VODOU is a way of life. For those it touches, it is impossible to define. Many would simply state, "Vodou is a beautiful religion". But, while true it is far more than that. Vodou is religion, culture, heritage, and philosophy. It is also art, dance, language, medicine, music, justice, power, storytelling & ritual.
The Vodou is a way of looking at and dealing with life. It heals and destroys - Is both good and bad; simple in concept and complex in practice. Vodou is seen in daily life and every detail of life has meaning in Vodou. The Vodou is open to all yet holds many secrets & mysteries to those who are uninitiated.
To fully understand Haitian Vodou you must study the people, the language and culture of Haiti. You must realize the history of Haiti's children and the stories of their Spirits. You must examine Vodou at its roots in Africa and how it came to and changed on the island of Hispaniola. Even then you will not fully understand Haitian Vodou - You must immerse yourself in it. Vodou must be lived.
VODOU history belongs to the millions of people, whose ancestors were brought from Africa to the Caribbean in bondage. Although its essence originated in distinct regions of Africa long before the Europeans started the slave trade, Haitian Vodou, as we know it today, was born in Haiti during the European colonization of Hispaniola. Ironically, it was the forced immigration of African slaves from different tribes that provided the circumstances for its development. 1 These stories of African roots, enslavement and hard fought freedom comprise the history of Vodou.
Christopher Columbus planted the seeds of Vodou when he landed in Hispaniola ("Little Spain") in 1492. Within two decades the Spanish had all but eradicated the native inhabitants, the Taino (Arawak) Indians in an attempt to force them into slavery. 2 The "native peoples unable to withstand enforced labor and European diseases, died in appalling numbers, and the use of European indentured servants proved to be uneconomical." This set up the cycle of slave trade with West and Central Africa that began in 1517. 3
In 1697 the French acquired the western third of the island of Hispaniola. Over the next century a plantation economy developed and African slave labor made Saint-Domingue (Haiti) the wealthiest colony in all the world. The prime source of this wealth was sugar, but coffee, cotton and indigo were also grown and exported. Slavery on these Haitian plantations was so brutal that the Africans only survived an average of ten years, and the workforce had to be continually replenished with new arrivals. In the course of a century, the slave population swelled from a few thousand to nearly half a million. This growing slave population became very diverse and many African nations, languages and belief systems were represented within its people.
It is during this period of French colonization that much of Vodou's structure (as we currently know it) developed. In an attempt to keep their beliefs alive, the Africans began to not only invoke their own Spirits but to practice the rites of other African nations. Colonists thought that by separating tribe members individuals would not come together as a community. However, in the misery of slavery, the transplanted Africans found a common thread in their faith . These mixed, intermingled religions are the basis of Vodou. Those nations most prevalent are the Fon of the ancient West African kingdom of the Dahomey, now Benin & Togo; the Yoruba of what is now Nigeria and parts of Benin; and the BaKongo from the Central African nations of Angola and the Democratic Republic of Kongo. Also evident were the Nago, the Ibo, Senegalese, Haussar, Caplaou, Mondungue, Mandinge, Libyan, Ethiopian, and the Malgache nations. 4
Christianity and European influence also played a role (to some extent) in the development of Vodou. During the French occupation of Haiti, the rulers of France answered to the Roman Catholic Church, which recognized African slaves as human beings. A set of laws called the Code Noir or Black Codes spelled out not only how slaves would be treated, but stipulated that all should be baptized and instructed in the Catholic Faith. 5 Over time, the Africans began using Catholicism as a means to mask their religious practices. This is how the syncretism or perceived assimilation of African deities with Catholic saints developed. The Africans incorporated Catholic prayers into their services and used images of Catholic Saints as representations of their Spirits. 6
It is also important to note that some Indian beliefs were also assimilated into the Vodou during this time. The remaining Taino Indians did exert influence on Vodou culture especially in the area of the healing arts. European folk magic brought by indentured servants to Haiti also crept into the development of Vodou. It is this melange of beliefs and practices that makes Vodou the first Creole religion and what it is today. 7
Though the island was ruled by the whip, acts of rebellion began to grow more frequent. The colonial period in Saint-Domingue came to an end in 1791 when according to Haitian lore the first revolutionary action was a Vodou ceremony held by runaway slaves. 8 Over the next thirteen years, under the leadership of Touissaint L'Ouverture the French forces were defeated by the rebels. In honor of the Taino Indians who had called the island "Ayiti" meaning "Land of the Mountains", Saint-Domingue was renamed the Republic of Haiti.
All of the whites and many wealthy free people of color fled the island. The Catholic Church was expelled and did not return until 1860. Few governments recognized Haiti (Slave revolts did not sit well with either the American or European nations). Cut off from Euro-American support and influence, Vodou flourished in the nineteenth century. Although it was not officially sanctioned by the Haitian government,Vodouisiant were not persecuted.
While Vodou thrived in the nineteenth century, Haiti's people continued to be oppressed. Jean-Jacques Dessalines the first head of state, forced the newly freed Haitians back into servitude and a life which was not much different from the slavery they had escaped. 9 He was assassinated after only two years in office.
Likewise, the twentieth century was not so kind to the Vodou and the culture once again fought for its own survival. Gradually outsiders returned to Haiti and by 1915 when the United States invaded and occupied the island, Vodou was again severely repressed. 1941-42 saw some elements of the Catholic Church wage an all out physical, holy war - an "anti- superstition campaign" against the Vodou. They burned peristyles, ceremonial objects, beat (some say even killed) houngans and mambo, and demanded their ostracism from society.
The Vodou went underground to some extent, but it grew in popularity, in large measure because of the oppression. By the early 1950s the Catholic Church shut down this war, got rid of the warmonger priests and made their peace with Vodou. African drums and melodies were even incorporated into Catholic church services. 10
The Vodou was tested as late as the 1970s when evangelical Protestant missionaries flocked to Haiti. These missionaries were bitter enemies of Vodou and deemed it "Satanism". Many of these people claimed that Haiti's misery is because she is being punished by God for the sins of her Vodou serviteurs.
As a new, shaky government develops in Haiti, Vodou is again emerging from the underground and being accepted as an established "religion". The Constitution of 1987 guarantees the protection of all religious practices, including Vodou.
It is this story of how African culture crossed, survived and creatively adapted itself to a new land that makes up the history of Vodou. It is also the lessons of Haitian history that make up Vodou culture - as Haitians have become accustomed to revolution, poverty, oppression; promise & betrayal by its own political advocates.