The History of African Slaves, the Vodou Religion, and the Concept of the Zombie
Anthony Ambrosius Aurelius
“Zombies first appear in American culture in New Orleans, United States of America. The term “zombie” is derived from the Haitian Creole term “zonbi” which is derived from the Bantu Kimbundu term for “ghost” which is “nzúmbe” (pronounced “zum-bee”).
The premise of zombies being the remains of a re-animated deceased person, begins in Africa with the belief that sorcerers could imprison a person’s soul with this soul being able to be put into a bottle in some, but not all, traditional mythology. It was believed that the sorcerer had the ability to force the soul to do work upon the sorcerer’s behalf in a spiritual capacity (e.g. using the soul to do helpful or harmful deeds).
Prior to the 16th century and slavery, African spiritual practices (e.g. concept of capturing a soul) have origin source points within multiple African cultures, each with significantly different language and cultural practices, with only some common religious beliefs and ancestral mythology overlapping. These differing beliefs coalesced when the African slave trade began in the 16th century, with Haitian zombie lore becoming the most commonly known version of the zombie spiritual belief in the west.
Beginning in the early 16th century, the Spanish shipped African slaves to Hispaniola, the modern day Republic of Haiti in the west and the Dominican Republic in the east. These slaves would be sold to French colonizers inhabiting modern day Haiti. An estimated 500,000 people were subjected to this treatment from the mid 17th to the late 18th century, comprising 33% of the entire Atlantic slave trade. Enslaved Africans worked upon plantations growing crops in abundance to meet the demand of European consumption and by the late 1780’s, more than 90% of Hispaniola’s island population were enslaved.
By the 17th century, colonized Haiti included a mix of African people, forced together under the abhorrent justification of indentured labor and slavery. These groups developed a new religion to unite what were often disparate beliefs and experiences, and from this pain, isolation, and suffering, Haitian Vodou (pronounced “voh-due”) came to fruition.”