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Boukman’s voodoo ceremony at Bois Caiman
TRIBUTE TO INDEPENDENCE – Part four
Dutty BOUKMAN and Alexandre PETION
“Unsung Heroes of the Haitian Revolution”
There were many men and women who played vital roles during the Haitian Revolution, and two individuals whose roles may have been overlooked by the tellers of stories and the writers of history, are Dutty Boukman, the papaloa or voodoo priest, and Alexandre Petion, who fought side-by-side with Henri Christophe. Boukman and Petion may be considered the alpha and omega of the revolution; it began with Boukman and Petion became president of the Republic of Haiti (South) while Christophe ruled the North as King Christophe.
(NOTE: Since it was Dessalines who renamed Saint-Domingue “Haiti” after he defeated the French and became the leader, both names are used here interchangeably. For example: prior to and during the Boukman-led revolt, the country was Saint-Domingue; the same time frame would apply to Petion).
DUTTY BOUKMAN aka BOUKMAN DUTTY
Dutty Boukman was the man who started it all; he was the catalyst that began the slave revolt and literally lit the fire that struck terror into the hearts of slaves and slave-masters alike. He was the real fire-and-brimstone preacher who, late one night in August 1791, held a voodoo ceremony at the Bois Caiman (pronounced “Bwa Kayiman”) that gave meaning/life to what became known as the Haitian Revolution, and inspired Toussaint L’Ouverture (known then as Pierre Dominique Toussaint) and others to resist slavery, and to fight for their freedom.
It was believed that Boukman was born in Jamaica and sold by his British slave-master to a French plantation owner. Though born a slave, he taught himself how to read – hence, the name Boukman (a literal combination of “book” and “man”). During slavery, an educated slave was a dangerous person in the eyes of the slave-master and most educated slaves were inspired by religion. (Most preachers/voodoo priests/religious men got their education through the Bible; in Boukman’s case, it was the Qur’an. According to historical records, he was Muslim). The masses of slaves were usually drawn to religious men who had the innate ability to bring groups of slaves together; he was the “shot caller.”
Prior to being sold and probably the reason for Boukman being sold by his British master was because the slave-master learned that Boukman was teaching other slaves to read – that was a cardinal sin; that was dirty. And it was very likely that it added “Dutty” to his name. He was transported to France’s Pearl of the Antilles, Haiti, by his French master who put him to work first as a slave driver (a headman over other slaves) and then as a coach driver. There were reports that, as a headman, Boukman adopted some of the cruel ways of the slave-masters relative to the treatment of the slaves. However, the master must have recognized that Boukman was a different kind of slave, educated but dangerous; so he kept him close and literally kept his eyes on him. Of course, Boukman had other ideas of his own.
As the headman of the plantation where he served, Boukman was in a catbird seat, ideal for what he had in mind: to foment a slave uprising. So at a voodoo ceremony at the Bois Caïman, he gathered a group of slaves and called for an uprising like no other. He exhorted them to resist the French rule that profited from slave labor and to take revenge against the French oppressors. “Fight for your freedom was the rallying call!” and according to historical notes and those who described the ritual, Boukman, in the role of a houngan (priest), prophesied of a resistance movement and revolt that would free the slaves of Saint-Domingue (the name of Haiti, at that time).
Though others (Padrejean and MacKandal as the spark) had tried before him, Boukman displayed an untamable spiritual power that became the roaring fire of revolt because he was willing to give his life – which he eventually did – as a sacrifice for the cause. In addition to being one of the slaves, Boukman was described as having a large, warrior-like appearance with a fearsome temper that made him an effective leader to those who followed him and to others who ‘straddled the fence.’ He also had credibility and an authentic fervor to rally his ‘captive’ audience against the French. He demanded that slaves cast aside the image of the God of the oppressors who apparently condoned the wretchedness of their condition. Boukman told them to look toward a God that would save them and swear their loyalty to the cause of the liberation of Saint-Domingue.
The following is one version of the prose that became known as the Boukman’s Prayer that he had recited to his followers at Bois Caiman while urging them to fight to the end for their freedom. (There is some query as to its validity and authenticity). “The God who created the earth; who created the sun that gives us light. The God who holds up the ocean; who makes the thunder roar. Our God who has ears to hear. You who are hidden in the clouds; who watch us from where you are. You see all that the white has made us suffer. The White man's God asks him to commit crimes. But the God within us wants to do good. Our God, Who is so good, so just, He orders us to revenge our wrongs. It's He who will direct our arms and bring us the victory. It's He who will assist us. We all should throw away the image of the White men's God Who is so pitiless. Listen to the voice for liberty that sings in all our hearts."
Boukman’s meeting took place in the mountainous region of North Saint Domingue. He capitalized on the slaves’ resentment of their condition, of which he was one; he spoke with authority and experience. He was not describing an abstract religious philosophy which the slaves may or may not have related to. Boukman was describing their day-to-day existence at the mercy of a cruel slave-master who only saw them in terms of their work to enhance the riches of France and other White plantation owners. During the meeting, Boukman worked them into a frenzy – which was not too difficult, their condition notwithstanding – edging them on to kill all the Whites on the island. The Blacks in the North banded together in a rebellion mode, killing all the Whites they met and setting the plantations of the colony on fire. A week later, 1800 plantations had been destroyed and 1000 slaveholders killed.
Shortly after the revolt began, the French quickly identified Boukman as the leader of the slaves and captured him within a few months. They beheaded him, but only contained the rebellion in North temporarily. Though the French publicly displayed Boukman’s decapitated head to instill fear into the insurrectionists and root out the sense of invincibility that Boukman had created around himself, the rebellion continued full scale, becoming bigger and more powerful. It blossomed into the Haiti Revolution and ended with the Independence of Haiti.
Alexandre S. Pétion, like L’Ouverture, Dessalines and Christophe, is considered one of Haiti’s founding fathers. He was most closely associated with Christophe though they eventually became rivals. Petion was named the president of the Republic of Haiti in 1806, though his rule only represented the South. He was a gens de couleur (a light-skinned Blackman or mulatto), born to a Black Haitian mother and a wealthy White Frenchman. Many who fought in the Haitian Revolution resented the light-skinned Blacks because their color afforded them many privileges that were denied to the Black-skinned masses, most of whom were slaves. And traditionally, the White Europeans used that difference to maintain a wedge between both groups of Blacks.
Whereas, Black-skinned Haitians learned their military skills on the battlefields, as a privileged gens de couleur, Petion was sent to France in 1788 to be educated at a French military school – a benefit of being light-skinned/mulatto. However, Petion’s status would fluctuate out of sheer necessity and/or survival. Whites never fully accepted him and neither did Blacks. His association with any group other than gens de couleur would be one of convenience. During his sojourn in Paris, in addition to military skills, Petion also aligned himself with other mulattos and formed the Friends of the Negro. It formed a condescending rift between light-skinned and dark-skinned Blacks and created an “I’m-better-than-you” chasm between them. It also reinforced the notion that Petion initially was only interested in an alliance that would place him in a superior position.
Pétion returned to Haiti and joined the fight to expel the British from Saint-Domingue before the uprising that started in 1791. While enslaved Blacks were fighting for the right to exist – freedom and survival – Petion had the luxury of fighting to gain voting and political rights. He believed that the rights gained by the French citizens after the French Revolution in France were applicable to the gens de couleur in Saint-Domingue. But none of the European Whites (Spanish, French, British, etc.) supported freedom for slaves or political rights for gens de couleur; the Whites were fighting among themselves to be the only slave-master for all who were not White.
Miscegenation was a normal occurrence throughout the world of slavery and Haiti was no exception. That created an entire separate racial division that was exploited by Whites and by the children of those race mixtures. It created a triangle of tension. However, in Haiti, the enslaved Blacks had the longest rung of the racial triangle in terms of numbers. Understanding those dynamics, Petion usually sided with the gens de couleur. In 1799, he sided with two mulattos and went against Toussaint at Jacmel; they were unsuccessful. After their defeat, they went back to France.
Returning to Haiti three years later, Petion saw the demise of Toussaint as an opportunity to gain control of the country. But he grudgingly joined forces with Dessalines, the general who was actually in charge during his defeat at Jacmel in 1799. Petion invariably formed alliances of convenience. He aligned himself with Dessalines and Christophe against the French; then he conspired with Christophe to topple Dessalines. Finally, he and Christophe had a falling out. The end result: “two” Haitis emerged. Petion took the South, and Christophe, the North. The racial triangle of tension had now become two parallel rungs of contention.
Not only did Petion despise Christophe’s autocratic rule, but he also had some reservations of his own. His rejection of Toussaint’s leadership back in 1799 seemed to indicate that since he was a sans de couleur, who had been educated in France’s military school, he should always be in charge over slaves and former slaves – the less fortunate Blacks. And after being defeated, Petion returned, aligned with the French, in an effort to take over.
As President of the southern part of Haiti, Petion instituted land distribution as rewards to those who had help him and also put in place methods of plantation reforms aimed at creating a self-sustaining agriculture base in the South. The land seizures and changes in agriculture dealt a serious blow to the export-economy, as it made most of the population full subsistence farmers that cause a decline in exports and state-revenue. Some of his domestic policies were contrary to his external actions: he supported democracy and assisted Simon Bolivar in his liberation efforts in Northern part of South America providing equipment to the insurgents, which ultimately aided Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia. Yet, when his political position was threatened, he suspended the legislature and made himself president for life.
However, Petion believed in the importance of education and started the Lycée Pétion in Port-au-Prince, and shared whenever possible his virtues, and ideals of freedom and democracy for the world. Petionville was named in his honor. He died from yellow fever in 1818.