How Slave Trade Resulted in the First Zombie

Zombies have infested the 21st century. Movies and TV series provide them with kilometers of film rolls where to drag their severed bodies and perform their best blank-eyed stares. Considering the enthusiasm that undead fictional characters trigger within the pop culture, shouldn’t we ask ourselves about their (gloomy) origins? The zombie must have risen through tormented times…

Actually, the term ‘zombie’ is quite a recent entry to our vocabulary. However, deceased people have come to life within mankind’s beliefs since its very beginnings. Ancient Greeks would bury their dead along with tablets carved with mysterious inscriptions, begging their gods to bring them back to life. What’s more, Greek mythology drew a very thin frontier between the dead and the living – as tales of journeys through Hell and miraculous resurrections can account for. Could deceased people be resurrected, as many religions believe?

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In the course of his Twelve Labours, Heracles was to capture Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the entrance of Hell. Other mythological characters, such as Orpheus, Odysseus or Ishtar, also crossed the gates of the underworld. (Engraving by Hans Sebald Beham, 1545, via Wikipedia)

That belief was certainly widespread during Antiquity, but not wished for. Excavations undertaken in ancient graveyards have revealed that Greeks would lay their dead under fragments of pottery or heavy stones so as to prevent them from ‘waking up’. Most of the time, inhumation rituals did not aim at resurrecting cadavers, but at avoiding that they come back to haunt the living! Similar burial traditions have been observed in the Middle-Ages, as archeologists suggested following their digs at Irish, English and Turkish cemeteries. These eerie practices even seemed to vary from place to place: sometimes the cadavers’ big toes would be tied together, or big stones stuck between their jaws. Even later, when the Great Vampire Panic terrified Eastern Europe in the 16th century, people appeared more prone than ever to seal their dead into their graves. A Polish graveyard notoriously displayed cadavers with sharp sickles hanging over their necks… For them, waking up with a start could prove very harmful.

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A skeleton discovered in the village of Drawsko, Poland, had a rusty sickle over its neck… Some experts discounted the vampire theory, but rather suggested that this spooky ritual aimed at protecting the souls of the dead throughout their journey through the underworld. (Source: © Marek Polcyn/Elżbieta Gajda, Antiquity, 2015, via Cambridge.org)

The dead’s unfortunate tendency to come back from the afterlife seemed to have preoccupied the living for ages. Resurrection was common from Egyptian legends to Scandinavian traditions, and featured in the religions of the book. That mythology slowly gave rise to the undead character that we call ‘zombie’ nowadays. But there’s another twist to that story, and it was brought to us from the West Indies.

Haiti, an island located in the Caribbean Sea, happens to be the birthplace of the zombie. The French were ruling the colony since the 17th century, at a time when it was still called Saint-Domingue and nicknamed “the pearl of the Antilles”. A hub of the triangular trade, the island thrived through the production of sugar cane, fueled by hundreds of thousands of slaves imported directly from Africa. The latter had brought with them a religion foreign to the Americas: voodoo.

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History for mathematicians: the triangular trade explained. Next week: the parallelogram-shaped revolution. (Photo credit: GetRevising)

I know what you’re thinking. These days, voodooism is associated with black magic, witchcraft and pins-bristled dolls. But it is not to be mistaken as a sole set of tribal beliefs: slaves departing Africa in the 1700s brought along a vision of the world itself, uniting their gods, nature, and the dead and living people under one banner. Not formally recognized (even banned) by French settlers, voodoo was still secretly practiced by uprooted Africans through difficult times.

Indeed, slaves believed that Baron Samedi, one of the major figures of the voodoo pantheon, would accompany the dead to a second life on the African continent. However, ‘sinners’ and other voodooists found guilty of bad deeds would be blocked the way to a peaceful afterlife, with their souls condemned to wander across the plantations where they died in the first place! Needless to say that, for most slaves, death meant a ticket back to Africa. Would they not access the hereafter, they were likely to be cursed by voodoo wizards, or bokors – voodoo practitioners capable of bringing dead bodies back to life, and then pulling their strings like puppets. Their victims, neither dead nor living, were condemned to eternal servitude; and this nightmarish resurrection turned them into ‘zonbis’, a term borrowed from Haitian creole. This marked the beginning of a mythology that was to last centuries…

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Sugar cane plantations in Haiti: an open-field cemetery throughout the 18th century.

Hence the Africans survived, awaiting death full of hope, across the deadly sugar plantations of Haiti. Slowly but surely, the tide turned: in the wake of the French Revolution (1789) and the struggle for liberty in Europe, Haitian slaves led by Toussaint Louverture revolted against French rule. (This was the largest uprising since Spartacus’, two millenaries ago.)  They achieved independence in 1804, becoming the first nation to abolish slavery and paving the way for introducing similar regulation in the Americas.

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Throughout the struggle, however, thousands of French men, women and children living on the island were decimated regardless of their deeds or enthusiasm for the new regime – a series of even known as the “French Massacre”. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Despite having fought for and won their freedom, former slaves did not drop voodoo, which had comforted them through tough times; this religion, mixed with Christian icons and symbols, even exported to neighboring countries, including the U.S. It would later inspire authors and movie directors to feature the zombie as a scary, bloody character, rising from the grave to terrorize peaceful villagers… This turns the original story around: in Haiti, the zombie was a product of fear, and the living happened to be definitely more frightening than the dead.

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