In August 1791, a gathering of Africans, frustrated by the horrors of slavery they were forced to endure in the lucrative French colony of San Domingue, entered into a sacred ritual that would spark what may be considered the greatest effort of African resistance in the Western hemisphere. In the woods of Bois Caiman (Caiman Woods in Haitian Creole), led by a Vodou houngan or spiritual leader, the ceremony, now named after the meeting place where it was held, is said to have provided the inspiration responsible for the bloody Haitian revolution.
The ceremony, complete with the sacrifice of a black pig and oaths of secrecy and loyalty, is reminiscent of sacred rituals practiced in traditional Africa. Unlike other insurrections by enslaved Africans in various parts of the Diaspora, which failed due to betrayal, the ritual at Bois Caiman seems to have protected the rebels from a similar fate. Although there is some contention about the details of the ceremony ranging from its exact date, exact location, and the spiritual leaders present, consensus is generally reached regarding the importance of the Vodou ceremony to the people of San Domingue and the independence of this African nation. This entry explores the impact of this ceremony and its roots in Africa.
The Bois Caiman ceremony is said to have been presided over by the revered houngan, Boukman Dutty. Born in Jamaica, Boukman received his name because he, unlike many other enslaved people, was said to have been literate (Book-Man). He was sold by a British owner to a Frenchman in the sugar-producing colony of Saint-Domingue. Perhaps because of his spiritual post and conceivably also because he was a coachman whose duties allowed him to create connections to other plantations besides his own, Boukman was able to solicit the participation of a number of enslaved Africans at the Bois Caiman ritual.
To these potential rebels Boukman swore, as a reward for their dedication to the cause, that they would be returned to their ancestral homeland of Ginen, or Africa, if they were killed during the insurrection. To those who may have betrayed the plot, Boukman promised to remove all spiritual protection. Acting under this oath of loyalty, hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans fought what was then regarded as the world's greatest army of the French and won African independence in the former colony on January 1, 1804.
The need to create loyalty and unity among the rebels was critical to the success of the Haitian Revolution. Perhaps the attendees at Bois Caiman understood this better than most. In the French colony of Saint-Domingue, a number of African ethnic groups were represented among the enslaved population, including groups from Senegambia, Angola, and the Bight of Benin; Africans born in the colony, called Creoles, occasionally viewed themselves as separate from the bossales, or Africans brought to the colony directly from Africa. Additionally, it was not uncommon to find affrancbis, or free people of color in the colony, acting as large land (and enslaved Africans) holders. These factors made insurrection of the enslaved population highly improbable because of potential rifts. However, the Bois Caiman ceremony has been said to be responsible for providing the spiritual energy necessary to overcome these boundaries.
According to some accounts, during the ceremony, a great storm rose over those gathered, and a mambo or priestess appeared and danced with a blade held high above her head. In this rendition of the ritual, it is she who actually slaughtered the pig for sacrifice. Blood from the animal, and some say from humans as well, was given in a drink to the attendees to seal their fates and loyalty to the cause of liberation of Saint-Domingue. The mambo responsible for this vital element of the ritual is said to have been Cecile Fatiman, the wife of Jean-Louis Pierrot, a man who would eventually become the president of the small island nation from 1845 to 1846.
Whoever the mambo present actually was, she was elevated after her death to the status of Iwa, or Vodou deity, and was given the name Marinette Bwa Chèch. As a member of the Haitian Vodou Petwo pantheon, Marinette is an incredibly powerful deity whose colors are black and blood red. Known to ride those she possesses rather violently, she is feared, but also highly respected for her role in the fight for Haitian independence. Reminiscent of her role during the Bois Caiman ceremony, this Iwa is often offered black pigs during contemporary Vodou rituals.
By other accounts, Boukman was assisted by another houngan, Makandal, who was to have performed similar rituals earlier in the history of Saint-Domingue. Historians seldom agree on the particulars of the ceremony because few contemporary accounts have been located of the ritual and its attendees. Some have even suggested that more than one ritual ceremony has commonly been misunderstood as a single event in Haitian history. In fact, it has been argued that there were actually two rituals held in 1791 with the same purpose: One was held in Bois Caiman, usually associated with Boukman and linked to supernatural activity, whereas the other occurred on the Normand de Mezy plantation, possibly under the leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture. This assertion, as well as others that place the ceremony completely in the realm of myth, have been launched as scholars, usually non-Haitian, attempt to make sense of what remains a vibrant memory in Haitian culture and oral tradition.
Vodou in Haiti and Africa
Perhaps one of the most thought-of characteristics when one considers Haiti is its amazingly resilient religion. In the opinion of some, nothing speaks more of the incredible tenacity of enslaved Africans than their ability not only to retain much of their own traditional African spiritual system, but also to adapt the system with the purposeful intention of protecting it from the plantation owners and overseers, who constantly sought to oppress what was then viewed as a dangerous element in the lives of enslaved Africans.
It was no wonder that the colonial government and its agents sought to control these systems because in Haiti, as was the case in other regions of the African Diaspora, African-derived spiritual systems as practiced in the Americas may be interpreted as a resistant response to the hostility the Africans experienced during enslavement. Beyond this, however, Vodou also provides evidence of what may be considered early Pan Africanist tendencies of African people in the Americas. For in the rituals of Vodou, including the Bois Caiman ceremony, there is evidence of contributions of a number of African ethnicities, including Igbo, Yoruba, and Fon to name a few.
Although Haitian Vodou combined the experiences and rituals of various African ethnic groups, it also retained the identities of these individual groups. This is evidenced by the division of the lwa, or Vodun deities, into nanchons (nations) that represent their African places of origin. For example, the Congo lwa come not only from the Kongo kingdom, but also from neighboring ethnicities found in this region of central Africa. As such, lwa are generally divided into two nanchons: the Rada and the Petwo. The Rada lwa and their associated rites are generally traced to the deities and traditions of West Africa, including those from Dahomey and more specifically from Allada, whereas the Petwo are generally traced to central African deities and rituals.
Although both lwa nanchons played significant roles in the Haitian war for independence and in the minds of many Vodou practitioners, the Petwo is the pantheon most often considered as more actively involved in the Revolution. This argument is often supported by the perceived gendeness of the Rada lwa, whereas the Petwo lwa are most often associated with violence and justice. Despite this commonly held perception, the blood rite of Bois Caiman could have its roots not only in the violent nature of Petwo lwa, but also in the ritual traditions of Dahomey, most often associated with Rada.
Similar rites to the Bois Caiman ceremony have been found in West Africa, especially among the Ewe, Adja, Houla, Heda, and Mahi ethnic groups, among others. In these traditions, the drinking of a ritual preparation, often infused with blood, serves the purpose of sealing agreements among participants—the process being called drinking vodun. The Igbo of West Africa also have a form of the ritual pact, in which blood may be smeared on kola nuts or infused with drink and shared among participants to create relationships and foster community solidarity. Other instances of blood rites have been recorded as occurring in Jamaica, Cuba, and other African Diasporic communities during the period of enslavement. Most notably, the oral tradition of Jamaican Maroons still contains insistence that their treaties with the British were most often sealed with such blood rituals.
Although scholars continue to debate the particulars of Bois Caiman, there is no underestimating the power of the ceremony in the minds and hearts of contemporary Haitians, as well as those linked to the Haitian Vodou tradition.
- loyalty oaths
- African ethnic groups
- Deren, M. (1953). Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. New York: Thames & Hudson.
- Geggus, D. R (2002). Haitian Revolutionary Studies (Blacks in the Diaspora). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Law, R. (1999, November 8). On the African Background to the Slave Insurrection in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) in 1791: The Bois Caiman Ceremony and the Dahomian "Blood Pact." Paper presented at the Harriet Tubman Seminar, York University, Toronto, ON, Canada.