Sunday, April 24, 2016

Kongo and the Haitian Revolution

African Roots

The Haitian Revolution was a complex slave led movement that resulted in the abolishment of slavery on the French colonial island of Saint Domingue as well as independence for the mostly black population, completely turning Atlantic society on its head. The question of how a slave army outmaneuvered the French empire has fascinated many scholars. 

Historians Carolyn Fick and John Thornton have argued that one should take a less euro-centric view point when trying to understand the Haitian Revolution. They have made the case that the Haitian revolution had African roots, particularly Kongolese roots, and by studying the ideology of the kingdom of Kongo during the 18th century, it is possible to learn more about the mass movement that took place in Haiti. At the time of the Haitian revolution, nearly two thirds of all slaves on the island of Saint Domingue were born in Africa. It was in Africa where they gained their socialization, and in many ways, this African heritage influenced the Haitian Revolution. Kongo played a key role in the revolution because prior to the revolution in Haiti there was a large-scale civil war in Kongo. Thousands of these Kongolese war captive were traded, enslaved, and brought to Haiti. In fact, slaves purchased from the region surrounding the Kingdom of Kongo made up the majority of slaves brought to Haiti for two decades before the revolution.

Voodoo and Kings

Enslaved Africans brought cultural traditions with them across the middle passage and often times created updated meanings for these practices in their new Atlantic lives. On the island of Saint Domingue, religion and politics, both influenced by West African and Kongolese ideology, played a large part in the revolution. 

Christianity was brought to the Kingdom of Kongo in 1491 when king Nzinga a Nkuwu and his nobles adopted the religion. Nzinga’s son King Afonso I created a syncretic version of the Roman Catholic Church during his rule combining preexisting local beliefs with Catholic theology. Christianity was spread throughout the region, thus by the 18th century most of the Kongolese slaves who were brought to Haiti were exposed to Christianity, if they were not Christian themselves. Voodoo was a religion practiced by many slaves in Saint Domingue. Voodoo in Haiti, much like Christianity in Africa, was a blend of African Gods paired with Christian saints. It makes sense that slaves from Kongo, would influence and participate in voodoo ceremonies, which allowed them to maintain their old Cosmology and understanding of the world along with aspects of Christianity that were already familiar. One can look to the voodoo ceremony that took place in Bois- Caiman to understand the importance of voodoo to the revolution. Boukman Dutty an African Voodoo priest led a meeting that set in motion the slave uprisings in the north. While not Kongolese himself, Boukman was referrerd to by the Kongolese nickname Zamba, (most likely the term Kikongo word for nzamba or elephant in reference to his large structure) and many of his followers were indeed Kongolese. From this voodoo meeting, which was both both spiritual and strategic in nature, slaves attacked northern sugar plantations- burning fields, destroying machinery, and killing whites.

                                                 Artist: Ulrick Jean-Pierre Cayman Wood Ceremony

Kongolese political ideology also influenced the alliances slaves chose to make in the Haitian revolution. In his article “I Am the Subject of the King of Congo” African Political Ideology and the Haitian Revolution John Thornton describes both the early involvement of the Kongolese in the revolution and Kongolese political ideology through a quote from Macaya, a Konogolese leader at the start of the revolution. In response to commissioner Etienne Polverel’s request to return to the French Republic, Macaya said, “I am the subject of three kings: of the King of Kongo, master of all blacks; of the King of France who represents my father; of the King of Spain who represents my mother.” This quote is telling of the 18th century Kongolese political climate which was heavily influenced by the civil war. Thornton discusses that during the civil war, which many of the enslaved Konoglese in Haiti fought in, there were two questions to be asked- who was the king and what were his powers. These questions and thoughts on the ideological role of the king were brought to Haiti as well. 

Many Haitian slaves viewed the monarchy, in both Spanish and French forms, as a means to abolish slavery and limit the power of the Republic which was perpetuating the slave-plantation system. Even within their own slave communities many Haitian slaves who had come from Africa elected their own kings and queens. For Kongolese, whom amongst themselves debated over the role of the kings, kingship was not tyrannical as the French viewed it but a means of order and centralization. From this we can gain another level of understanding about the slaves’, particularly the African born slaves’, resistance to work alongside the Republic. Creole slaves who had been born in Haiti did not necessarily share the same political ideologies as Kongolese born slaves, but they needed to work with them in order to fight against the French, as many of the Kongolese slaves who had been civil war captives had desirable military experience. The blending of the Creole slaves’ new world mentalities along with African slaves political ideologies created a complex group that had different goals and methods of achieving those goals. Despite their differences their unification ultimately led to the abolishment of slavery and to independence from colonial rule. We can view this revolution as both an extension of African beliefs and ideologies as well as a response to New World realities.

Lasting Legacy

I've described some of the affects the Kingdom of Kongo had on the Haitian Revolution, but to look at the affects the Haitian Revolution had on the Kingdom of Kongo I went to the Trans Atlantic Slave Database. The Haitian Revolution brought the end of slavery in the territory in the region. I wanted to see the decline in slaves brought from the Kingdom of Kongo to Haiti.

From this graph we can see the large amount of Kongolese slaves coming to Haiti in the 18th century and then the harsh drop off during the revolution. While Kongolese slaves were no longer brought to Haiti after the revolution, a Kongolese legacy is still maintained in Haiti today through religious practices, language, and historic figures like Macaya and Boukman who is still referred to as his Kongolese nickname, Zamba. As many Haitian slaves and gens de couleur looked to France to truly extend the Rights of Man to cover all men, the revolution itself, that led to the the first independent black nation in colonial America, had very deep African roots and was in part led by Kongolese slaves who were less concerned with the French ideals of liberté et égalité and more so concerned with just kings who ruled with authority and ruled for the people. 

Apter, Andrew. 2002. “On African Origins: Creolization and Connaissance in Haitian Vodou”. American Ethnologist 29 (2). [Wiley, American Anthropological Association]: 233–60. http://www.jstor.org.libdata.lib.ua.edu/stable/3095167.

Carolyn E. Fick. "The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. 1990. 

Thornton, John K.. 1993. “"I Am the Subject of the King of Congo": African Political Ideology and the Haitian Revolution”. Journal of World History 4 (2). University of Hawai'i Press: 181–214. http://www.jstor.org.libdata.lib.ua.edu/stable/20078560.

Thornton, John K.. 1988. “On the Trail of Voodoo: African Christianity in Africa and the Americas”. The Americas 44 (3). Cambridge University Press: 261–78. doi:10.2307/1006906.

 "Voyages Database." Voyages Database. http://www.slavevoyages.org/voyage/. 


  1. Hey Johanna,
    I really enjoyed your blog this week. I feel like you covered everything well. Your blog goes hand in hand with our class discussion. I like that you included the graph. It really helps to show the relationship between Haiti and the Kongo. I also liked how you talked about Haitian's political views that they brought with them from the Kongo. All in all, great last post.

  2. I really enjoyed your blog post! The graph really made it much more interactive and allowed me to really see the trend of the slave trade to Haiti. It is interesting to see how much the slaves valued the monarch system and what it meant to them. The monarchy system would lead to more inequality. It would obviously be better than being an outright slave but still an interesting preference for a system. The blending of the African born slaves with the Creole culture and ideology was interesting. I had never thought that these groups would be that different culturally but it makes sense that there was a divide in the society. This is a really well cited post! Good Job!