The Vodou Deep Dive, pt. 2

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It can very easily be said, with full sincerity, that the history of Vodou is the history of Haiti, and in turn, the history of Haiti is the history of North America as a whole.

We only really get partial information passed to us in this country’s school system, namely choice little cleaned up pieces and factoids about how Europeans brought Africans as slaves to Haiti, the slaves rebelled and killed the Europeans in the Haitian Rebellion, and that somewhere along the way, Vodou happened. If you listen to the Pat Robertsons of the world, it seems that a pact with the Devil wrought horror upon horror and keeps the Haitians trapped in the poorest nation in the West, simultaneously existing to save and condemn. Generally the speaker’s perspective is entirely Eurocentric; either it speaks of the duty European descendants share in “saving” through Mission duty and charity, or it speaks bitterly of what the Europeans “lost” to revolution and violence.

Either way, Vodou… just happened. Sometimes they’ll say the slaves’ African beliefs fueled their rage and their revolt… but that just points in blanket-statement fashion to an entire continent and pretends that not only were those primitive people easily snared and harvested wholesale by roving bands of slavers, but also that they seemingly shared a single belief system across the entire landmass, and of course that belief system is so simple it’s entirely encapsulated in the word “African”. Are you noticing a trend here? We do the same with the “Native Americans” any time the question of smudging with Sage comes into conversation… but anyway… that’s pretty much where the story closes. Haiti happened in a paroxysm of bloody revolt, and Vodou… just happened.

For Part 2 of our Deep Dive, lets put aside the theoretical topics and philosophies of the previous post for a moment and switch over to History; we’ll bounce back in the next post, and we’ll piece together more as we look back and forth between the underpinnings and the overview.

One of the fascinating aspects we find when we start honestly looking into Haitian Vodou’s formative stages is an area of history that really isn’t concerned as much with Europeans; sure they were involved, but we find a time when the vast majority of information flow was between the indigenous Taino and Arawak peoples of the island/the surrounding territories and the imported Africans, when the enslaving Europeans were a decided minority in this part of the world. Sure, the Europeans set policy and seemed to direct affairs, but as we will see they were largely more caught up in directing their affairs with their own people and setting the stage with notions of caste based on European birth and purity of blood than they were with controlling the lives of the people who were “underneath” them. Mainstream Haitian history is still told from the perspective of the Europeans “in charge” or their descendants, the political elite of the modern day nation, but as for the Vodou religion’s foundations only shreds and filler came from the European model. Even religious elements that may seem foreign to a romantic Africanized ideal, such as Catholicism and Islam, were largely brought to the island by those in chains instead of those in charge.

Really, there are two distinct yet overlapping histories at play; one, the importation of Africans as slaves serving European masters and forced into proximity with the islands native inhabitants (more appropriately imported to replace the indigenous peoples who had first been enslaved but who were powerless to resist imported European infections), and two, the hidden processes by which different and wholly separate religions were combined in a way that preserved the distinct pieces by creating a new system that was able to house them all. To make sense of it all, though, we need to flesh out the first of these historical narratives in order for the second to be able to reveal itself. On one level you have a physical history of a nation taking shape, and then just beneath the surface you have a story of amazingly deep seated spiritualities held by many people from disparate nations coming together and forging themselves anew. We need to take a long and honest look at what happened on the surface before we begin to see the currents that were moving underneath, and we need to widen our scope beyond what the American school system passes to its students. Harkening back to our comments about McNuggets worth of information a few blog posts ago, we need to begin teasing apart the narrative we’ve been handed in an effort to see the threads that have been left out.

I assure you that the threads that were left out were neither accidentally forgotten nor left out for being too complex. Politics is always at play, and when it comes to Haitian history, both religious and chronological, much is left out for very specific reasons of Political Power wanting the details forgotten.


It may seem ridiculously reductionist and will undoubtedly cause controversy for me to come out and say this, but did you know that what we understand of the history of Haiti, and through her the whole of the modern Western Hemisphere (including the history of our own United States!), if looked at from the right angle, can fairly be said to have been caused by a single small insect, today known more as a nuisance pest than the shaper of history itself?

Of course, I am speaking about the Mosquito.

You may laugh, but if you give me a moment or two to explain I am sure you will see precisely what I mean (and why sometimes we need to look behind the words we see first in the educational materials others hand us). If there’s any single lesson in building a formative understanding of Vodou, it’s that things are not always as they first appear.

Modern/Western recording of Haitian history begins on a very important single date… the 5th of December, in the year 1492. On this day, at a site at the western tip of the island’s northwest peninsula (today the town of Môle-Saint-Nicolas), the first European to set foot on the newly “discovered” land arrived. 

Before this date, different parts of the island were known alternately as Ayiti or Bohio by the Taino people, an Amerindian culture and the island’s native population (some histories speak of the island once being known as Kiskeya, sometimes also spelled as Quizquiea; once put forth by the Spanish chronicler Pietro Martyr d’Anghiera as the local indigenous word for “Mother of All Lands”, but modern scholarship has shown the word to not be sourced by the language spoken by the island’s native inhabitants, indicating a later introduction rather than an indigenous name). Ayiti, the Taino/Arawak word for “Mountainous Land” should be familiar to the modern eye as the source word that became the name of the modern nation of Haiti.

Texts written by three of the early Spanish chroniclers (Bartolomé de las Casas, d’Angheria, and Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo) seemingly agree that the word Ayiti was in use as a place descriptor by the Taino, but the writings of d’Angheria and modern research both  point to the word referring only to the northeastern part of the modern Dominican Republic currently named Los Haitises, and named Montes de Haiti in the earliest known and referenced map of the island. We don’t actually know if the Taino had a single name for the entire landmass.

December 5th, 1492, when our written historical record of the island begins. We know much less of the island’s history before this date than after; through careful study of the island’s archaeological record, we’ve been able to discern several waves of migration originating from the area of the Orinoco River delta bringing Arawak-language speaking people to the island. Around 600 AD, the Taino people (an Arawak culture) migrated to the island, displacing a  previous population group from an earlier wave of migration. Archaeologists believe the Taino culture developed distinct from that of their ancestral language-group homeland cousins, flowering in the Antilles. Though the modern Arawak people of the northern coastal plains and rainforests of Guyana and Venezuela are directly linked by genes and culture, island Taino belief held that they as a people emerged from caves found in a sacred mountain located on Hispanola. 

Taino people were found in many places throughout the Caribbean basin beyond today’s geographical-landmass-in-question, and their culture still has a lasting impact on our own; their language would give us such words as Hurricane, Tobacco, Hammock, Canoe, Manatee… many more words we take for granted come directly from Taino language. Vodou as well was deeply informed and influenced by indegenous Taino spirituality and the Zemis, or spirits, of their people; for now, though, lets focus on the Island and it’s practical/political history and save the metaphysics for future.

The Taino had divided the island into five semi-independent polities that later became known as caciquedoms (though the word Cacique was a European imposition; the earliest Spanish writers transliterated a Taino word for a feudal chiefdom as Cacicazgo, equating the ruler of an area to the European feudal notion of a local King ruling over a single tribe’s territory in a larger nation-state comprised of semi-autonomous kingdoms, such as those seen throughout the history of Ireland. The word is Caciquat in French). The names we have recorded for these five “states” are also Spanish transliterations of native names; Marién, which occupied the northwest peninsula and most of what is now the Artibonite Valley, Jaragua (also spelled Xaragua), which occupied the southwest peninsula, the majority of the western coast, and easily half the southern coast, sharing it’s northern border with Marién (these two chiefdoms occupied the territory that is now the modern nation of Haiti, though the modern national border does not exactly match that of the tribal territories of the past), Maguá, the northeastern coast and peninsula, Higüey roughly the southeastern peninsula, and Maguana,  which occupied a small section of the island’s southern shore and a vast area of its central territory.

On December 5th, 1492, everything changed… and Columbus claimed the island for Spain. He named the island Hispana in Latin, and in Spanish, La Isla Española, the Spanish Island. Bartolomé de las Casas simply called it Española, and from there it was only a short step to d’Angheria, in his widely publicized writings about the discovery, calling it Hispanola, the name it bears today. 

Nineteen days later, on Christmas day, while sailing east along the northern coast, the Santa Maria ran aground, seriously wounding her hull just off the coast of the modern day Cap Haitien. (Remember his three ships from grade school? The Niña, the Pinta, and of course the aforementioned Santa Maria… Grade school teachers never manage to fill us in on the racy details, like how the Pinta had been missing at this point for 6 weeks having been separated from the other two vessels since the night of November the 21st, lost in the darkness while sailing past the northern coast of what is now Cuba, leading Columbus in his paranoia to fear that the ship’s captain, Martín Alonso Pinzón, had either landed in a secret location to begin seeking the gold Columbus just knew to be there or taken the boat to race back to Spain claiming the discovery for himself. Columbus, in his journals, was not a nice or a trusting man. In mid-October the three ships had made landfall in a grouping of islands currently believed to have been the Bahamas… but the week before, on the October 6th and 7th, Columbus had been forced by a mutinying crew that he couldn’t control to ask Pinzón to board the Santa Maria and discipline the men. Landfall was made at a site somewhere in the southern Bahamas or Turks and Caicos that Columbus named Guanahani a week later, but Columbus never forgave Pinzón for having better control of the sailors than he himself could muster. I swear all those silly Columbus Day class reports and plays would have been more fun if we’d all been given access to Columbus’ diaries when we were kids).

Anyway, when the Santa Maria ran aground, Columbus decided rather than try to repair the ship, he would take her apart and build a small settlement with the wood from her hull. The record tells that he and his crew were rescued from the damaged and sinking Santa Maria by Guacanagarix, the cacique/chief of Marién (the state off the coast of which the Santa Maria went down). Columbus negotiated a settlement deal with Guacanagarix to build the shelter beside the caciques own village beside the present day Caracol Bay. It was named in honor of the Christmas Day landing; La Navidad.

Having heard from Guacanagarix that there was gold to be found on the island (the record is unclear on this point but it’s a safe assumption that the dignitaries from Marién that went to rescue and aid Columbus would have done so dressed in their finery and emblems of state; de las Casas describes the natives as beautiful, wearing little clothing but a significant amount of pigment and ornament… much of it gold; the caciques themselves wore a heavy gold pendant of state called a guanin). Columbus instructed the 39 men who had been the crew of the Santa Maria to stay behind in the new fortress and gather gold while he sailed back to Spain to announce the discovery/bring more workers. (Remember at this time that the Pinta was still gone, Columbus afraid that Pinzón had either gone seeking riches on his own or returned toward Spain to betray him). He wrote in his diary “I have ordered a tower and fortress to be constructed, and a large cellar, not because I believe there is any necessity on account of the natives. I am certain the people I have with me could subjugate all this island … as the population are naked and without arms and very cowardly.”

The natives weren’t as cowardly as he suspected. He set sail on the 4th of January, leaving La Navidad behind (and running into the missing Pinta on January 6th, when both ships set course for Spain). When he returned, landing at La Navidad on the 27th of November, 1493, the settlement had been destroyed, 11 corpses were found on the site, and neither Guacanagarix nor any of his people could be found. Neighboring Taino told him the men left behind had been killed for mistreating their people (though there are other sources that make it sound like insubordination and rebellion rose in the encampment and the Spaniards killed each other). The other caciques had wanted the Spaniards expelled; for cooperating with them instead of the other chiefs, Guacanagarix had been stripped of his title and banished to the mountains, where he later died.

Columbus created a new settlement to the east, naming it Nuevo Isabela in honor of the Spanish queen, creating the first fully formal European planned settlement in the Americas. The project was seemingly doomed from the start; swept by hurricanes in 1494 and 1495, rising rebellion stirred by hunger and disease led to the town being abandoned in 1496, when Bartholomew Columbus (the intrepid explorer’s younger brother) established the colony of Santo Domingo at the mouth of the Ozama River.

During the settlement of Santo Domingo, Columbus began to tour the island to negotiate treaties with the various caciques that remained. In a visit to the chiefdom of Jaragua, in the southwest of the island, Columbus met with that territory’s co-rulers, a brother and sister team named Behechío and Anacaona. Columbus successfully negotiated a tribute arrangement for supplies of cotton and foodstuffs to be given to the Spanish towns. According to de las Casas’ text Historia de las Indias, the meetings and negotiations were friendly and the brother and sister team had been swayed towards welcoming Columbus and his people. Some months later, when Columbus returned to collect the agreed upon tribute, Anacaona even enjoyed a brief sail in his caravel in the Gulf of Gonâve.

Shortly afterwards, Behechío died, leaving Anacaona in sole control of Jaragua, and she married Caonabo, the cacique of Maguana (the south coastal and central fiefdom located just to the east of her own; unifying the two into the largest single polity on the island). The Spaniards, fearful of the unified kingdoms, first built a settlement at Yaguana (present day Léogâne, and Anacaona’s political capital), and then charged Caonabo with the destruction of La Navidad and the conspiracy that led to the slaughter of the men left behind. He was arrested, forced onto a ship to Spain, and lost at sea in a shipwreck.

His wife, however, now Queen of the largest combined territory on the island yet still friendly to the Spanish, was brutally betrayed. During a festival at which she was being honored by eighty four regional chieftans in 1503, by the order of the Spanish Governor Nicolas de Ovando the encampment was set aflame. Anacaona’s escort of noblemen were shot, and she herself was executed by hanging. Anacaona, “Golden Flower” in Taino, became a rallying martyr for her people who rose against the Spanish in a series of increasingly violent but ultimately doomed insurrections. In the murder of the queen, her entire court of advisors, and the regional chiefs from the lands under her control, the Spanish conquest of the island was near complete.

The Taino were dying in unprecedented numbers, both from being forced into work camps and mines (which also drastically reduced the birth rate, a common effect in populations encountering stress of that level) but also to an illness they had never been exposed to and had no way of defending against.

Remember that mosquito?

Columbus, in his diaries from the very first voyage, spoke of several of his men having a condition he referred to, in the language of his time, as Tertiary Fever (for its primary symptom, a debilitating weakness and fever that would spike roughly every three days). Today, we know Tertiary Fever as Malaria.

…and as we will explore in the next Deep History post, Malaria would come to shape the whole of the Caribbean alongside another mosquito-bourne pathogen, Yellow Fever. The native inhabitants of the New World had no resistances or previous exposures to the diseases, yet through evolution and genetic adaptation in regions where the pathogenic agents were endemic, West Africans were resistant. While Colonial-era explorers certainly did not possess our modern knowledge of disease vectors, adaptations, and resistances, they knew that a workforce that wouldnt be crippled by disease would be a better option than ever-vanishing and dying Natives, setting the stage for industrial-scale forced human transportation and labor and a West African Holocaust that would change the world.



…to be continued.

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