Day 1: “On the Historicity and Credibility of the Bois Caiman Event (August 1791)”: Happy Black History Month from Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique
During the last three months of 1999, I had the privilege of heading an historical and anthropological investigation concerning the Bois Caiman; this research was done with Eddy Lubin, who is the regional head of ISPAN in the North (ISPAN is the national institution charged of preserving heritage). Fifty interviews were carried out with residents of the Morne Rouge area in the North of Haiti, as well as inhabitants of Choiseul (a second place where some believe the Bois Caiman took place). Further along the road, we also met with traditionals of the Nan Campeche lakou, which also appears to be connected to the Bois Caiman ceremony (the place having been indicated to the maroons by a two-headed palm tree). All of this, naturally, was accompanied of a thorough research in the literature.
The report of this research was submitted in Dec. 1999 to the Haitian Ministry of Culture which had commissioned it to take place, after recommendation of the Jbmillet Architecture Firm, which had been charged of preparing a plan de amenagement to honor the spot, in conformity with the local population’s solicitation since 1991. The Jbmillet group felt it was not possible to architecturally render without this necessary background information.
In short, here are a few elements of that 90-page report I believe to be particularly relevant to this discussion; of course, it would be impossible to convey all the arguments included in that work. I would also like to add that I am submitting this, in part, in recognition of the highly interesting 1998 Corbettland discussions (Perrault, Chaumette, Mysteries, Simidor, Trouillot, Chamberlain, Bell, Benson, Blanchet, Delva, Greya) which I included (with proper reference) in the report’s appendix, since I have been following the debate around the Bois Caiman since 1991 and before.
- I think it is important to point out, however, before all, that seemingly contrary to the discussion taking place, all the various works I have conducted concerning the Old Cathedral, various historical cities, Puerto Real (the 16th century archaeological town), etc. all have always shown us that the Haitian people know their history and honor it through pilgrimages, symbolic gestures, and other. This is why I believe that Hoffmannn, Geggus and all those discussing this matter would have interest in coming to the field to discuss with those who remember, those whose parents remembered, those who have the oral history. Such an approach is basic.
- Memory of the Bois Caiman is vivid amongst the population who remembers the exact points where events took place. Here is a song, for instance, one 84 year-old was able to sing for us; he holds it from his grand-father: “Revni lwa yo, Sanble lwa yo, Nan Bwa Kayiman nou ye, Nou tande fizi tire Apre Bondye, Se nou sa l ki chaf la ye, Apre Bondye, Se nou chaf, Nan Bwa Kayiman a”
- Isn’t it strange to proponents of the legend hypothesis that Dalmas, that French Doctor, imagined precisely the pig sacrifice which fundamentally distinguishes the Petro/Makaya rite of Vodoun from the Rada/Ginen rite?
- Isn’t it strange to proponents of the legend hypothesis that all the various authors cited by Hoffmannn (Metral, Civique de Gastine, Harard-Dumesle, Robin, Sannon, Schoelchere) all, throughout the nineteenth century kept, basically, re-telling the same story, albeit with variations?
- The political analysis, further, corroborates the holding of a Bois Caiman ceremony. The BC was, before all, a political climax, fruit of a progression. As is known, since 1789, talk of abolition of the whip and ameliorated work conditions was common in the French colonies. By 1791, conditions were ripe and it is quite logical that it be accompanied of socio-religious preparations.
- In this sense, the Boukman Prayer is astonishing in that it very precisely describes this heightening of political-ideological consciousness. If one reads it precisely, one finds that it is as of voices superimposed, speaking, at first, of a) a God in the clouds, observing; b) two Gods, one White – of crime -, and one Black – of liberation; c) explosion of a new vision: that of total liberation: “listen to the liberty speaking in our hearts”.
- Analyzing primary source documents (10 of them!), one finds quite clearly that there were two assemblies, the first a few days before the second one. It appears this was due to an “accident” (precipitation of a few? misunderstanding?). The fact is that fire was set to a plantation in the Limbe region (Habitation Chabaud) which provoked interrogations by the authorities. Those arrested clearly indicated that there was a meeting at the Bois Caiman where it was decided to put fire to the colony and massacre all colonialists. (Please note these reports date of 17 Aug. 1791, preceding the Dalmas testimony). Roume, the Civil Commissioner, in his 1792 report, showed that every Sunday the slaves met to prepare the insurrection.
- The fact is that the first testimony of religious celebrations appear in Dalmas (1814) which could be quite normal, as all of the preceding are, basically, police reports. It would be augmented by the more tardive authors, Gastines, Dumesle, Celigny Ardouine
- It seems that in the present discussion an important element, explaining certain apparent “digressions” has been lost. This is the fact that Morne Rouge, the place where BC ceremony hypotheses converge, is also the only place in Haiti to retain an important Islamic cult. This is because the first wave of slaves were from the Senegambian region and had already undergone heavy Islamic influence. Up to date, Mori Barthelemy and followers of the region maintain this tradition, with honor to the sun, specific funeral rites and so on. If one returns to sources of the 16th century, one finds that there is where the first copper mines were established by the Spaniards, when they started giving up on the gold. These Senegambian Islamists were also traditional; in fact, their secret societies (in Mali, for example, the Kore) resemble closely those of Haiti. So the result is semi-Islamic Haitian secret societies whose responsibility, according to interviews, is “closing the circle”.I do not want to be too long so I will stop here.In ending, however, I would like to quote one interview whose viewpoint was quite strong: “The houngan ‘walks'” on 21 “pwen” (forces) though there are
- All the escorts, all the Ginen African nations. They all work together: always male and female, always light and dark. The (Secret) Societies, which were at the basis of the Bois Caiman “regleman” are one of the great parts of this whole, but they had to “pass bye” the other part to attain their objectives. That is in fact the very principle of the Vodoun “reglemane”. This quote, amongst others, ascertains the BC ceremony as one of coming together.
I also would recommend that all those interested in the art of secret societies visit the FPVPOCH website (http://www.geocities.com/fpvpoch). A few discussions of the relationship between “Makaya” (secret society) art and history are included there.