Zombies of the Caribbean: your guide to zonbi spirits
In Haiti and the Dominican Republic, some people still claim they have the ability to practise magic and command zonbi spirits. Professor Lauren Derby explores the history behind this unique form of Caribbean sorcery
Zombies have long been represented in Hollywood films as the depleted husks of people who have had their souls removed, but that is not necessarily how they function in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
The term ‘zombie’, or zonbi in Haitian Creole, derives from the Central African Kikongo word for spirit, and Haitian talk about zonbis is more centrally concerned with the work done with the disembodied souls rather than the soulless bodies themselves.
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For example, it is believed that zonbis can be harnessed by individuals and sent as supernatural assistants to obtain a favourable outcome in a legal case, or perhaps enact vengeance against a spousal betrayal. They can, it is said, also affect a person who incites accusations of jealousy; Haitian research assistant Georges René even claims that an errant zonbi once affixed itself to his leg, causing so much pain and swelling in the limb that he had to see a specialist to have the zonbi removed.
It is believed that zonbis can be harnessed by individuals and sent as supernatural assistants to obtain a favourable outcome
However, one thing that the Haitian and Dominican zonbi does have in common with Hollywood depictions is its use as a horror emblem. On Hispaniola, the largely negative feelings towards these spirit demons stems from the trauma of colonial conquest, and its enduring effects. The fact that the spirit demon known locally as the baka (part of the same group of shapeshifting spirits as the zonbi) only appears in the form of a dog, horse, cow or pig is significant, since these were the invasive species brought to the island by Christopher Columbus in 1492, which enabled the conquest of the indigenous population. Conquistadores slaughtered people en masse atop their steeds, while dogs were used to hunt down escaped Amerindian rebels. Meanwhile, feral pigs ate people’s staple tuber crops and cattle ravaged their maize, contributing to famine and the eventual collapse of the indigenous Taíno population within two decades.
By the 18th century, bull mastiffs had also become a major export from Cuba, used by the Europeans for hunting fugitive slaves. In addition to the new smells of gunshot, the sounds of these enormous beasts snorting, barking, snarling, braying and stampeding must have been frightening given the silence of the previous landscape; even the dogs that had existed on the island before the invasion (raised by the Taíno as a food source), were a ‘barkless’ breed.
It’s small wonder, then, that such animals have played a continued role in alleged cases of spirit activity. When a man named Javier Cedaño took his own life in 2010 in a small border town in the Dominican Republic, stories emerged that he had been killed by sorcery under the instructions of his cousin and political rival, Roberto, who owned a clandestine herd of black cattle in Haiti (indeed, the term baka likely comes from the Spanish word vaca, meaning ‘cattle’).
But where does the idea that zonbis can be ‘harnessed’ come from in the first place? Zonbi practice has its roots in indigenous Taíno beliefs, such as the idea that spirits could be conveyed into stones or sculptural objects known as zemis, as well as those of West African secret societies like the ‘Leopard Men’ of Nigeria, who claimed to be able to shapeshift into animals at night. Not everyone is believed to possess the requisite skillset to command these spirits, though – it takes a powerful Haitian bòkò (sorcerer) or a member of Haiti’s own secret societies to work with the dead in this way.
For example, in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, there is a man named Hans who serves as an oungan, or vodun priest. As a member of the Sampwèl secret society, Hans commands a spectral battalion of mò – or spirits – through the skull of another oungan who once served as his mentor in the sorcery arts. Hans also carries out his work using a collection of red and black cloth figurines, representing spirits that can be sent on zonbi expeditions, while another group of mercenaries is represented by a cluster of wooden chairs, which are bound together with twisted ropes and hung upside down from the ceiling of his atelier (workshop).
Ritual specialists like Hans play a key role in directing disembodied spirits, which, on their own, are thought to wreak tremendous havoc; after the 2010 Haitian earthquake, it was said that thousands of unburied dead became loup garou spirit demons that caused furniture to fly out of second-storey windows. The zonbi is thus said to be a spirit of the dead that is trapped and conveyed by the invisible hand of a mystical agent.
Stories such as these are not unique. Popular narratives about zonbis and bakas often take the form of devil pact tales, which link exorbitant profit with death. During the US Marine occupation of Haiti in the 1920s, for example, there were rumours that the American-owned sugar company HASCO had an army of phantom zonbis working clandestinely – something that was thought could explain the company’s extraordinary profits.
Similarly, suspicions also arise when foreign technology is implemented in rural areas, where it stands out against the landscape. At the Manicera peanut oil factory in Bánica – a cattle-ranching town in the Dominican Republic – rumours once spread during that the site was plagued by an army of invisible bakas which had been sent by workers engaging in theft. Meanwhile, in the 1980s, another baka was also alleged to have seen inside a Dominican garment assembly plant, punching the time clock and making blood appear in the toilets. The employees became so alarmed by the activities that they refused to work altogether, causing the plant to shut down for a short time. When a worker died in an accident on the shop floor, they blamed the spirit demon.
However, the loathsome baka is not just a figure of diabolical nature. It is also a figure of race, since Haitians are said to be the only ones with magical powers sufficiently strong enough to carry out this mystical work. This corresponds with the fact that Haiti had a slave majority during its 18th-century sugar boom, and African-derived religious practices were long maligned as ‘black magic’ by the colonial leadership.
When a worker died in an accident on the shop floor, they blamed the spirit demon
Specifically, using baka spirits to change into animal form was most notorious as a reputed technique of slave camouflage during the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), with the Maroon leader François Makandal said to have hidden from the authorities by turning himself into a pig. Even recent political figures have been alleged to possess shapeshifting abilities, such as Clément Barbot, the imprisoned chief aide to former Haitian dictator François Duvalier, who is said to have escaped from jail by turning into a black dog. Duvalier is thought to have been so livid at Barbot’s jailbreak that he called for all the dogs of Port-au-Prince to be slaughtered on sight.
Overall, the spirit demons of Hispaniola might conjure dread for most people on the island, but they are also valued, since they are thought to help solve everyday problems, such as obtaining travel visas to the US or providing protection against bullets during skirmishes. Haitians and Dominicans may often be on the receiving end of baka depredations, but they both ‘need’ this form of sorcery, since it enables them to bolster their reputations through storytelling, as they boast about either becoming an animal or bravely fending off these spirit demons.
Lauren Derby is a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is currently completing a book entitled Werewolves and Other Bêtes Noirs: Sorcery as History in the Haitian-Dominican Borderlands
This article was first published in the April 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed