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Examining the Haitian Revolution

If there is a voodoo ceremony in the woods and no one writes it down, did it happen? Whether it happened or not is beside the point, says Daniel Desormeaux, William D. and Robin Mayer Professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. Secrecy is a key part of Haitian history. He has been interested in the political history of secrets, especially secrets surrounding the Haitian Revolution, for decades.  

If history is…the revelation or discovery of hidden, or lost, collective written words from the past, that of the slave is the burying of this same collective, unwritten words by any means necessary.”

—Daniel Desormeaux, William D. and Robin Mayer Professor

Varying Haitian Revolution narratives

The Haitian Revolution is fascinating to historians and non-historians alike, because it is the only successful revolt of its kind. Between 1791 and 1804 there was ongoing conflict between the enslaved people (alongside free mulattoes, or “affranchis”) of what was then called St. Domingue, and colonists and the French and British armies. The revolutionaries overthrew French rule and Napoleon’s army to become the first country founded by former slaves. 

Beyond these basic facts, narratives of the revolution vary. The first written accounts, by French colonists, downplayed the revolution or maligned the revolutionaries. The earliest Haitian-written history focused on written records from generals and military strategists. It whitewashed the revolution to look more “civilized” in European eyes. Desormeaux is particularly interested in another common narrative, which attributes the success of the rebellion to voodoo. It includes a mysterious voodoo ceremony at a site called Bois Caïman. Some say the event, named after the site, incited the 1791 slave revolt and gave the Haitians powers from African gods. To Desormeaux’s thinking, none of these versions are fully correct. But they show how multiple parties used voodoo, and secrets, to create alternative histories. 

When Bois Caïman happened, it was already a secret,” he says. “After it happened, the colonies tried to hide it or displace it. You start to bury what happened under layers of conscious misinterpretation.” 

We will never know exactly what happened, but Desormeaux hopes his work shows the revolutionaries were no fools. His graduate seminar, Voodoo and Literature, examines how voodoo has been misrepresented since the revolution. And, why stories about voodoo are so pervasive. Voodoo might not have been magic or evil, but it was a primary form of communication for enslaved people, Desormeaux contends. Voodoo gatherings were the only time they could congregate across plantations. They could pass secrets in plain view of their enslavers. 

Sharing lost stories

Desormeaux hopes to see less focus on voodoo in future scholarly work, and more that examines the lost stories of those who fought. He says their stories are complex: they had talent as riders, bushcraft, and communicators. The French Revolution motivated both enslaved people and affranchis. They also knew the mountainous landscape and had skills the colonists underestimated. 

Desormeaux’s earlier research has already made an impact. He found, translated, and published the first edition of Haitian Revolution General Toussaint Louverture’s handwritten revolution memoirs in 2011. He is currently working on projects examining ulterior motives of historians of the Haitian revolution, and the impact of cartography on the war. 

“If you don’t understand that part, there’s no way you can understand how they [could] defeat the Napoleonic army. There was an underground,” he says. “History seems to focus on the big figures and not on the small figures.” 

But the lure of voodoo and secrets is still strong. Within days of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse’s assassination in summer 2021, Desormeaux started seeing new, mystical theories from as far as Brazil refuting what happened. If you can appropriate anything as voodoo, he says, there are always people who will try to tell the story differently.