The history of Voodoo, from Africa to the New World

An exploration of Voodoo and the history of these often misunderstood religions

The history of Voodoo, from Africa to the New World

A Haitian Voodoo Alter in Boston, by Calvin Hennick 2010

In the 16th century the Atlantic slave trade exploded as the growing European powers sought to exploit the abundant wealth of the New World. Roughly 12 million Africans would be stolen from their homes over the following centuries and transplanted to the violent and harsh plantations in the Caribbean and Americas.

Hidden amongst the cruelly stacked human cargo were the beliefs and religions of home. These would find fertile ground across the Atlantic where they blossomed among the slave populations who found hope and comfort in their native gods, laying deep the roots of Voodoo. 

These slaves were drawn from across Africa though and their beliefs were as disparate as their origins. Even among neighbouring African tribes there was no real religious orthodoxy and so, in the tight confines of slave life, the practices of the Old World became melded together into new forms.

Though these new iterations of old religions would share many common themes they were vulnerable to regional isolation and trends. As a result the Voodoo found in the Louisiana bayou differs strongly from Haitian Vodou or Dominican Vudu.

There was little tolerance of these practices among the commanding Europeans though, no matter where it was. Protracted campaigns were waged to stamp out these unfamiliar religions and impose whichever branch of Christianity prevailed at home. In response the Voodoo 'churches' donned a veneer of Christianity, masking the old gods of their new religions behind the saints and crosses of their masters. This camouflage started to stick though and Christianity became a core part of Voodoo, in it's own special way.

Demonised for most of its history, Voodoo became strongly associated with its darker aspects. The 'magic', rituals, zombies, and dolls were particularly appealing to writers and filmmakers and came to dominate the popular image of Voodoo. But there is so much more to these religions than a simple Bond villain and recent research is finally bringing the real Voodoo to the fore.

Speaking with a panel of experts and practitioners Professor Patrick Geoghegan delves into the real history of the various Voodoo sects, their beliefs, complexities, and how they developed and evolved.