By Wade Davis 1985

Comments by Bob Corbett Oct. 1987

This is a strange book which purports to be a search for the putative poisons used in zombification. The reputed purpose of this search is to use these drugs in Western medicine for anesthetic purposes.

What actually goes on is much more complex. Among them:

  1. Wade Davis paints a picture of himself as a sort of demi-god Indiana Jones who breaks into the circle of Haitian secret societies never before penetrated by a foreigner.
  2. He presents a fascinating account of zombification which, while relying on drugs and poisons, requires a sort of faith healing, a near magic or spirituality to make it successful. To the question is it Voodoo or drugs which makes zombies, Davis replies, both at the same time.
  3. He describes a different version of Haitian history than I've ever read. Particularly, he places the maroons at the center of ancient and even modern Haiti. Particularly, he claims:
    1. Maroons from the 1640s on formed unique groups:
      1. They escaped French socialization.
      2. They were temperamentally rebels.
      3. They were formed to operate in carefully protected secret ban
      4. They kept alive their ancient African roots more than any others, especially:
        1. kept religions of Africa
        2. kept tradition of control via poisons and drugs
        3. controlled an African-type culture beneath the dominant western Haitian one
    2. This maroonage broke with Toussaint (or visa versa) in 1793 when Toussaint attacked them. They joined in the final revolution against the French, but always remained aloof from Frenchified Haitian governments and culture.
    3. They kept their secret societies, secret religious rites and controlled a whole rural social world.
    4. With Francois Duvalier they merged more closely with the Haitian government as the Tonton Macoute.
    1. I really don't trust much of Davis' account of his own personal role in all this search in Haiti. There are several reasons:
      1. I have a hard time believing that the secret societies would be so Easily penetrated as Davis describes.
      2. As he cites the literature of the past (his research is quite impressive), it seems one could piece together virtually his whole story--medical and historical--from those sources alone without ever leaving Cambridge!
      3. Max Beauvoir, his key connection in Haiti for making all these contacts, does not at all seem a reliable contact to me. Beauvoir's representing himself as an important Voodoo leader during the period of Duvalier's fall, was evidence of his unreliability. To the best of my understanding Beauvoir -- certainly a houngan -- was mainly occupied in running show voodoo in his night spot for tourists, and not doing religious Voodoo for the people and lwa.
    2. Despite my suspicions about Davis' personal role in the search, the book is certainly informative, interesting, and well written. It should be read by any students of Haiti.

Note: Wade Davis has seen this review and protests vigorously that I am unfair to him. He claims that all that he said happened in the book actually happened. While I take myself to be a strong supporter of Davis' theory of zombification, even his protestations to the contrary have not brought me about to accept the personal story part of Serpent. (add 1/21/1999)



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