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Voodoo island

But there may be seeds of hope in the midst of Haiti's brutal history

Issue: "Remaking the family," March 6, 2004

HAYTI ("MOUNTAINOUS") IS WHAT THE TAINO Indians called it, and the name stuck-though not much else has in this woebegone country that shares an island with the Dominican Republic, just a "boat people's" ride from Florida. Haiti is in turmoil, but it first hit the headlines recently when President Aristide demanded the return of the 90 million francs that Haiti paid France two centuries ago to gain independence. Mr. Aristide added in interest to arrive at a figure of $21,685,135,571.48. (The 48 cents, one wag quipped, is for equal distribution among the 8 million Haitians.) Nice work if you can get it.

The 90 million francs was to console France for forfeiting her most lucrative colony, then a producer of 60 percent of the world's coffee and two-thirds of France's commercial interests overseas. The deal was made only after Haitians killed more French soldiers than Napoleon lost at Waterloo and forced an end to French ambitions in the Western Hemisphere. One result was Napoleon's sale to the United States of the vast territory that became known as the Louisiana Purchase-but the results in Haiti itself were mixed, as mulattos fought against blacks and ineptness competed with brutality.

Haitian history since then is a story of short-lived "presidents-for-life," rulers with aversions to term limits, imposing palaces side by side with unspeakable squalor and constitutions with the enduring value of tissue paper. (As a comical sampling of unsubtle corruption, I like the trivia that in 1957 Duvalier, flouting legal proscription, ran for office and won the election by 1,320,748 votes to zero.) Historian James G. Leyburn writes: "Of the twenty-two heads of state between 1843 and 1915, only one served out his prescribed term of office, three died while serving, one was blown up with his palace, one presumably poisoned, one hacked to pieces by a mob, one resigned. The other fourteen were deposed by revolution after incumbencies ranging in length from three months to twelve years."

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There are, in addition to the packaged, bound, and authorized versions of history, two quiet threads that weave through Haitian history. The first is a happy one: Ever wonder what happened to the Huguenots in France after 1685? Where they dispersed to when the peace of the "Edict of Nantes" no longer held, and the chill winds of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572 once more swept the land and precipitated a French Protestant diaspora? A goodly portion of them washed up on the shores of the Caribbean Isles, including Haiti (then "Saint-Domingue"). The trail goes cold after this, but one disposed to meditating on the unsearchable wisdom of God cannot help but think about seeds and the great Sower whose word never returns to Him empty.

The second thread, though, sends tremors down the spine. Haiti's shameful slave culture differed from our own shameful slave culture in the detail that the system of indenture on the island was so brutal that most slaves did not live long enough to reproduce, necessitating fresh infusions of labor directly from Africa-and with it fresh infusions of voodoo religion. The scorpion turned to bite the frog, however, when the legendary boko (voodoo sorcerer) Francois Macandal led his six-year guerrilla war in the 1750s. On Aug. 14, 1791, the leaders of the Haitian revolution, meeting in the Bois Caiman, sealed their compact in a rite officiated by a former Haitian slave and voodoo priest (houngan) named Boukman. The leaders sacrificed a pig to Satan and promised to dedicate Haiti to him in exchange for liberation from French control for 200 years.

Hindsight of the last two centuries of this first "free" black republic in the Western world would seem to suggest that Satan has exacted a hefty toll. And if anyone thinks the Satanic dedication ceremony took place in a corner, let him note that 200 years later, on Aug. 14, 1991, voodoo priests set out to perform a "rededication," which was thwarted only by prayer and fasting on the part of informed Christians around the world, according to J.L. Williams, founder of New Directions International. Moreover, on Aug. 14, 2003, in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of Haitian independence, hundreds of houngans were flown in from Africa to renew the nation's pact with Satan.

The land known as the "pearl of the Antilles" needs a better plan than that. How about calling off the pact with the devil and joining the growing throng-dispersed seeds of the Huguenots, perchance, from Miami to Port-au-Prince-coming to Christ through the labors of Mr. Williams and other missions leaders who have not given up on Haiti?

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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