The slave trade to Saint Domingue (modern day Haiti) ended more than a half-century earlier than that to Brazil or Cuba, and Haiti did not experience the post-slavery contact with Africa that later brought the Shango and Kumina cults to Trinidad and Jamaica. However, the large proportion of Africans in its population when the French were expelled in 1803, and the weakness of countervailing religious traditions in the country before as well as afterwards, help explain why voodoo became the majority religion of Haiti. Africans made up well over half of the non-white population in the 1790s. Between the expulsion of the Jesuits in the 1760s and the ending of the schism with the Vatican in 1860, efforts to Christianize the black population were minimal.
Nevertheless, Catholic priests and at least the sacrament of baptism enjoyed notable prestige among many slaves in the late colonial period. The comfortable living made by renegade French and Hispanic priests after Independence also points to a continuing demand for Christian ritual among the rural population. Moreover, many of the Central Africans who bulked so large in the slave population arrived in Saint Domingue with a superficial familiarity with Christianity, the product of centuries of missionary influence, primarily Portuguese and Italian. Besides complicating the concept of acculturation in the New World, this factor must have facilitated the combining of Catholic ritual with African rites and theology that characterizes voodoo.
None of these scholars has paid much attention to the surviving linguistic evidence relating to the religious practices of Saint Domingue’s slaves, and to their links with Africa. In this article, I propose to focus initially on two religious chants, preserved in works published in 1797 and 1814. Together they constitute an important part of the little that is known about the religious world of the slaves who created Haiti.
The first chant appeared in Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry’s description de Saint-Domingue, compiled in the late 1780s. A creole lawyer, Médéric Louis Élie Moreau recorded what he had learned, largely second-hand it seems, about an ecstatic snake cult he called le Vaudoux. The cult was long-established in the colony and associated in particular with the Aja-Fon ethnic group that the colonists called “Arada.” Arada blacks maintained the religion’s “rules and principles.” According to Médéric Louis Élie Moreau the word vaudoux meant “omnipotent, supernatural being.” In the Fon language, the word vodu indeed refers to a supernatural being, and modern scholars have long identified the Aja-Fon culture of Togo and Dahomey (modern Benin) as the dominant influence in twentieth-century voodoo. Among its several component cults, the most important remain Rada. The worship of live snakes appears to have died out in Haiti around the end of the nineteenth-century, but one of the voodoo’s principal deities remains the Python Damballah-Wedo. Whydah, in modern Benin, was both a main port of departure for slaves transported to Saint Domingue and the home of a local, and still extant, snake cult. It seemed to Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry the most probable source of vaudoux. The magistrate also associated vaudoux with Saint Domingue’s western province, and it was there that Arada slaves were most numerous in the late eighteenth-century.
Médéric Louis Élie Moreau observed that vaudoux might be performed publicly as a dance, and that European influences were sometimes incorporated, but that in its “pure and primitive” form it was always practised in secret. A priest and priestess acted as intermediaries between devotees and a divinized live snake. Supplicants made offerings and requests to it — seeking usually “the ability to control their masters’ mind,” but also money, romance, and good health. Acting as an oracle, the priestess replied in a convulsive trance. Ceremonies ended with participants dancing and becoming possessed by a violent frenzy communicated from the snake via the priest and priestess. Though whites and free coloured police were known to have spied on ceremonies, an oath, sometimes sealed with goat’s blood, bound all participants to secrecy on pain of death. Cult leaders wielded formidable control over their followers, which Médéric Louis Élie Moreau considered of great potential danger. Sects additionally acted as friendly societies, giving aid to members in need.
When a new member was to be initiated, an “African song” was sung in call and response fashion that sent the neophyte into a possession trance. Médéric Louis Élie Moreau himself did not know its meaning. In the best-known study of the ‘Haitian Revolution,’ Cyril Lionel Robert James supplied the following translation: “We swear to destroy the whites and all that they possess; let us die rather than fail to keep this vow.” However, this is quite incorrect. Cyril Lionel Robert James transferred these words, without attribution, from Léon de Bercy’s ‘De Saint-Domingue,’ (1814), where they applied to a rather different chant, though again incorrectly. Fanciful interpretations were also put forward by members of the Haitian Indigenist movement in the 1940s. Some claimed that the refrain was a revolutionary creed that originated with the maroon band of Télémaque Canga. Others thought it was an Arawak war cry adopted by rebellious blacks and given the meaning “Liberty or death!”
Over-concentration on Voodoo’s links to Dahomey has for long obscured the identity of this chant in the literature on Saint Domingue. However, earlier translations have appeared. In a study of the Kongo kingdom, the Africanist Jean Cuvelier identified the language of the chant and rendered it as “Oh Mbumba snake / Stop the blacks / Stop the white man / Stop the ndoki / Stop them.” Aimé Fernand David Césaire then used it in his ‘Toussaint Louverture,’ gratuitously placing these words in the mouths of the rebels of 1791. While this piece of poetic licence went unnoticed, the translation was criticised by R. Bourgeois in the journal Présence Africaine. Having consulted with speakers of modern Kiyome (a dialect of Kikongo), he proposed instead: “Oh beneficent spirit (or Mbùmba) / Open up the blacks’ minds / Stop (or exterminate) the European / Stop (or exterminate) this sorcerer / Stop (or exterminate) him.” R. Bourgeois stated that Mbùmba did not mean “snake,” and that he did not think voodoo was a snake cult. “Stop the blacks” seemed to him a nonsensical statement on the part of slaves organizing a rebellion.
R. Bourgeois obviously did not realise that in Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry’s account the chant was indeed associated with a snake cult, and with an initiation ceremony, not a rebellion. Mbùmba, in fact, was a very old Kongo deity with a large number of attributes. Karl Edvard Laman, the great Kongo ethnologist of the early twentieth-century, described it as well-known and feared. “Mbumba is used generally as a means of protection against the influence of and evil deeds of wicked spirits and bandoki […] to paralyze those having evil designs.” He noted its connection with causing and curing disease, and with the Bankimba (Bakhimba) secret society in Mayombe, where a goat was sacrificed in making a Mbùmba sculpture. Although Karl Edvard Laman thought the deity was originally derived from a type of otter, his dictionary lists among the word’s meanings: “rainbow,” “secret,” and “calabash of the nkisi Simbi.”
The Kongo word for Python is mboma. Several sources list mbámba as a smaller type of snake. Mbùmba itself does not mean a snake, but the deity Mbùmba Luangu that was worshipped in the Bankimba society was, in fact, a rainbow-serpent, similar to the Aja Aido-Hwedo. It was both a rainbow and a great snake that lived near the water’s edge. Though Karl Edvard Laman, following William Bentley, thought Bankimba was a fairly recent development, its connection with Mbùmba went back at least to the mid-seventeenth-century. The Dutch traveller Olfert Dapper noted that Bomba was a major deity at Loango on the coast west of the Mayombe highlands, and he described the Cymbo-Bomba initiation ceremony, with its wild dancing and drumming. Writing in the 1960s, Albert Doutreloux described Mbùmba as a formerly important deity, presiding over many rituals, including female and male initiation, and represented by various objects, including the rainbow. Its cult had been centred in the coastal states north of the mouth of the River Zaire.
As Karl Edvard Laman’s comments suggest, Mbùmba seems to have been known in other parts of the Kongo region besides Mayombe and the Loango coast but was not necessarily identified as a rainbow-serpent. In some places, it was the name of the creator god, more often identified as Nzambi or Bunzi. Joseph Van Wing, who worked among the east Kongo, recorded the widespread use of the name in popular sayings and ritual. He thought it sometimes an honorific title applied to all supernatural forces inhabiting an nkisi (fetish), and that it always implied the idea of mystery. Finally, in the Cuban Bantu cult of Palo Monte Mayombe, Mbùmba Mamba appears as an aquatic deity sometimes represented as a snake. One can conclude that, of the thousands of “Congo” slaves who arrived each year in Saint Domingue during the later eighteenth-century, a large number would have brought with them in their mental universe a deity called Mbùmba, and that its representation as a snake may have been familiar to many.