In January 2010, following a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that killed 100,000 people, TV evangelist Pat Robertson attributed the calamities that Haiti had suffered throughout history to the fact that Haitians had sworn a pact with the devil long ago. (citation) In doing so, Robertson was the latest in a long line of Christian preachers and political leaders (dating back to the time of Christopher Columbus) who have perceived devilish, demonic, or thoroughly evil characteristics in the non-Christian spiritualities of the Americas. Robertson went on to compare the seeming prosperity of the Dominican Republic (for tourists only) with the poverty of Haiti.
On August 14, 1791, a performance of the voodoo ceremony of Bois Caiman in the island of Haiti changed the course of American history. A black pig was sacrificed and its blood was drunk by ritual participants, who became leaders of the first successful slave revolt in the New World (Ned Sublette, Cuba and Its Music, 2004). The Haitian slave rebellion was preceded historically by numerous slave uprisings in the West Indies, Brazil and North America. The specter of future successful slave rebellions presented an immediate, international threat to European colonial powers in the New World.
Occurring within the context of the political events that followed the French Revolution, the Haitian insurrection forged an enduring myth. On the one hand, the dark side of the myth was propagated by French immigrants from Saint-Domingue who fled to the nearby islands of Cuba, Jamaica and Puerto Rico to escape the terror of the uprising:
“These exiles brought with them not only the passepied and the contredanse, the powdered wig and the Parisian dress… but also terrible stories of rape, murder, looting and destruction which were enough to keep Cuban planters from giving an inch to the slaves for nearly a hundred years.” (Hugh Thomas, Cuba, 1971.)
On the other, the Haitian revolt perpetuated a shining myth of freedom and a lasting dream of triumph against colonial rule amongst American creoles. Haiti gave to history the immortal names of Batouk, Toussaint and Dessalines. It was to Haiti that Simón Bolivar retreated in 1815 to gather his forces for the final liberation of South America; it was from Haiti that José Martí sailed in 1895 to free Cuba from Spanish rule.
Did Sitting Bull compact with the devil by performing a Sun Dance that helped him defeat the U.S. Cavalry at Little Big Horn? Did the South lose the Civil War because Stonewall Jackson read the Bible? If there is ever an enduring economic catastrophe in the United States, would it dampen the glory of Gettysburg, or lessen the poetic geographies that Walt Whitman discovered in Leaves of Grass? Would it make the poems of Emily Dickinson any less angelic?
Put aside the “diabolical identification of success in life with profits” (Bernard Shaw, Preface to Back to Methuselah) evident in Robertson’s remarks; what was surprising—in a famous Christian preacher—was his ignorance of basic contractual demonology.