The Power of Knowledge: Kongo Kindoki, Haitian Vodou, and the Haitian Revolution

Friday, January 4, 2019: 1:50 PM
Spire Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Christina Mobley, University of Virginia
If European beliefs about Africans had the power to kill, African beliefs themselves were likewise powerful weapons, and there is no better example than the Haitian Revolution. This paper investigates the powerful role of Haitian Vodou in Saint Domingue before, during, and after the Haitian Revolution. I focus on the power of the largest African group in the colony, the Kongo, who came from north of the Congo River in west central Africa. The Kongo brought specialized knowledge (kindoki) with them to Saint Domingue where it survives in the ritual knowledge, konasans (literally ‘knowledge’ from the French ‘connaisance’) of Haitian Vodou. During the Haitian Revolution, Kongo men and women used spiritual tools to combat slavery. The Kongo understood slavery and the slave trade as an act of spiritual (if not literal) cannibalism. If slavery was an act of witchcraft, then the enslaved were bewitched. This explains why, on the plantation in Saint Domingue and during the Haitian Revolution, Kongo peoples used visible and invisible weapons to combat slavery.

During the revolution, the institution of Vodou helped Africans from disparate regions to both come together as one while preserving the specific cultural grammars of their worldviews. As a result, the songs and rituals of Vodou serve as a repository of African language, practice, and popular memory. I will use this “Vodou archive” to rewrite the history of the revolution from the point of view of the African majority by paying close attention to the multiplicity and diversity of the people, ideas, and goals of the African and African descendants who won the most successful slave revolt in history, the Haitian Revolution. This act of revealing and making legible non-European histories and, with it, non-European ways of knowing and being, represents the ultimate fulfillment of the emancipatory history of the Haitian Revolution.