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Date: Mon, 28 Oct 1996 21:06:06 -0800 (PST)
From: Robert Corbett <bcorbett@netcom.com>
Sender: Robert Corbett <bcorbett@netcom.com>
Reply-To: Robert Corbett <bcorbett@netcom.com>
Subject: The anti-superstition campaign and Roger Riou in Haiti
To: Bob Corbett <bcorbett@netcom.com>
Message-ID: <Pine.3.89.9610282143.A17397-0100000@netcom14>

Date: Mon, 28 Oct 1996 20:59:15 -0800 (PST)
From Bob Corbett

The anti-superstition campaign and Roger Riou in Haiti

By Bob Corbett, 28 October 1996

After our discussions of the anti-superstition campaign, and my remembering the book by Roger Riou, I returned to it last night and tonight, reread it and made copious notes. It paints an extraordinary picture of the anti-superstition campaign and of Riou's whole life of 31 years working as a missionary in Haiti. Riou's story is perhaps especially interesting since it is the ONLY source I've ever come across of someone who enthusiastically supported and participated in this campaign, leading parties of marchers to find and destroy Voodoo items. In the bargain is the picture of Roger Riou, Montfort missionary priest out of Le Havre, France. He is a great puzzle to me, a figure of astounding contradictions and utter fascination.

So, below are notes from the book, his autobiography of the Haiti years, with special focus on both the antisuperstition campaign as he lived it and his view on Voodoo, and some of the puzzles I experience in trying to understand this man's 31 years in Haiti and 22 years on the island of La Tortue.

The book is: THE ISLAND OF MY LIFE: FROM PETTY CRIME TO PRIESTLY MISSION. By Roger Riou. Delacorte Press, New York, 1975.

This book is translated from the French ADIEU LA TORTUE, from Robert Laffont Publishers, Paris, 1974.


Riou simply detested Voodoo. He cites with delight what an old priest told him:

But bear one fact in mind -- no white man has ever attended a voodoo ceremony, one of those ceremonies that you hear going on for the entire night, when the throbbing drums beat endlessly. Oh, yes, some whites have been fooled by preparatory rites, but any white that ever stumbled across the secrets of a sacrifice deep in the jungle wouldn't live to tell the tale. p. 142.

After 31 years in Haiti he never changed this view and returns to it in the very late pages of the book:

p. 147-148 I've seen people possessed, and have observed them doing impossible feats without being able to explain it. But, I've never seen real voodoo -- I mean, voodoo that wasn't faked for a white audience. I still maintain that no white can be allowed to know the mystery of voodoo. When I got to Haiti, the missionaries knew nothing about voodoo. For instance, they say that the Haitians don't eat the dead as they do in Africa. But the missionaries still know nothing about it. 'They say' that Duvalier was behind the death of Jumelle, his former rival for the presidency; that he ate his brains and heart.

In yet another place he tells us of tales of Duvalier sacrificing children in the National Palace.

Thus it is not surprising that he welcomed the anti-superstition campaign and participated p. 145. I enthusiastically welcomed the announcement of an antivoodoo campaign begun in 1945 [his dates are wrong here, it began in 1941.] by the clergy of Haiti.

Not only did Riou welcome it, but he participated in it. His primary grounds for this (at least in print) were that the Voodoo believers were using the Catholic sacraments, especially the Eucharist, in their ceremonies and that such an act was intolerable. However he also allows that ...anyone who has studied the problem in depth, who's lived with it, will acknowledge the fact that voodoo is one of the causes of Haitian poverty and underdevelopment. p. 145.

In addition to Duvalier he also claims that Human sacrifices are rare, but they do happen. . 147.

His description of the actual campaign in action is the first of its kind that I've ever read. He says:

We, the priests, were accused of being iconoclasts, but it was actually the young Haitians who smashed everything, as soon as they realized that charms could be broken without incurring any punishment.

I'll never forget those processions, two or three hundred people all chanting: 'Down with the loas! Down with the loas!'

In the habitations and on the roads -- wherever we found voodoo signs -- we'd ask if the people were willing. If they were not, we did nothing, UNLESS THE CROWD IN THE PROCESSION OVERRULED US. [emphasis is Corbett's] Then the habitants were stripped of their voodoo symbols whether they liked it or not.

We walked behind the cross all over the mornes. I gave my blessings, then we gathered up voodoo signs and burned them. We were horrified to find that the three drums of voodoo -- big, medium, and small -- WERE THE HIDING PLACES OF SNAKES FATTENED ON CONSECRATED EUCHARISTIC OFFERINGS. [emphasis Corbett] Their crosses had nothing to do with the faith, so we burned them.

Later on he tells us that it took him an entire YEAR to catalogue all the voodoo items he confiscated. Some he sent to a museum in Paris, some he even sent to the Ethnology Museum in Port-au-Prince but claims to have stopped since he discovered that they were being sold to private collectors.

But when it was all over he was convinced it had been good work.

I couldn't take any more after that campaign. I was spitting up blood. I felt that I had done useful work, with all due respects to the drawing-room ethnographers. p. 155.


Independent of his views on Voodoo, Roger Riou is an amazing character to me. He spent 31 years working in Haiti, 22 of them living an extremely difficult life on La Tortue, building a huge clinic, doing development and education work, teacher training and many other activities. Yet in all my reading on Haiti I have never heard anyone write such terrible things about Haitians. Not even Sir Spencer St. John!

At one point they were introducing penicillin on La Tortue to cure yaws. Somehow people had gotten the idea that these injections were really to cause sterility. This leads Riou to say:

p. 183. Since virility was the Haitian's one and only pride, the first thing the men did after we'd given them their injections [of penicillin, which many thought was to cause impotence] was to visit their wives to make sure everything worked.

Despite this nasty claim, he does cite penicillin with bringing people into the Church and away from Voodoo, since penicillin cured in a way that the houngans and mambos couldn't. Riou says:

He says: Penicillin turned out to be more effective than all our antivoodoo campaigns in Haiti. (Given the place of healing in Voodoo, and that Riou made the main thrust of his mssionary mission in Haiti healing, that's a fascinating irony there too!)

In another place cites his bishop as saying (and clearly, Riou as accepting) that We do what we can,' said the bishop. 'Infirmaries, schools -- but they keep on having kids. What do you expect us to do? We treat them, we keep them from dying, so we're responsible for the overpopulation. And then it starts all over again -- a vicious circle.

The puzzle I have is what to make of this person who devoted nearly his entire adult working like to the people of Haiti, yet seems to have such a scorn for them, their culture and their ways. This simply astounds me. Riou is not a relic of the past nor a stranger to me. I have personally met and talked with several dozen people just like him in my 40 or so visits to Haiti in the past 13 years. I won't use their names, but some of them are very famous foreign missionaries who've been in Haiti most of their lives, just like Riou. But, these people are there NOW and still seem to hold these views. Perhaps one clue is one of the last exchanges Riou has at the end of the book, when he is in near despair because Duvalier kicked him out of the country. Some one asks him how he could stand this terrible country. Riou's response is informative:

p. 298. Someone asks: How could you have stuck it out in this rotten country?

'It was for them -- for my Tortugan children,' I said.

The children he was talking about included all the adults of the island Perhaps it is this paternalism, this sense that his religion, his culture, his way of life, his values were so absolutely superior to the people of Haiti, and he himself so superior, that these were all his children and thus, like many of us parents do and think of our children, their ways are immature and not worthy of taking seriously.

I have a most difficult time understand such views on the part of parents toward even very small children. But understand such views of adults toward other adults, well, I guess that is simply beyond my understanding.