodoo ceremony at Bois Caiman
There is actually some evidence to support Robertson’s claim, eg “White Combatant Describes the Behavior of a Captured Black Rebel“.
There are also support from other reports. This linked report includes reference to this alleged report of the US Department of State, 1999, which has this para (emphasis mine):
In early August 1998, three evangelical pastors were arrested near Cap Haitien after they had proceeded with plans to hold a religious revival at Bois Caiman. Bois Caiman has a strong patriotic significance for Haitians, since it is the site of a legendary 1791 voodoo ceremony at which slaves swore to rise up against their masters and risk death rather than continue to live in bondage. The resulting slave rebellion was a precursor to the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). The pastors, who had been prohibited by the authorities from holding the revival on the actual anniversary of the ceremony, proceeded instead with plans to hold the event several days before the anniversary, hoping to rid the area of malevolent influences. This offended much of the local populace and local authorities, who arrested pastors Joel Jeune, Jean Berthony Paul, and Gregor Joseph on August 4. They were released on the orders of a judge on August 6.
This leads us to this news report about the above pastors from “Haiti Progres” (a local newspaper) which looks genuine (excerpt, first paragraph, again emphasis mine):
The origin of the 13-year Haitian revolution is traced to a voudou ceremony held at Bois Caiman, near the northern city of Cap Haitien, on the night of Aug. 13-14, 1791 and presided over by a slave and voudou priest named Boukman. Now 207 years later, a band of right-wing Protestants has launched an evangelical crusade to posthumously “convert” Boukman to Christianity.
So I’d say on that evidence it seems likely there was a voodoo ceremony as one of the starting points of the Haitian revolution.
This page on Webster.edu, which seems well weighted has some academic examinations of this point in history including links to an in depth counter point (claiming the ceremony was a French fabrication), as well as a counter to that. Lots to read up on there for those interested.
Lastly, there’s a video in which Kathy Smith, a historian at UCLA looking at the history of Bois Caiman states she believes that indeed a voodoo ceremony was the initial act of the Haitian Revolution based both on written reports and on personal histories passed down in the oral tradition.
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