Derby Sees Sorcery as History

By Griselda Jarquin – Is sorcery real? Or is it a metaphor for how people come to terms with political and socio-economic processes? How should historians interpret the supernatural? On February 27, 2017, at an event hosted by the Hemispheric Institute on the Americas, Robin Derby of UCLA addressed such questions. Her talk was entitled “Werewolves and Other Bêtes Noires: Sorcery as History in the Haitian-Dominican Borderlands.”

Derby, an associate professor of history, began by explaining how she arrived at her latest project, which focuses on rumors and how they give birth to sorcery, shapeshifters and other supernatural occurrences. In 2008, she embarked on an oral history project that focused on the Haitian-Dominican frontier in the cattle-ranching town of Banica, on the island of Hispaniola.

There, Derby noticed her interviewees made references to the baka, or “shapeshifting apparitions of people who can turn into feral animals.” Although the baka may take several shapes or forms, such as a dog, bull, cow, or pig, one key feature remains the same: anthropomorphism. The baka has thus come to be associated with sorcery and other forms of powerful magic.

She also highlighted similarities she found among her interviewees regarding the baka. Firstly, demons were felt rather than cognized. Secondly, bakas were “vectors for intense emotions.” As Derby explained, “narratives of the spirit world are in many ways an expression of personhood.”

Spiritual traditions

Previous scholars believed that stories about the baka were popular commentary on inequality. Derby, however, argued that tales of spirit demons invoke landscapes of memory—particularly nostalgia, terror, and loss—that channel the unique history of Hispaniola. She also contends that tales of the baka are a way to restore popular history. 

Derby then traced the historical trajectory of rumors surrounding the baka. She started by highlighting that Hispaniola’s origins were steeped in privateering, contraband economics, and cattle ranching—elements typically ignored by Caribbean historiography. She also demonstrated that with the introduction of Spanish colonialism, Haitian sugar production increased the need and use for beasts of burden. Thus, Haiti’s development as a sugar economy increased cattle ranching and hunting in neighboring Dominican Republic.

Historians, Derby argued, have neglected the symbiotic relationship between sugar and hunting. In addition, the notion of the baka was influenced by Africans brought to Hispaniola as slaves. African spiritual traditions, particularly the Kikongo in Africa’s interior, stipulated that the world between the living and the dead was wide open. She noted that these various factors gave birth to the baka.

Traces of emotion

Regarding the often-canine form of the baka, Derby noted that, during the colonial period, dogs were used as tools of subjugation against Indians. She pointed to instances where dogs were used to terrorize indigenous slave laborers in the Caribbean. For instance, blood hounds were used to track runaways who escaped sugar plantations.

Baka-pig narratives, on the other hand, represent loss and nostalgia. Within Hispaniola, Derby explained, pigs had emotional resonance. They represented fertility and reproduction. They were also a symbol of home. In contrast to other places in the world where pigs are associated with filth and excess, on the island of Hispanola, pigs were surrogates for people. Building on the work of scholars such as Luisa White and Ann Stoler, Derby suggested that these spirit apparitions can be conceived of as “traces of emotion that found no ready outlet.”

Allegories for struggle

Derby concluded by demonstrating the many iterations of the baka, claiming that they have not only inspired literature but popular imagination as well. For instance, it is widely believed that troops serving under Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo and Haitian dictator Francois Duvelier had the ability to transform into animals. More recently, in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, shapeshifters have become an allegory for dark times.

Learn more about Robin Derby.