Christian History Home > Blog > 2010 > January > Haiti: A Brief Religious History
Haiti: A Brief Religious History
Nothing has ever been easy for this once-lush island nation.
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Like most people, I've been paying a lot more attention to Haiti in the past few weeks than ever before. I know very little about the place. It comes up just twice in my U.S. history survey course, once in the lecture on New World colonization, and again in a lecture on slave uprisings. For my own knowledge as well as for this blog, I thought I'd try to sketch a religious history of Haiti—one that does not include a national pact with the devil.
The island of Hispaniola, now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, bore the brunt of early Spanish colonization of the New World. Christopher Columbus explored its northern coast in 1492, and his favorable reports, along with Spain's quest for riches and global dominance, soon brought many more soldiers, priests, and economic adventurers. Bartolome de las Casas, a Dominican priest whose father and uncles joined Columbus's second expedition, witnessed the results of this conquest. He titled his wrenching narrative, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1542). It begins:
The Indies were discovered in the year one thousand four hundred and ninety-two. In the following year a great many Spaniards went there with the intention of settling the land. Thus, forty-nine years have passed since the first settlers penetrated the land, the first so claimed being the large and most happy isle called Hispaniola…
And of all the infinite universe of humanity, these [indigenous] people are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity, the most obedient and faithful to their native masters and to the Spanish Christians whom they serve. They are by nature the most humble, patient, and peaceable, holding no grudges, free from embroilments, neither excitable nor quarrelsome. These people are the most devoid of rancors, hatreds, or desire for vengeance of any people in the world….
Yet into this sheepfold, into this land of meek outcasts there came some Spaniards who immediately behaved like ravening wild beasts, wolves, tigers, or lions that had been starved for many days. And Spaniards have behaved in no other way during the past forty years, down to the present time, for they are still acting like ravening beasts, killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples, doing all this with the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty, never seen or heard of before, and to such a degree that this Island of Hispaniola, once so populous (having a population that I estimated to be more than three million), has now a population of barely two hundred persons.
With the native population annihilated, mostly by disease, the Spanish conquerors looked to the African slave trade for a new labor supply. Religion in Hispaniola thus became a mixture of indigenous Caribbean and imported African practices, overlaid with Roman Catholicism. That mixture produced voodoo (or Vodou), which perhaps half of all Haitians practice, despite the fact that some 80 percent of Haitians formally identify as Roman Catholics, and most of the rest formally identify as Protestants.
According to the website of the Cultural Orientation Resource Center, an organization that aids the resettlement of refugees, the word "voodoo" means "spirit" in the Fon language of West Africa. The COR describes voodoo as "a religion based on family spirits [loas] who generally help and protect. Although lacking a fixed theology and an organized hierarchy, voodoo is a religion with its own rituals, ceremonies, and altars that practitioners do not find to be at odds with Roman Catholicism. In fact, many Roman Catholic symbols and prayers have blended with voodoo rituals and traditions to make for a unique and typically Haitian religion. For example, pictures of Catholic saints are painted on the walls of temples to represent the voodoo spirits; at funerals, it is not uncommon that voodoo ceremonies and rituals be performed for family members first, followed by a more public traditional Roman Catholic ceremony presided over by a priest."
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