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Haiti’s ‘deal with the Devil’: The malicious tale that emerges every crisis

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It comes up every time Haiti suffers a crisis.

Take 2010, when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake shook Port-au-Prince flat, killing some 220,000 people. Aftershocks were still rattling the capital when Pat Robertson took to the Christian Broadcasting Network to pinpoint the disaster’s cause.

“Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it,” the televangelist turned seismologist told viewers of “The 700 Club,” his news and talk show. “They were under the heel of the French … and they got together and swore a pact to the Devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French.’”

Robertson continued, “True story. And so the Devil said, ‘Okay, it’s a deal.’ But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another.”

Robertson, who died last year, might not have been the most reliable authority: He endorsed the claim that feminists and gay people were responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and predicted, at various points, the imminent arrival of an Earth-destroying asteroid, “something like” a terrorist nuclear strike on the United States, and a Mitt Romney presidency.

But he didn’t invent the tale of Haiti’s supposed deal with the Devil. Versions of it have been circulating for centuries.

In its current form, according to the Yale scholar Marlene Daut, the claim has been around for at least 30 years, popular among evangelicals intent on spreading their interpretation of Christianity in the Caribbean country. (I first heard it from a group of young American missionaries in Port-au-Prince in early 2004 — another turbulent moment for Haiti, with a rebel uprising in the countryside, deadly violence in the capital and the flight of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile.)

But it goes back much further than that, to what many historians believe was a real event: a clandestine assembly of Africans in 1791 plotting against their European enslavers in what was then the French colony of Saint-Domingue. As practitioners of Vodou, the admixture of West African and Catholic beliefs indigenous to the country, they sacrificed an animal.

The gathering has been misrepresented by frightened White people ever since.

Now, as criminal violence in Haiti spikes, its embattled prime minister prepares to step down and the United States tries once again to stand up a new government, the tale is resurfacing — aided, this time, by social media.

“Reminder that the Haitian rebels made a deal with a demon (potentially Satan himself) to gain their independence,” one X user wrote this month. “Haiti’s endless suffering is simply the devil collecting payment.”

“Haiti is hell based on the voodoo ceremony pre-Haitian Revolution,” another agreed. A third offered advice: The country “needs to repent of their deal with the devil, that Christ may void it.”

That night in the Bois Caïman

As theology, the story has holes. “In Haitian Vodou, there is no Satan,” said Daut, a professor of French and African diaspora studies. “There is a god, but he’s Bondye, a god of everyone, a good god. There’s not a devil.”

But as history, it’s worse: It turns the triumph of the Haitian Revolution — a successful slave revolt to create the world’s first Black republic, a key achievement in the history of human rights — into a cautionary tale. And it absolves, by omission, the United States, France and others of their efforts to strangle the young nation in its cradle — the destabilizing foreign interference that actually has bedeviled Haiti since its founding.

“It’s a lazy way of explaining the complexity of what happened and what’s happening now,” said Bertin M. Louis Jr., an anthropologist at the University of Kentucky. “It obscures the actual evil that’s been done and perpetrated against Haitians.”

So what really happened that stormy August night in the wooded mountains outside the northern city of Cap-Français?

For Haitians, the gathering in the Bois Caïman — Alligator Forest — is a moment of glory: the first step in the nation’s 12-year march from slavery and colonization to freedom and independence.

There’s no known eyewitness testimony of the ceremony, and some scholars have argued it’s a legend, created to unify and motivate the rebels. But there are several near-contemporary reports, from French settlers as well as Africans, asserting that some sort of meeting was convened on or around Aug. 14, 1791, outside the city now called Cap-Haïtien, at which the participants sought a blessing for an uprising.

Most agree on key points. As many as hundreds of Africans, representing several area plantations, met at a prearranged time and place to hear Dutty Boukman, a houngan, or Vodou priest, and Cécile Fatiman, a mambo, or priestess.

“It was raining and the sky was raging with clouds,” according to an account published by the Haitian government. “The slaves then started confessing their resentment of their condition.”

Fatiman, “taken by the spirits of the loas” — supernatural intermediaries between humans and Bondye — “started dancing languorously.” She sliced open the throat of a black Creole pig to honor Èzili Dantò, the feminine loa of love. Then the attendees “swore to kill all the whites on the island.”

To make Saint-Domingue the world’s most lucrative colony — by the end of the 18th century, it was the leading producer of coffee and sugar, and a major source of cotton, indigo and cacao — the French practiced slavery with notorious violence.

Men and women were forced to labor in the tropical sun for 12 hours or more a day to fulfill ever-rising production quotas. Those who were injured or became sick were often discarded; the French could import replacements. Punishments for alleged transgressions — working too slowly, feigning illness, running away — included rape, amputation and being burned or buried alive.

When the Africans rose up, they returned the brutality in kind, invading homes to rouse and kill their enslavers and looting and burning plantations. Over the next dozen years, Haitian rebels and French soldiers waged a vicious war of attrition. Each side lost tens of thousands of fighters — several times the casualties suffered by the United States and Britain in the American Revolution.

France eventually surrendered, and on Jan. 1, 1804, the revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared Haiti’s independence. But Paris wasn’t done with its former prize colony. At first, the French refused to recognize the new state. So did the United States and the European powers, fearful that the Haitians’ success would inspire similar revolts among the people they were enslaving in their own territories.

Finally, in 1825, France’s King Charles X offered a way forward: reparations — for the former enslavers. The price of admission to the family of nations, he said, would be 150 million francs — an indemnity, ostensibly, to repay the French colonizers for property, including enslaved people, they had lost in the revolution.

This literal king’s ransom has been estimated at 10 times Haiti’s annual government revenue at the time. Charles sent warships to Port-au-Prince to collect the first installment.

With more than 500 French cannon pointed at the capital, President Jean-Pierre Boyer agreed — and immediately took out a loan from a Parisian bank to cover the initial payment. Thus began the double debt, a snowball of compounding interest owed to French and later American lenders that effectively arrested the development of the war-ravaged new country.

The U.S. reimposes forced, unpaid labor

While Latin American neighbors spent the 19th century gaining independence, building infrastructure and modernizing their economies, the Haitian government was sending the bulk of its income to France. Poverty spread, corruption flourished, public discontent grew.

France didn’t establish diplomatic relations with Haiti until 1838; Britain, not until 1859. The United States held out until 1862, when the Civil War reframed the national debate over slavery.

Continuing claims about a Faustian bargain, meanwhile, kept Haiti isolated from its neighbors.

“It’s the idea that the American Revolution is providential and has resulted because the founders made a pact with God,” Daut said, “and the Haitian Revolution is satanic because the Haitian revolutionaries made a pact with Satan.”

It took Haiti more than 60 years to finally satisfy the indemnity, in 1888, and nearly 60 more to pay off the associated interest, in 1947. The cost of this burden in money spent and development lost, the New York Times reported in 2022, amounts to $115 billion — eight times the size of Haiti’s economy in 2020.

But the loss doesn’t end there. Indemnity-related debt held by Americans provided a pretext for President Woodrow Wilson to order the Marines into Port-au-Prince in 1915, establish martial law and occupy the country for the next 19 years.

In a tragic irony, the United States subjected Haitians to corvée — forced, unpaid labor — for public building projects. To Haitians, it was the reimposition of slavery. But rebellions were swiftly put down; Marines and the U.S.-trained Gendarmarie killed thousands of Haitians.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt ended the occupation in 1934. Still, Washington would remain closely involved in Haiti’s affairs, funding development but also supporting despots who promised to back U.S. interests. These included, initially, François “Papa Doc” and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, murderous kleptocrats who terrorized and plundered the country from 1957 to 1986.

In a more recent example, U.S. officials pushed the Haitian government to include Michel Martelly in the 2011 presidential runoff. The popular singer’s five-year term was marred by allegations of corruption and violence. A U.N. panel last year accused him of using “gangs to expand his influence over neighborhoods to advance his political agenda, contributing to a legacy of insecurity, the impacts of which are still being felt today.”

That’s enough devilry to explain at least much of Haiti’s challenges without resorting to tales of satanic influence. But Daut sees another purpose to that claim.

“It’s really a way to take attention off the fact that the Haitian revolutionaries did something the world had never seen by permanently abolishing slavery and creating a slavery-free state in the middle of all these other slaving empires,” she said.

“If you say the Haitian Revolution was the most radical revolution the Western world had ever seen, people will say, ‘Yeah, but look at Haiti now. How can you say the Haitian Revolution was successful?’

“But of course it is! We live in a world now where everyone agrees that slavery is bad, and for the Haitians to be the first ones to bring that narrative forward is powerful and important, and should not be allowed to be obscured by charlatans out there peddling theories that really are just meant to convert more people to their religion.”

Widlore Mérancourt contributed to this report.

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