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Bois Caiman (English version)

Frater Vameri

This week, I would like to make a note about José Renato Baptista's article on the Bois Caiman ceremony. This ceremony was a political and religious meeting of slaves that would have occurred on August 14, 1791, in Bois Caiman, on the island of São Domingos and which would have triggered the events of the Haitian Revolution.

José opens the article with a curious account of his time in fieldwork in Haiti (he is a Brazilian anthropologist). His account tells a brief conversation between him and an informant, in which the woman says that Boukman (the leader of the Bois Caiman ceremony) would have made a pact with the devil to liberate Haiti from France. This passage needs to be contextualized (and José does it) revealing that Protestantism is growing rapidly in Haiti. So, here we have an interesting first provocation: how to combine the Protestant vision with the imaginary of an entire country founded mythically by the unfolding of a Vodou ceremony?

Here we can also make a necessary parallel with Brazil. How does contemporary Brazil look at the construction of the country? Unsurprisingly, we know that the African heritage is viewed with a bad eye by a significant portion of the population. This question will go unanswered in this short essay. I hope it will be took as a matter for reflection.

José resumes the discussion about the Haitian Revolution pointing out that Sidney Mintz considers that the Haitian Revolution was the most impressive of the end of the 18th century, even more than the French and the American. The reason for this could not be differente: it was carried out by slaves. The author argues that Vodou is "a kind of common language through which it was possible to integrate the slave masses in the common struggle for freedom". In other words, José is defending that Vodou, as a religious system and ethos, was able to create such solidarity that guaranteed the success of the revolution. Now, we immediately remember Durkheim and his concept of “mechanical solidarity”, in which an equalization or significant correspondence of conditions, elements and social characteristics ensures that society remains cohesive.

José then begins to explore the role of Bois Caiman, a ceremony that is always in a transitory state - between the real and the imaginary - in the revolution. The ceremony itself would have been a meeting of rebel slaves led by the Jamaican Boukman (a Hounganor Ougan) and also coordinated by a Mambo. The ceremony would have marked a great pact or agreement between the slaves and the Lwas for a people and for a free land.

The author states that Bois Caiman truly functions as a “myth in the anthropological sense”, since it serves to bring to the present a time beyond time and that is always with the people. In this sense, José understands that Vodou and also Bois Caiman are constantly being reinterpreted, as they are always present. Always gaining new meanings.

The article also brings up an episode in Paillant, in which four people were murdered and the ten surviving witnesses were hospitalized, all unable to speak, that is, speechless. The local explanation was that the slaughter had taken place by the action of a djab, a spirit. José says that this fantastic explanation was readily ignored by the newspapers, but that it was discussed by the people and broadcast in radio debates. José's point is that this fantastic explanation cannot be considered unreal, as it is experienced as true by people.

The parallel between Paillant and Bois Caiman then becomes apparent. For José, Paillant is an expression of the ever present myth of Bois Caiman and even a more contemporary reframing of it. Thus, I believe, that the author means that the Haitian people live Vodou constantly as the maximum expression of its authenticity. Even those who are Protestant or who are not directly involved with it are immersed in this matrix and live the same reality. The fact that Haiti is the son of a Vodou myth says a lot about its characteristics and forces us to understand the country if we want to understand Vodou.

This country, born out of a slave revolution, is an extraordinary case because it has roots in their very own spirituality. Following Sidney Mintz and Price (as José dos in his paper), se van say this hybridism that gave rise to Vodou and Haiti is something totally original. You cannot look at the country and its culture as mere transformations or “minor” variations in Africa. The same must be said of Vodou.


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