Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Secrets of the Beverly Plantation Arch Revealed

Written by Dr. Arthur Fournier

Figure 1. Beverly near Pocomoke, MD.  Photo located in
National Register of Historic Places Program.
The Beverly plantation on the Pocomoke River was initiated by Littleton Dennis circa 1760 and completed by his widow, Susanna Upshur Dennis around 1770. (1) Framing the stairs leading to the rear entry is a unique wrought iron arch adorned with curious symbols. The description of the arch in the 2012 Garden Tour brochure gives vague reference that the arch may have been forged by Haitian craftsmen. This piqued my interest as I have worked as a medical volunteer in Haiti for 20 years and in the process, become quite familiar with Haitian history, art and culture.

While the identity of the sculptor cannot be identified with certainty as being Haitian, careful study of the arch reveals that the artist that designed and forged it had a thorough knowledge of and reverence for ancient West African cosmology. This cosmology was preserved in Haitian culture through the centuries and is still present to this day in Haiti as part of the world
Figure 2.   Veve of Legba
view and value system known as Vodou. Court records and a family history indicate that the Dennis family conducted considerable commercial intercourse with the West Indies. (2) They may therefore have brought back slaves from the West Indies as skilled artisans to contribute to the construction of the plantation who were well-versed in the mysteries of Vodou. Vodou is a form of African spiritualism that survived among slaves in France's colony, St. Dominique, by syncretecly adopting a veneer of Catholicism. Catholic saints such as the Virgin Mary also represented African Saints – in the case of the Virgin, Erzilie, the goddess of love and family. (3, Figure 4)) The term Vodou is most likely derived as the Kreyol pronunciation of the French "vieux dieux" or old gods. Each of these old or African gods is represented by an abstract symbol called in Kreyol "veve". (See Figure 2, Wikipedia examples of veve) It is these veve that adorn the arch and also continue in Haitian Vodou art to this day (See Figure 1 & 3).
Figure 3. Examples of veve in the Beverly Arch.  Photo
located in National Register of Historic Places Program.
For example, the heart with a cross above it is a symbol of Erzilie-the heart for love and the cross for suffering. The serpentine curves represents Damballah, the snake god, the same symbolism embodied in the caduceus, our symbol for medicine. Large crosses stand for Legba, the guardian of the crossroads which represent the intersection of past and future, life and death. Even the arch itself is a symbol, depicting both a rainbow and the Milky Way. In Vodou cosmology, creation began with the mating of the feminine rainbow with the masculine snake god (the metaphors to human anatomy should require no elaboration).(4) The stars in the Milky Way represent the souls of departed ancestors.

Figure 4.   Cover of Dr. Arthur
Fournier's book.
How did this African cosmology survive in Haiti and not among the enslaved in what is now the United States? Well, it did, to a certain extent, among the French settlements in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. It may also have persisted amongst the slaves of the Beverly plantation, as Maryland was the only Catholic colony among the original 13. As Alex Haley described so poignantly in "Roots", however, most African-Americans in what is now the United States were deprived of their cultural identity through progressive generations of enslavement. In Haiti, however the slaves successfully revolted against their French masters beginning in 1793. By 1804 Napoleon abandoned his attempt to reconquer Haiti, selling Louisiana to the United States to finance that misadventure. In the decades that followed, the United States and European powers isolated and ostracized Haiti, fearing the Haitians would export their revolution. This explains why Vodou exists in such a pure form in Haiti to this day. Which brings us back to the construction of the Beverly plantation and its arch – it had to be done before the Haitian revolution!

1. Beverly, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form 
2. The Dennises of Beverly and Their Kin (private printing, 1992)
3. Vodou Saints: Lessons on Life, Death and Ressurection From Haiti, Arthur M. Fournier,M.D.
4. The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis

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