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From Voodoo to Vodou
Eh! eh! Bomba, hen! hen!
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Eh! eh! Bomba, hen! hen!

In a recent blog post, the legal scholar Jonathan Turley, attempting to make sense of Pat Robertson's, by now notorious, remarks on the divine purpose of the Haiti earthquake, has this to say.1

Robertson seems to be referring to Dutty Boukman who helped led the uprising in August 1791.2 He was a houngan, or Haitian priest, who held a traditional ceremony in which a pig (symbolizing the power of nature) was sacrificed and an oath administered to the fighters to be fearless in battle. However, accounts of his words notably omit Robertson’s alleged pact:

Eh! Eh! Bomba! Heu! Heu!
Canga, bafio té!
Canga, mouné de lé!
Canga, do ki la!
Canga, do ki la!
Canga, li!

We swear to destroy the whites
and all they possess.
Let us die rather than fail
to keep this vow.
For this information he credits the entry on the Boukman Rebellion on the L'Ouverture Project website. Attentive readers of this entry may note that it goes to some trouble to stress the difficulty in establishing the facts about this rebellion, particularly the ceremony which was supposed to have taken place on the night of the 22 August at Bois Caiman.

Some historians, notably Leon-Francois Hoffmann,3 have gone so far as to suggest that the ceremony is a myth, somewhat inconveniently for UNESCO which in 1998 chose 23 August as the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and of its Abolition. But if Hoffmann is wrong, and the ceremony did take place, there is no evidence that the chant featured in its proceedings.4

The only contemporary reference to this chant is to be found in the monumental study of the French colony of Saint-Domingue assembled by the colonial lawyer, M L E Moreau-de-Saint-Méry in the years immediately preceding the Revolution, though not published until 1797. Moreau-de-Saint-Méry quotes the chant in the course of an extended description of the religious practices of the slaves, but while he is quite precise about how some of the words are to be spoken or sung, he makes no attempt to translate them.5 And indeed, this chant proved a mystery for several subsequent generations of writers on what he called vaudoux, none of whom had any idea what it meant.

The chant was cited dozens of times through the 19th and early 20th Centuries - by foreign visitors and observers keen to measure the achievements of the 'Black Republic' in order to justify their opinions on the viability of Emancipation and the value of peasant cultures. They found the curious syllables capable of supporting a range of positions, both sympathetic and hostile, although none of them questioned the assumption that identified the chant with the backward, the atavistic, the primitive.

So where does this translation come from? It is first offered as a translation of the chant by C L R James in The Black Jacobins (1938), his classic study of the Haitian Revolution.6 And how did James arrive at it? He doesn't say, but it seems likely he took it from a French version in one of his sources, probably a work by Pierre de Vaissière on colonial Saint-Domingue published in 1909.7 But there are two chants in de Vaissière, and the translation he provides relates not to 'Eh! eh! Bomba' but another chant first recorded in a virulent tract calling for the French reconquest of Haiti in 1814. The author of this tract, Drouin de Bercy, warned of the menace that awaited any conquering force, citing the lines of a chorus sung at a ceremony as follows:
«A ia bombaia bombé, lamma samana quana, é van vanta, vana docki», qui signifient, nous jurons de détruire les blancs et tout ce qu’ils possèdent, mourrons plutôt que d’y renoncer. 8
Given the context in which it appears, one may be forgiven for doubting its reliability. Indeed, given the way that both chants only ever appear through the process of one writer quoting another, it wouldn't be surprising if the chants turned out to be pure invention.

But in a surprising twist, two scholars in the 1940s, working independently and unknown to each other, discovered that the words of the 'Eh! eh! Bomba' chant were quite recognizable as being of Congolese origin. The Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz and the Belgian missionary Jean Cuvelier came to the conclusion that the chant was an exorcism or curse for which they offered, Spanish and French versions, respectively, which I give in English here:
Eh! Eh! Bomba! Eh! Eh!
Cast out the blacks!
Cast out the whites
Cast out the spirits!
Cast them out.9

Eh, serpent Mbumba
Stop the blacks
Stop the whites
Stop the ndoki
Stop them10
And these versions appear when Aimé Césaire makes use of the chant in his own study of the Revolution, Toussaint Louverture: La Révolution Française et le Problème Colonial (1960).11 While we might expect this to have rendered James' effort obsolete, it is actually his translation which has endured.

The reasons for this are complex, I think. It is partly because Césaire's book has yet to appear in English, but also because its approximation to the 'liberty or death' slogan that circulated in the Atlantic World from the 1770s more neatly fits the purposes to which both Césaire and James want to put the chant. Namely: to dissociate the chant from backward primitivism and reassociate it with a modern struggle for universal human rights.

In a footnote added to a later edition, Césaire adds yet another translation from a third scholar who disputed the accuracy of Ortiz and Cuvelier, claiming this would 'put an end ... to the controversy'.12 But of course it did no such thing and in the 1990s at least three different alternatives were proposed by historians specializing in the revolutionary period.13

It is evident from studying the debate that there were those who felt that the apparent even-handed reference to 'whites' and 'blacks' in the original translations did not sit well with the proto-revolutionary character expected to be shown by black slaves about to overthrow their white masters. And so their translations tended to suggest either that bafio te or bafioti actually referred only to certain 'blacks' (the traitors who consorted with the enemy perhaps) or to suggest that canga had several senses and was being used differently when applied to whites and to blacks. But those who did not resort to such convoluted refinements were maybe, in their own way, simply confirming their view that religious ceremonies have a strictly other-worldly purpose and should be considered discontinuous with the daily grind and strife in the cane fields.

Their disagreement should remind us how hard it is to pin down the nuances of particular terms, even when we know the language in question. For the words of the chant in themselves simply don't offer enough of a context to favour one interpretation over another. Indeed, to even attempt to do so may be misplaced, given that religious incantations often derive their power from the fact that they are not understood by those who utter them, but rather serve - as drum-beats and repeated movements and gestures do - to bind people together in a particular heightened state and common purpose.

The translations in effect reinforce the authors' prior understanding of the religious culture of the slaves and free blacks in the 1790s and the its role in enabling or holding back the rebellion that eventually brought independence in 1804. Just as the bare syllables did for those who debated the wisdom of abolition and independence during the 19th Century.

'Eh! Eh Bomba' doesn't prove anything. How can it? To say it represents an sinister 'pact with the devil' or a revolutionary call for action is to indulge in glib fantasies. What Moreau de Saint-Méry (or his informants) observed in the plantations is lost to us now, even if we can detect some similarities with modern vodou beliefs and rituals, and can chart the progress of the rebellion that followed in ever more sophisticated ways. It is silly to extrapolate the significance of 1804 and the subsequent history of Haiti from such slender traces. And we should certainly avoid the temptation to use the chant as a way of interpreting the present crisis.


For a more detailed and extended version of this essay, see Alasdair Pettinger, '"Eh! Eh! Bomba, hen! Hen!" Making Sense of a Vodou Chant'' in Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing, edited by Maarit Forde and Diana Paton (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).

1. Pat Robertson's views would seem to be commonly shared by Evangelical Protestant missions as this compilation of quotations that identify Haiti and 'voodoo' with Satan would suggest.

2. Turley's hunch would seem to be confirmed by comments by a spokesman for Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network quoted near the beginning of this piece on the ABC news site.

3. Léon-François Hoffmann, 'Histoire, mythe et idéologie:la cérémonie du Bois-Caïman' (1990) reprinted inHaïti: lettres et l'être (Toronto: Editions du GREF, 1992), 267-301.

4. David Geggus, 'Haitian Voodoo in the Eighteenth Century: Language, Culture, Resistance', Jahrbuch für Geschichte von Staat, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Lateinamerikas 28 (1991), pp21-51.

5. M L E Moreau de Saint-Méry, Description topographique, physique, civile, politique et historique de la partie Française de l'isle Saint-Domingue [1797], ed. Blanche Maurel and Etienne Taillemitte (Paris:Société de l'Histoire des Colonies Françaises, 1958), Vol 1, p67.

6. C L R James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, revised edition (London: Allison and Busby, 1980), pp18, 85.

7. Pierre de Vaissière, Saint-Domingue: La société et la vie créoles sous l'ancien régime (Paris: Perrin, 1909), p179.

8. Drouin de Bercy, De Saint-Domingue (Paris: Chez Hocquet,1814), p176.

9. Fernando Ortiz, 'Preludios étnicos de la música Afro-Cubana', Revista Bimestre Cubana 59 (1947), p100.

10. Jean Cuvelier, L'ancien royaume du Congo (Bruges: Desclée de Brouwer, 1946), p290.

11. Aimé Césaire, Toussaint Louverture: La révolution Française et le problème colonial (Paris: Le club français du livre,1960), p160.

12. Aimé Césaire, Toussaint Louverture: La révolution Française et le problème colonial, revised edition (Paris: Presence Africaine, 1981), pp191-93.

13. Geggus, 'Haitian Voodoo', op cit; Carolyn Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint-Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990), pp57, 265-6, 290n58; John K Thornton, '"I am the Subject of the King of Kongo": African Political Ideology and the Haitian Revolution', Journal of World History, Vol 4 No 2 (1993), pp210-11. Other translations include those offered by Ned Sublette in the course of a round-table discussion on Haitian music in the New Yorker, 13 July 2009, and by Ezili Dantò in her Counter-Colonial Narrative on Vodun - which also provides a link to a video of Sak Pasé by the Welfare Poets, in which the chant appears.

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created by Alasdair Pettinger Thu 14 Jan 2010 22:42 GMT+0000
V*d* > Eh! eh! Bomba, hen! hen!