This page last revised 13 May 1997
It is often presumed that within a slave society everyone has the same deprived status as the "Other" for the colonial masters, but recent studies have begun to examine the power structures within the slave community itself. Herbert Klein, in African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean (1986), has pointed out that knowledge was an important granter of status in the slave community. Knowledge of African ways or customs, or even in some cases elite status transferred directly from Africa gave some slaves a leverage in their community in contrast with their official status. The same occurred with many of the male and female Africans who were part-time religious, health and witchcraft specialists, most of whom had a status inside the community completely unrecognised by the master class. The historian John Blassingame, in The Slave Community (1972), has said:
Whatever his power, the master was a puny man compared to the supernatural. Often the most powerful and significant individual on the plantation was the conjurer.
Voodoo is a syncretic system derived from deeply rooted Africanist beliefs and colonial French Catholicism. African-American religious systems and subcultures can be seen in Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, and other Antillean areas. In the Fon language spoken in Benin, vodun means an invisible force, terrible and mysterious, which can meddle in human affairs at any time.
As a reaction to being torn violently from their roots, the slaves tried to resume their cultural and religious traditions. Ancestral spirits, forces called supernatural, were invoked and celebrated in secret, far from the master's eyes, yet in the shadow of the Church, as the worship of saints and the Catholic sacraments served as a screen and a support for African beliefs. The creation of a coherent belief system was extremely important in the development of a feeling of cohesion among the slaves which would provide them with a sense of self and community.
The process of syncretization among the African religions helps to explain why those cults found it relatively easy to accept and integrate parts of Christian religious belief and practice into the local cult activity. Initially this integration was purely functional, providing a cover of legitimacy for religions that were severely proscribed. But after a few generations a real syncretism became part of the duality of beliefs of the slaves themselves, who soon found it possible to accommodate both religious systems.
The conjurer in African-American culture is frequently referred to as a "two-headed doctor," a person of double wisdom who carries power as a result of his or her initiation into the mysteries of the spirit. The term "conjure" implies someone who uses spirituality as well as practical means to effect their intentions. The strong belief of the community in the efficacy of the conjure-man's or conjure-woman's treatments helps to aid the desired result. The strength of conjure as a poetic image resides in the secrecy and mysteriousness of its sources of power, in its connections to ancient African sources syncretized by a community of diasporic believers with Christian scriptures, and in the masterful improvisational skills of its most dramatic practitioners.
The place of women in the slave community's power structure is an important one. Women have long had access to the types of societal functions which voodoo revolves around -- physical healing, spiritual healing, peacemaking and so on. The figure of the "Occult Woman" has long been presented as the figure that best embodies what is perceived as incoherent or problematic, which at the same time holding a possible key to new synthesis and integration. Voodoo priests an priestesses were traditionally involved with the "maroons"-- runaway slaves who formed communities within the forested interiors of a number of Caribbean islands-- and they had sufficient power within their own communities to organise and execute revolts, with disastrous consequences for the slave-owners.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
This page was written by Eimer Page. Please e-mail me with your comments.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
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