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3.17.2017

Haitian Traditional Medicine and Voodoo: Intersection as Means for Healing and Liberation

Friends, it is with immense pleasure that I present a paper that I just wrote for my History of Medicine class. This paper kind of serves as a love letter to my ancestors and to my culture. For those of you who are not familiar with my website, I aim to explore the uses of Haitian traditional medicine and the social, cultural, political, historical, and spiritual meaning as well. I used this paper as an opportunity to delve deeper into the history of my people and explore the actual development of our herbal traditions, as well as our spiritual tradition of Voodoo. Ultimately, I am interested in how traditional healing and spiritual practices served and still serve as acts of resistance, in the face of oppression. I hope this paper sparks your curiosity and encourages you to learn a bit more about my wonderful culture. In full disclosure, I am not yet a master herbalist and I am not a member of the voodoo religion, so this paper is very much based on academic knowledge and research. I hope this paper is as respectful and accurate as possible! Your respectful comments and feedback are very much appreciated. Mèsi.





“The Savages have grand esteem for this plant, and not without reason…”
- Jean-Baptiste Dutertre, Histoire générale des Antilles Habitées


Haitians have been using traditional medicine practices for hundreds of years. Starting in their native continent of Africa, to the slave ships that brought them to Saint-Domingue to the land of Hispaniola during colonialism, up to present day Haiti, Haitians have continued to redefine the ways in which they seek and use healing.  Traditional medicine-that is to say, the use of specific plants, minerals, and other natural materials- remains one of the most popular avenues for addressing various maladies. I aim to explore the traditional healing practices Haitians have engaged in to take care of individual and societal healthcare needs, and how Voodoo has helped synthesize and systemize that knowledge. Voodoo, a spiritual practice originating in Africa, contains the lexicon of these healing practices. Voodoo has served not only as a spiritual rock for Africans and African diaspora during and post slave-trade, but as the keeper of much of the healing knowledge.  In more ways than one, the adaptation of Voodoo during and post- transatlantic slave trade was a direct response to this forced immigration, where slaves faced horrifying inhumane conditions.  With limited access to proper care, slaves had to navigate a new territory and a new identity in order to form a system to help them survive daily life.  Through much effort and cross-cultural collaboration, slaves were able to familiarize themselves with local herbal resources in Hispaniola. Many of the holistic healing practices used during colonial Haiti are still used today.  For clarification purposes, when I refer to “traditional”, “alternative”, “holistic”, and “natural” medicine and/or healing, I am referring to the use of specific plants, minerals, concoctions etc., with the intention of healing various ailments, ranging from the physical to the metaphysical. I would like to explore how the creation of these healing and spiritual tools reflected the resistance and resilience of the slaves in the face of one of the most inhumane periods in history. This paper serves as a journey with brief stops from the shores of the African coast, to the slave ships crossing the Middle Passage, to the arrival in the New World, to the sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue, all the way to modern day Haiti, analyzing the ways in which traditional medicine and spiritual practices have provided a means for radical self and community care. 


The Transatlantic slave trade, as indicated by its name, was not a linear phenomenon. It was comprised of an intricate relationship between Western Europe, Africa, and the New World. Slaves who arrived on the shores of Saint-Domingue beginning in the sixteenth century, came from all along the Western coast of Africa, including Senegal, Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Benin to name a few (Beauvoir). Slaves were considered property- lower human or non-human- purchased to perform labor, for the production of worldly luxuries including cotton, tobacco, and sugar. The transportation of slaves from Africa to America took an average of two months, where slaves were handcuffed and placed in closed proximity or packed on top of each other, without privacy, and with an extremely limited amount of food and water. It is here, on the slave ships where slaves had their first encounter with terrible life-threatening foreign illnesses, including scurvy, influenza, smallpox, tuberculosis and measles (Covey 9). With little to no access of medical care, slave ships were marked by death in more ways than one; blacks died because of poor sanitary conditions, illness, murder (being beaten to death, being thrown overboard, etc.), and suicide.  Upon arrival to the New World, slaves had the enormous burden of being viewed as laboring property. This led to an indelicate balance of actually needing to be cared for in terms of maintaining their health to increase their productivity,  and not being treated well enough because of being seen as unworthy of medical care.  On the plantations of Saint-Domingue slaves had harsh exposure to the elements and unimaginably poor living conditions and long, miserable, back-breaking work days. They also suffered from malnutrition and nutrition deficiency-namely protein, iron, and Vitamin B (Covey, 8). Child slaves, who were by no means exempt from the daily work requirements, were especially susceptible to the European diseases of chicken pox, mumps, and measles. Adults on the other hand suffered from sickle cell anemia (which was actually protective against malaria), ulcers, cholera, diphtheria, fractured bones and other wounds from violence, as well as fevers and sun stroke. All slaves, regardless of age, suffered from pica (the result of eating clay, out of starvation), parasites and worms.

Now that we have more of an understanding of the types of health challenges slaves faced- physically, mentally, emotionally, we can look at how exactly they were able to get medical care. The social status of slaves was lower than anyone else in colonial Saint-Domingue. Because slaves were seen as innately inferior and biologically distinct from whites, with different susceptibilities, needs, and reactions, they were victims of another form of violence; neglect.  This further reinforced the identity of black as “other”. Slaves were often given fake medicine (such as sugar pills), experimented on for the sake of medical research, or ignored to fend for themselves (Covey 30). We must not forget that during this period of the 16th and 17th century, most of the medical and scientific knowledge we have today, was not even close to being known. However, whites were provided with the utmost care that was available for that time period. The blacks in Saint-Domingue were left with the task of exploring this new land, identifying healing plants and natural items, and collaborating with each other, as well as the native Caribs. The cost of medical care at the time, the poor understanding of disease, the hierarchical oppressive social structure, and the dire need for care, all contributed to the necessity for creating another system of medicine.
Slaves, who originated from dozens of tribes, and from vastly different lands, were tasked with the challenge of finding common ground and contributing to the healing of their community.  Fortunately, many of the plants that found in West and Central Africa were also found in the New World. African herbalism was and still is a very oral tradition, so slaves who were in the lineage of healing work, were able to use their skills to identify healing substances in this new territory.  In this way, herbalism was in constant flux, as slaves adapted to their new environment. Now, since Saint-Domingue was a completely new land for slaves, there was a need to collaborate with the local native tribes, who faced their own immense health challenges, given the arrival of the Spanish and French.  Saint-Domingue was their land, and was actually called Ayiti (which would later become, Haiti), meaning “land of many mountains”. Other names for the land were Kiskeya and Bohio (Beauvoir). The native peoples of Saint-Domingue mainly were the Taino, Arawak, and Caribs, whose population was drastically diminishing due to new European diseases and violence from colonial forces.  So here, we have two oppressed groups, navigating different but intersecting challenges, who needed to collaborate for sheer survival.  This necessity allowed these two groups to transcend numerous boundaries- of culture, language, circumstance, etc.- and come together to co-create a type of medicine that addressed more than just physical health.  The traditional medicine system the slaves and native peoples of Saint-Domingue created transformed into a deep medicine of revolution.  The indigenous peoples of the land assisted slaves not only in identifying plants and other methods of healing the physical body, but they contributed shamanic and spiritual elements of their traditions as well.


“Haitian vodou derived from African Vodun but it appropriated the shamanic magic of the natives- Taino, Arawaks, Caribs- and of Christianity. Every people possess its own culture as a means of survival.”
-Mimerose Beaubrun (262)


At the same time that this alternative medicine system was being created, Voodoo or Vodou was also born.  Healing now came from herbs and supernatural divination. In the same way that slaves of vastly different cultural heritages had to come together to cocreate a new unified subculture of Caribbean herbalism, is the way they came together to create a new, powerful, and unifying spiritual practice.  This spiritual practice is Voodoo, a monotheistic religion, comprised of a pantheon of deities.  Taking into account nature and the cosmos, Voodoo acknowledges that life is about energy, and that there are visible and invisible levels of consciousness, as well as multiple dimensions of reality. Many Haitians today identify their cultural heritage with that of Benin, Nigeria and Congo precisely because of the strong tie to the Vodoun practiced in these countries, which was brought over to the New World in the hearts, minds, and souls of the slaves.


“Voodoo is a vital living body of ideas and behaviors carried in time by its practitioners and responsive to the changing character of social life.”
- Alfred Metraux


Traditional medicine looked like many things in now 17th and 18th century Saint-Domingue. First and foremost, there was food as medicine. Apart from the gruel and animal remains that slaves were fed, slaves also identified and consumed healing foods such as yam, plantains, leafy greens, and other herbs collected in the wild. Slaves wore talismans as protection from physical and spiritual violence. Herbalists, now familiar with the landscape of Saint-Domingue, were able to use a vast materia medica of herbs. Traditionally, hougans (male priest) and manbo (female priestess) were the guardians of this ancestral tradition, originating in Africa. They were also the gatekeepers of much of the herbal knowledge.  In colonial Saint-Domingue, Doktè-Fèy (leaf doctor), fanm-chaj (midwife) and gangas (healers), also played major roles in the healing community on the plantations (Weaver), . These spiritual and medical community leaders knew how to collect, prepare, and utilize plants and herbs to heal people’s ailments.  They knew how to pay attention to the rhythms of the universe, by the position of the moon, sun, planets, and stars.  These healers saw natural medicine as a channel for energy, which could be used both for healing and for harm. They were, however seen as demonic, since Saint-Domingue was a Christian colony. These healers were also demonized because of the power and influence that they had in the slave community, which was undeniably threatening to the white power, which was determined to keeping them in chains.  Healers of Eighteenth century Saint-Domingue were often jailed (as if slavery wasn’t enough of jail) and killed as an act of terror. This violence necessitated an element of secrecy on the part of the healers to protect the magic of the knowledge from being stolen and abused first and foremost, but also to protect themselves and their community from harm.  Ironically, given the nature of the times, where many diseases remained medical mysteries, where there was still limited knowledge about curing diseases, where medical doctors were desperate to find the next cure, it was actually the Haitian slave healers who held the knowledge of how to cure diseases. Many of the cures they found are still used to this day, in present day Haiti.


“Plants, among other things, can deliver many secrets...”
-Mimerose Beaubrun (69)

According to a 2009 Pubmed published article, almost half of the herbal remedies (called medsin fey or leaf medicine)  surveyed in one particular Haitian community, were used to treat gastro-intestinal complaints and afflictions of the respiratory system. The other half of the remedies treated various infections (ranging from respiratory to sexual), skin afflictions (such as wounds and burns), and kidney infections (Volpato). It should not be surprising that traditional medicine used in colonial Saint-Domingue addressed the same maladies.  Though this time period was hundreds of years prior, the enslaved healers of Haiti were able to understand the anatomy and physiology, structure and function, and classification of body fluids, organs, cavities, etc.  They believed that an individual got sick because of susceptibility or because of an attack; both of which could be spiritual, emotional and/or physical. Whether they knew that their medicine would transcend space and time remains a mystery. But what does not remain a mystery is the sheer efficacy of their remedies.  Though the slaves had no way of proving or displaying the scientific and biological efficacy of these plants (which is only one way of knowing), these remedies would eventually be studied and their efficacy verified by western science, hundreds of years later.  


“The roots of the Ginen tree go deep. It is an ancient science…”

-Mimerose Beaubrun (53)


Picture of Castor Oil flower
Herbal medicine was used for prophylaxis, for cure, and for protection of various forms.  The integration of herbal knowledge within the context of voodoo allowed for the understanding and the  healing work of the herbs to go beyond the understanding of their mere biological effects on the body’s symptoms. It acknowledged the main universal forces, the earthly elements, and most importantly, the role of the individual within the context of community. Common prophylactic treatments included being in community and living an ethical and conscious life, dancing specific steps to the beat of specific drum sounds, taking spiritual baths, wearing protective talismans, and consuming/applying herbal formulas. Slave narratives of the time document the cleaning of wounds with tafia, the creole word for alcohol, which was specifically made for and consumed by slaves. Wounds were cleaned and dressed with Digitaria insularis, known as “Sourgrass” in English. Bone dislocations and fractures were healed with Eupatorium perfoliatum, or “Boneset” in English. Fevers were reduced with Tanacetum perforatum, known as “Feverfew” in modern Western Herbalism. The everyday shocks of living every day as a slave, were calmed with what Haitians still call langue chat, commonly known in English as catnip (Nepata cataria). Perhaps the most famous, most popular, and most beloved cure of Haitians today, was used in the plantations fields over 400 years ago. This effective anti-inflammatory liniment is called l’huile palma christi, commonly known as castor oil. Records show that l’huile palma christi was used in colonial Saint-Domingue to treat muscular pain and various inflammatory issues, just as it is used today (Weaver, 71).  But castor oil was also used to treat one of the most horrendous and common diseases of the time- tetanus. Lachoy or sage (Salvia occidentalis), Corossol or soursop (Anona muriatica), Ti sanit or senna (Cassia obovata)  were all used as strengthening prophylactic herbs, treasured for their high nutritional value. This is just a mere sampling of the vast pharmacopeia that revolutionary enslaved healers co-created throughout centuries of immense oppression.  It is beyond impressive that despite the unimaginable obstacles of being captured from their homeland, transported across the seas, brought to a new and foreign land, and forced to work and live like animals, slaves were able to perform the audacious and necessary act of developing a revolutionary and effective healing system.


Voodoo and herbal medicine were acts of resistance in a time of oppression.  They existed in a pool of revolutionary fervor, that would ultimately inspire an unstoppable uprising in the final years of the eighteenth century. This would eventually lead to the first and only successful uprising of slaves in human history; the Haitian Revolution.  This revolution would crown Haiti as independent from French rule in 1804- over sixty years before slavery was abolished in the U.S. In this way, herbal medicine is revolutionary.  As Max Beauvoir, Ph.D (the late former High Priest of Voodoo) stated, Voodoo served to link “the individual to his/her global social and cosmological environment; this form of medicine goes beyond” (Beauvoir). In this way, voodoo is revolutionary.  The slaves of Saint-Domingue have provided us with a rich cultural inheritance of herbal and spiritual knowledge, rooted in ancestral African cosmology.  By braving through the fire of slavery and defying unimaginable odds to create a thing of such beauty and power, the slaves of Saint-Domingue demonstrated the heights that revolutionary spirits could achieve, no matter the obstacle.


Mèsi (Thank you).


Works Cited:
  1. Mimerose Beaubrun, Nan Domi: A Journey into Haitian Vodou. City Lights Books, 2013.
  2. Karol Weaver, Medical Revolutionaries: The Enslaved Healers of Eighteenth-Century Saint Domingue. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
  3. Herbert C. Covey, African American Slave Medicine: Herbal and non-Herbal Treatments, Lexington Books, 2007.
  4. Max G. Beauvoir, Ph.D, Temple of Yehwe (www.vodou.org)
  5. Volpato, Gabriel, et. al. Use of medicinal plants by Haitian immigrants and their descendants in the Province of Camaguey, Cuba. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. 2009, May 18.


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