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American Religious Empire and the Caribbean

Summary and Keywords

America has been closely linked to the Caribbean since at least the Age of Revolutions. Across the Atlantic World, revolutions in France, Santo Domingo, and the eastern United States drastically changed interlocked understandings of citizenship, religion, and freedom. From the 19th century onward, imperial views and laws about religions developed from prerevolutionary era roots. The dominant understandings of Caribbean religious history are those of migration, diaspora, syncretism, and diversity. Studying how the American religious empire worked to regulate and control the religious practices in the Caribbean shows how the distinct religions associated with the region—Obeah, Santeria, and Vodou, for example—developed. It is impossible to study the Caribbean without centering on the processes of Anglo-European colonization and the forced migration of enslaved peoples predominantly, but not only, from Africa. Labor and economic concerns underline nearly every Caribbean religious culture that exploded in the region from the colonial period onward.

Keywords: Caribbean, religion and empire, region and religion, religion and slavery, colonialism

Historical and Historiographical Background

The story of American religious empire and religion in the Caribbean is a narrative of uneven and unequal freedoms. The geography of the islands, alongside the diversity of indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans, indentured laborers, imperialists, and would-be colonizers, gave rise to accounts of religion in the region tied to power, transformation, and migration. Margarite Olmos argues, “The Caribbean was site of the world’s first multicultural experiment, the locus of diversity, the cradle of ethnic and cultural syncreticism.” Those that study the religious history of the region find that, “the Caribbean does not readily open itself to scrutiny, that it does not willingly yield its secrets to newcomers, that its kernel is wrapped in layers of ambiguity, that it hides behind languages and cultures adept at ‘signification.’”1 In colonial settings, religion gave exploited peoples a language with which to understand their position in the world. Caribbean religious traditions had to both rely on and overcome their situatedness within imperial governance. Therefore, these religions cannot be separated from revolution and independence movements.

Religion in the Caribbean is likewise tied to scholarship on hybridity. But against any attempts to fit it into a narrow frame of “hybridity,” “syncreticism,” or “glocalization,” it is possible to argue that in many Caribbean locations, successful revolt did not change the imperial framework. As J. W. Pulis notes, “When we think of syncretization we tend to think in terms of the past as historical process, Caribbean culture as the product of an African-European encounter that led to formation of creole societies and what we know today as the modern Caribbean.” Pulis argues that scholarship on religion in the Caribbean must become a “process of postcolonial creolization” that takes into account the shifting and the mobile, to be a new reworking of Caribbean peoples who do not live with the fixed, timeless categories that historically constitute ideas of hybridity.2

Historiographically, Caribbean religions are often studied as survivals and hybrid cultural traditions made up of indigenous Caribs, enslaved peoples, and Euro-American colonizers. These traditions reflect not only syncretic or hybridizing processes, but also what Charles Long calls the “religions of the oppressed.” He argues, “Their religious experience and the forms of its expression reveal a critique of community and a fascination with the possibility and hope of intimacy. The veil, the double consciousness, is a critical stance, and they speak of primordial experiences and histories as the locus of new resources not yet categorized and rationalized by the communities under criticism.”3 Long writes that for oppressed peoples, the power of myth provided a language to discover the fictive truth of their status under the oppressor, and a path forward toward “creating a new form of humanity” that was no longer based on the master-slave dialectic.4

Imperial governance in the Caribbean took a number of forms. In the colonial era, which did not conclude in any real sense until near the end of the 19th century, when it was replaced by US imperialism, governance mostly took the form of European institutions linked to both religious and military power. As historians argue, modern Caribbean history can be divided into three periods based on European activity in the region. The first period, which Ennis Edmonds and Michelle Gonzalez call “exploration to emancipation,” roughly 1492 to 1838, covers most of the slave period; the second, 1838 though the 1960s, extends from “emancipation to independence,” a period that highlights how long the fight for political independence was for much of the Caribbean; and, finally, the third is “independence to the present,” which for them points toward the shift between global politics and the Caribbean as both a center and periphery.5 These authors argue that the economic, social, and religious developments in the region reflected European and, more recently, American interests, and that it is not until the 21st century that Caribbean religions became world religions.

The historiography of Caribbean religions places the sea as part of larger Atlantic World structures. Scholarship on the Red, Jewish, and Black Atlantic has recently joined histories of the French, British, and Spanish Atlantic and added to our knowledge of how religion functioned in the Caribbean. Colonial-era empires and, later, the independent countries in the Caribbean were always connected to larger global concerns and economic issues. Compared to other studies of Americas global religious empire, the Caribbean still often appears as a historiographical backwater, especially after the shocks of the Haitian Revolution disrupted the sugar trade. American religious empire expanded across the Greater Antilles and at various points has included Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, and Cuba, and sometimes includes Trinidad and Tobago. As the growing American religious empire explored its connections to the Caribbean from the 19th century onward, it drew on long-standing networks of trade and power. Religion, and the power to define what counted as religion, was associated with questions of citizenship, race, and law.


For nearly three hundred years before the United States began to exert control over the region, the Caribbean was central to developing European empires. In the Colonial Era, the Dutch, Danish, British, Spanish, and French empires competed over the Caribbean Islands. The many and varied attempts at colonization often came at the expense of indigenous populations, who were often killed by colonizers, died from disease, or forced into enslavement. Catholics and Protestant missionaries worked to convert what they viewed as heathen, godless populations. Religion helped empires cement their identities against competing imperial ambitions and fostered ties across the globe.6

The island of Hispaniola was part and parcel of the developing religious Atlantic World. Reflecting the economic prosperity of some, Saint-Domingue was often called the “Pearl of Antilles” or the “Eden of the Western World.”7 Under French reign, it was the empire’s most economically successful colony as exports of sugar and, later, coffee, indigo, and cotton, began to be exported at an ever-increasing pace. The island became an unforgiving home for over 500,000 enslaved Africans.8 For most of the 18th century, the French colony was the leading exporter of these tropical commodities. The French also established the central legal grounds for understanding proper religion. In 1685, the France’s Code Noir made religion, specifically Catholicism, the defining feature of the identity of its empire by requiring all slaves to be baptized as Roman Catholics.9 This policy would have severe consequences in defining race, religion, and civilization over the next 150 years.

British protestant missionaries likewise used the plantation economy of the Caribbean to gain converts. One of the major struggles of the 18th century was the debate over conversion within colonized spaces. In colonial parishes across the 18th-century Caribbean, missionaries fought with the imperial metropolises for the right to preach the gospel.10 As with many Atlantic World locations, slaveholders in the Caribbean were often suspicious of Christians who wanted covert their slaves. Although Methodists and Moravians had success in several locations in Jamaica, it was often because the slaveholders were themselves experiencing religious revival.11 Normally, Christians who wanted to work in the British Caribbean navigated the small spaces allowed by slaveholders and imperial governors. The messages they preached varied by island, but a general theme emerged—that of “Christian meekness,” which promised rewards in heaven for current suffering.12 The tensions between the Caribbean colonies and the imperial centers increased during the 18th century as calls for abolition grew in the British Empire.13

Religion and Revolutions

In the American religious empire, the 19th century was an especially unsettled time, especially after the Age of Revolutions. Newly freed peoples and nations worked to establish themselves amid waning European influence and increasing American power, but their efforts were often met with strange suspicion and sometimes outright resistance. American religious empire in the long 19th century frequently represented Caribbean religions as a threat to economic development; it also viewed the islands as place of conversion. The issue of Caribbean religion shifted between concerns of the civilized and the savage, between official and unofficial, and between legal and illegal practices.

For the new United States, ties to the Caribbean built on centuries of continued trade in commodities, bodies, and religions. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, these networks were transformed by the revolutions that formed around the principles of liberty and natural rights. Revolutions in the Americas, France, Spain, Brazil, and Saint Domingue, among others, challenged the power of Atlantic World empires to define the rights of citizens.14 Between 1776, at the start of the American Revolution, until the end of the Spanish American War for Independence, the shockwaves of conflict and struggle challenged and, in many instances, reinforced the connections between race and religion.15 The growing number of anticolonial struggles against imperial powers slowly and unevenly emancipated enslaved peoples across the Caribbean and challenged long-standing European conceptions of citizenship. Historian Walter Johnson names the area from Haiti to Cuba to New Orleans, the “Archipelago of fear” in reference to slaveholders’ growing perception of the potential for slave insurrections.16

The Haitian Revolution, 1791–1804, led by Toussaint Louverture, however, had the greatest effect on American religious empire in the Caribbean. The early American political leaders, such as George Washington, helped to establish what would be a proslavery foreign policy by giving arms and ammunition to French planters in Saint Domingue to aid in suppressing the rebellion.17 Imperial powers often blamed religion as the catalyst for the revolution.18 Accounts of the events at the start of the revolution usually begin with the Bois Caïman ceremony, in August 1791, that gave the rebelling slaves either religious, or magical, powers depending on who did the work of classification. Haiti’s early forays into global politics reflected the concerns over Vodou, and it was banned by the Haitian government after the revolution. Within the Black Republic, Vodou, religion, and superstition were linked to civilization and national sovereignty.19 Ramsey, for example, argues that laws and statutes were used to criminalize “particular ritual practices” and “forms of assembly” that were associated with Vodou, as “crimes of ‘poisoning,’ ‘profanation,’ and ‘sorcery’ came increasingly to be merged together in white dread of black resistance.”20 Religion, for Europeans and Americans looking to the region following the revolution, was tantamount to dread.21

From its position in the Caribbean, then, the Haitian Revolution challenged the early American republic to define the grounds on which it would view the region as a whole. Americans also viewed Haiti through a lens of anti-Catholicism.22 The news from Haiti both helped to reinforce and challenged the systems of slavery in the southern United States, Brazil, Jamaica, and Cuba, among other Latin American countries. In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, enslaved peoples parodied the Catholic mass to intimidate plantation owners, “The bread we eat is white man’s flesh. The wine we drink is white man’s blood. Remember St. Domingo.”23 Afro-Caribbean religious practices that had been carried out in secrecy during the colonial period now came to shape the American religious empire, even as it sought to control new territories and peoples. For Europeans and Americans looking to the region following the Haitian Revolution, religion was linked to its revolutionary potential and as such required the American religious empire to enforce the boundaries of acceptable religion.24

In the 19th century, the social order created from race, religion, and democracy relied on a fear of slave religion and slave rebellion.25 In the 1850s, for example, the Knights of the Golden Circle formed around the idea of creating a slaveholding empire. Although the group was numerically small and spread across the slaveholding American South and into some cities in the North, it was representative of how Americans had come to view the Caribbean as a region to be civilized and exploited.26 The Knights tied into the religio-racial identity of the Caribbean by emphasizing the uncivilized aspects of enslaved and formerly enslaved people living on the islands.

After the Haitian Revolution established the first Black Republic in the world, gradual emancipation moved slowly across the Caribbean. It took Haiti itself several decades to free its enslaved peoples. In 1833, the British Empire emancipated slaves the West Indies.27 This led to large-scale shifts in populations because uneven degrees of freedom surrounding labor on plantations. Around the Haitian revolution, White French Planters moved with their slaves who had not been granted total freedom fled to British, Spanish, and Dutch-held territories. British territories imported a large number of indentured servants from India and China after abolishing slavery. These immigration patterns changed the religious and social dynamics of the Caribbean as Cuba was the last country to emancipate slaves, in 1886.

Fredrick Douglass offered another version of American religious empire in the late 19th century in a speech at the Haitian Pavilion at the Chicago World’s Fair, in 1893. Calling Haiti the “original emancipator of the 19th century,” he continued:

It was her one brave example that first of all started the Christian world into a sense of the Negro’s manhood. I was she who first awoke the Christian world to a sense of “the danger of goading too far the energy that slumbers in a black man's arm.” Until Haiti struck for freedom, the conscience of the Christian world slept profoundly over slavery. It was scarcely troubled even by a dream of this crime against justice and liberty. The Negro was in its estimation a sheep like creature, having no rights which white men were bound to respect, a docile animal, a kind of ass, capable of bearing burdens, and receiving strips from a white master without resentment, and without resistance. The mission of Haiti was to dispel this degradation and dangerous delusion, and to give to the world a new and true revelation of the black man’s character. This mission she has performed and performed it well.28

Haiti, he stated, was not savage but had earned, and continued to earn, its status as a peer of America. Though underdeveloped, according to Americans, Haiti had paid for its own telegraph cables, created laws and its own government, and worked every day to raise its status among other “civilized states.” Douglass’s speech challenged the imperial connections between Haiti, and the country’s apparent backwardness, and connected the island’s future to well-known narratives of religion and progress. Indeed, for Douglass, American liberty and freedom could only be understood in terms of Haiti’s Christian emancipatory roots.29

American Imperialism

The dominant understanding of American as religious empire begins with the Spanish-American War, in 1898.30 American religious empire expanded rapidly across the globe in the late 19th century. At different points, the Roman Catholic Church, historically more associated with Spanish empire than with the French in the Latin American and the Caribbean context, was represented as ally or enemy of American interests.31 Cuba was the focal point of this process; in the 1840s and 1850s, three different American presidents attempted to buy in the island from Spain.32 The political currency of religion manifested itself as strongly anti-Spanish Catholic and used the centuries-old myth of the Black Legend to justify an increasing military presence in the Caribbean and Pacific world.33 In the Caribbean, the Spanish-American War officially transferred Cuba and Puerto Rico to the United States.

American occupation of the Caribbean reached its peak in the early 20th century. Following the 19th-century-provisions laid out in the Monroe Doctrine, American empire spread to occupy Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Haiti, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. American Protestant reformers, often backed by the military power of the United States, aspired to bring social and moral change to the world.34 The Caribbean was also the sight of the growth of massive business interests that eagerly invested in railroads, sugar, and fruit plantations.

Christian nationalism helped to guide Americans during the Spanish-American War and the subsequent expansion into the Caribbean. Josiah Strong helped theologize the conflict in religio-racial terms. He argued that the “Anglo-Saxon” must wage war against “Spanish tyranny” in an effort to bring civilization and proper religion to the people of the Caribbean. This helped legitimize white America’s interest in the region and provided political and military intervention there with a sense of divine mission. In his view, Protestant Americans, not Spanish Catholics, could help uplift the islanders. Indeed, those who supported the war measured the lack of civilization in the Caribbean in terms of religious failure, not as the result of colonial exploitation.35 Preaching to the African American Frist Congregational Church in Atlanta, in 1898, Henry Hugh Proctor argued that it was not a white war, but a war for the nation as a whole. He contended, “The real reason why the duty of the hour demands our loyalty is in this. Our country is engaged in a righteous war. It is war for larger liberty. The freedom of manhood, the purity of womanhood, the future of childhood—these are in the womb of this struggle. It is an appeal to the highest sentiments.”36 Rooted in the claims of American religious empire, anti-Catholicism was attached to concerns of freedom and liberty, not economic gain. American military control increased into the 1920s, reaching its zenith when US military forces occupied the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924 and Haiti from 1915 to 1934.

Caribbean religion remained a focus of Americans after World War I. African American intellectuals, such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, wrote about slave religion as survivals, where “New World Negros (re)made the West in their own image.”37 Hurston visited Haiti in 1936, and, shortly after the trip, wrote her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. In 1937, she traveled to the Caribbean again, this time producing Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti, which detailed the practices, rituals, and beliefs of Vodou. C. L. R. James, writing about Caribbean independence in 1938, argued that Vodou was central to understanding the Haitian Revolution. Echoing American concerns, James argued that “Voodoo was the conspiracy” that helped spread Louverture’s revolution.38 The building of pan-Africanness and pan-Caribbeanness that developed in the early to mid-twentieth century, built on earlier works by W. E. B. Dubois and reflected Africa as both “historical reality and religious image.”39

As God’s chosen people, Americans in the second half of the 20th century looked at the Caribbean with increasing anxiety. In the 1930s, the United States approached the Caribbean with a Good Neighbor policy after the failures of the earlier occupation.40 The interest in spreading religious freedom, however, was short-lived as the realities of American religious empire worked to limit the spread of radicalism and atheistic communism. During the Cold War, Cuba was once again the focal point of Americans concerns, as the United States and the Soviet Union carried out global geopolitics in the Caribbean. For most of the 20th century, Cuba and the United States, especially Florida, were closely tied by trade and tourism.41 After Fidel Castro gained power, American evangelicals grew concerned over the attacks on religious institutions on the island. Because the evangelicals hoped to save Cubans experiencing the violence of Castro’s leadership, they increasingly framed their work in apocalyptic theology. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1961 solidified the American religious empire as Christian liberals and conservatives both worked to gain control over American foreign policy. This led to one plan, among many others considered, called “Elimination by Illumination” that involved the Central Intelligence Agency faking the Second Coming of Christ, which, the agency believed, would led all Christian Cubans to rise up and overthrow the communist government.42 The Cold War helped, in short, to grow a sense of the American religious empire as attached to national security and a belief that it alone could provide world salvation.43

Postcolonial Independence Movements

Over the course of the 20th century, America’s religious ties to the Caribbean grew, as diasporic communities in cities like New York and Miami maintained contact with their home islands. European countries still sustained control over some islands, as debates over independence shift. The French, for example, still, in the 21st century, hold Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guiana, and the United States still maintains possession over Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. For former colonies like Haiti, the economic demands of empire still work to remove capital from the Caribbean to Europe.44

After slavery was banned in the British Empire and, later, in the American, immigrant plantation labor predictably followed. Migrant laborers from British-controlled India brought Hinduism to the Caribbean on the island of Trinidad. Workers migrating from China brought Buddhism and Confucianism to the region. When Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 prohibiting Chinese immigration into the United States, many Chinese instead fled the continent for the Caribbean. The plurality of religions practiced in the 19th and 20th centuries again reflected the dynamic processes of immigration and labor in relationship to religious practices.

Conservative American evangelicals still imagined Haiti to be possessed by demonic forces. For many evangelicals, Haiti’s development and failures as an independent state are linked to its mythic revolutionary origins. A well-publicized version of this thinking was expressed by conservative televangelist Pat Robertson, who stated after the 2010 earthquake that Haiti’s problems were based in religion. On his show the “700 Club,” Robertson said that the Haitians of the late 18th century “got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’”45 This imagined past of a colonized people continued to shift the problems of the Haitian state onto the Haitian people, and ignored structural issues of their colonial past.

In the United States, immigration from the Caribbean has brought dramatic religious change to migrants and to the communities in which they settled. In Atlantic coastal cities such as Miami and New York, Catholic Cubans and Vodou practitioners continue to practice their Caribbean religions even as they lose ties to their home islands as generations pass.46 The imagined pasts and mythic connections to place continue the historical trend toward change and adaptation that characterizes the Caribbean religious tradition. For Cubans in Miami, for example, this process has transformed Our Lady of Charity into Our Lady of Exile, where Catholicism helps those who left Castro’s Cuba reorient themselves in both time and space.47

Religions of the Caribbean

The Caribbean, because it is both a geographic site of intense colonization and connected by networks of exchange between islands, helped give rise to the Caribbean’s image as a place of mobile religious faith with distinct indigenous practices. The most widely practiced and best known of these are the Creole religions of Vodou, Obeah, Espiritismo, Quimbois, and Santeria.48 These traditions developed out of the African religious traditions of enslaved peoples during European colonization. Numerous Protestant dominations along with the Roman Catholic Church have dominated the Caribbean. However, these imperial faiths often mixed with indigenous practices and the traditions of enslaved peoples. European colonizers often wrote about and depicted the religions of the Caribbean as savage, barbaric, or worse. In many cases, such designations helped solidify the power of the colonizer. At the same time, religion could be used to subvert power and to revolt against imperial power, as was the case with Vodou on Haiti. What counted as religion was often codified in law, but those who resisted imperial domination often found ways to subvert this power and develop their own religious traditions. Enslaved Africans in nearly every Caribbean location blended their traditional religious practices with Christianity. A multiplicity of ever-growing Christianities reflected how different colonialisms functioned differently across the region.

The most well-known example of Caribbean religion is Vodou, which grew out of French Catholic Saint Domingue. Catholic priests tried to ban Vodou but had limited success, especially in rural areas. Vodou, and debates over its status as a religion, superstition, magic, or sorcery practice associated with witchcraft, point to the ways in which Caribbean religions developed within a revolutionary framework. This is perhaps not all that surprising. Caribbean religions are often noted for their ritual dances, syncretized Afro-Catholic practices, animal sacrifices, and emphasis on communal meetings. Historically, owing in large part to suppression from the state religion, these ritual meetings were held at night and in secrecy, and were thus linked in the minds of those in power to black resistance movements. Olmos notes that the word Vodou emerges from the Dahomedan word meaning spirit or diety.49 Ramsey notes, “Between 1835 and 1987 many popular ritual practices in Haiti were officially prohibited, first as sortileges (spells) and later as pratiques superstitieuses (superstitious practices).”50 Vodou, as historians have argued, developed under circumstances of suppression and fear. Although it helped fuel the Haitian Revolution, it was quickly made illegal under Toussaint Louverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, Alexandre Petion, and Henri Christophe, the first five heads of state of independent Haiti, who embraced Catholicism as the state religion and sought to suppress Vodou to gain international legitimacy.

Santeria, like Vodou, has roots in both imperialism and state religion. Santeria is also similar to Vodou in its spiritual devotions, ceremonies, and use of Roman Catholic saints. The word santeria is roughly translated as “way of the saints.” However, in Santeria circles, Yoruba, not Dahomean, deities dominate. Although Santeria is found in various locations around the Caribbean, it is mostly associated with Yoruba descendants in Cuba. Santeria is a product of the Atlantic slave trade and as such, to continue to push on the ideals of hybridity, is usefully thought of as a religion of resistance. The Afro-Creole scholar Merceds Cros Sandoval argues that “Regla Lucumi” (rule or way of Lucumi) is a better name than Santeria since it uses the Yoruba language of its practitioners. She argues that many followers see the tradition as an African religion at its core, it is possible to avoid this debate over syncretism.51 The roots of this tradition therefore lay in the sociopolitical world of slavery; in short, it was a religion of the oppressed. To take another cue from Long, then, “These movements of the oppressed cannot be understood in the terms of the older movements of the world, for they presuppose the specific nature of modernity, and modernity itself is a form of critique; these movements thus constitute a critique of the critique. We must understand that this was the modern Western world that created the categories of civilization, such as the primitives, the races, and so on. These terms are part and parcel of the universalizing and critical structures of the modern Western consciousness.”52 To discuss Santeria as a product of hybridity to misrepresent how the creation of the categories of race and religion here function to marginalize the experience and power of slaves. What it is possible to do within this framework, however, is to highlight how the practice of Santeria empowered slaves and their descendants.

Santeria developed with an attention to both Yoruba cosmology and Spanish Catholicism, perhaps as early as the 1550s. The Caribbean experienced the shockwaves and economic shifts after the Haitian Revolution and after Cuba became the leading exporter of sugar from the region. Between 1774 and 1865, Cuba imported massive numbers of slaves—some 850,000 to a million enslaved African were sold to plantations on the island. This occurred as European powers worked to prohibit the trade.53 Scholarship on slave religion often focuses on survivals. Enslaved Africans emphasized certain religious practices over others, often seen in ritual healings, linkages to their homelands, a focus on ancestral worship, and rituals to cultivate one’s ashe, a spiritual sphere that helped make one stronger when accomplishing certain tasks.

Santeria became firmly entrenched in Cuba in the 19th century because Catholic and civil laws helped protect some slave rights. By 1850, when over a third of the black population was free, African-based religions grew alongside the state-supported Catholic Church. In 1886, Cuba abolished slavery, and there was an expansion of religious liberties under the Spanish constitution that resulted in the growth of a Cuban-led Protestant missionary boom.54 Likewise, in the mid-1880s, under the control of several Yoruba priests, Santeria was unified under the heading “Regla de Ocha.” By 1898, when the United States invaded Cuba, the Catholic Church was mostly tied to urban middle- to upper-class citizens, owing in large part to its strong anti-independence stance. Aside from those who participated in religions like Santeria, most Cubans were only “nominally religious.”55

Santeria has always been a religion in motion, evidenced by its roots in Africa; transference during the forced migration of the slave trade; development under and within the Catholic Spanish empire; and, finally, legal recognition as a distinct religion in the 20th century. Santeria is useful to examine because of its dispersal development in Cuba, Puero Rico, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and the United States, among other nations. On June 11, 1992, the United States Supreme Court granted practitioners of Santeria a constitutional right to sacrifice animals in connection with their rituals.

When compared with Vodou and Santeria, Obeah is often categorized as “not religion.” In both culture and law, it is imagined to be tied to witchcraft, sorcery, and magic.56 This classification was used by both imperial governments and independent countries as a way to reinforce the notion that non-Christian practices were anti-religions. The understanding of Obeah as not religion or as “dangerous religion,” dates to at least the formation of the academic study of religion, as both E. Franklin Frazier and W. E. B. Du Bois debated the political standing of Obeah. Du Bois wrote at length in “The Obeah Sorcery” about the antireligious practices:

Let us now trace this development historically. The slaves arrived with a strong tendency to Nature worship and a belief in witchcraft common to all. Beside this some had more or less vague ideas of a supreme being and higher religious ideas, while a few were Mohammedans, and fewer Christians. Some actual priests were transported and others assumed the functions of priests, and soon a degraded form of African religion and witchcraft appeared in the West Indies, which was known as Obi, or sorcery.57

Du Bois argues that at some point, Obeah was “undoubtedly African and part of some more or less general religious system” but that “it finally degenerated into mere imposture.”58 Indeed, for Du Bois and other African American intellectuals in the United States, Obeah hindered African religious legitimacy.

Obeah is often a catchall category that encompasses a range of practices and meanings that include “healing, folk toxicology, the recovery of lost or stolen objects, the control of superhuman beings such as the spirits of the dead, and the claim that one had the power to do any of these things beyond normal human ability.”59 As with Vodou and Santeria, Euro-American imperialism worked to govern Obeah as something dangerous to economic and political interests in the region. Like Vodou, Obeah was closely monitored by the state. Possessing “instruments of obeah” could result in fines; the last recorded case in Jamaica occurred in 1964.60 In another part of the British West Indies, a group of Afro-Trinidadians, known as the Radas, managed to preserve African religious forms well into the 20th century. Their religious culture had originated in Dahomey and was another example of a slave religion that developed in a colonial world. Imperial authorities included their religious practices under the general term “obeah,” which Europeans tended to use indiscriminately to name all forms of African or Afro-Creole religion. The practice of Obeah was made punishable by law in 1868 in Trinidad, as it had been throughout the rest of the British West Indies before emancipation. This was in part because of its perceived connection with slave rebellion and resistance and, especially, the use of poisons. As a result of the 1868 legislation in Trinidad, the Radas were occasionally convicted, jailed, and flogged for their religious practices.61 Obeah was imagined to exist as singular religion that was produced under such imperial conditions, rooted in governing practices and deemed threatening to power.

Imperial state-imposed religions never held total power in controlling religious practice, (even as colonial institutions said otherwise). The Caribbean region is therefore marked by vibrant change and dynamic ingenuity. The experiences of enslaved and colonized peoples provide a complicated picture of flexibility and connection that challenged and shaped imperial law codes that worked to govern and control a large population.

Review of the Literature

Scholarship on the history of the Caribbean is fractured by both place and time. Political, linguistic, and disciplinary problems have limited overlapping intra-Caribbean studies.62 Since the mid-2000s, scholars across various disciplines have begun to examine the connected histories of the islands. Atlantic World scholars have highlighted the global contacts of the region. Moreover, studies of religion have emphasized forced migration, survivals, and hybridity to describe the uneven movement of religious peoples, practices, and beliefs.63 Patrick Bellegarde-Smith calls the religious survivals that developed out of colonialization “fragments of bone.”64 Others, such as American religious historians Thomas Tweed and Kathleen McCarthy Brown, have shown how Caribbean religions circulated between the Caribbean basin and American cities.65 Using ethnographic research, they have shown how immigrant communities use religion to mark themselves in place and space.

The history of American religious empire in the Caribbean basin begins with the birth of the American nation. American imperialism built over and against European empires, independence movements, the slave trade, and ecological exchange. A circulation of knowledge and materials between the islands of the Caribbean and America produced the distinct religious practices of the Caribbean. Recently, historians of American religious empire have explored the connections between various imperial sites. Tisa Wenger, for example, has done comparative studies how Cuba, the Philippines, Native Americans, and others, were shaped by a religio-racial imperial project.66 She argues that Protestant Christians at the beginning of the 20th century viewed the world as a place to expand their influence. She notes that the use of “religious freedom talk” worked to strengthen Anglo-Protestant claims domestically and abroad.67 Sylvester Johnson has similarly studied the bonds between race and religion to show how bodies were surveilled, controlled, and policed.68

Scholarship explicitly on the Caribbean as a site of production for American religious empire is less diverse than are the studies of the various Euro-American cognates of imperialism and the region. Some scholarship has highlighted the survivals and the role religion played in resisting and sometimes rebelling against colonial powers. Others have studied religious imperialism as way in which religious diversity was managed by the secular state. Future work in this area will continue to push on how questions of race, religion, and citizenship are in tension with the aims of a self-described benevolent empire and its ideals of freedom.

The Digital Library of the Caribbean hosted by the University of Florida provides a comprehensive archive of resources covering law, manuscripts, and maps of the Caribbean.

Yale University Library’s “Religion in Latin America: Primary Sources” and The Digital Archive of Religion in Latin America and the Caribbean, hosted by Florida International University, house thousands of documents related to American connections to the global South.

The Association of Religion Data Archives gives sociological data that traces the number of religious adherents in the contemporary Caribbean.

The Early Caribbean Digital Archive provides resources related to the study of the early colonial Caribbean.

The Archive of Haitian Religion and Culture: Collaborative Research and Scholarship on Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora provides resources related to Vodou and the Haitian diaspora across the Atlantic World.

Further Reading

Brown, Gordon S. Toussaint’s Clause: The Founding Fathers and the Haitian Revolution. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.Find this resource:

    Conroy-Krutz, Emily. Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

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                                                                  (1.) Margarite Fernandez Olmos, ed. Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santeria, Obeah, and the Caribbean (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 1.

                                                                  (2.) J. W. Pulis, ed., Religion, Diaspora, and Cultural Identity: A Reader in the Anglophone Caribbean (Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach, 1999), 4–5.

                                                                  (3.) Charles Long, Signs and Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion (Aurora, CO: The Davies Group, Publishers, 1999), 173–184.

                                                                  (4.) Long, 184.

                                                                  (5.) Ennis B. Edmonds and Michelle A. Gonzalez, Caribbean Religious History: An Introduction (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 3–4.

                                                                  (6.) Carla Gardina Pestana, Protestant Empire: Religion and the Making of the British Atlantic World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); and Stewart B. Schwarz, All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance in the Iberian Atlantic World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).

                                                                  (7.) Laurent Dubois, “The French Atlantic,” in Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal, eds. Jack P. Greene and Phillip D. Morgan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 139.

                                                                  (8.) For an early history of slave capitalism and French Empire, see Flore Zephir, The Haitian Americans (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004). See also, Paul W. Mapp, “Atlantic History from Imperial, Continental, and Pacific Perspectives,” William and Mary Quarterly 63, no. 4 (2006): 713–724. On the early expansion of the capitalist slave trade to, especially, the Caribbean, see Stephanie E. Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); and Edward E. Baptist and Stephanie M. H. Camp, eds., New Studies in the History of American Slavery (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006).

                                                                  (9.) Jennifer L. Palmer, Intimate Bonds: Family and Slavery in the French Atlantic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 62.

                                                                  (10.) Andrew Porter, Religion versus Empire? British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700–1914 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2004).

                                                                  (11.) Christopher Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 73.

                                                                  (12.) Carla Cardina Pestana, “Religion,” in The British Atlantic World, 1500–1800, eds. David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 84.

                                                                  (13.) Brown, Moral Capital, 75.

                                                                  (14.) Jane G. Landers, Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

                                                                  (15.) Sylvester Johnson, African-American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

                                                                  (16.) Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

                                                                  (17.) Tim Matthewson, A Proslavery Foreign Policy: Haitian-American Relations during the Early Republic (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003), 1.

                                                                  (18.) Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (New York: Henry Holt, 2012), 92.

                                                                  (19.) Kate Ramsey, The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

                                                                  (20.) Ramsey, 14.

                                                                  (21.) Alfred N. Hunt, Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006).

                                                                  (22.) Elizabeth Fenton, Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth Century U.S. Literature and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 106.

                                                                  (23.) David P. Geggus, ed., The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001), x.

                                                                  (24.) Hunt, Haiti’s Influence.

                                                                  (25.) Johnson, River, 32

                                                                  (26.) Robert E. May, The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854–1861 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973).

                                                                  (27.) Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Virgin Islands, Jamaica, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos Islands, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago.

                                                                  (28.) Frederick Douglass, “Lecture on Haiti,” World’s Fair, Chicago, IL, January 2, 1893.

                                                                  (29.) Fionnghuala Sweeny, Frederick Douglass and the Atlantic World (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2007), 177–182.

                                                                  (30.) Tisa Wenger, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); and Emily Conroy-Krutz, Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015).

                                                                  (31.) Wenger, 22.

                                                                  (32.) John Bartlow Martin, U.S. Policy in the Caribbean (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1978), 14.

                                                                  (33.) Wenger, Religious Freedom, 24–27.

                                                                  (34.) Ian Tyrell, Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 1.

                                                                  (35.) Matthew McCullough, The Cross of War: Christian Nationalism and U.S. Expansion in the Spanish-American War (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014).

                                                                  (36.) Henry Hugh Proctor, A sermon on the war: “The duty of colored citizens to their country”/ delivered before the Colored Military Companies of Atlanta, Sunday evening, May 1st, 1898, at the First Congregational Church, Atlanta, Ga. (Atlanta, GA: Mutual Printing Co., 1898).

                                                                  (37.) Josef Sorett, Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 69.

                                                                  (38.) C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins (New York: Dial Press, 1938), 86.

                                                                  (39.) Long, Signs, 184.

                                                                  (40.) Raphael Dalleo, American Imperialism’s Undead: The Occupation of Haiti and the Rise of Caribbean Anticolonialism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016).

                                                                  (41.) Louis A. Perez Jr., “Between Encounter and Experience: Florida in the Cuban Imagination,” Florida Historical Quarterly 82, no. 2 (2003): 170–190.

                                                                  (42.) Thomas C. Wright, Latin America in the Era of the Cuban Revolution (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001), 59.

                                                                  (43.) Dianne Kirby, “The Cold War and American Religion,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, August 1, 2017.

                                                                  (44.) Laurent Dubois, “The French Atlantic,” in Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal, eds. Jack P. Greene and Phillip D. Morgan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 137.

                                                                  (45.) “Pat Robertson Says Haiti Paying for ‘Pact to the Devil,’”, January 13, 2010.

                                                                  (46.) Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); and Elizabeth McAlister, Rara: Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

                                                                  (47.) Thomas A. Tweed, Our Lady of Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Catholic Shrine in Miami (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

                                                                  (48.) Ennis B. Edmonds and Michelle A. Gonzalez, Caribbean Religious History: An Introduction (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 2.

                                                                  (49.) Olmos, Sacred, 4–6.

                                                                  (50.) Ramsey, Spirits, 1.

                                                                  (51.) Mercedes Cross Sandoval, Worldview, the Orishas, and Santeria: Africa to Cuba and Beyond (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2006).

                                                                  (52.) Long, Signs, 166.

                                                                  (53.) Edmonds and Gonzalez, Caribbean Religious History, 98.

                                                                  (54.) Jason M. Yaremko, U.S. Protestant Missions in Cuba: From Independence to Castro (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000), 3.

                                                                  (55.) Yaremko, 43.

                                                                  (56.) Karla Frye, “‘An Article of Faith’: Obeah and Hybrid Identities in Elizabeth Nunez-Harrell’s When Rocks Dance,” in Olmos, Sacred, 195.

                                                                  (57.) W. E. B. Du Bois, The Negro Church: Report of a Social Study made under the direction of Atlanta University: Together with the Proceedings of the Eighth Conference for the Study of the Negro Problems, held at Atlanta University, May 26th, 1903 (Atlanta, GA: Atlanta University Press, 1903), 6.

                                                                  (58.) Du Bois, 7.

                                                                  (59.) Alexander Rocklin, “Obeah and the Politics of Religion’s Making and Unmaking in Colonial Trinidad,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 83, no. 3 (2015): 700.

                                                                  (60.) Diana Paton, The Cultural Politics of Obeah: Religion, Colonialism, and Modernity in the Caribbean World (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 274.

                                                                  (61.) Robert J. Stewart, “Religion, Myths and Beliefs: Their Socio-Political Roles,” in General History of the Caribbean, vol. 5: The Caribbean in the Twentieth Century, ed. Bridget Brereton (London: UNESCO, 2004), 563.

                                                                  (62.) Jorge L. Giovannetti, “Race, Religion, and Empire among Caribbean Migrants in Cuba,” Small Axe 10, no. 1 (2006): 1–27.

                                                                  (63.) Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, Afro-Caribbean Religions: An Introduction to Their Historical, Cultural, and Sacred Traditions (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011), 321–323; and Lara Putnam, “Borderlands and Border Crossers: Migrants and Boundaries in the Greater Caribbean, 1840–1940,” Small Axe 18, no. 1(43) (2014): 7–21.

                                                                  (64.) Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, ed., Fragments of Bone: Neo-African Religions in a New World (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005).

                                                                  (65.) Tweed, Our Lady of Exile; and Brown, Mama Lola.

                                                                  (66.) Wenger, Religious Freedom, 15–53.

                                                                  (67.) Wenger, 7.

                                                                  (68.) Johnson, African-American Religions.