We have already expressed our outrage at Pat Robertson’s view of the earthquake in Haiti. But what exactly was he talking about when he said Haiti had made a pact with the devil? At the very least we can get a history lesson out of this.
First, Robertson has his facts mixed up. Napoleon III was not born until 1808, seventeen years after the Haitian revolution. He is right, however, when he says that Haiti was “under the heel” of the French. It was a French colony.
Robertson also exaggerates the significance of the supposed “pact with the devil.” He is referencing the famous Bois Caiman ceremony that probably took place sometime in August of 1791. (Bois Caiman is a place, roughly translated “Alligator Wood”). As the story goes, slaves gathered here to plan their revolt against French rule. They were led by a black slave driver named Dutty Boukman, who was apparently a vodou priest. Boukman prophesied about the rebellion. Then, amid a violent rainstorm, a woman holding a large knife appeared. She did a tribal dance and then sacrificed a pig. The slaves in attendance drank the pig’s blood out of a wooden bowl and committed themselves to follow Boukman. The priest then announced the names of those who would lead the rebellion against France: Francois Papillon, Georges Bisassou, and Jeannot Bullet.
Scholars continue to debate whether this event actually happened and its significance to the 1791 revolution. My guide in this post has been the University of Florida’s David Patrick Geggus and his book Haitian Revolutionary Studies (Indiana University Press, 2002). Geggus believes that the ceremony did in fact take place, but, as he puts it, “much of what has been written about it is unreliable.” He notes that the Bois Caiman ceremony does not appear in any manuscript source. What we know about it comes from three published eyewitness accounts, the earliest of which dates back to 1814.
In the end, the most important meeting of slave rebels did not occur in Bois Caiman, but actually took place earlier, at the Lenormand de Mezy plantation. Geggus concludes:
What, then can be said of the ceremony’s role in the revolt? Principally, that it served to sacralize a political movement that was then reaching fruition. The decision to launch a rebellion, taken seven days earlier at the elite meeting of slave-drivers and coachmen, was at Bois Caiman directly communicated to a perhaps predominantly African group of field slaves, in a religious setting calculated to mobilize support. A widespread conspiracy was already in place by the time the ceremony was held and, more than this, was slowly being uncovered by the white colonists...
The Bois Caiman ceremony surely infused its participants with courage and a heightened sense of solidarity, but the number of slaves who took part cannot have been great. If they were more numerous than the 200 or so at the Lenormand meeting, they probably would have left more trace in the historical record…The significance of the Bois Caiman ceremony has been overstated because it is usually confused with the earlier meeting on the Lenormand de Mezy plantation. All the evidence suggests that with regard to the organization of the 1791 insurrection, the Lenormand meeting was the more important. Even the prayer of Boukman, if authentic, was evidently spoken there and not a Bois Caiman. It is therefore fitting that August 14 should be celebrated as an anniversary of national significance in Haiti, although it is not the anniversary of the Bois Caiman ceremony and may have had nothing to do with vodou.