THE BOIS CAIMAN CEREMONY: FACT OR MYTH
The exchanges below which took place on Bob Corbett’s Haiti e-mail list address the question of whether or not the famous Bois Caiman Ceremony of August 1791 actually took place as an historical event or whether it is a famous and motivational myth.
With all the recent talk about Bois Caiman and the “Pact with Satan,” it is worth mentioning that there is another school of thought out there, which denies that the Bois Caiman ceremony ever took place. The French critic Leon-Francois Hoffmannn most recently called attention to that “myth,” at a 1991 conference on the state of Haiti two hundred years after Bois Caiman.
Hoffmannn, or rather Doctor Hoffmannn, is no slouch. His book, “The Romantic Nigger,” debunked a whole lot of prejudices and stereotypes in 18th and 19th century French literature. His presentation, presumably at the end of the conference came like a rock in a quiet pond. A malevolent Frenchman, he explained, had concocted the Bois Caiman myth, and Haitian historians too lazy to do their homework have erected that myth as the Fount of the Nation. Haitian participants at the conference bristled at the mocking tone of the presentation, but the learned Doctor stood by his research and made light of their imprecations.
The Haitian historical profession has been remarkably slow in picking up the gauntlet against the trespassing French scholar, who even hinted of a larger work on the subject. (To echo an earlier criticism voiced in a different context, where are those damn Haitian historians and PhD’s when you really need them?) Some research has been done since on Dahomean blood rites, oaths and secret societies. But it was left to the non-Haitian historian, David Geggus, to point out that there were actually two separate slave gatherings in August 1791.
The first meeting, where the uprising was decided, brought together 200 delegates to the Normand de Mezy plantation on Sunday, Aug. 14. This is the meeting that several prisoners revealed under torture, according to the malevolent Frenchman, Antoine Dalmas, who took part as a medical examiner in some of the interrogations. The second meeting, of a more religious nature, took place a week later in the secluded Caiman woods. What transpired there is understandably more difficult to piece together, given its secret nature.
According to Haitian historian Celigny Ardouin who spoke to a participant and personal friend of Toussaint Louverture around 1840, the latter was the chief organizer of the meeting on the Mezy plantation, but he chose his closest associates, Jean-Francois Papillon, Georges Biassou and Boukman Dutty to lead the first phase of the insurrection. General Paul Aly, the participant in question, makes no mention of Toussaint at the Bois Caiman ceremony. According to Geggus, it was Boukman who called the Bois Caiman meeting to jumpstart the uprising, before the plot could be uncovered.
Aly’s testimony corroborates the malevolent Frenchman’s report. But Geggus cites yet another source: Etienne Charlier’s “Apercu sur la formation historique de la nation haitienne” (1954), which identifies President Pierrot’s wife, Cecile Fatiman, as the officiating Vodou priestess at Bois Caiman. (Unfortunately, I’m unable to verify the spelling of Madame Pierrot’s maiden name, since a friend borrowed my copy of the Charlier book Haitian-style, i.e. unbeknownst to me.)
The veracity of the malevolent Frenchman’s tale (I mean Dalmas of course, not Hoffmannn) could best be left to the Evangelists to ferret out, if not for another intriguing claim related to the first. There is ample evidence to suggest (at this point, the Ginou-ists should put on their seat belts and swallow their sezisman pills) that Toussaint organized the insurrection at the instigation of the French governor, Blanchelande, who needed some leverage against the powerful Colonial Assembly, which had threatened to break away from France, like the American settlers did just a decade ago.
Geggus denies credence to that story, but some of his sources for the Bois Caiman story also incriminate Toussaint. Celigny Ardouin thus writes:
“Sonthonax’s widow, who knew Toussaint when he was still a slave, told one of our friends that Toussaint had used the surname Louverture before the uprising, because it was a nickname given to him on the Breda plantation on account that he was missing several front teeth. If that was the case, why did Toussaint sign his name as Toussaint Breda, while he was in the ranks of the insurgents? We looked for the reasons for this name change. We asked one of Toussaint’s companions, one of his friends, the esteemed Paul Aly, now colonel of the 31st Regiment and commander-in-charge in Santo Domingo. This veteran told us that Toussaint took the name Louverture to signify that he was the first who was chosen to lead the rebellion in the North; and that if he delayed using that name, it was because he could not get back the passport (sauf-conduit) that was given to him and which he had entrusted to his friend and comrade Biassou, until the latter crossed Jean-Francois who had his camp occupied and searched for papers that would incriminate him as a traitor.”
The passport in question had been issued by Blanchelande. Ardouin adds that it gave Toussaint unrestricted access to all the plantations in the Plaine du Nord, and shielded him from future criminal charges. Incidentally, the Mezy meeting had not been a secret or illegal gathering. The nationalist historian Gerard Laurent accepts Ardouin’s interpretation without qualm, and quotes Sonthonax to the effect that Toussaint had organized the uprising and the settlers’ massacre under compulsion from the monarchist Ã©migrÃ©s that surrounded him. Laurent, however, commands Toussaint for his intelligence and cunning, and praised him as a supreme tactician.
The connection between the two claims is alarming, because if you take away Bois Caiman and Boukman’s denunciation of the white oppressors’ God, and then pin the monarchist conspiracy on Toussaint, the Fount of the Nation is, pedantically-speaking, forever tarnished. Personally I find both stories plausible, but I don’t mind leaving Papa Toussaint fend for himself. As for Bois Caiman, it may well be that both God and the Devil have let Haiti down, and that it’s time to let humanity conduct its own affairs. (Frankly, I don’t mind giving my place in paradise to somebody else.)
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 i
n 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.
In Bob Corbett’s review of Leon-Francois Hoffmannn’s book: HAITIAN LITERATURE REVISITED he says:
A second essay of special interest is entitled “The Ceremony at Bois Caiman.” Here again Kauffmann uses his meticulous analysis of original sources to argue that there never was such a ceremony and that its actual originals were in the writings of a Frenchman who was using it to denigrate the slaves, not celebrate a motivational or mystical moment. Kauffman’s tracing of the development and changing oh the story in Haitian literature is a tour-de-force of in-depth scholarship.
Daniel Simidor replies:
In his review of Leon-Francois Hoffmannn’s book on Haitian fiction, Bob Corbett repeats Hoffmannn’s claim that the Bois Caiman ceremony was a myth, without looking at the evidence, historical and otherwise, in favor of a factual Bois Caiman. That the August 1791 General Uprising was an orgy of blood sums it up quite nicely for Hoffmannn; the blood spilled in that case was French after all. That the rebel slaves abhorred the culture of their oppressors, or that they as a class held a separate agenda independent of all other classes in the colony, is too much for Hoffmannn to contemplate. Indeed, his work is part of a French revisionist tradition that looks upon the Haitian revolution as a by-product of the French revolution. It is consistent with that claim to downplay the Bois Caiman ceremony or to deny that it ever took place (and then to neatly label Toussaint as a French General). Hoffmannn underestimated the people’s recollection of such a momentous event, however, and Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique’s experiment in local history in the Morne Rouge area proves how strong that memory remains within the Vodou tradition. The more one thinks about it, the clearer it becomes that Hoffmannn proved nothing if not his own bias.
It is unfortunate, however, that Herard Dumesle’s “Voyage dans le Nord d’Haiti” is so hard to find. (Someone with a copy ought to create an electronic version of the chapter on Bois Caiman.) Dumesle published a rendition of Boukman’s prayer at Bois Caiman that Hoffmannn derides because it is written in verse. Hoffmannn rejects the verses as an outright impossibility. Yet, if Boukman was literate as so many people claim, is it not conceivable that he could have rehearsed his incantation ahead of time? Also, given the fact of what is known about him, is it not equally conceivable that Bookman was a Marabout, i.e. a muslim cleric, captured and deported to the New World during one of the numerous slave raids in West Africa? (Indeed, if Boukman had been a 29 year-old orthodox Jew killed in Brooklyn in 1991, he would have been hailed universally as a scholar!) Some people object (as proof that Boukman was not a Muslim or that the Bois Caiman ceremony was a myth) that Boukman as a Muslim cleric could not have sacrificed a pig. But the legend only says that he presided at the ceremony; a Manbo, or Vodou priestess presumably carried out the sacrifice of the pig.
Corbett replies to Simidor:
Early on in Leon-Francois Hoffmannn’s essay on Bois Caiman he states his thesis in unmistakenable language: ” research on the Bois Caiman ceremony leads to the almost certain conclusion that we are dealing here not with a historical event but with a legend, who origins can be traced to the malevolent imagination of a French planter.” (p. 159)
The strategy which Hoffmannn uses to support his claim is go back to the earliest known version of the story in print, that of Antoine Dalmas in Histoire de la revolution de Saint-Domingue, which, while published in 1814 was claimed to have been written in 1793.
Hoffmannn makes case that there was likely to be an ulterior motive in Dalmas’ version and thus distrusts it: “Of all the authors who have written on the Bois Caiman ceremony he alone was in the area when the revolt broke out, and his testimony would therefore seem trustworthy. It is, in point of fact, highly questionable: a White (sic)settler would obviously not have been invited or permitted to attend a conspiratorial meeting. Dalmas does not in fact claim to have been an eyewitness, but asserts that his information comes from the interrogation of prisoners conducted a few days later. However the manuscript minutes of these interrogations have survived in the French National Archives and make no mention of this or any other vodun ceremony. Neither do the very numerous and minutely detailed accounts of the events that were gathered by French investigative commissions and published between 1791 and, say, 1825 when the French government finally recognized Haitian independence. The likelihood is that the whole episode was invented by Dalmas.” (p. 160)
Hoffmannn then quotes a passage from the Dalmas book which describes the ceremony, ending with “That such an ignorant and besotted caste would make the superstitious rituals of an absurd and sanguinary religion serve as a prelude to the most frightful crimes was to be expected.” (161).
This leads Hoffmannn to conclude: “The last sentence of Dalmas’ account is clear proof that his intention was in fact to denigrate the slaves.” (161).
Daniel Simidor, responding to my mention of this essay in my review of the Hoffmannn book says:
“In his review of Leon-Francois Hoffmannn’s book on Haitian fiction, Bob Corbett repeats Hoffmannn’s claim that the Bois Caiman ceremony was a myth, without looking at the evidence, historical and otherwise, in favor of a factual Bois Caiman. That the August 1791 General Uprising was an orgy of blood sums it up quite nicely for Hoffmannn; the blood spilled in that case was French after all.
“That the rebel slaves abhorred the culture of their oppressors, or that they as a class held a separate agenda independent of all other classes in the colony, is too much for Hoffmannn to contemplate.”
However, this critique is manifestly unfair to the Hoffmannn text. This essay is not an analysis of the question of Bois Caiman itself, it is a review and analysis of the written records of it. From this first known source (Hoffmannn’s claim), he then analyzes later Haitian texts on this event and tries to show that they are indebted to the Dalmas version and have gone beyond it without further evidence to elaborate the more common version which is repeated in much of Haitian history, the version which Hoffmannn regards as a myth.
If Hoffmannn has any bias it is toward written sources of history as the most authoritative and reliable. He does rest his case of the likelihood that the Bois Caiman story is a myth on both the originative historical product of Dalmas and the following Haitian literature which flows from it and embellishes it.
The rest is not at all in Hoffmannn – Simidor’s charges that:
“That the rebel slaves abhorred the culture of their oppressors, or that they as a class held a separate agenda independent of all other classes in the colony, is too much for Hoffmannn to contemplate. Indeed, his work is part of a French revisionist tradition that looks upon the Haitian revolution as a by-product of the French revolution. It is consistent with that claim to downplay the Bois Caiman ceremony or to deny that it ever took place (and then to neatly label Toussaint as a French General).”
Hoffmannn claims none of this and the only part that stands at all is Simidor’s claim that the Hoffmannn account “is consistent” with these various historical causal claims. Yet Hoffmannn neither makes such claims nor suggests them in the slightest.
In rejecting Hoffmannn’s claims Simidor suggests an enormous power for ” Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique’s experiment in local history in the Morne Rouge area (which) proves how strong that memory r
emains within the Vodou tradition. The more one thinks about it, the clearer it becomes that Hoffmannn proved nothing if not his own bias.”
I find myself puzzled and troubled by Simidor’s argument, especially since in most cases I am persuaded by Simidor’s historical analyses as I was recently by a different post on the Bois Caiman ceremony in which he mentions the Hoffmannn thesis in conjunction with a different analysis which Hoffmannn has offered for the same thesis.
The conclusions of why Hoffmannn’s argument is weak seem to me to rely on the highly speculative notion of : here is a theory, and the theory is not impossible, thus Hoffmannn is refuted. Hoffmannn certainly has not “proved” his position in the sense that a scientific experiment is said to prove an hypothesis. Yet the carefully considered analysis of the existing historical and literary literature which Hoffmannn presents seems much more persuasive, likely and solid that the mere speculations Simidor offers which are, as he points out, not logically impossible, yet for which virtually no reasons are given for why one would choose these speculations over the carefully argued case which Hoffmannn makes. I am truly puzzled. This seems a case of wishing something were true and grasping at straws to make it seem so.
Daniel Simidor replies to Corbett
Bob Corbett refers to my comments as “manifestly unfair to the Hoffmannn text.” The Hoffmannn piece, he says is “not an analysis of the question of Bois Caiman itself,” but “a review and analysis of the written records of it.” He then chastises me for grasping at straws and for challenging Hoffmannn’s “considered analysis of the existing historical and literary literature” with “mere speculations.” But, to paraphrase a higher authority, speculation of speculations, everything is speculation! Before taking Hoffmannn to task, I checked some of his sources. I read the relevant passages in Garran Coulon’s voluminous report and a copy of the forced confession of Francois Chapotin, one of the slaves captured during the failed attack on the Chabaud/Gallifet plantations. (I invite the reader who has not done so to please read my initial contribution on this subject, post #a1063, and also Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique’s article, post #a1112.)
A lot of the confusion around Bois Caiman is caused by the fact that most historians have collapsed two important meetings, the August 14 meeting on the Mezy plantation, and the Bois Caiman meeting one week later, into one. Hoffmannn finds suspicious that there is ample evidence of the Mezy meeting and scant information on the latter. His claim that the Bois Caiman ceremony is a myth fabricated by the malevolent Antoine Dalmas is based entirely on the Mezy plantation, and the Bois Caiman meeting one week later, into one. Hoffmannn finds suspicious that there is ample evidence of the Mezy meeting and scant information on the latter. His claim that the Bois Caiman ceremony is a myth fabricated by the malevolent Antoine Dalmas is based entirely on the mistaken belief that Dalmas is the sole primary source for the Bois Caiman story. If Corbett’s reading of Hoffmannn’s intent was accurate, then the latter would have drastically revised his findings, in order to account for the two independent accounts of the Bois Caiman ceremony pointed out by David Geggus. Hoffmannn must quite simply recant, or he must convincingly refute Geggus’ sources.
Here I make an appeal to common sense. Let us start with the accepted fact that some 200 delegates from the Plaine du Nord plantations met on August 14 and decided on a general slave uprising, for which no date was agreed upon. The Acul and Limbé blacks were short on patience; the gang on the Gallifet estate jumped the gun on the night of Aug. 17 or Aug. 20, and botched up their attempt to set the place on fire. Those captured confessed of a plot to kill all the whites. The Limbé whites decided to take their captives to the Cape to convince the Governor of the urgency of the situation. But before they could safely make their way there, the insurrection exploded with the force of a wild prairie fire. Boukman fearing that the plot was unraveling, had called his followers to the Caiman woods, on the night of the 22nd, and improvised a ceremony that was partly political agitation and partly blood rite. One thousand French men, women and children lost their lives in the space of two weeks. The white population in the Cape, including the refugees from the Plaine, took no prisoners in their defense of the city. Their bloodthirsty and unbelievable cruelty against innocent slaves and freedmen in the Cape is a matter of record. That they did not form a commission to document each step in the planning of the insurrection is only surprising to some. That the lack of a paper trail 200 years later is evidence that a particular event did not happen only seems foolish.
Against common sense, Hoffmannn would have us believe that the hateful Dalmas invented what turns out to be a traditional Dahomean blood oath. In the tradition of other white historians, he turns his back on the work of his native counterparts, and simply dismisses the weight of local and family tradition in the retention of history where the written word is not available. Why this bias? I reason that it is partly because of the ideology that Hoffmannn and many Francophile historians adhere to, namely that the Haitian revolution was the “daughter” of the French revolution. To suggest that Hoffmannn is biased or not exhaustive in his research may seem unfair, but it is a fact. Even Marxist historians, like Etienne Charlier and CLR James, ascribed to the notion that the slaves could not “spontaneously” rise up to such a heightened state of rebellion by themselves, and that the French revolution was the catalyst, the “revolutionary situation,” that brought first the settlers, then the freedmen of color, and finally the blacks into motion. It wasn’t until Jean Fouchard’s work on the maroons that it became accepted that the slaves had their own tradition of struggle, their own aspiration to independence, and that they as a class held a separate agenda from the other classes in the colony.
P.S. For those who do not read French, here is the translation of a footnote on Bois Caiman from Etienne Charlier’s book, “Apercu sur la formation historique de la Nation haitienne” (p. 49) published half a century ago:
“Cecile Fatiman, the wife of Louis Michel Pierrot, who led a black battalion at Vertieres and later became president of Haiti, took part in the Bois Caiman ceremony: she was a mambo [Vodou priestess]. The daughter of an African woman and of a Corsican prince, Cecile Fatiman was a mulatto with green eyes and long black silky hair, who was sold into slavery with her mother in Saint Domingue. The mother also had two sons who disappeared without a trace on the auction block. Cecile Fatiman lived in the Cape until the age of 112, in full possession of her mental ability.
“We hold this information from General Pierre Benoit Rameau, the grandson of Louis Michel Pierrot and his wife, who gave us permission to publish it. General Rameau is one of our national heroes, but he is seldom mentioned, probably because he is alive and therefore cumbersome. It is a fact that when the North American military intervention took place in 1915, he was fighting in the North as a leader of Rosalvo Bobo’s forces. Loyal to Bobo in spite of the invader’s alluring offers, he opposed the Convention militarily, which earned him eleven years in jail and the subtilization of his wealth.
“With the greatest indiff
erence, the Haitian of today, this curious byproduct of our glorious past, watches this old man go by, with his grandeur from a different era deserving of our respect. In his crude French, he expressed an implacable logic and the highest sense of virtue, in this reply to the occupant who wanted to buy him: “Your 100,000 dollars cannot supply to my honor, Captain Waller!” Toussaint Louverture, Dessalines and the leaders of 1804 did not speak more elegantly. Rameau’s encounter with Waller and Admiral Caperton took place in September 1915, in Dattes, Gonaives, in the house of Mr. Desert and in the presence of Mr. Woel, US Consul and father to Mr. Gaston Woel.”