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Vodou: a continuation of the 18th century Kongolese religion?

Frater Vameri

Painting by Capuchin Friar Bernadino D´ Asti showing a wedding in Kongo around 1750.

Figure taken from: https : //

Hein Vanhee reminds us that it is widely believed that the greatest cultural contribution to Vodou was from the West African Coast, mainly because much of the current Vodou vocabulary can be traced to that region. However, he also reminds us that some scholars like Blier and Thompson see Central African heritage in Vodou. In this context, we do not know exactly what weight to give to which inheritance - and if it it is a thing we should worry about. In any case, more recent studies, such as those by Geggus, point to a majority of Bantus slaves in São Domingos, therefore, trying to understand the contribution of these men and women is fundamental.

Vanhee disputes the notion that the Catholic elements in Vodou are the product of creolization - that is, he defies that they are a result exclusively of the environment of São Domingos. In fact, he starts this dispute saying the reports by Moreau de Saint-Mery on Vadoux being practiced by "Arada" slaves in the eighteenth century led many scholars to believe that the origins of Vodou would be in Allada. However, Vanhee rescues the account of Etienne Descourtilz who endeavors to enumerate the nations of the slaves, shortly after Saint- Méry. Descourtilz talks about the Mozambiques and their Vaudoux - which would be an evening meeting with dances and possessions. She witnesses a ceremony conducted by a priest named Dompète - a figure who uses poison to punish. Vanhee reminds us that in 1768, a new dance similar to Vaudox appears. This violent dance is called Dom Pèdre =, as reported by Saint- Méry. Vanhee also quotes Droun de Bercy's account, which in 1814 identifies the “ Petro ” cult as a very dangerous evil society.

Thus, Vanhee understands that the term Vaudox, at the end of the 18th century, seems to be used indiscriminately for different cults practiced by slaves (however, it was not the only term used). In fact, the author understands that the different reports already reveal that the Vaudox of that time was a collection or a mixture of different cults. In the author's opinion, creolization will act upon these cults, which will eventually unite in some way. He points out that the first indication of this is in Saint- Méry's own account since the song sung by the Arada was in the Kicongo language .

Vanhee argues that “Dom Petro ” is probably a term or name originating in the Kongo, since by the Catholic and European influence, names like Pedro and the title of Dom were common. Thus, the author already establishes that the heritage of central Africa is more powerful than the songs reported by Saint- Méry point out. From here he starts to distil his theory.

The author retrieves data that show that since 1700 the number of slaves who were poisoned in the plantations was high. However, these poisonings were not the work of their masters, since many reports reveal them complaining about the high number of slaves lost in this way. Vanhee links this with the Makandal story (a figure who would have killed several white men with poison) to point out that more than a revolutionary, he was probably a man versed in Kongolese rituals. One possibility is that he - and others like him - would administer poison to detect witches, which was common in Central Africa at the time.

Vanhee retrieves a 1770 account that shows that cults similar to " Petro " were active in Marmelade , especially in coffee plantations full of "Kongos" slaves. In fact, these cults were called " Mayombe " or "Bila " and apparently involved the use of objects similar to those reported to have been used by Makandal . The author reports that testimonies confirm the use of poisons and (literally) fire trials in this cult. In addition, both Makandal and other Dompète carried bags very similar to paquets kongo - which points to a Kongolese origin.

Hein Vanhee raises the following provocation: how in a Haiti devoid of significant missionary activities in the 18th (mainly late) / 19th centuries, did it achieve such a strong hybridization between African and Catholic elements? It is clear here that for the author this syncretism was not just a product of Haiti. He reminds us that by the end of the 18th century, Portuguese and Italian missionaries had been active in Congo for centuries. Not only that, these missionaries made extensive use of local help for their activities. These helpers came to gain different status and even carry out journey seeking conversions. Still, Vanhee gives us some figures that suggest that the number of these assistants was immense, since the royalty of Congo had 6,000 people and they all had helpers like these. In addition, in nearby kingdoms - like Loango and Kakongo , in the late 18th century, French missionaries also made many conversions. It is interesting to note that Vanhee points out that one of the missionaries declares that even as converts, the natives continued to practice their "superstitions". In general, the author shows us that in Congo in the 18th century, the population knew the imaginary and part of the liturgy of Catholicism well.

In Saint Domingue, documentation from the 18th century, Vanhee teaches us, demonstrates that several slaves that arrived in the colony already knew Catholic elements. In fact, since 1720 it was already known that slaves in the Kongo knew Catholicism. In 1760, it is known that some slaves attended the church and presented among them some with the role of missionary or “sacristan”. Returning to Makandal , Vanhee tells us that after his execution, the contents of his “spell” bags were examined and elements such as holy water, church incense, holy bread etc were found. In the cult that Vanhee presents us that took place in Marmelade there was also the use of Catholic elements. In other words, we have possible Kongolese influences already using things from the Catholic world.

It does not escape Vanhee that it is known today that the majority of Haitians have Kongolese roots. He links this to the fact, for example, that even without the presence of priests or the Church, in 19th century Haiti, people went to churches. Still, in distant locations, Vanhee tells us that altars of worship to the Virgin were found, for example. In other words - the Kongolese origins in Haiti would have perpetuated Catholic elements, even without the important official presence of the Church or priests.

Thus, Vanhee will argue that the hybridization of Catholic elements in Vodou works as "a continuation of the 18th century Kongolese religion". It may seem like an exaggeration, but if we think that Vanhee is considering Catholic elements as inseparable from Vodou, we can consider his argument as valid. In any case, more than drawing definitive conclusions, we can clearly see that to understand Haitian Vodou it is necessary to peel many layers.

Source: Heywood, LM Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora.

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