The Boukman Rebellion

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The Boukman Rebellion - providing the spark for the Haitian Revolution

If the revolution in Saint-Domingue was a roaring fire, then Boukman's rebellion was the spark. In many senses the revolution was already under way by August 1791, but that month's vodou ceremony has become a convenient landmark to date the "official" start of the uprising. The only contemporary historian of the Boukman Rebellion who mentions the ceremony, is Antoine Dalmas writing an account around 1793, later published in: Histoire de la révolution de Saint-Domingue (1814). 2 Volumes. Paris: Mame Frères, Vol. I, p. 117. (Zeuske, Footnotes) The details of the Bois Caïman ceremony have been retold and embellished over the years into a dramatic tale of epic proportions. The actual story of what happened that August may not be as dramatic as the popular retelling, yet it is as charged with the electricity of a historic turning point. In this article, we'll examine both the legend and the historical facts.

The Legend

It is widely believed that Boukman Dutty started the revolution. In a place called Bois Caiman (Gator Wood), in the north of Saint-Domingue, in a driving rainstorm, with slaves from all the neighboring plantations in attendance. A mountain of a man with a face as etched and chiseled as an African stone carving called out in a voice strong and clear, a Jamaican lilt detectable as he chanted:

Eh! Eh! Bomba! Heu! Heu!
  Canga, bafio té!
    Canga, mouné de lé!
  Canga, do ki la!
    Canga, do ki la!
      Canga, li!
We swear to destroy the whites
  and all they possess.
Let us die rather than fail
  to keep this vow.
(Parkinson, p. 40)

As vodou drums beat a hypnotic rhythm and worshipers supplicated and the vodou priestess led then in chanting, Boukman stuck a pig and drank its blood. Then, his voice roaring above the storm, he called upon the assembled slaves to rise up against their masters, saying:

"The god who created the sun which gives us light, who rouses the waves and rules the storm, though hidden in the clouds, he watches us. He sees all that the white man does. The god of the white man inspires him with crime, but our god calls upon us to do good works. Our god who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us. Throw away the symbol of the god of the whites who has so often caused us to weep, and listen to the voice of liberty, which speaks in the hearts of us all."

And that night -- August 14, 1791... or was it August 20th? 21st? -- the slaves revolted, first at Gallifet plantation, then across the North Plain. (James, pp. 86-87)

The Facts (?)

Or maybe not.

David Patrick Geggus, for one, casts doubt on many of the details which have come to be accepted as fact over the years. Though he does think there's good evidence that a vodou ceremony took place on August 21, 1791, he argues that there's little in the historical record to validate details such as Boukman's chant, or even that a place called Bois Caïman ever existed. The rest of this article draws heavily on Geggus's work in Chapter 6 of Haitian Revolutionary Studies; readers should refer to that book for its excellent critical analysis of what can be known or credibly surmised about the events of August, 1791.

So what did happen? Let's back up for a moment:

The political effects of the French Revolution had been felt in the colony from the moment it began. When the Estates General passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in August of 1789, the slaves had reason to hope that emancipation might soon follow. For two long years they grew more and more restless. A few small, plantation-wide revolts broke out. Then, on August 14, according to Geggus, "a meeting of slave-drivers, coachmen, and other members of the 'slave elite' from about 100 plantations took place in Plaine du Nord parish" on the Lenormand de Mézy estate. The decision was made to rebel. (Geggus, pp. 84-85) The colonists apparently knew about the meeting, but it's not clear whether they knew that it was anything more than a large social gathering.

This meeting and the Boukman ceremony were separate but related events. Bois Caïman, or "Alligator Wood" is the legendary location of Boukman's call to arms, but Geggus finds no firm evidence that the place exists. The closest match is apparently "Alligator Lagoon" (or, Lagon å Cayman), a swamp not far from where the Lenormand meeting took place.

Geggus theorizes that the August 14th meeting had set August 24th for the start of the revolution, but that Boukman moved things up a couple of days after a few of the conspirators had been caught. Did he present the speech mentioned above, calling on the slaves to take vengeance on the whites? Geggus presents good evidence that we don't know exactly what Boukman said at that ceremony, and the speech above is certainly bogus, written by a 19th century historian to portray the "feel" of the event. The "Eh! Eh! Bomba! Heu! Heu!" chant is also inauthentic.

It seems, then, that like much of Haitian revolutionary history, the details of the "Bois Caïman" ceremony may be forever lost. There was some sort of ceremony, likely on the 21st of August 1791, and it probably involved the ritual slaughter of a pig. Beyond that, little can be said to be known. Yet what is certain is that after that date the slaves' course was set. Though their path would be as twisted and knurled as the landscape of Saint-Domingue itself, they were beginning here their inexorable march toward freedom.

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