Spencer Dew: Pigs, Plagues, Politics, and Religion

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Spencer Dew is a PhD candidate in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School.]

In the last few weeks, fear of a swine flu pandemic temporarily closed churches in Mexico and altered liturgies in the United States, with some parishes cancelling the “passing of the peace” or performing Eucharist without a common cup. In a “precautionary” measure, 300,000 pigs were slaughtered in Egypt, while the Taiwanese Tzu Chi Foundation interpreted this disease as yet another warning from the earth, urging humans to kindness and vegetarianism. One Israeli health official wrangled headlines by suggesting that “Mexican flu” would be a more apt name for the disease, one less offensive to Jewish and Muslim religious sensibilities.

Amidst the commuters in surgical masks and plans for quarantine, it was hard to parse preparedness from panic. Now, as the worry subsides, headlines shift to the likely origin of this new influenza strain in American agribusiness practices, particularly the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animal feed and its connection to drug-resistant pathogens. To better understand the nuances of the current situation, it is useful to revisit a historic instance of pig disease that likewise touched on politics, economics, the environment, and religion.

African swine fever was first diagnosed in the indigenous Creole Pig population of Haiti in 1978. Under pressure from the United States – which feared transmission of the disease to American pigs and damage to the lucrative pork industry – Haiti instituted a program of eradication. By 1984, the island was pig-free.

In Haiti, however, pigs have special significance for religion and nationalism – as well as for the ever-struggling economy. For the majority of Haiti’s citizens, rural peasants, these hardy black pigs were farming tools (aerating the soil and producing fertilizer), sanitation devices (eating household waste), and commodities (which could be sold, or, if necessary, eaten). The word for pig, in Haitian Creole, is the same as the word for bank.

Yet pigs have another use, that of religious sacrifice. The religion of Voodoo united Haitians in their revolutionary struggle against the French empire, a struggle that started with raids against slave-owners’ plantations and began as a rebellion proper with a Voodoo ceremony at Bois Caiman on August 14, 1791, where a black pig was sacrificed and a commitment to freedom was sealed in blood.

The 1978 eradication of native pigs had several consequences, including a population shift to urban centers and mass deforestation of the island (trees were one of the only resources left to starving farmers). Anger over the slaughter contributed to the downfall of dictator Jean Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier and was manifest in the “dechoukage” following his ouster, a lashing out against the symbols of the old regime, which, ironically, included Voodoo priests and religious sites.

Voodoo, which had been synonymous with the independence movement, was co-opted by the Duvaliers, who relied upon its social networks and metaphysical authority to keep citizens in line. The pig sacrifice at Bois Caiman held a promise of freedom; pig eradication, under Duvalier, was carried out by the paramilitary Tonton Macoute, which drew power from Voodoo symbols and mythology. Taking their name from a folkloric bogeyman known for stealing children in the night, the Tonton Macoute often threatened the lives of farmers in order to get to the throats of their pigs.

US efforts to replace the slaughtered pigs met with mixed evaluations. The American Durocs, Hampshires, and Yorkshires were picky eaters compared to the Creoles, and had issues with the Haitian climate. Discourse around the eradication and replacement programs swings between nostalgic idealizations of the indigenous pigs and attacks on the colonialist imposition of American agribusiness techniques, to defenses of the pragmatism of eliminating the swine fever threat and praise for the implementation of modern methods of livestock farming.

This case illustrated how the ramifications of disease are both material and symbolic. As with the sacrifice at Bois Caiman, where the pig produced both real blood and, through that blood, a spiritual power and unifying force, so in the later eradication and replacement pigs function in two worlds, causing both physical effects (death, starvation, deforestation, political unrest) and effects within discourse (where old pigs and new pigs become indexes of larger arguments, offering both evidence and rallying points for ideological claims).

As we continue to face both the material and symbolic effects of the current swine flu scare, it would behoove us to consider comparative cases. The fate of Haiti’s Creole pigs is one such instance. In Egypt, where the government ordered a similar eradication (regardless of the fact that there had been no cases of swine flu in the country), the pig farmers, primarily Christian, quickly raised complaints of religious bias, prompting one Egyptian columnist to call the slaughter a result of “Sectarian Flu.” Human plagues play out not only in individual bodies, but also the body politic. Disease has both physical and symbolic symptoms.

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