Duverneau Trouillot's 1885 Esquisse ethnographique: Le vaudoun; Aperçu historique et évolutions provides one of the first and most detailed accounts of Haitian Vodou. As such, and despite the lack of clarity on the source of information used by Trouillot, his ethnographic account was a pioneering effort and one of the most detailed 19th century ethnographies. For instance, Trouillot provides one very detailed account of some of the major lwa, tracing their origins back to the Whydah, the "Ardres" kingdom of the "Arada" and the snake cult. The legendary snake of the widespread snake cult of Dahomey, "Ardres" and Whydah is Wedo in Haiti, but spelled by Trouillot as Houedo. Mention of Legba, Badagri, Loco, Agwe, and other well-known spirits appear in Trouillot's account. He also provides one of the earliest mentions of the "Cimbi" or Simbi spirit (although a short story by Alibée Féry used a Simbi spirit), not to mention the evolution of the term houngan, the importance of taboos, and the use of Catholic images.
Of course, as a Haitian intellectual likely imbued with Positivism and the superiority of Western civilization, Trouillot saw Vodou as a religion in a state of decline. Vodou, according to him, existed more for entertainment and speculation, not as a serious practice. Alcohol and the cupidity of the papa-lois and mama-lois were the most powerful stimulants to the Vodou dance, in his day. Indeed, he even claims the religion no longer has dogma or rites! It is hard to take such a perspective seriously when Vodou exists to this day in Haiti and its diaspora, but Trouillot shares with Janvier a belief in presenting Haiti as evolving toward civilization, which entailed the decline of Vodou belief or practices. Thus, Trouillot can declare, "Ni les cérémonies actuellement en usage, ni l'olympe contemporain, ne rapellent le cult du passé, le vaudoun s'est francisé et tend à disparaître sous les pas redoublés de la civilisation chrétienne" (278). For Trouillot, Vodou would eventually wither away with the spread of education and civilization.
But what is most enlightening in Trouillot's brief essay is the analysis of the priesthood of Vodou. According to Trouillot, houngans and caprelatas were ambulant, selling pwen, wanga, "science" and works. It was actually the papa or papa-loi, master of a particular society, who constituted the priesthood of the faith (although a papa could also serve as houngan). Yet, today, houngan is generally used for Vodou priests whereas papa-loi seems to have disappeared. One wonders if this process was tied to the changes in the structure of Vodou priesthood noted in Richman's Migration and Vodou, where social dislocations, proletarianization, and the rise of priests buying and selling their services gradually replaced some of the older societies led by papa-loi and family-based Vodou rituals. One cannot generalize too broadly from Trouillot's essay since it is not clear who his informants were, but one suspects it was people living in or near Port-au-Prince, possibly in the Cul-de-Sac plain. Informants from these areas may have already began a transition away from the older family-based lwa and towards the more commercial services and ceremonies which 20th century ethnographic accounts reported.
Of course, additional research is required to ascertain the accuracy of Trouillot's description of the Vodou priesthood. But it might have also shaped his negative description of Vodou if houngans and caprelatas were beginning to replace papa-lois or mama-lois, and the commercial aspect of the religion seemed more obvious. Perhaps the death of the bossales and people who were directly familiar with African rites by the late 1800s also struck the author as another cause for decline. Although he mentions special food offerings associated with Congos, Nagos, and Ibos, suggesting the persistence of Afrian "nations" by his era, Trouillot may have inferred a gradual decline as old rites and traditions adapted themselves to younger generations of Haitians. Unsurprisingly, he may have seen this as sign of a religion in decline, a faith losing its dogma and becoming the territory of charlatans who prey on the uneducated and ignorant. Moreover, the author's belief in inevitable progress also necessitated the eventual disappearance of such a religion. One wonders if, like Firmin and Comte, Trouillot saw in African "religion" an eventual leap to the positivist stage, which may have contributed to the depiction of Vodou as a religion in decline.
Clorméus, Lewis Ampidu. . Paris: Riveneuve éditions, 2015.