Vodou in the Early Republic: More Questions Than Answers

Our guest post today is by John Davies, an adjunct assistant professor in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University. His article, "Taking Liberties: Saint-Dominguan Slaves and Masters in Philadelphia, 1791-1805," will be appearing in Commodification, Community, and Comparison in Slave Studies, ed. Jeff Forret and Christine E. Sears (under contract with Louisiana State University Press).

By John Davies

On May 7, 1800, Calypso, a woman "aged about 30 years" from the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue, was baptized in [Old] St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia. With her baptism, she took the name Mary Claudia Calypso.[1] Calypso was one of over 800 free and enslaved Dominguans of African descent who arrived in Pennsylvania between 1789 and 1810 during the violent social, political, and cultural transformation that we know today as the Haitian Revolution. During this period, roughly 25,000 Dominguans made their way to the United States, settling largely (though not exclusively) in port cities from New Orleans to Savannah to Boston. Of that number, perhaps 4000 were free people of African descent, and at least another 6000 arrived as slaves.

Like Calypso, many Dominguans of African descent in Philadelphia embraced the Roman Catholic faith. Nor was such activity confined to Philadelphia. A famous example would be Pierre Toussaint, who arrived in New York City in 1797 as a slave, remaining in the service of his mistress until her death in 1807, and supporting the Church through his faith and actions until his death in 1853. Currently, the Roman Catholic Church is considering Toussaint for sainthood.

But did Dominguans of African descent who remained in the United States also practice Vodou? A perceptive audience member asked me this at a 2013 SHEAR panel. Since I had argued that migrants in Philadelphia were invested in a French, Roman Catholic identity, I answered "no," a response that was met with polite skepticism. The existence of Vodou in nineteenth-century New Orleans was suggested as evidence to the contrary.

Finding the place of Vodou in the early republic presents problems of definition and problems of sources and evidence relating to the practice of Vodou and the experiences of Dominguan migrants. In considering these issues, I stand by my interpretation of the evidence for Philadelphia, and now agree that Vodou may have been practiced in Dominguan communities elsewhere in the United States; however, there is much that remains unclear.

Although an apter local term, one more reflective of one of the religion's central functions, would be "sèvis lwa"  (spirit service), in Haiti the term "Vodou" has long been accepted by practitioners as the identifier of their faith tradition, one rooted in an amalgam of West and Central African religious beliefs and practices and folk Catholicism. The spirits include both ancestors as well as deities, the latter of whom are associated with Roman Catholic saints. The form of Vodou ceremonies varies. Believers might gather to call the spirits through drumming and dancing. In this way an ecstatic connection with the spirit, akin to possession, is attempted, through which the spirit might interact with the ceremony's participants. Ceremonies might be led by a male or female religious leader, but this is not always the case.[2] Condemned by Haitian authorities until the late twentieth century, and long misunderstood by American and European commentators and observers (as seen in equating "voodoo" with sex, violence, and black magic), practitioners of Vodou brought their religion to other parts of the Caribbean, to the United States, and to Canada during the Haitian diaspora of the twentieth century.[3]

But to what extent did the flight of enslaved Dominguans during the Haitian Revolution see an earlier introduction of Vodou to the United States? Knowing more about the content of Vodou in the 1790s, whether the religion still "bore a much more African character" or was fully "[engaged] . . . in Haitian temporal affairs and history," would be helpful in answering that question.[4] Related to this is the issue of connections between Dominguan/Haitian Vodou and other African-American folk religions.

This is because of the West and Central African foundations of both African-American and Dominguan/Haitian religion, as seen with the connections and similarities among Haitian Vodou, New Orleans Voodoo, and African-American Hoodoo.[5] Drawing out such connections is beyond the scope of this post. It is interesting to note, however, that just as the free and enslaved persons of African descent in New Orleans who gathered for music and dancing and community built upon traditional African forms, enslaved Africans and African Americans in Philadelphia did the same a century earlier. Through much of the eighteenth century, slaves would gather in Southeast (today, Washington) Square, and, as a chronicler of Philadelphia reported, "[in] that field could be seen at once more than one thousand of both sexes, divided into numerous little squads, dancing, and singing, 'each in their own tongue,' after the customs of their several nations in Africa."[6] The dancers reportedly gathered "to honor and celebrate their ancestors, and to leave gifts at the graves of their loved ones." Before the arrival of Dominguan migrants, then, religious practices of African derivation already existed in Philadelphia. Similarly, New Orleans did not require Dominguan migrants for "Voodoo" to emerge there; Dominguan migrants arrived in a city where some form of "their" religion--assuming that they were Vodouists--already existed and was relatively public. 

Which brings us to the question of sources and evidence. Many Dominguan migrants of African descent have slipped through the historical cracks, leaving behind little or no information. I have found no sources that describe Calypso's religious life either before or after her baptism; I cannot even be sure of the barest biographical details of her life.[7] Yet for Philadelphia, at least, a range of sources--Roman Catholic sacramental records and confraternity rolls, court documents, the minutes of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, directories and censuses--provide a sense of the collective experience of these migrants, even if specific details for individuals are lacking. None of these sources make mention of activities that can be directly linked to Vodou; they do suggest, however, how difficult it would have been to freely serve the spirits. Enslaved Dominguans often lived in close proximity to their masters, while some were often moved about the city. Court dockets record many instances of adolescent males and females who, time and again, fled their masters, only to be eventually caught. Could they have been doing so to meet and participate in Vodou ceremonies? Where would they have met? Would not civil authorities or private citizens report such activities? 

The familiarity of Vodou and the existence of prior African-based religious practice in Philadelphia could have appealed to both free and enslaved Dominguans of African descent. Yet the evidence strongly suggests that they were invested in the Catholic faith. While some scholars have argued that many enslaved Dominguans wore Christianity like a mask, this does not seem to have been the case in early nineteenth-century Philadelphia.[8] Witnessing baptisms and weddings, participating in the sacrament of marriage itself, and membership in confraternities was, if not a full acceptance of Catholicism, at least engagement in a process of religious creolization. In these rituals and practices, men and women from Saint-Domingue (perhaps women even more so) found Catholicism a source of not only religious, but also social and cultural fulfillment, much as women in eighteenth-century New Orleans did.[9] Enslaved and free Dominguans of African descent in Wilmington, Delaware and Baltimore, Maryland also expressed their dedication to the Catholic faith through service to the Church.

Slippery definitions and suggestive evidence: With these things in mind, I would qualify the answer I gave at SHEAR. Vodou did not have a significant presence in Dominguan migrant communities in Philadelphia. It may have been found in other cities such as New Orleans, but the distinction between Haitian Vodou and other African-based popular religions must be more clearly defined. The question is worth pursuing, though, even if it must be expanded: What belief systems spoke to the spiritual and religious needs of black Dominguans in the United States? What did these systems have in common with those followed by black and white Americans? How might we learn more about these systems, and about the experiences of their believers?

[1] Gary B. Nash, "Reverberations of Haiti in the American North: Black Saint Dominguans in Philadelphia," Pennsylvania History: Explorations in Early American Culture 65 (1998): 71 n. 65; Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia XVII (1906): 466.
[2] Patrick Bellegarde-Smith and Claudine Michel, "Introduction," in Haítían Vodou: Spirit, Myth, and Reality, Bellegarde-Smith and Michel, eds., (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), xix-xxi; Kate Ramsey, The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 6-9.
[3] Ramsey, Spirits and the Law; Adam M. McGee, "Haitian Vodou and Voodoo: Imagined Religion and Popular Culture," Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 41, no. 231 (originally published online 25 April 2012): 231-256.
[4] Alfred Métraux, Voodoo in Haiti, Hugo Charteris, trans., (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), 40; Bellegarde-Smith "The Spirit of the Thing: Religious Thought and Social/Historical Memory" Fragments of Bone: Neo-African Religions in a New World, Bellegarde-Smith, ed., (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 53.
[5] Katrina Hazzard-Donald, Mojo Workin': The Old African American Hoodoo System (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013).
[6] John Fanning Watson, Annals of Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania, in the Olden Time, Willis P. Hazard, ed., (Philadelphia: E. S. Stuart, 1891), 265. With thanks to Terry Rey for the information on Washington Square's history.
[7] On November 8, 1793, in accordance with Pennsylvania law, Joseph Jean Baptiste Philip Antoine freed an enslaved Dominguan named Calypso, with Calypso then indenturing herself for a period of 12 years service to Antoine. References to this Calypso can also be found in Philadelphia criminal justice records. But due to the discrepancy in recorded ages, I cannot be certain that this is the same Calypso baptized in 1800. Manumission Book A, 207; Vagrant Docket.
[8] Michel, "Of Worlds Seen and Unseen: The Educational Character of Haitian Vodou," Haitian Vodou, 32-45.
[9] For New Orleans, see Emily Clark and Virginia Meacham Gould, "The Feminine Face of Afro-Catholicism in New Orleans, 1727-1852," The William and Mary Quarterly 59, no. 2, (April, 2002): 409-448.


Carol Faulkner said…
John, thank you for this fascinating post! Also, I want to let everyone else know that I first became acquainted with John thru the RiAH facebook page. Hurray for social media!
Unknown said…
Well argued on a neat topic.

FWIW, the Vodou term "zombie" first appeared in its present sense in late 18th C. Saint-Domingue. By 1872, it was popular enough among black servants in the U.S. South to warrant inclusion in a book of "Americanisms." One could argue the idea developed spontaneously in different locations. Since the term does not appear in the U.S. until after 1804, I think it's more likely the presence of zombies in the southern states reflects the influence of the Haitian diaspora.

So that's one way to answer your question, perhaps.
John Davies said…
Thanks, Carol, for the opportunity to write this post. Sorting through these issues of definitions, sources, and evidence has been both challenging and enlightening, especially as I had more or less dismissed the question of popular religion in relation to the migrants and refugees that I have been studying.

In preparing my last draft, I accidentally deleted much-needed acknowledgments. Along with my thanks to Carol, I would also like to thank Christine Sears and Terry Rey for reading previous versions of this post. Terry was also very generous in sharing advice and opinions. The fifth paragraph’s discussion of Haitian Vodou is coherent largely because of Terry’s interventions. I am, of course, responsible for any errors of content and interpretation.

Joseph, thank you for the kind words, and for your observations. While I wonder about the etymology of “zombie” and its West African roots (and thus the possibility of “[spontaneous development] in different locations” you mention), the chronology that you suggest would indicate more of a Haitian influence.

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