By Published: Oct. 31, 2023

In a recently published article, CU Boulder researcher Kieran Murphy traces the concurrent paths and points of intersection between pirate and zombie lore in Haiti and popular culture

High in the rugged mountains above Saint-Marc, Haiti, is a cave that even today, some don’t dare visit. It is a legendary, almost mythical place called Trou Forban (Pirate Cave).

Stories say it is an enchanted cave filled with coffee and sugar plantations worked by crews of the undead and ruled by the Man of Trou Forban. “When the master of Trou Forban walks,” author Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “the whole Earth trembles.”

Notorious 20th-century Haitian dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier is whispered to have visited Trou Forban and participated in a black magic rite that invited evil spirits to live in his presidential palace.

Despite its spooky reputation, Trou Forban and its surroundings have for centuries been a literal and spiritual meeting place for clandestine communities like buccaneers and Africans who escaped slavery, who came to be known as “maroons.” Interactions between these clandestine communities—sometimes amicable, sometimes not—gave rise to pirate and zombie myths whose similarities and concurrent paths might surprise modern audiences.

Kieran Murphy

CU Boulder researcher Kieran Murphy explores the origins and interconnected trajectories of pirate and zombie myths in Haiti.

In a recently published paper tracing the origins and trajectories of interconnected pirate and zombie lore, Kieran Murphy, a University of Colorado Boulder associate professor of French and Italian who teaches a class called “The Zombie and the Ghost of Slavery” (FREN 1880), highlights how ritual piracies by both Black and White clandestine people “left traces of mutual recognition, traces which shed light on lesser known influences that played a role in fomenting insurrection and anti-colonial sentiment in the events leading up to the Haitian Revolution.”

“The zombie is a Haitian invention that represents the nightmare of these formerly enslaved people, these maroons,” Murphy says. “Meaning, they fought for their freedom, but they have this vision of a monster that comes back from the dead to be a slave again on plantations.

“You can see why this horrific figure would emerge in Haiti for people who were finally free and trying to make a life outside the plantation system. This fear that, after death, they would come back and be forced to work the plantations again reflects the social death that was imposed on enslaved people, that they fought against, when, after defeating Napoleon’s army, they declared the abolition of slavery.”

Connecting pirates and zombies

Before an invitation to a conference themed “Pirates and Zombies” at the International Research Center for Cultural Studies (IFK) in Vienna, Murphy viewed the two entities separately. He’d written articles and taught classes on horror films and zombies since graduate school, but it wasn’t until this conference that he thought, “Hmmm, how am I going to connect these two things?” he says.

He turned to colonial records, but it wasn’t until he came across a photograph by Phyllis Galembo that something clicked. In the photograph, a Vodou devotee is posing as Bawon Lakwa (Baron La Croix), one of a group of Vodou deities who rule over the dead and are collectively called Guédé (Vodou is an Afro-Caribbean spirituality that has little in common with the portrayal of “Voodoo” in Western media). The man is wearing a black top hat adorned with both the skull and crossbones of a Jolly Roger flag and the word “zonbi,” the Creole spelling of “zombie.”

Vodou practitioner

Oungan Celestin Montilas Philippe, a priest from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, posing as Bawon Lakwa in a photograph by artist Phyllis Galembo.

“In many ways, buccaneers were themselves clandestine, unauthorized communities,” Murphy says. “Reading old colonial reports, I saw interactions between maroons and pirates, which makes sense because both communities were living on the margins of European empires in the Caribbean.

“They were sometimes trading partners, and there was sometimes violence between them, but they both originated outside the plantation system of the colonies. In many pirate communities, it didn’t matter if you were White, Black, Indigenous, they were clandestine people united outside the colonial European framework.”

Rebels and outcasts

Because of scant historical record, it’s difficult to find the precise moment when pirate and maroon communities began intersecting, Murphy says. However, once he saw the Jolly Roger and “zonbi” on the same hat, it provided a clue that cultural exchanges and appropriations had happened among these communities.

For example, pirates and Guédé deities have been known for their Dionysian attitudes and for mixing eroticism and death into their symbols (in 18th century slang, the word “roger” meant “penis” and “to copulate.”)

Further, there are historical records of Vodou rituals that involve drinking rum laced with gunpowder, which was also a tradition among mutineers and pirates, Murphy says. Maroon and pirate communities shared a certain rebelliousness and outcast nature.

Maroons played a central role in fomenting slave revolt in the colony, including the world-changing events now known as the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). When they declared their independence, Haitians abolished slavery in their constitution long before France, England and the U.S. did. However, France agreed to recognize Haiti as an independent country only after Haitian leaders signed an indemnity agreement to repay France 150 million francs as restitution for lost property—including lost human property.

Vol de Zombis painting

"Vol de Zombis" (1946) by Haitian artist Hector Hyppolite

As Haitians struggled under the almost unbearable weight of this financial burden and leaders made moves to reinstate a form of the plantation system, some maroons remained in hiding and the zombie as an embodiment of a nightmarish future grew stronger.

By the 20th century, however, popular culture had absconded with the zombie, turning it into a symbol of Western anxieties, Murphy says. A similar cultural appropriation happened with pirates. Yet, the framework and archetypes—and the commonalities between them—have continued to inform their portrayals in mass media.

Murphy cites “The Walking Dead” as an example of the pirate-zombie-colonialist structure, with the protagonists sometimes claiming allegiance to imperialist groups like “The Saviors” while behaving like a clandestine pirate group and fighting flesh-eating zombies. In the TV show, zombies embody early European paranoid fantasies linking Indigenous peoples with cannibalism, Murphy says.

“Through a story involving zombie, pirate and imperialist characters, ‘The Walking Dead’ reenacts colonial history while relying on the trope of the undead to suggest that the present remains haunted by the violence and tragedies of the past,” Murphy writes. From this perspective, “The Walking Dead” is just a reinterpretation of the Haitian legend of Trou Forban.

Top image: (left) "Three Zombies" (1956) by Haitian artist Wilson Bigaud; romanticized pirate image (iStock)

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