- The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti by Kate Ramsey
According to a Haitian proverb, lwa toujou genyen yon zatrap ladan—“law always has a trap inside of it.” So argues Kate Ramsey in this excellent and long-awaited historical treatment of the “construction and contestation of Vodou as an object of the law” in Haiti (p. 14). Indeed the most extraordinary “trickery” of Haitian law has been its contributions to the very objectification of vaudoux in Haiti’s penal code over more than 150 years, from 1835 to 1987. Ramsey thoroughly and thoughtfully traces the effects of this legal nomination from its early nineteenth-century codification of vaudoux as but one in a list of forms of illegal sorcery, through later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century reconfigurations of “voodoo.” She demonstrates how its construction has shifted in history. Whereas it was once characterized as the most egregious anti-modern superstition that held back the nation’s progress, more recently it has become folklorized as “Vodou” and associated with the nation’s patrimony.
Ramsey not only addresses the shifting legal notions of vaudoux over Haiti’s history, but she also shows how the law, as written and as enforced, interacted with folk practices and their political representations in local, national, and international circuits, as she demonstrates its effects on Vodou practitioners. Indeed, a central [End Page 109] argument of the book is that tensions surrounding the illegalized objectification of “vaudoux” and the entirety of practices of sèvi lwa or “serving the spirits” has afforded a variety of relationships between legal statutes, popular practices, and political regimes. This process has resulted in highlighting the “paradoxical tendency” of laws to “affirm what they ban” (p. 255). Key, too, is the extent to which vaudoux, the legal object, has been a foreign import, a portmanteau of European anti-witchcraft fears and African ethical practices—Ginen—reconfigured into the often-brutal neo-colonial context of Haiti.
Another kind of trickery is afoot in what astute readers will note as an uncanny homology between lwa (loi, or law) and lwa (spirits). Here, Ramsey explores the articulations of lwa and law as they develop amidst domestic politics and inconsistent enforcement policies, international efforts to control or eradicate vaudoux (especially by the Catholic Church and the US Marines), local communities’ interpretations of the legal code, and the informal law of the countryside, especially as carried out through secret societies tied to Ginen and to kin-based ritual practices, and thus bringing together the lwa in both senses. While the laws on the books were seldom enforced as written, their uneven application against Haitian peasants and, indeed, the constant threat of their enforcement, have impacted ritual practices of serving the lwa, just as Voudouizan have at times used those laws to, paradoxically, advance “the logic of the beliefs that [they] ostensibly sought to eliminate” (p. 255). The maji (magic) of loi and lwa are shown to be inextricably connected at this juncture, and Ramsey provides another example of the extent to which modernity continues to ensorcell itself.
The book’s chapters are organized into four historical periods. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the discursive history of vaudoux through the legislation regarding magic and sorcery practices attributed to slaves in pre-revolutionary Saint-Domingue, especially in elaborations of France’s notorious 1685 colonial Code Noir. Ramsey argues that, alongside growing colonial concerns about poisoners, healers, and “profaners” of proper Catholic ritual among slaves, fears coalesced mostly against slave and freedmen assemblies. The most famous of those assemblies, the ceremony of Bwa Kayiman on August 14, 1791, brought both the ritual and political elements together in fomenting the insurrection that started the Haitian Revolution. The circulation of protective amulets of makandals and French pamphlets asserting the universal “Rights of Man” cannot be so neatly separated, yet Ramsey traces out the ambivalent, sometimes hostile, attitudes of the Revolution’s leaders toward what Haiti’s new government also codified as the “dangerous assemblies” of le Vaudou.