The Priest and the Prophetess

Abbe Ouviève, Romaine Rivière, and the Revolutionary Atlantic World

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Terry Rey
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     2017.
     336 pages.
     $74.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190625849.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Terry Rey’s The Priest and the Prophetess offers a fascinating glimpse into an understudied figure in Haitian Revolutionary history. Along the way, Rey manages to augment and helpfully complicate narratives of the Haitian Revolution and portrayals of Haitian religion, both of which have tended to focus upon slaves as primary actors and Vodou as a singular cultural unifier.

In contrast to these foci, Rey’s archival work highlights the crucial role of free blacks, socially marginalized mulattos and whites, and even white Catholic clerics in what was in fact a multi-sited, variously motivated set of uprisings in the early years of the Revolution. Rey’s portrait of Romaine Rivière and Abbé Ouvière offers a microcosmic historical view into the Trou Coffy uprising, the significance of Catholic devotionalism, and the power of a charismatic religious leader to change the shape of the social world. Those with interests in Atlantic history, Haitian history, and Haitian religion will find much to engage with in Rey’s wide-ranging chapters.

Religion figures prominently from the outset, as Rey frames Romaine Rivière, leader of the Trou Coffy insurgency, as one of a series of “religiously inspired” leaders in Haiti’s mythic history including Makandal and Boukman (4). Although Rivière has most often been characterized as a “charlatan,” “imposter” or even a “she-devil” on account of his purported relationship to the Virgin Mary, his claims to prophetic insights from the Virgin, his unusual attire, and his gender inverted moniker, Rey portrays Rivière as “first and foremost” a deeply committed Catholic catechist (10).

In so doing, Rey highlights the importance of Catholicism in revolutionary Haiti—an importance that far exceeds its role as mere source material for the development of Haitian Vodou. To be sure, Rey’s portrait of Rivière is a quintessentially Black Atlantic one in which “la Prophétesse” is part West African herbalist, part French Royalist, and part Kongo-Catholic saint. Yet, Rey makes a strong case for understanding Catholic devotionalism, inflected though it may have been with resonances on all sides of the Atlantic, as a powerful social unifier. One must look no further than book’s other main figure, Abbé Ouvière, a French Catholic cleric who comes to serve as an adviser to “la Prophétesse” (the Prophetess) for evidence of this fact.

In what will surely be for many readers a revelatory chapter, Rey surveys the history of white, French clerical involvement in insurgent movements in colonial St. Domingue. Having examined the extent to which pre-revolutionary Jesuits were supportive of the cause of slaves’ rights, Rey concludes that the “Jesuit mission should therefore be viewed as an important precursor to the Catholic radicalism of Romaine-la-Prophétesse” (116). During the insurgencies of 1791-1792, Catholic priests seem to have gone well beyond the non-violence of the Jesuits and actually sometimes embedded themselves in insurgent camps and even participated in some of their most violent campaigns (109). All of this serves not just to contextualize Ouvière’s relationship to Romaine-la-Prophétesse, but ultimately to provide evidence of the profound influence of Catholicism in revolutionary Saint-Domingue. Ouvière himself never goes so far as many who preceded him, but his role in advising Rivière and securing a short-lived treaty at Trou Coffy is no less remarkable.

The remaining portions of the book that attend to Ouvière’s life more broadly can at first seem peripheral or even disjointed as they track the French secular priest from his early life in France to the unrest of St. Domingue, back to Paris, to London, to Jamaica, and finally to his second career as a physician in Philadelphia in 1793. However, following the Abbé in this way actually highlights the interlacing political and social worlds of the 18th-century Atlantic. Rey tries to make the significance of these interlacing worlds apparent in a penultimate main chapter that connects Ouvière’s experiences in St. Domingue to his published writing in the US on “race, slavery, religion, and science” and what Rey calls the “making of American medicine” (180). Though it is not central to the work that Rey sets out to do in the book, the chapter provides a blueprint for how fruitfully modern Atlantic history can be mined for understanding the tensions and hypocrisies of Western modernity and its debts to the very sites and events that history likes to forget.

Taken as a whole, The Priest and the Prophetess makes a compelling case for the centrality of Catholicism in the Haitian Revolution. Rey’s willingness to name Rivière’s religious practice as Catholicism rather than Vodou or proto-Vodou may trouble practitioners of both. However, his characterization stays close to the archival evidence and it raises important and enduring theoretical questions about religious mixture and transformation. At what point, for example, can one begin to speak of Haitian Vodou rather than proto-Vodou or Kongo-Catholicism or African-inflected “forms”? At its best moments, Rey’s book takes readers right to the historical thresholds of these transformations and, rather than abstractions, offers the concrete ritual practices and interactions of real human actors as data. Ultimately, and very much in keeping with Rey’s career-spanning interests, the story of Rivière demonstrates “religion’s power to combat oppression and to effect social change” (221).
 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lenny J. Lowe is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Terry Rey is Associate Professor of Religion at Temple University.

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