Juan Cole: The Televangelist Misuse of Haiti's History

Roundup: Talking About History

[Juan Cole is President of the Global Americana Institute]

And you know Christy, something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French, uh you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said we will serve you if you'll get us free from the French. True Story, and so the Devil said OK it's a deal. And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they've been cursed by one thing after the other desperately poor. That island is Hispaniola is one island. It's cut down the middle. On one side is Haiti on the other side is the Dominican republic. Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etc.. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island.
The video is here

It is of course morally despicable for Robertson to blame a horrific earthquake on the supposed misdeeds of the distant ancestors of the current victims! But then, he blamed the September 11 atrocity on the United States, as well. I have nothing against evangelicals in general, and I know that televangelists are peculiar in typically not being under any church authority and so they can hold very strange views. But the Robertson type of evangelicalism strikes me as a social pathology that is actively evil and damaging to rational ethical thinking in our republic.

So what in the world is Pat Robertson talking about? Presumably he is referring to the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s through independence in 1804. The latter part of the revolution was against Napoleon Bonaparte, not against his nephew Napoleon III (r. as emperor 1852-1870). So Robertson was off by a mere 50 or 60 years.

As Charles Tilly pointed out, all revolutions are multiple revolutions. The Rights of Man were declared by the French Convention in 1789. Thomas Jefferson and other US Founding Fathers were delighted about this, by the way. Initially it was the mixed-race free mulattoes who agitated to have the Rights of Man applied to them in Haiti. But then slave revolts broke out and by 1794 the French legislature had abolished slavery in French overseas territories. So you had urbane, French-speaking free persons of color demanding inclusion in the new liberties proclaimed by the French Republic. But you also had slave revolts, in which newly-arrived slaves from West Africa (places such as what is now Benin) participated--though the organization was probably supplied by longer-established slaves. The newly-arrived slaves had after all been free Africans not so long ago. Despite the efforts of French orders such as the Dominicans and Capuchins, many slaves had still not become Christians or wore their Christianity very lightly. Some proportion of the slaves was Muslim, and some historians have suggested that previous slave revolts were led by Muslims. Over time, Muslim Africans were forcibly converted to Catholicism.

So some of the slave revolts invoked African religion against white French colonial power. What many now call voodoo or voudoun is a Haitian version of religious traditions roughly from what is now Benin, Togo, Nigeria and the Congo. The word just means spirit. The African slave religious traditions were expressed in Creole or Kreyole, based on Kwa dialects but incorporating elements of French.

One of the [pdf, p. 223] first major events of the Haitian revolution unfolded thusly:"In 1791 Boukman Dutty, a Vodou priest and one of the leaders of the first wave of slave uprisings in the North of Haiti, led a ceremony in the now-famous Bois-Caïman that launched the revolution and inspired slave revolutionaries to begin destroying plantations." The ceremony allegedly involved the sacrifice of a pig and use of pig blood and a sermon that invoked the good God of African religion to give the slaves liberty and condemned the evil God of the white slave-owners. It has been argued that this event has been mythologized in subsequent Haitian history-writing.

The traditional account is here.

The slave revolts informed by voudoun, however, were only one of a number of rebellions in the 1790s. An influence was felt among intellectuals of French Deism and anticlericalism and the privileges of the Catholic Church were abolished. In the north of the country, mass stopped being said.

But revolutionary leader Toussaint L'Ouverture restored the privileges of the Church in in 1800. Subsequent cultural and political struggles after independence in 1804 (which was accompanied by a massacre or expulsion of French whites after Napoleon's invasion force was defeated, causing an exodus of Catholic priests) again constrained the Church, though a concordat was reached in 1860.

So Robertson's account sees the assertion of African religion in 1791 against slaving Christianity as a 'pact with the devil' that then led Haiti to be cursed ever after. But even in his own terms, how does he account for the multiple steps by subsequent Haitian states reinstating privileges for Christianity? Even if he does not count Catholicism as Christianity, what about the fact that about a quarter of Haitians are now evangelical Protestants? Didn't the earthquake hit them? And, why is West Africa where the initial African version of voudoun originated and is still practiced by a minority, among the least earthquake-prone regions in the world?

Ultimately, Robertson's version of Haitian history as cursed replicates the old racist anti-Black 'curse of Ham' theme in White American popular religion. Is he saying that Haitians had less right to revolt against European colonialism than did white Americans? (Only about 16% of colonial-era Americans belonged to a church, so it isn't as if they were more pious). And, ultimately, his account fails to deal with the sins of slavery and racism in which Southern US Christian traditions-- Baptism, evangelicalism, etc., were deeply implicated. There is a Southern Baptist church to this day, almost all-white, precisely because it split from the national organization to protect the enslavement of African-Americans.

Evil and the devil are tricky. Robertson projected them on a revolt of African slaves asserting their African traditions against oppressive white colonial society. But they lurk in the traditions of his 700 Club, in the exaltation of irrationality, in blaming the victim, in a subtext of racism, and in a failure to repent for White Christian enslavement of Africans for centuries.

Read entire article at Informed Comment

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Per Fagereng - 1/15/2010

The real devil is western imperialism, which destroyed Haiti. At one time Haiti was the richest place in the world, but its riches went to France.

Look at Haiti now, once a paradise, now a hell.

When Haiti's leaders make agreements with the global rulers, they are indeed signing a pact with the devil.

Per Fagereng - 1/15/2010

What gives Napoleon the right to sell the Louisiana territory? Or the right of Jefferson the right to buy it?

What Jefferson bought was the "right" to steal the land from the Indians.

Ross Kiser - 1/15/2010

Great article.

One other thing Pat Robertson forgot was that the revolt on Haiti led to the French sale of the Louisiana Territory to the United States. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte had a vision of a renewed western empire for France, and his schemes included the recapture of Louisiana from Spain. Control over this vast territory would halt the westward expansion of the young United States, and would supply French colonies in the West Indies with the goods they needed. In 1800, Napoleon signed the secret Treaty of Ildefonso with Spain, an agreement that stipulated that France would provide Spain with a kingdom for the son-in-law of Spain's king if Spain would return Louisiana to France. However, Napoleon's plan collapsed when the twelve-year revolt of slaves and free blacks in the French colony of Saint-Domingue succeeded, forcing French troops to return defeated to France and preventing them from reaching their ultimate destination--Louisiana--and from being able to defend it. As Napoleon's New World empire disintegrated, the loss of Haiti made holding on to Louisiana unnecessary.

Of course, I'm not the least surprised that Robertson would forget this.

paul j quinlan - 1/14/2010

thank you for telling the truth and putting robinson in the historical garbage can he came from.