African religion and black resistance
Perhaps one of the most feared group of people on slave plantations in the New World were men and women who practised the ancient African spiritual sciences called Obeah and Voodoo. These men and women rose to positions of leadership among the slaves on the plantations. Europeans very often were forced to seek out the services of Obeah and Voodoo practitioners, especially when Western medicine and spirituality proved to be ineffective.
Houngans and mambos (terms used to describe male and female leaders in the practice of Voodoo) wore many hats in slave societies. First and foremost, they were the physicians who helped enslaved Africans deal with the many sicknesses they were exposed to in the New World. Like their fellow practitioners on the African continent, houngans and mambos were master herbalists who understood the healing properties in the local flora.
At a time when Europeans believed that draining patients of their blood was a panacea for most sicknesses, Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora were using plants and the properties found within plants as part of the foundation of their healing science. It was this knowledge of the various properties found in plants that made houngans and mambos both respected and feared by enslaved Africans and Europeans.
Francois Mackandal, one of the early leaders in the Haitian Revolution is reported to have been a master herbalist. In his campaign to help free enslaved Africans in Haiti, Mackandal is alleged to have poisoned 6,000 people, including Europeans and black collaborators. Mackandal also initiated a campaign of poisoning plantation animals as a form of economic warfare against the European colonisers and enslavers.
Dutty Boukman, who succeeded Mackandal as the spiritual leader of the Haitian Revolution, was ably assisted by Voodoo mambo, Cecile Fatiman. Boukman and Fatiman are believed to have been the spiritual authorities who presided over the Bois Caiman religious ceremony that served as a catalyst for the revolt of 1791 and the subsequent Haitian Revolution.
Granny Nanny or Queen Nanny, as she is remembered in Jamaica, was one of the significant leaders in the Maroon movement in Jamaica. Like Mackandal, Boukman and Fatiman, Queen Nanny was a practitioner of African spiritual science. Queen Nanny and her Maroon army fought a guerrilla war against the British who occupied the island of Jamaica.
Queen Nanny’s guerrilla army was so effective that the British were forced to sue for peace. The British agreed to leave the Maroons alone and in exchange the Maroons were expected to return runaway slaves to the British. Some historians are doubtful whether Queen Nanny agreed with the latter term set by the British.
One of the conspicuous features of the Maroon settlements that were established in the New World was the extent to which African continuity was practised. Maroon societies, as much as was possible, maintained many of the traditions that had been brought to the New World by Africans. African culture and religion were, therefore, central to the Maroon communities.
It should also be noted that many of the slave revolts in the New World were started by Africans who had been born on the African continent. Creole enslaved Africans were also leaders in slave revolts but more often than not it was newly arrived Africans, complete with their knowledge of African history, culture, and religion, who were the main instigators in the slave revolts.
Europeans understood the nexus between African spirituality and African resistance to European domination. Every effort was made to divorce Africans from their own spiritual traditions. African spirituality was criminalised by the colonial authorities. All the paraphernalia associated with African spirituality were also outlawed. Much to the shame of post-independence governments in the Caribbean, some islands still maintain these colonial anti-African spirituality laws on their statute books.
In modern times, it should be noted that some of the most spirited resistance to European domination in the Caribbean comes from groups with a deep Afrocentric orientation. The Rastafarian community, notwithstanding its affiliation with Haile Selassie, who was a member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, is extremely vocal in its opposition to European domination in Africa and the Caribbean.
The Haitian Revolution, the Maroon wars and settlements, the Rastafarian revolt against Babylon, and the challenge mounted to Caucasian supremacy by the Black Lives Matter movement all eloquently speak in favour of black people returning to some variant of their ancestral spiritual roots. Not only are we stronger when we are restored to our right African minds, but we are also energised to take on and beat the best that Europe has to offer. This is the lesson from the Haitian Revolution that black people continue to be slow in comprehending.
Lenrod Nzulu Baraka
Founder of Afro-Caribbean Spiritual Teaching Center