Rastafari and Vodou

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The first attempt by Christopher Columbus to chart a direct trading route from Spain to India was blocked by land previously unknown to Western Society. Assuming the possibility of sailing due east, rather than around the horn of Africa to reach India, Columbus ran into the West Indies of the Caribbean "discovering" the New World. This accidental initial contact in 1492 would set into motion monumental events in world history. For the next three centuries conquest, slavery, and colonization would create a blending and clashing of Native, European, and African cultures in this area of many islands and coastlines of South America, Central America, and North America. New cultures were created through the mingling of separate cultures due to European conquest and the subsequent slave system used to cultivate economic interests. The Haitian Vodou tradition and the Jamaican Rastafarian movement developed out of similar histories, each with their own ideology, theology, and social functions. Although these two religions share many elements, it is interesting to recognize the distinct developments created out of shared circumstances. In comparing and contrasting the Haitian and Jamaican experiences, I am going to focus on three themes that are consistent in both: history of oppression, Africanism and Christian influence. Both experiences grew out of systems of slavery and subsequent racism. It is interesting to recognize how African traditions were maintained in both instances and how they are incorporated in the Vodou tradition and the Rastafarian movement. It is also interesting how each respond differently to Christian influences. The use of slave labor flourished throughout the Caribbean from the beginning of European colonialism in the 16th century until slavery was abolished in the middle 19th century. Although Haitian slaves overthrew their French oppressors and gained independence in 1804, they shared a similar fate with Jamaican slaves whom were emancipated by Great Britain in 1838. Economic opportunity and social systems remained unchanged for black people, while the ones keeping a firm grip on the reigns of power were white or mullatto. Both Haitian and Jamaican slaves were stolen from many different traditional African cultural groups, bringing to the mix a variance of cultural aspects. They were able to preserve their African heritage through oral tradition and subcultures of secrecy. In Haiti, this preservation remained a constant through the formation and practice of Vodou. In Jamaica, similar cultural preservation was accomplished as can be observed in Myalism. When the Rastafarian movement arose in the early 20th century, Africanism was redefined. "The common sense of identity/solidarity is expressed in the Rastafarian embrace of their African past, their recognition of the historical suffering of Africans at the hands of colonial masters, their shared sense of acute pain that comes from living in the underside of Jamaican society, and their common struggle for liberation from oppression and injustice." (Edmonds 353) Traditional African cosmologies and beliefs having to do with polytheism, magic, and worship, were disregarded. An African nationalism arose as Rastafarians created a strong self identity mixing ancient African history and Biblical teachings with ideals of rural yeoman living, which led to how Rastafarians choose to live by strict principles and the core Rastafarian belief of repatriation. Christianity influences both the Vodou tradition and the Rastafarian movement, but in dissimilar manners. Vodou embraces Catholic ideology, incorporating many of its symbols, ceremonies, and supernatural pantheon. Vodou practitioners see no discord with the acceptance of the Catholic Church, it is often said that Haiti is 90% Catholic and 100% Vodou. The Rastafarian movement denounces ecclesiastical traditions, the idea of Babylon as any system of beurocracy and ruling control, being...
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