The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti

The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti

by Kate Ramsey

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Vodou has often served as a scapegoat for Haiti’s problems, from political upheavals to natural disasters. This tradition of scapegoating stretches back to the nation’s founding and forms part of a contest over the legitimacy of the religion, both beyond and within Haiti’s borders. The Spirits and the Law examines that vexed history, asking why, from 1835 to 1987, Haiti banned many popular ritual practices.

To find out, Kate Ramsey begins with the Haitian Revolution and its aftermath. Fearful of an independent black nation inspiring similar revolts, the United States, France, and the rest of Europe ostracized Haiti. Successive Haitian governments, seeking to counter the image of Haiti as primitive as well as contain popular organization and leadership, outlawed “spells” and, later, “superstitious practices.” While not often strictly enforced, these laws were at times the basis for attacks on Vodou by the Haitian state, the Catholic Church, and occupying U.S. forces. Beyond such offensives, Ramsey argues that in prohibiting practices considered essential for maintaining relations with the spirits, anti-Vodou laws reinforced the political marginalization, social stigmatization, and economic exploitation of the Haitian majority. At the same time, she examines the ways communities across Haiti evaded, subverted, redirected, and shaped enforcement of the laws. Analyzing the long genealogy of anti-Vodou rhetoric, Ramsey thoroughly dissects claims that the religion has impeded Haiti’s development.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226703817
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/07/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 448
File size: 11 MB
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About the Author

Kate Ramsey is associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Miami. 

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By Kate Ramsey


Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-70379-4

Chapter One

Crimes of Ritual Assembly and Assemblage in Colonial and Revolutionary Saint-Domingue

In 1685 the government of Louis XIV issued its Code Noir, which provided an official legal basis for slavery in the French Caribbean colonies. Described by Louis Sala-Molins as "the most monstrous juridical text produced in modern times" and by Colin Dayan as "the most barbaric product of the Enlightenment," these laws were drafted by top colonial officials in the Caribbean at the behest of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the influential controller-general of finance and secretary of state for the navy. The drafters may have consulted Roman law in preparing the Code, but they based it primarily on slave laws already in effect in the French colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Saint-Christophe, especially those concerning policing and public order. Promulgated for the colonies and not applicable in France, the Code recognized slavery as a local "domestic institution" while at the same time asserting the metropolitan government's ultimate authority in regulating the treatment of enslaved workers, a tension that, as Malick Ghachem has analyzed, set the Crown on a collision course with Caribbean planters, who claimed "absolute sovereignty" in the management and disciplining of slaves.

It is striking that while the first eight articles of the Code Noir directly concern religious conformity in the French colonies, this document contains no explicit interdiction of African-based ritual practice. Although a broad reading of its article 3, prohibiting the "public exercise" of any religion other than la catholique, apostolique et romaine, might seem to implicate such practices, it was more in keeping with the overall logic of the Code that this article targeted Protestantism and Judaism. Article 1, in fact, banished Jews outright, and article 5 stipulated that those of the "reformed" religion were banned from impeding "our other subjects, even their own slaves, in the free exercise of the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman religion." The Code's article 2 required all slaves to receive Catholic baptism and instruction, a provision that served as an ideological justification for their enslavement but that, as this population in Saint-Domingue grew dramatically over the course of the eighteenth century and relations between planters and clergy progressively deteriorated, came to be followed irregularly. African and African diasporic spiritualities were, moreover, rarely classified as "religious" in European colonial documents and writings at this time; rather, as David Chidester has argued, such texts figured what they termed African "fetishism" and "sorcery" as evidence of the "absence of religion."

Although the heterodox practices of enslaved Africans went unmentioned in the Code Noir, over the course of next century they were subject to an increasing number of prohibitions in what became France's most profitable colony, Saint-Domingue. This chapter examines that legislative history, tracing the evolution of these laws in connection with larger social and political forces in the colony and analyzing how particular popular practices came to be interdicted (and thus objectified) under the law, for what reasons, and with what effects. The seeming redundancy of the succession of laws against, in particular, different forms of slave healing, assembly, and ritual "profanation" was in part a sign of their inefficacy: enslaved people, as individuals and communities, continued to perform (and, in the process, transform) magico-religious practices that were officially prohibited, either surreptitiously or with the tacit consent of planters and their agents. The ambivalence that Michel-Rolph Trouillot has analyzed as characteristic more generally of the Saint-Dominguan colonial establishment spotlights a crucial dynamic of this legal history. On the one hand, planters downplayed slave resistance and pointed to dances and other performative "customs" as evidence of "the contentment of slaves"; on the other, colonials promulgated "a plethora of laws, advice, measures, both legal and illegal ... to curb the very resistance denied in theory." That slaves, marrons, and free people of color continued to hold the nighttime assemblies banned by the Code Noir and multiple statutes thereafter up to the literal eve of the insurrection in August 1791 is testimony to the "unthinkability," as Trouillot puts it, of such a conspiracy for the white establishment; and, no less, to the resourcefulness of conspirators who made such gatherings a cover, locus, and impetus for organizing against extraordinary odds.

The chapter goes on to examine debates over the role that popular religious organization, leadership, and belief played during the Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804, which culminated in the overthrow of French colonialism and the founding of Haiti, the second independent state in the Americas and the only universally free one. The chapter closes with a brief look at the continuities and departures of early post- revolutionary regimes against popular religious practices and organizations. These were shaped by a new order of ambivalence in which the Haitian elite saw such communities as, on the one hand, an essential base for popular political power and, on the other, a potential locus for popular resistance, as well as a manifestation of popular "backwardness" in need of "civilizing" reform.

The chapter also examines the early literary and legal life of the word that eventually came to subsume these formations in both foreign and Haitian writings, le vaudoux. During the late colonial period and over the course of the revolution, that usage had not yet stabilized, and hostile yet fascinated commentators employed the term both to index particular sets of religious practices, types of organization, and/or identities, which may or may not have been popularly so designated, and also to gloss a range of practices that participants would likely not have objectified in such a way. As subsequent chapters examine, the referential uncertainties and ambiguities of this word as a term of legal prohibition would continue to have far-reaching implications for the regimes to which practitioners were subject well beyond the final years of colonial rule.

Law and Labor in Eighteenth-Century Saint-Domingue

When the Code Noir was drafted, the western third of Hispaniola was not yet officially a French colonial possession. The island of Hispaniola had been under Spanish jurisdiction since Columbus's first voyage, but in the centuries that followed Spain's claim to the western regions became increasingly notional. Indigenous Taíno populations were decimated within decades of contact by massacre, forced labor, physical and cultural dislocation, malnutrition, and, particularly in conjunction with these other factors, waves of disease. Although there is evidence that both free and enslaved men of African descent had been part of the Columbian voyages, with the precipitous decline of Amerindian populations in the Greater Antilles Spain began to grant licenses for captives to be brought directly from Africa to work in the failing mines and on sugarcane plantations. In spite of the increasing focus of Spanish imperial attention on the extraction of precious metals from New Spain and Peru, the sugar industry in Hispaniola briefly thrived, only to decline by the end of the sixteenth century. Beyond the cities of Santo Domingo and Havana, the Caribbean colonies became to greater or lesser degrees colonial backwaters, a situation exacerbated by Spain's restrictive trade system and the infrequency of stops made by Spanish fleets at most Caribbean ports. Santo Domingo, on the southeastern coast of Hispaniola, remained a seat of administrative and judicial power in the Spanish empire, given that the first audiencia (royal high court) in the Americas was established there. However, even this city's fortunes declined with the emergence of Havana as the primary stopover port for the heavily guarded annual convoys between the mainland colonies and Seville, combined with frequent attacks on the colony by pirates.

Cut off from administrative oversight by Hispaniola's rugged mountain ranges, the population in the western regions of the island raised livestock and traded smoked meat and hides with the Dutch merchants who became ubiquitous in the Caribbean in the early seventeenth century and were instrumental in enabling British and French merchant groups to occupy and establish settlements in the Lesser Antilles. As a measure to end this illegal trade, in 1605 the governing authority in Santo Domingo burned northern and western Hispaniola's remaining coastal towns and forced their inhabitants to relocate around Santo Domingo. The deserted northwestern coastal region of the colony was thereafter populated by newcomers who continued to live off the herds of wild livestock roaming these lands. The term "buccaneer" (French boucanier, from the Taíno boucan, or grill) may have derived from the smoked meats they produced for trade and survival, but it came to be more strongly associated with their piratical adventures targeting Spanish ships and ports, though not exclusively. Meanwhile, flibustiers (freebooters) established an independent international pirate base on the tiny island of Tortuga off the northwestern coast. Given that these populations were made up largely of former indentured servants (in French, engagés) and deserters from navy and merchant vessels, many forswore allegiance to any and all imperial powers, unless they were commissioned as privateers, as was frequently the case when the Caribbean became a battlefield during the European wars of the second half of the seventeenth century.

Nonetheless, the predominantly French origin of the buccaneers in the northwestern coastal regions of Hispaniola and on Tortuga became a ground on which France staked its claim to these territories, sending a governor in 1664. The authorities sought to make what they now called Saint-Domingue more stable and profitable by encouraging French colonists to immigrate as habitants and establish plantations, growing tobacco and indigo to begin with, and as time went on, sugarcane. At the same time, France heavily relied on buccaneers to defend the fledgling colony, and during the Nine Years' War (1688–1697), the Crown appointed as governor a buccaneer captain and slave trader, Jean-Baptiste du Casse, who led devastating attacks in Jamaica and Cartagena. After the Treaty of Ryswick ended the war in 1697, Spain formally ceded the western third of Hispaniola to France. As Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker have examined, colonial powers increasingly regarded pirates as obstacles to the expansion of the slave trade and the development of profitable agricultural colonies in the Caribbean and greater Atlantic world and sought to rout them. Some buccaneers in Saint- Domingue invested the wealth from their plunder in plantations; but for the rest, increased investment in the production of tropical commodities spelled the end of independent pirate culture in the colony.

Saint-Domingue was divided by mountain ranges into three provinces, that of the north, which encompassed the port city of Le Cap (or Cap-Français), the largest and most important commercial center in the colony; that of the west, with Port-au-Prince becoming the colony's official capital with a royal order in 1749; and the southern peninsula, which was the most isolated and least economically developed region in the colony because of its mountainousness (including the highest peaks in Saint-Domingue) and its remoteness from the Atlantic shipping lanes that served Le Cap and Port-au-Prince. The northern plains around Le Cap featured the largest and most profitable sugarcane operations in the colony, as well as smaller indigo plantations and, in the mountains, coffee estates. The two plains of the western province, that of the Cul-de-Sac east of Port-au-Prince and, further north, that of the Artibonite, were both arid but made to some extent viable for sugarcane cultivation by France's investment in extensive irrigation systems; indigo, cotton, and coffee were important export crops on these plains as well. The southern province, whose commercial center was the town of Les Cayes, produced sugarcane, indigo, and coffee, much of which it traded illegally with the British and Dutch. Of the principal tropical commodities produced in Saint-Domingue in the eighteenth century, coffee was the latest to have a boom, with exports rising in the 1760s. Many of the newly founded estates were established by free people of color.

A governor and an intendant, both appointed directly by the king, were responsible for different aspects of the colony's administration—the governor in charge of military matters, and the intendant, civilian affairs. 17 Both of these figures were empowered to issue ordinances enforceable across the colony. There were two Conseils Supérieurs (high courts), the first of which moved from Petit-Goâve to Léogâne until its permanent transfer to Port-au-Prince in the mid-eighteenth century, and the other established in Le Cap. The Crown appointed the members of these bodies, which included the governor and intendant, high-ranking officials, and, in each case, six judges representing, generally, the regions' largest planters. In addition to serving as courts of appeal, one of the functions of the Conseils Supérieurs was to "register" royal laws, this becoming, as the century wore on, a mechanism of planter protest against what they regarded as the Crown's overreaching intrusions into, most sensitively, the treatment of their enslaved workforce. The high court in Le Cap, in particular, delayed or refused to register laws they considered objectionable. 18 In addition to what Malick Ghachem characterizes as the quasi-legislative function of registering royal laws, the two Conseils also issued their own locally applicable decisions. Below the high courts there were ten sénéchaussées, or local courts of first instance, dispersed across the three administrative departments; they handled both civil and criminal cases.

During the early years of plantation agriculture in Saint-Domingue, centered on tobacco and indigo cultivation rather than on sugarcane, indentured servants contracted for three years, working alongside enslaved Africans. Indeed, French colonial authorities at first attempted to restrict the numbers of enslaved Africans who could be brought to the colony: a 1686 royal ordinance required that their population not exceed that of indentured servants. This was never enforced, and the African slave trade to the colony escalated as the number of indentured workers dwindled and large-scale, labor-intensive sugar operations proliferated.

Over the course of the eighteenth century it is estimated that 685,000 women, men, and children were brought as captives to Saint-Domingue from the West African regions of Senegambia, the Windward Coast, the Gold Coast, the Bight of Benin, the Bight of Biafra, and West Central African Kongo and Angola. Tracing the ethnicities of Africans who arrived in Saint-Domingue through the Atlantic trade is extremely difficult. Slavers often identified them by their port of embarkation, which may have been far from their birthplace, especially given the number of prisoners of war who were trafficked. That said, it seems that early on in Saint-Domingue's sugar boom, captives from the Bight of Benin predominated, especially those from the port of Allada, called Arada, and those from Yoruba regions, called Nagô. However, over the course of the eighteenth century this shifted, so that by the eve of the revolt of 1791, enslaved West Central Africans, known as Kongos, had become the largest population in the colony.


Excerpted from THE SPIRITS AND THE LAW by Kate Ramsey Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations        


Note on the Spelling and Use of Terms in Kreyòl         


1. Crimes of Ritual Assembly and Assemblage in Colonial and Revolutionary Saint-Domingue   

2. Popular Spirituality and National Modernity in Nineteenth-Century Haiti       

3. Penalizing Vodou and Promoting “Voodoo” in U.S.-Occupied Haiti, 1915–1934     

4. Cultural Nationalist Policy and the Pursuit of “Superstition” in Post-Occupation Haiti 





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