Clairvius Narcisse and the Zombies of Haiti

narcisse and friends

Clairvius Narcisse (center) with Francina Ileus  and Dr Lemarque Douyon

Clairvius Narcisse, born 1922, was a Haitian man allegedly turned into a zombie.

The Haitian Creole ‘Zonbi’, the origin of our term, is a little different from the familiar flesh-eating revenants we know today. The zombies of Haiti were corpses raised from the dead by voodoo sorcerers, or bokor – mindless slaves who would do only their master’s bidding.

zombie felicia felix

Felicia Felix-Mentor another alleged ‘zombie’ pictured in 1936, 29 years after her death.

Zombies were feared in rural Haitian society – superstitious families would even stab or decapitate loved ones in burial to prevent them from rising again.  Narcisse is not the only case, merely the best documented.

On April 31st, 1962 40-year-old Clairvius Narcisse, suffering from intense bodily fever, checked in to Albert Schweizer Hospital. His American doctors noted Narcisse’s worsening condition – his lips were blue and blood dripped from his mouth. The patient felt insects crawling beneath his skin.

On May 2nd 1962 Narcisse was pronounced dead. His sisters Angelina and Marie Claire identified the body and buried him the following day.

Eighteen years later Angelina was at a marketplace in her hometown when a stranger called her name. What she saw made her scream. Though older and empty-eyed, the man had her brother’s face. He introduced himself by a childhood moniker only family would have known. Angelina and her village were convinced the man was Clairvius.

haiti hospital

Albert Schweitzer Hospital, the American run institution where Narcisse died

According to Narcisse, it began with an inheritance dispute. His brother had sold Narcisse’s soul to a bokor, who administered a sinister poison to induce his malaise. Clairvius claimed to be fully conscious during his burial; paralysed utterly, appearing dead, but still alive.


Clairvius Narcisse, standing by the grave where he was buried over 18 years earlier

After a few days he was exhumed by his tormentor’s acolytes, beaten, bound and forced fed another potion that reduced him to a mindless trance. Giving regular dosages, the bokor subjected Narcisse to slavery at a sugar plantation.

Two years later the ‘zombies’ revolted and beat the sorcerer to death. Finally free from the bokor’s curse, Narcisse spent the next sixteen years on the street. Though his mental functions slowly recovered, he dared not return home until his brother too was dead.

Eminent Haitian psychiatrist Dr Lamarque Douyon, who had studied mental delirium closely, interviewed 200 witnesses and met with Narcisse to confirm his condition. In 1981 the BBC filmed a brief documentary.

wade davis

Wade Davis, now a professor at the University of British Columbia

Harvard educated ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who met with Douyon and Narcisse explained the case through science. According to Wade’s book ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow,’ the bokor’s original potion was a sinister concoction of tetrodotoxin – found in pufferfish venom, grounded human bones, millipedes and toad toxin. Tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin 160 times the power of cocaine, can leave its victims in weeklong comas – Wade claims resemble death.


The Datura or ‘moonflower’

The second ‘zombie’ potion contained datura – a deadly poison that induces widened pupils, intense delirium, suggestibility and severe amnesia. Datura has a long association with voodoo and bokors. Coupled with a full day buried alive the bokor’s potion deteriorated Narcisse’s brain to the extent he could neither speak nor act freely – only follow basic commands without question: the zombie of voodoo folklore.

Narcisse was not the only confirmed case. Like him, Francina ‘Ti Femme’ Ileus had ‘died’ in 1976 of a sudden sickness only to be rediscovered two years later. Police found her grave filled with rocks. Unwanted by her community, whom Davis suspected had plotted her zombification, Ileus passed into the care of Dr Douyon. He reported that Ileus, though able to communicate, was emotionless, had no perception of time and could not even remember her age.

Being a zombie in Haiti is akin to being a leper. Clairvius Narcisse was recognised, but as only a shell of his former self – a man without a soul. In first death he was a man in hospital, surrounded by loved ones, in his second, an impoverished outcast.

One Month On: Assessing Charlottesville

Charlootesville rally

It’s been a month since the Charlottesville Riot. On August 12th, supposedly protesting the planned removal of a Robert E Lee statue, hundreds descended on the town in a torch lit rally, displaying an array of white nationalist insignia including swastikas. Chants included the Nazi maxim ‘Blood and Soil’, ‘White Lives Matter’ and ‘Jews will not replace us’. They clashed with counter protesters the next day, resulting in one death and multiple injuries.

‘The Unite the Right’ rally was, truthfully, a ‘Unite the Far Right’ rally. All the white supremacist groups coalesced: klansmen, neo-Nazis, neo-confederates and, most notably, adherents of the burgeoning alt right movement.

Only one particular cohort seemed missing – skinheads. The eponymous hairdo and doc martins, it seems, have been replaced by the khakis and white polos of the new generation’s racists. Skinheads, as a distinct subculture, have largely died out, succeeded by the far more savvy and successful alt right, a movement of unprecedented growth, owing  to its ‘softened’ and intellectualised image.

The Charlottesville rally showed their strength – these were not merely keyboard warriors, but a numerous and organised movement, capable of putting boots on the ground.

I argue the march backfired.

Charlottesville Lee Statue

The statue that started it all, in Lee Park, Charlottesville Virginia. Soon to be removed.

Lee Statues: Charlottesville prompted the immediate removal of the Lee statue, along with confederate monuments across the US.

  • August 15th: Demonstrators illegally remove the courthouse Confederate Soldiers Monument in Durham, North Carolina.
  • August 16th: Baltimore authorities remove the city’s Stonewall Jackson and Robert E Lee Statues.
  • August 19th: The Lee monument at Duke University is removed.
  • September 18th: Dallas removes the Lee Statue in the city park.

The removal of confederate monuments in the south was already a growing trend in 2017. The ugly display of hate at Charlottesville only quickened the pace by authorities all too eager to distance themselves from the Old South’s white supremacist legacy.

Alt right

Charlottesville protesters posing for a photo

Alt Right: At Charlottesville the alt right’s careful cultivation of a refined, accessible white nationalist movement was decimated. The Nazi imagery, the violence and Heather Heyer’s murder showed the movement’s true colours (or at least that off its extremist wing). These were not simple patriots espousing positive white identity but bigots of a familiar stripe, whose message is little different from the neo-Nazis they marched alongside.

Public opinion has hardened against the alt right. Whilst the media’s reaction may strengthen their core, few wish to associate with hard-core racists and neo-Nazis. The Charlotesville protesters was widely condemned; by religious leaders, celebrities, politicians, even Angela Merkel. Anti-fascist rallies followed in Berkley, Brooklyn, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Daily Stormer and the Right Stuff, pages representing the alt right’s extremist wing, have since been exiled to the dark web. A follow up ‘free speech’ rally in Boston was inundated by counter protesters.

Donald Trump – After the death of Heather Heyer and President Trump’s ‘many sides’ comments, the media had a field day. Trump received the most flak since last’s years ‘pussygate’ scandal. His manufacturing council dissolved and Steve Bannon – Trump’s link to the alt right, resigned.  Pundits were quick to note the marchers’ approval of Trump’s words.

Donald Trump is incapable of denouncing anyone who praises him (Trump-Pence signs appeared at the rally), or hiding his true feelings, so his comments were not surprising. Nevertheless, the president has repeatedly demonstrated that he is a bed of nails; his response to Charlottesville march will ultimately blow over.

One month on, the shock reaction and public frenzy to the march has died down. Many quietly agree that both sides were to blame, especially given Antifa’s dubious and violent track record.  Counter protesters may have started the violence, it is true, but when one side’s ranks espouse a genocidal ideology and the other merely react, recognising the greater evil should not be difficult.

What will come of the alt right, and their bubbling anger, remains to be seen.

Donald Trump,

The Fall of Singapore

image sources australian geographic

On the 15th February 1942 the British Empire surrendered its most prized Southeast Asian possession to the Japanese 25th Army. Churchill called it the ‘worst capitulation’ in British history.

Colonial Singapore was as strategically significant as it is today. Located at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore commands the mouth of the Malaccan Straits, the causeway between the Andaman and the South China Seas and the prime shipping channel between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Aptly named the ‘Gibraltar of the East’, Singapore was a heavily protected island fortress. The British thought it impenetrable.

With her efforts devoted primarily to keeping the home island safe, Japan’s rapid expansion in Southeast Asia had come as a surprise to the Empire whose greater strength was bogged down in Europe and North Africa. Since Pearl Harbour the Japanese had invaded the Philippines, seized Hong Kong, northern Borneo and, led by the bullish general Tomoyuki Yamashita, steamrolled through the jungles and rubber plantations of British Malaya in a mere 70 days.

invasion of malaya

Yamashita’s invasion of Malaya

The British had vastly underestimated their foes.  Dismissed from the war’s onset as bucktoothed savages the Japanese were initially viewed neither as tough nor soldierly by their opponents.  Moreover, the colonies had utter faith in Britain’s renowned naval supremacy. The Japanese could not possibly beat them at sea.

Both assumptions proved false.

Defending Malaya was a composite of hastily formed Indian and Australian divisions, mainly 18 year olds who’d never held a gun. The invaders meanwhile, who included the crème de la crème Japanese Imperial Guard, were hardened veterans of the war in China to whom dying for the empire was the highest honour.

Japanese bicycles

Japanese troops advance through British Malaya by bicycle in 1942

Though no less accustomed to the tropics then his Commonwealth foes, the Japanese foot soldier was conditioned for war by a lifetime of nationalist indoctrination and notoriously harsh discipline. Japanese soldiers carried lighter packs than their British counterparts and advanced through Malaya on bicycle, rather than foot.

No time was wasted taking prisoners and resistance was brutally crushed: after the Battle of Muar 200 wounded Australian and Indian troops were doused in petroleum and burned alive. The conquest of Malaya was swift and brutal.

While the British in Malaya were severely demoralised at the velocity of their downfall, the Japanese fought with growing confidence. The popular infallibility of the British navy dissipated instantly with the sinking of battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales on the 10th of December. The siege of Singapore began on the 8th of February the following year. Although Yamashita had only 36,000 men to the British 85,000, Singapore’s defenders were severely battered and demoralised. Moreover they were surrounded on three sides. Facing starvation, heavy bombardment, fierce street to feet fighting and with no chance of reinforcement, the British eventually capitulated on the 15th of February.

australian troosp surrender.jpg

Australian POWs in Changi Jail, Singapore after their surrender in 1942

A total 130,000 British troops surrendered. 7,000 would go on to form the backbone the pro Japanese ‘Indian National Army’ that fought the British in Burma and India on the promise of creating an independent Indian state. Others would work on the infamous death railway. Never before had British soldiers surrendered on such a scale. After Singapore, the Japanese could swiftly complete their conquest of maritime Southeast Asia – Borneo, the Philippines, Melanesia and the Dutch East Indies followed in rapid succession. Many feared Australia and New Zealand were next.

The Fall of Singapore foreshadowed much. An ascendant Asian power, in remarkable speed, had defeated and humiliated history’s greatest empire.  The colonies realised their master was not invincible and, after the war, would quickly assert independence. Despite winning this war, by 1945 Britain, had clearly lost its superpower status, would cede world hegemony to the United States and begin dismantling its empire. The Suez Crisis of 1956 was the nail in the coffin. Britannia would never reach her former glory again.

Taking the Plunge

I’ve been wrestling with the blog idea for some time.

Psychologists say you retain 10% of what you read, but 90% of what you teach to others. Now, for the first time in my life, I’m no longer learning every day. What you learn in high school, or even university will likely be forgotten, or simply outdated, in ten years’ time. So why stop learning? The world isn’t going to wait.

Last month kicked me into action.  Maniacs with missiles, race hate, and an ever deepening political divide have become motifs on the TV screen. With our world order hurdling, the future will be determined by the actions of women and men today. I wanted my voice to be heard.

From the Parapet will discuss politics – I’m sure my personal views will become increasingly clear – but this is not a political blog. History and current events will be my focus: I intend to present the modern world through the lens of the past. That, or share any knowledge I feel like sharing.  If you’d prefer a specifically political blog, there are a thousand others out there.  If you are a looking for the biweekly musings of would-be erudite, you have come to the right place.

Next post will be up in a few days.