Obituary: Max Beauvoir
Biochemist who became Haiti's voodoo 'Pope' and once treated the Clintons to an animal sacrifice
Published 20/09/2015 | 02:30
Max Beauvoir, who has died aged 79, was a Sorbonne-educated biochemical engineer who, in 2008, became Haiti's voodoo "Pope" or "Ati".
Voodoo was introduced to the Americas by West Africans brought to work as slaves on the plantations. Forbidden from practising their native religion in the open, they combined tribal animist traditions with elements of Roman Catholic teaching; the result was a popular religion centred on trances said to be induced by spirit possession and including animal sacrifice, dancing, drum-beating and elements of Christian liturgy.
In this fusion, Christian saints became voodoo spirits. The 400-strong voodoo pantheon includes such figures as Kouzin Zaka (St Isidor) and Papa Lekba (St Lazarus). Perhaps most notoriously (not least because he played a starring role in the James Bond film Live and Let Die), the Peruvian St Martin de Porres was syncretised as Baron Samedi, usually depicted as a corpse dressed in top hat, dinner-jacket and dark glasses; he is known for obscenity, debauchery and a fondness for tobacco and rum infused with hot peppers.
Beauvoir himself sometimes assumed the spirit of Papa Ogou (St James the Great), one western witness of his performance describing how the spirit "through Beauvoir, downed a bottle of what the celebrants told me was the spirit's favourite scotch, Johnnie Walker. Then, with his balance intact, Beauvoir resumed dancing."
Voodoo is practised in parts of South America and the Caribbean, but is most powerful in Haiti. Voodoo houngans (and mambos, their female counterparts) are often the most influential people in Haitian communities, acting as healers, soothsayers, exorcists and counsellors - and in remoter places, even as mayors and notaries.
Yet even there, voodoo is controversial, partly because of its connection with the hated regime of Francois 'Papa Doc' Duvalier, Haiti's president from 1957 to 1971, and his son and successor Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc'. Papa Doc relied on voodoo to bolster support for his regime and recruited houngans for the Tontons Macoutes, his brutal secret police.
Baby Doc had a more strained relationship with voodoo, though shortly before he fled the country in 1986, he summoned Beauvoir and other houngans to advise him about how to respond to rising public anger. Beauvoir claimed that he had accused Duvalier of leading a corrupt administration that ignored voodoo principles of helping the poor. That did not prevent Haitian mobs killing more than 100 voodoo priests in the aftermath of Duvalier's departure. Beauvoir himself became a focus of public hostility when a crowd surrounded his walled estate outside Port au Prince, and hurled rocks and bottles inside, demanding his death.
Under Baby Doc's regime Beauvoir had set about turning his home into a visitor attraction where tourists could, for a fee, watch him making offerings to the spirits.
In his autobiography, the former US president Bill Clinton recalled a visit to Beauvoir's centre in 1975 at which he and Hillary had been impressed by the sight of a man walking on hot coals and a woman biting the head off a live chicken.
One American journalist, however, described Beauvoir as having "the oily manner of a man whom you wouldn't want to leave alone with your money or your child".
In the 1990s, Beavoir moved to Washington, where he set to work "demystifying" voodoo for Americans. In 2008, when Haiti's houngans decided to form a national federation, Beauvoir was invited back to assume the newly created position of "Ati" or supreme chief of the religion.
After Haiti's devastating earthquake of January 2010, Beauvoir urged his network of houngans to help with the recovery effort. But in December the same year, he appealed to the authorities to intervene to stop the lynchings of voodoo priests by people who blamed them for causing an outbreak of cholera by scattering powder or casting "spells".
The son of a doctor and grandson of a houngan, Max Gesner Beauvoir was born in Haiti on August 25, 1936 and graduated in 1958 from City College of New York with a degree in chemistry. In 1962, he took another degree, in biochemistry, at the Sorbonne, after which he became a research scientist in the US.
He returned to Haiti in the early 1970s to conduct experiments on traditional herbal remedies but shortly after his arrival he was summoned to join other family members at the bedside of his dying grandfather. "Grandfather turned to me and said, 'You will carry on the tradition'. It was not the sort of thing you could refuse." Abandoning his scientific career for voodoo, in 1974 Beauvoir established himself as the public face of the religion.
Although he was unapologetic about such practices as animal sacrifice, he rejected the "Hollywood version of voodoo". By his account voodoo was not a cause but a solution to Haiti's problems and he called for the country's houngans to be given a formal role in government.
"We are the country," he proclaimed. "Many people do not want to see it that way."
Max Beauvoir, who died on September 12, and his wife Elizabeth had two daughters.