August 28, 2021
From Marxist Update

Haiti: Capitalism, colonialism, and zombies. Reading notes on

Zombies: A Cultural History by Roger Luckhurst

Reading notes on

Zombies: A Cultural History by Roger Luckhurst (Reaktion Books, 2015)

2 Phantom Haiti

….This longer historical perspective on Haiti in the Western imagination offers the broader context for now concentrating on the crucial years in which the Caribbean zombi translated and transformed into the zombie in American culture.

…. Under slavery, Vodou operated secretly in defiance of the Code Noir. But even after independence, the ruling elite in Port-au-Prince tended to regard Vodou practices as a peasant superstition that blocked progress and development towards modern statehood, adopting a European Enlightenment model of the nation. It was only in the 1920s that leftist political intellectuals like the anthropologist Jean Price-Mars suggested that Vodou could form the basis of a new indigenous national identity in Haiti. Most anti-colonial thinkers – like Fanon – continued to regard superstitious belief as a regressive force, a marker of subjection, not liberation.

    Secret and disavowed before and after independence, Vodou steadily acquired a monstrous and phantasmal status in nineteenth-century travel writing. Vaudoux was an elusive cult mentioned only marginally before 1850 (and not at all in Thomas Madiou’s four-volume history of the republic, published in 1848).3 Yet it started to be the defining element of the Haitian republic in the 1850s, when the politics of race and slavery became incendiary during the American Civil War. In this context, an independent black state only a little bit further away than the American slave states in the South required ideological demonization by the enemies of abolition. Black autonomy had to indicate depravity and credulity. When the ex-slave and soldier Faustin Soulouque became president of Haiti in 1847 and ruled as Emperor Faustin I between 1849 and 1859, Haiti was portrayed as returning to a savage African state of bestial cruelty and superstition. It was emphasized that Soulouque was a ‘pure’ black African who had massacred the mulatto ruling elite in Port-au-Prince on coming to power, eliminating the last traces of white influence. The scientific racism of Count Gobineau’s notorious Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853–5) used Haiti as the exemplar of race degeneration. A lurid depiction of this savage state, Soulouque and His Empire, was published by Gustave d’Alaux in French in 1856 and translated into English in 1861. Towards the end of the American Civil War, there was also propagandistic use of the Bizoton Affair, a trial in a place near Port-au-Prince that appeared definitively to link Vaudoux with human sacrifice and cannibalism, the basest marker of savagery imaginable in Western thought. This was hugely important in further darkening the reputation of Haiti.

    A detailed account of the Bizoton trial was published in English in Spenser St John’s Hayti; or, The Black Republic in 1884, some twenty years after the fact, suggesting the story still carried a lot of cultural freight. St John was a career diplomat who had served as the British consul in Haiti from 1863 to 1875. Although when in the Far East he had scandalized his fellow colonial rulers by openly acknowledging his three children with his Malay mistress, his disdain for black Haitians was absolute. In his chapter ‘Vaudoux Worship and Cannibalism’, St John suggests that the arrival of Soulouque made Vaudoux effectively the official religion of the rulers of the republic, and that this dark alliance was continued by Soulouque’s successors after he was deposed. St John detailed rituals that included ‘the adoration of the snake’, sacrifices of animals and the ‘goat without horns’ (which St John understands as meaning the sacrifice of human children). The ceremony of the snake, St John asserts, using second- and third-hand accounts, ‘is accompanied by everything horrible which delirium could imagine to render it more imposing’,4 a formulation that has no content but positively invites the reader to fantasize horrific things.

    The Bizoton trial develops directly from these stories; the record of the law is again supposed to provide objective truth value of an horrific tale. In December 1863, the court heard, the labourer Congo Pellé had sought intercession from a Vaudoux papaloi, who had demanded a human sacrifice. Congo’s niece was delivered; she was strangled, decapitated, her head cooked for soup and her flesh for a stew, with some body parts eaten raw, participants later confessed in court. The disappearance of another child in the area for a second sacrificial ritual had exposed the horrific plot.

    St John is contemptuous of the process of the court (modelled on the French, not British, system), where the fatal confession had obviously been beaten out of the defendants and testimony was whispered to the judge by those too terrified to attest in open court. Yet he points out with dogged empiricism that ‘there, on the table before the judge, was the skull of the murdered girl, and in the jar the remains of the soup and the calcined bones.’5 Eight members of the honfort were condemned to death, and St John’s account contains an intriguing last detail:

The Vaudoux priests gave out that although the deity would permit the execution, he would only do it to prove to his votaries his power by raising them all again from the dead. To prevent their bodies being carried away during the night (they had been buried near the place of execution), picquets of troops were placed round the spot; but in the morning three of the graves were found empty and the body of the two priests and the priestess had disappeared.6    Presumably, if the word had been available to him, St John would have said something about the zombi at this point, but his account never uses the term. St John rationally dismisses the story as an act of collusion with the gendarmerie, a further indication of how sunk in superstition Haiti has become. A few pages later, however, St John quotes from an official French report of 1867 about a disturbed grave and the occupant found ‘killed’ a second time, stabbed through the heart. The report hints at ‘a sleeping potion’ used to place victims in a drugged state that doctors mistake for death. After the funeral, the bodies are disinterred, killed and their body parts used in rituals. St John picks up the phrase li gagné chagrin, local Kreyòl for ‘a sort of anaemia of the mind’ that is affected by this drug. This is tantalizing, but St John offers no further details.7

….This paranoid vision of savage Haiti as a den of conniving cannibals was reproduced wholesale during the American occupation. Richard Loederer’s Voodoo Fire in Haiti, for instance, published in New York in 1935, is breathless about ‘secret cults, black magic, and human sacrifices’. These have been woven into the thread of the black republic from the beginning, Loederer claims, explaining that ‘from out of these sexual orgies grew the atavistic impulse towards cannibalism.’24 A native informant has told him the story of the Bizoton Affair, now sensationally retitled ‘the “Congo Bean Stew” trial’. This material is clearly just lifted from St John’s 50-year-old book. Another invented informant is given the words of William Seabrook, which shows how quickly the older cannibal fantasy started to incorporate zombies in the 1930s where they had been entirely absent before: ‘Voodoo is strong; stronger even than death. The Papaloi can raise the dead. He breathes life into corpses who get up and behave like men. These creatures are bound forever to their master’s will. They are called “zombies.”’25 From very early on in America’s engagement, the depiction of Haiti is largely a palimpsest of recycled textual fantasy.

    Another example of this American view was John Houston Craige, a U.S. Marine who was transferred to train the Haitian police force for three years and published Cannibal Cousins in 1935. Rebellion and Vodou are as usual tied together in Craige’s sketch of the republic, and Vodou is routinely associated with cannibalism from the earliest days of independence. Craige records a general disbelief of these stories among American Marines, but cites the legal case against Papa Cadeus, who had been an important figure in the Cacos Rebellion against the American occupiers, and a Vodou papaloi long rumoured to use cannibalistic rituals involving the ‘Goat without Horns’. Craige reports (second hand) that human bones had been found buried around the Cadeus honfort, and that the priest had been sentenced to death by the court in the early 1920s, a judgement foolishly commuted at a time when the Americans were under scrutiny for their own alleged atrocities. In a later chapter titled ‘Doctor Faustus, Cannibal’, Craige charts the ‘marvellous tale’ of a lowly black peasant from Marbeuf who rises to become the chief of police in Port-au-Prince by virtue of his deal with a Vodou priest.26 It is said, Craige reports, that his rise came at the cost of the sacrifice of one baby a year for over 40 years. This is recirculated gossip: a patina of savagery rubs off, and even if untrue it serves to abject Haitians as credulous fools for believing such a story. It also deflected any critical attention from the organized political and guerrilla opposition to the occupation.27

    This demonization continued long into the post-occupation era, particularly under the dictatorship of François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier (who came to power in 1957), in part because this brutal regime carefully cultivated fear and obedience among the population by associating Duvalier with Vodou and occult secret societies. Duvalier, who trained in medicine, was closely associated with the scholar of Vodou Lorimer Denis and they co-wrote the study The Gradual Evolution of Vodou. In the 1960s, when gruesome news of Duvalier’s atrocities began to circulate (helpful material in an era of violent anti-colonial wars against Western powers), the details mixed atrocity, Vodou and supernatural doings in the presidential palace. After a failed rebellion in 1963, Duvalier was alleged to have ordered the leader’s ‘head to be cut off, packed in ice and brought to the palace in an Air Force plane. News spread around Port au Prince that Papa Doc was having long sessions with the head; that he had induced it to disclose the exiles’ plans.’28 Through stories of sorcery, Duvalier became associated with the Guédé lwa, the Vodou spirits who preside over death and the cemetery, and he deliberately dressed to echo the signature style of Baron Samedi in a black hat, dark glasses and funeral suit: a figure to preside over a funeral. In an odd feedback loop, Duvalier survived by exploiting American fantasies of Haitian cannibalism and supernaturalism, reimporting them to terrorize his own population….

     In the 1980s, cannibalistic fantasies specifically about Haiti returned again, this time with catastrophic humanitarian consequences. In the very early years of the AIDS pandemic, it was a common speculation that the syndrome was invading American shores through African or Caribbean carriers. Signs of the syndrome were particularly rife in the immigrant Haitian population in New York. In 1982, AIDS was considered ‘an epidemic Haitian virus’ and a year later the association with ‘Voodoo practices’ was first made.32 In 1986, the august Journal of the American Medical Association published a letter from a doctor voicing the hypothesis that those attending Vodou rituals ‘may be unsuspectingly infected with AIDS by ingestion, inhalation or dermal contact with contaminated ritual substances, as well as by sexual activity’, citing Wade Davis as the sole authority. The journal titled the contribution ‘Night of the Living Dead II’.33 The drinking of blood invoked four centuries of an association with the eating of flesh, cannibalism and magic. The high incidence of AIDS among Haitians, one reporter declared, was ‘a clue from the grave, as though a zombie, leaving a trail of unwinding gauze bandages and rotting flesh’ had appeared at the doors of the hospital.34 There was no recognition that it was sexual tourism between America and the Caribbean that was the most obvious source of infection.

    For the historian Laënnec Hurbon, Haiti and its Vodou practices have long been sites of American projection, places where travellers ‘find in Vodou their own fantasies’.35 It is generally agreed that while ritual anthropophagy (the eating of human flesh) can occur in highly ritualized circumstances, the ‘cannibal’ is an invention of colonial discourse. What testimonies of Vodou rituals involving the eating of flesh are most likely to be are literalizations of highly metaphorical practices. Vodou is, after all, a practice of possession and dispossession, of roles and masks, where one thing stands in for or displaces another and the metaphysical transposition of identities is at the core of events (just as the transubstantiation of the ‘body of Christ’ is at the heart of Christian ritual). In a discussion of the Kreyòl term mangé moun (‘eating man’), Erika Bourguignon noted its extremely flexible metaphorical range in Haiti, where greed and envy, domination and control were translated into talk of oral aggression or acts of devouring, and the metaphorical transpositions of animal and human flesh.36 Deftness in both language and ritual practice outwits leaden visitors, particularly if they filter what is witnessed through a pre-prepared grid of interpretations about ‘savages’, witch-doctors or cannibals….