Haiti’s Terrible Earthquake is the Wrath of God, Says Tele-Evangelist
US tele-evangelist Pat Robertson has said, in a television interview over the last couple of days, “Something happened in Haiti a long time ago that people may not want to talk about… they got together a pact with the Devil. They said, ‘we will serve you if you get us free from the French’. And so the Devil said ‘OK, it’s a deal’. So the Haitians revolted and got themselves free, but ever since they have been cursed by one thing or the other, desperately poor… they need to have, and we need to pray for them, a great turning to God”. Now it must be said Pat Robertson’s God is a very active and spectacularly wrathful one, not only in respect of the Haitians. Apparently 9/11 was God’s doing because Christian prayer was not mandated in schools and Disney’s “gay days” will, eventually, lead to devastation in Orlando Florida. But Haitian Voudou as “devil worship” is an old and persistent trope, and it’s particularly upsetting to see it rearing its ugly head at this time of misery for the country.
Regrettably Pat Robertson is in some company. When New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Austrian Catholic bishop Gerhard Wagner said it was God’s punishment for homosexuality in the city. Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church agreed, referring to “fag-semen-rancid waters”. Perhaps not coincidentally, New Orleans is also a major locale for the practice of Voudou, which was brought to Louisiana by the slave trade when that state, like Haiti, was a French colony. Voudou is regarded askance by some varieties of Christian precisely because of the “dark” image it was imbued with by colonialism, a result of its link to insurrectionary politics.
The unfortunate native Taino (Arawak Indians) of the “Island of Mountains” were invaded by Columbus in 1492, and Haiti was a Spanish colony before it was a French one. Slaves from Africa were imported in large numbers to turn the country into a coffee and sugar-producing gold mine for its European owners. Life on the plantations was so brutal that the average number of years a slave survived after their transportation was ten, and because the death rate exceeded the birth rate the importation of slaves continued. Voudou arose in the melting pot of different African nations and their religious beliefs created by that trade, together with the slaves’ encounters both with the Taino and with the Roman Catholicism of their masters. The beliefs of the Fon of Dahomey (now Benin and Togo) and the Yoruba of what is now Nigeria were particularly prominent.
The best book on Haitian Vodou probably remains Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen (1953). Vodou is a fascinating syncretic religion. Its spirit intercessors, the Lwa, communicate by possessing their believers, and they are involved, passionate, proud and funny, imbued with distinctive personalities, likes and dislikes. The Ghede, whom it now seems sadly apposite to mention, are spirits of the ancestral dead. They are ruled by the Lwa Baron, (one of whose forms is Baron Samedi), together with Maman Brigitte, (a diasporic form of the Catholic Saint Brigid). The Ghede love black and purple and, as spirits both of death and fertility, they also enjoy lewd joking and dancing.
Haiti is the only nation in the world whose independence from colonial rule was gained as part of a successful slave rebellion. And it is for its defiant insurrection, in which Voudou played a unifying part, that it has been punished since. Not by God, but by vengeful capitalists. The slave revolution, which took place between 1791 and 1803, was apocryphally initiated by a Vodou Hougan (priest) known as Dutty Boukman in a night ceremony at a place called Bois Caiman in the northern mountains of the island (this is the origin of Pat Robertson’s “devil pact” story). In the early 1800s the United States, still a slave owning nation itself at that point, imposed a trade embargo on Haiti, in concert with France and Spain, fearful that Haiti’s revolution might inspire other enslaved Africans. Haiti won its freedom, but in order to receive official recognition (and much needed bank loans) from its erstwhile colonist, it was forced to pay reparations to France for its “loss of property”. It took over one hundred years, from 1825 to 1947, to clear this “debt”, which someone has calculated amounted to 21 billion dollars in today’s money. Haiti has been hobbled by poverty, violence and corruption ever since.
The post-colonial poverty of Haiti has led to a dreadful deforestation of the country (from 60% forest coverage in the 1920s to less than 2% coverage today) as people have cleared the land for cooking firewood. And that deforestation makes the severe weather events to which the country is increasingly prone (Haiti suffered four hurricanes in 2008) much worse, because there are no longer tree roots to stop the top-soil from being washed away. Land suitable for cultivation is diminished and Haiti imports 40% of its food, with many of its people, even before Tuesday’s earthquake, dependent on food aid.
Haitian Voudou is a resilient faith. It was born in times of great endurance. Indeed, when the Lwa Erzulie Dantor rides a human “horse” in possession, she makes only sounds. There are no words, it is said, because her tongue was cut out during the slave rebellion. Dantor is a fierce protectress, particularly of women who have suffered domestic or sexual violence. Lesbians are also particularly associated with her (as gay men are with her sister, the perfumed Erzulie Freda). Vodou possession is also rather gender interesting, as female Lwa happily possess men as well as women and vice versa.
Vodou is also, in its roots, a voyaging faith, and in a new wave of syncretism (approved of by some “orthodox” practitioners and disdained by others) it has become popular amongst a variety of Western pagans; undoubtedly initially because of its “dark” reputation, propagated by Hollywood movies such as White Zombie (1932) with Bella Lugosi and Roger Moore’s Live and Let Die (1973) then, of course, by its later re-working in Grant Morrison’s celebrated graphic novel series The Invisibles.
To give thanks for the personal delight I have had in encountering the Lwa, I will be listening to Wyclef Jean’s wonderful album Welcome to Haiti, Creole 101 tonight, lighting a candle for the people of Haiti, and donating to the present relief effort on www.dec.org.uk. Hopefully many other UK pagans will be joining me.