By Robert Lawless
Department of Anthropology
University of Florida
Publish in 1989 in Latin American Anthropology Review 1(1):5-6.
The image of odious activities by crazed blacks involved in Haitian Voodoo rituals is one of the standard nightmares of white society, and recent portrayals of Voodoo have shifted from the traditional focus on cannibalism to the alleged creation of zombies, as the notion of the living dead is commonly called. From popular television shows like Miami Vice and The Beauty and the Beast to supposedly intelligent features like the Jacques Cousteau show the public is exposed to insulting interpretations of Voodoo and loony renditions of zombiism.
The most recent writing on zombies is a curious mixture of sensationalism and scholarship--and much of the scholarship is questionable. As a doctoral student in botany at Harvard University, Wade Davis investigated the ethnobotany of zombification in Haiti. Although he spent relatively little time there and spoke no Creole, Davis had the apparent good fortunate to come across some informants who give him information on the potions used by Voodoo sorcerers to poison people. Davis thought that he had discovered the active ingredient in the poison, tetrodotoxin, and wrote an academic article on his findings in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 1983, as well as a Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard University--with some of his conclusions written before the laboratory results were in.
Not everyone, however, accepted these conclusions. In fact, C. Y. Kao, a pharmacologist at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center and an authority on tetrodotoxin, is quoted on page 7 of the January 1989 issue of Discover characterizing Davis's research as "a carefully planned, premeditated case of scientific fraud." An article by Kao and his associate Takashi Yasumoto in a 1986 issue of the journal Toxicon pointed out that the amounts of tetrodotoxin in the zombie portions is insignificant.
As if his pharmacological conclusions were not controversial enough, Davis wrote a overheated and fictionalized book about his time in Haiti that reads like the first draft for a Hollywood movie with Davis himself as an Indiana-Jones-type hero. This book, titled The Serpent and the Rainbow, did, indeed, become the basis for the latest Hollywood insult to Haiti, a movie of the same title released to theaters on February 5, 1988, and appropriately made by the director of "A Nightmare on Elm Street."
This book has to read to fully appreciate what Davis is about in his second book, Passage of Darkness, which is advertised as the scholarly product. Leaving aside the pharmacological controversy, the arguments of Davis hang by very thin threads and are related to his efforts to read into Haitian history and contemporary society more sensational and strange happenings than are actually there.
Much of Davis's argument relies on undemonstrated historical connections, beginning with the notion that the structure of the secret societies of West Africa were transferred in Haiti to the mountain communities of escaped slaves (called maroons). During the Haitian Revolution, in a complex twist of historical events, the armies of the ex-slaves of the plantations turned on the maroons, and, then, somehow the maroon communities established their secret societies to maintain order in the ex-slave communities in rural Haiti. Davis's explanation of zombification, then, is that it acts as a device for social control and is carried out by secret societies. Davis's conclusion is that these societies really control rural Haiti.
Davis has major problems with using appropriate sources in his arguments. For much of the historical section in Chapter One of Passage of Darkness he cites the work of a contemporary anthropologist writing on land tenure whose reconstruction of Haitian history comes from secondary sources. Davis's suggestion of the large numbers of maroons (pp. 214-240) is based mainly on Jean Fouchard's unreliable book on The Haitian Maroons (1972), which suggests that there were as many as 40,000 maroons at the time of the Haitian Revolution. Actually the size of the known bands were quite small; the most famous in the 1780s numbered under 200; the percentage of slaves listed as missing on planation inventories averaged about one percent; there was very little room left in Haiti by the 1780s; the colonial administration claimed that it could not find any organized bands in the 1780s; and most of those advertised as missing returned or were caught within ten days. A more accurate figure for maroons by the 1790s would probably be under 5000.
Davis's contention about the historical connection between the alleged maroon society and the alleged contemporary secret societies (pp. 241-272) is based large on the superficial work of Zora Neale Hurston in Tell My Horse (1938). Davis also cites extensively from the contemporary Haitian anthropologist Michel Laguerre's article "Bizango: A Voodoo Secret Society in Haiti," published in Stanton Tefft's edited volume on Secrecy: A Cross-Cultural Perspective (1982). Laguerre suggests that the secret societies try to protect community resources. Laguerre, however, never makes the connection between zombification and the secret societies, a leap that Davis makes with the sentence "If Laguerre's analysis was correct, the implications for the zombie investigation were significant" (238), followed by a few reports from observers, including Hurston, who had heard tales from someone who had heard tales from someone else about secret societies creating zombies.
In his final section trying to explain the secret societies and their power Davis seems confused on several counts, mixing regular Voodoo ceremonies, reciprocal work groups, and men's clubs in a fantasy of bizarre happenings. I have no doubt that I could conduct an unwary non-English-speaking visitor on a highly structured, tightly guided tour around Gainesville, Florida, to the fraternities at the university with their secret handshakes and rites, to Masonic Lodges and other allegedly secret societies, and the visitor could well conclude that these scary organizations exercise some strange power in Gainesville.
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