Bois-Caïman: painter unknown; image found here
In two previous posts (”Pat Robertson, Propagandist for Atheism?”, January 15; “Second Thoughts about What Pat Robertson Said,” January 19), I discussed Pat Robertson’s attribution of Haiti’s dire history to a pact with the devil supposedly sworn by a group of slaves in 1791. It turns out that the idea of such a pact is not a product of the brain of Pat Robertson at all: it is a libel that has been circulated among Evangelical right-wingers for years. What is most disturbing about this libel is, first, the insidious way in which it mimics the procedures of history in order to promote a religious and political agenda, and second, the success that it has had in propagating itself among the Evangelical faithful.
For purposes of this investigation, it will be useful to distinguish clearly between the following two historical claims:
(1) That in mid-August of 1791, a group of slaves planning an uprising against their French colonial masters met at Bois-Caïman to perform a Voodoo rite (the preferred spelling among scholars seems to be “Vodou,” though I have also seen it spelled “Vaudou,” “Voudou,” and “Voudon”; I will follow the popular spelling). Although there is a considerable amount of confusion and conflict in the historical sources (which I hope to discuss in a subsequent post) over the specifics of this event, such as when it took place, who led the rite, and what kind of animal was sacrificed, and although one scholar has even defended the thesis that no such event ever took place, there is no denying either that there is credible historical evidence of such an event or that it is widely believed and celebrated by Haitians as the starting point of the founding of their nation. I will refer to this event as “the meeting at Bois Caïman.”
(2) That the participants in the meeting at Bois Caïman swore a pact with the devil to serve him for 200 years. Note that this claim admits of two different interpretations. It could be taken to mean either (a) that those present at Bois Caïman went through the motions of sealing a pact with a supposed spirit, believed by them to be real, and known as the devil or Satan; or (b) that they really did enter into a pact with a perfectly real devil. Plainly, it is only on interpretation (a) that this claim can be considered within the discipline of history, for it is only on that interpretation that it admits of confirmation or disconfirmation by evidence. On interpretation (b), the thesis is beyond the reach of possible evidence and belongs to myth, or perhaps demonology, but not on any account to history. As it happens, there is no evidence that supports this thesis even under interpretation (a). I will refer to the uninterpreted and ambiguous thesis that the slaves at Bois Caïman “swore a pact with the devil” as “the Satan thesis.”
On the day on which Robertson’s inflammatory utterances were broadcast on The 700 Club (January 13, 2010), Chris Roslan of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) posted a “Statement Regarding Pat Robertson’s Remarks on Haiti.” The concluding part of the statement reads:
If you watch the entire video segment, Dr. Robertson’s compassion for the people of Haiti is clear. He called for prayer for them. His humanitarian arm has been working to help thousands of people in Haiti over the last year, and they are currently launching a major relief and recovery effort to help the victims of this disaster. They have sent a shipment of millions of dollars worth of medications that is now in Haiti, and their disaster team leaders are expected to arrive tomorrow and begin operations to ease the suffering.So far as I can tell, this part of Roslan’s statement is entirely just. The final words of Robertson in that notorious news segment were: “Right now, we’re helping the suffering people, and the suffering is unimaginable.” The Web site Charity Navigator gives Operation Blessing International, a relief organization belonging to CBN—presumably what Roslan is referring to as “his [viz., Robertson’s] humanitarian arm”—a rating of 62.41, a rating that puts it in the highest possible rating category. For comparison, Doctors Without Borders USA gets 61.23 and Oxfam America 63.01. So I no reason to doubt that Robertson’s organization is on the up-and-up and is doing good work.
The first part of Roslan’s statement is another matter entirely:
His [viz., Robertson’s] comments were based on the widely-discussed 1791 slave rebellion led by Boukman Dutty at Bois Caiman, where the slaves allegedly made a famous pact with the devil in exchange for victory over the French. This history, combined with the horrible state of the country, has led countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed. Dr. Robertson never stated that the earthquake was God’s wrath.Let us work through this backward from the last sentence:
Dr. Robertson never stated that the earthquake was God’s wrath.
Indeed he did not. But he plainly implied that Haiti’s long history of suffering is due to the “famous pact with the devil” that, as Roslan delicately puts it, “allegedly” was sworn at Bois Caïman in 1791. (I won’t quote Robertson’s words again, but you can read them in my first post on the subject. About that qualifier “allegedly,” more in a moment.) On that view, there are only two possible explanations: either the afflictions of Haiti are divine retribution for the pact, or they are returns on the original bargain exacted by the devil himself. Either way, they are the fault of Haitians, whether collectively or in the persons of the leaders of the rebellion that led to the founding of the nation.
This point was clearly grasped by an anonymous defender of Robertson who on January 16 posted the following comment on Roslan’s statement in a blog titled Milennial Perspective, one of several blogs under the heading “Rightly Concerned” in the Web site of the American Family Organization:
Leave it to the liberals, and those who do not understand the difference between a curse, and the assumption that “God hates Haiti.” Point: If a person or a group of people make a deal, a pact with another person or organization, then they are each beholden to the other to uphold the terms of that pact. Any other person, outside the realm of that pact, has no standing to interfere with the pact. So, the Haitians of that day made a deal with the devil. They got what they wanted, and in return, Satan got their souls. This contract will be in effect until the Haitians, as a nation, reject that pact by confessing that sin to the Father, God. Until that happens, He has no control—or limited control—over what happens to them. So their suffering falls upon their own shoulders, not His. Neither is the blame for the disaster His fault.(The quoted phrase “God hates Haiti” is presumably an allusion to a piece by Lisa Miller that appeared in Newsweek on January 15 under that title.) The same position is taken by Bryan Fischer in an entry in his blog Focal Point, another blog in “Rightly Concerned,” in an entry titled “In Defense of Pat Robertson” (January 15):
Robertson did not say that the earthquake was a result of this curse, or was God’s fault. Instead, Robertson attributed Haiti’s grinding poverty to this compact with Satan. Jesus himself said that the thief comes only to “steal and kill and destroy.”But surely there is a theological problem here. I do not know how well the idea that God has “no control, or limited control” over what befalls the Haitians squares with the views of Robertson or of his followers, but the idea that the Almighty can have his hands tied where Satanic pacts are concerned sounds highly unorthodox to me. Such a view is squarely rejected by the Reverend Dr. Gary Cass of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission, who, in a piece titled “1.7 Billion Reasons to Defend Pat Robertson” (January 14), writes the following sobering words:
The modern cynic chaffs [sic] at any suggestion that there may be a connection between historical realities and unseen spiritual influences, or as the Bible calls it God’s “blessing or cursing.” Although most people are very comfortable with the notion that God blesses people, we are not at all comforted with the terrifying prospect that Almighty God might also curse.The last quoted paragraph is in agreement with the position of atheist Ronald Lindsay, who, in a blog post that I discussed in my first post on this subject, cited Robertson’s remarks as an exhibition of the irrationality of religious belief. I argued in my own post that Lindsay’s conclusion was overstated, as there are varieties of religious belief that do not presume that it is possible for human beings to discern the effects of divine providence. When I offered this criticism in a comment on Lindsay’s post (comment no. 6, under the name “Kritikos”), he generously granted the point, and restated his position as follows (comment no. 8):
The overwhelming majority of Americans believe in God and /or moral causality. Eastern religions call it Karma, but Christians call it God’s Providence. I wonder if the reason that so many hate Pat is because he expressed what many Americans don’t want to face—the moral and spiritual dimension of our lives. . . .
Agree or disagree with what Pat said, it was well within the bounds of historic Christian theology. Maybe that’s the real problem after all.
Kritikos is quite correct: my statement should have been explicitly qualified. Robertson’s comments highlight the irrationality of belief in a personal deity who can cause storms and earthquakes, intervenes continually in human affairs, and responds to petitionary prayer, that is, the type of deity that appears to be accepted by most believers.To get back to the main point, though: whether Robertson thinks that the earthquake was God’s doing or the devil’s, he plainly implied that it is a consequence of the actions of Haiti’s founders, and therefore ultimately their fault.
This history, combined with the horrible state of the country, has led countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed.
The phrase “this history” here refers to the pact with the devil supposedly sworn by Haiti’s original liberators. But who has concluded that the country is cursed? Some religious figures? Undoubtedly. “Countless” ones? Perhaps; if rank-and-file believers are included, then certainly so. But “scholars”? What sort of “scholar” interprets historical facts, let alone tales of the supernatural presented as facts, as evidence of a “curse”? What sort of person takes writers who so interpret history as “scholars”? I believe that the answer is to be found under “religious figures,” or more precisely among adherents of Pat Robertson’s variety of Evangelical Protestantism. It is not clear if this particular statement is an argument from authority or an attempt to diffuse the responsibility for Robertson’s outrageous claims among other, unnamed sources. Either way, it gives no credibility to the idea that Haiti is under a curse.
(As a resident of greater Boston, whose baseball team was held for 86 years to be under a “curse” that only ended in 2004 when the Red Sox finally won the World Series, I must add at this point that Robertson and company are not using the word “curse” in any kind of playful or ironic spirit. I do not doubt that there are Red Sox fans who believe just as solemnly and sincerely in the reality of the Curse of the Bambino as Robertson and his allies do in the reality of the Haitian pact with the devil. I merely wish to caution those who use the word less seriously, as an ironic way of describing a persistent pattern of misfortune, that that is not what is at issue here.)
His comments were based on the widely-discussed 1791 slave rebellion led by Boukman Dutty at Bois Caiman, where the slaves allegedly made a famous pact with the devil in exchange for victory over the French.
“Allegedly,” says Roslan; but alleged by whom? “Famous,” says Roslan; but famous among whom? Among Haitians what is famous, and much celebrated, is the story of how, in August 1791, a group of slaves met to plan an uprising against their French colonial masters, an occasion that culminated in a Voodoo rite in which a pig was sacrificed. As I indicated earlier, there are divergent accounts of who took part in this affair and where and when it took place. What is clear is that none of the historical sources make any mention of a pact with the devil. Who or what, then, is the source of Roslan’s tale?
I cannot identify an ultimate source, but Roslan or whoever prepared the page on which his statement appears offers a proximate one. Next to his statement are several links under the heading “Related Information,” one of which reads “Haiti: Boukman, Aristide, Voodoo and the Church.” It leads to a piece under that title written by Elizabeth Kendal and dated 2004, on a page in the Web site of the John Mark Ministries, an Evangelical Christian organization in Australia. This appears to be the same Elizabeth Kendal who is identified by the Christian Monitor as Principal Researcher and Writer for the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission. Her version of the history of the founding of Haiti includes this passage:
On 14 August 1791, a black slave and witch doctor named Boukman led the slaves in a voodoo ritual. They sacrificed a pig and drank its blood to form a pact with the devil, whereby they agreed to serve the spirits of the island for 200 years in exchange for freedom from the French. The slave rebellion commenced on 22 August 1791, and after 13 years of conflict, the slaves won their independence. On 1 January 1804 they declared Haiti the world’s first independent black republic. An iron statue of a pig stands in Port-au-Prince to commemorate the “Boukman Contract”.I have found the contents of Kendal’s piece credulously reproduced on numerous Web pages, including one in Polish, all posted since January 13. The transformation of Dutty Boukman or Boukman Dutty (I have seen his name given both ways) from a priest of the Voodoo religion into a “witch doctor” does not raise confidence in Kendal’s competence as a historian, though it does give the measure of what Chris Roslan had in mind when he invoked unnamed “scholars.”
But there is that bit at the end about the statue of a pig. A detail of such specificity, concerning a present, or at least recent, state of affairs, lends an air of verisimilitude to the whole story. Bryan Fischer, in the piece cited previously, adds another such detail:
It is a matter of historical record that Haiti’s independence from France is, in fact, rooted in a pact with the devil made on August 14, 1791 by a group of voodoo priests led by a former slave named Boukman. The pact was made at a place called Bois-Caiman, and the tree under which a black pig was sacrificed in this ceremony is still a shrine in Haiti. Annual voodoo ceremonies are conducted every August 14 on this very site, essentially renewing the covenant with darkness each summer.So not only is there, according to these sources, a statue of a pig in Port-au-Prince that commemorates the Boukman contract with the devil but the tree under which the original pig was sacrificed at Bois-Caïman is a shrine at which Voodoo ceremonies are performed every August 14. One can imagine the effect of such details on Evangelical readers of these materials: they would no doubt see them as decisive proof of the truth of the story.
But any person examining these matters skeptically would have to wonder, first, whether the details are actual facts, and second, whether they constitute any sort of confirmation of the story of the pact with the devil. Take the pig first. Is there such a statue? On a message board for Haitian Americans, two participants in a thread on this question recollect seeing an iron statue of a pig at a certain location in Port-au-Prince (one locates it at la Place de l’Italie au Bicentenaire, . . . across from the old legislative palace,” the other “near the post office”; I do not know if these refer to the same location), but neither of them knows of any indication that the statue is connected in any way with Boukman. Remember that the question is not whether Haitians celebrate the memory of the meeting at Bois Caïman: there is no doubt that many do so. What is at issue is whether there was any pact with the devil at that meeting. The existence of an iron statue of a pig is no confirmation of this. The same applies to the supposed annual commemorative gatherings. Such details provide concreteness, and thus may have the psychological effect of enhancing the verisimilitude of the Satan thesis; but they constitute no evidence for it whatever.
[Added after posting, 23 January 2010, 15.40 EST: It has occurred to me that the pig statue, if it exists, could have been installed as a punning salute to the city itself: the first word of “Port-au-Prince” (the “t” is silent) is homophonous with “porc,” the French word for “pig.”]
The only other bit of evidence that anyone in this crazy circuit, to my knowledge, has ever presented to support the Satan thesis is Bryan Fischer’s assertion that “on national TV, Haiti’s ambassador to the U.S. openly admitted, while criticizing Robertson, that Haiti did in fact enter in to this pact with the devil.” He is referring to the following remarks made by Ambassador Raymond Joseph on the Rachel Maddow Show on January 13:
I would like the whole world to know, America especially, that the independence of Haiti, when the slave rose up against the French and defeated the French army, powerful army, the U.S was able to gain the Louisiana Territory for $15 million. That’s 3 cents an acre. That’s thirteen states west of the Mississippi that the Haitian slaves’ revolt in Haiti provided America. . . . So what pact the Haitian made with the devil has helped the United States become what it is.But while Joseph speaks slowly and deliberately, and appears to have a good command of English, the crucial last sentence is very unclear. As it stands (and I have transcribed his utterances verbatim), it is simply ungrammatical: the phrase “what pact” does not make sense in that context. It is possible that by “what pact” Joseph meant simply “the pact,” in which case he would indeed be making the admission that Fischer attributes to him. But while the ambassador’s English is imperfect, it does not seem to be as crude as that. It is far more likely that by “what pact” he meant “whatever pact.” On that assumption, he is most likely merely saying that, whether there was a pact with the devil or not, the actions of Haiti’s original liberators have benefited the United States.
Of course, it is possible that Ambassador Joseph does believe the Satan thesis. That would be at best exceedingly feeble evidence of its truth, but it would certainly be evidence that the thesis has gained acceptance among Haitians. This finding was reported by Jean Gelin, a Haitian-American agricultural scientist and Christian minister, in a three-part article titled “God, Satan, and the Birth of Haiti,” published on the Web site Black and Christian in 2005. In the first part, Gelin writes as follows:
Have you ever heard how some preachers or theologians try to explain the unspeakable misery that is crippling most of Haiti’s population of 8 million? Everywhere you go, from your television screen to the Internet, what you are most likely to find is a reference to a spiritual pact that the fathers of the nation supposedly made with the devil to help them win their freedom from France. As a result of that satanic alliance, as they put it, God has placed a curse on the country some time around its birth, and that divine burden has made it virtually impossible for the vast majority of Haitians to live in peace and prosperity in their land. . . .But did the idea of a pact with the devil originate abroad or in Haiti itself? Gelin does not take a firm position on that question:
The worst part of the whole picture is that the story is believed by many sincere Christians in America and around the world; and not only do they believe it, they also spread it as fact. The tragedy of our age is that repeated lies are often mistaken for the truth, especially when repeated long enough.
It’s hard to know where the idea of a divine curse on Haiti following the purported satanic pact actually originated, whether from foreign missionaries or from local church leaders. In his book Ripe Now: A Haitian Congregation Responds to the Great Commission, Haitian pastor Frantz Lacombe identified a ‘dependence mentality’ in the leadership of the Haitian church, which resulted from the way the Christian faith was brought to the country, historically and through various denominations. Apparently, this unfortunate manner of thinking, which tends to emulate the worldview and culture of North American and European Christian missionaries, has permeated the general philosophy of the Haitian church on many levels, including church planting, church management, music and even missionary activities.Wherever the idea originated, it is now being spread over the world by Evangelical Christians. Though imposed on the story of the Bois Caïman meeting, a story which itself has a basis in historical evidence, the crucial element of Satanism is a fabrication. I suspect that many Evangelicals are unable to grasp this point because for them the identification of Voodoo with Satanism seems self-evident. This can be seen, for instance, in a passage written by photographer Shawna Herring in a blog entry dated January 15, 2009 concerning a visit to Haiti that she had recently made (ellipsis in original):
In that context, I would not be surprised if the satanic pact idea (followed by the divine curse message) was put together first by foreign missionaries and later on picked up by local leaders. On the other hand, it is equally possible that some Haitian church leaders developed the idea on their own using a theological framework borrowed from those same missionaries who subsequently propagated the message around the world.
To clear up any superstitious idea here I want to just say that Voodoo is REAL. It’s not just some little revengeful idea with dolls and pins . . . it’s a real partnership that was made with the devil himself. 203 years ago [sic] when Haiti was under French rule, they were enslaved by them and in an effort to gain their freedom, Voodoo priests from all over came together and literally signed a written contract and made a deal with the Prince of darkness that stated that if he could grant their freedom, they would serve him for 200 years. He did and they have. It’s no joke.Note the movement here from saying that Voodoo is real (which it is, in the sense that it is a religion really practiced by many Haitians) to saying that the “partnership with the devil” established more than 200 years ago is real. For this writer, as for others of her religious outlook, the two are the same. The detail of a “written contract,” which I have not seen anywhere else, is also a nice touch. I suspect that it is merely the product of misrecollection or faulty transmission, but it may be worth checking up later to see if other members of the crazy circuit are citing Ms. Herring’s statement as further proof of the Satan thesis.
By the way, if you are wondering how Evangelicals can believe that Haiti is still suffering the consequences of a pact with the devil forged more than 200 years ago for a period of 200 years, the answer is, first, that the term of 200 years is supposed to have begun not with the forging of the pact in 1791 but with the liberation of Haiti, which was effected on January 1, 1804; and second, that when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, on April 8, 2003, gave official recognition to Voodoo as a religion in Haiti, he thereby, as Bryan Fischer puts it in the post cited earlier, “extended the pact.” Fischer does not state the duration of the extension or the reason for which Aristide would do such a thing.
Of course, it is easy to see this detail as an instance of facts being interpreted, not to say rewritten, to suit a rigid belief. No doubt, it is that, but to ascribe it to that principle alone is to miss the point that for Evangelicals like Fischer, it is axiomatic that Voodoo is Satanism. I have little doubt that even if it were possible to look into the past as we look at old television shows and to watch the meeting at Bois-Caïman unfold, Fischer, Kendal, Robertson, and all of their like would find the proceedings to be a complete and thorough confirmation of their beliefs.
That rigidly held religious beliefs yield unsound anthropology—as they do unsound history, science, ethics, politics, and so on—is hardly news. The interesting thing about the Evangelical libel against Haiti is the way in which its proponents not only offer it as a “true story” (Robertson) and “a matter of historical record” (Fischer), but support it with historical and factual details that, however little value they have as evidence, are well calculated to persuade the unwary.
One final reflection. As noted at the beginning of this piece, Pat Robertson’s humanitarian organization Operation Blessing International has been contributing to the relief effort in Haiti. I have no doubt that his followers and other people who propagate the libel of Haiti’s founding pact with Satan have been making generous contributions, in money and labor, to that effort. Nor do I doubt the sincerity of those who receive and repeat this falsehood. But it is a falsehood, and not an innocent one. It is blameworthy for the disregard of evidence and fact that engender it, the superstitious attitude that it sustains (it is almost amusing to see people who attribute literally earth-shaking powers to the devil trying to pin the charge of Satanism on others), and the damage that it does. This damage consists in defaming the Haitian people and the founders of their nation as Satanists; putting the blame on them for misfortunes that are no fault of theirs; shifting attention from the real causes, past and present, of Haiti’s afflictions, and thereby diminishing the chance of improving conditions there.
Further documentation of the use of the Satanism libel against Haiti may be found in a recent piece by Rachel Tabachnik: “Pat Robertson Not Alone in Demonizing Haiti” (Talk to Action, January 14, 2010).
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