Ti Joseph was a voodoo priest who is said to have used Zombies as a labor force on sugar cane plantations. To keep his Zombie slaves in line, the story goes that he fed them nothing but unsalted porridge. Why? Well, according to Haitian Zombie lore, a Zombie will realize he is a Zombie if he is fed salt or meat. At that point, the Zombie will return to his grave.
The story of Ti Joseph is one of many tales used to add validity to the Haitian Zombie mythology, but not everyone agrees that it happened the way it was told. Dr. Reynold Ducasse believes that even if it did happen, it didn’t for the reasons that many tell.
To understand how such stories originate, it is important to have a working knowledge of labor relations in Haiti, particularly as it relates to the agricultural industry. For beginners, it should be pointed out that when large numbers of laborers are needed, say, during harvest time, landowners routinely hire independent contractors to assemble the necessary work force on their behalf. In the rural areas, these independent contractors are usually the local houngans (voodoo priests) who, by the sheer weight of their reputation and clout in their community, control everything from being the position of Town Sheriff (Chef de Section) to Charlatan (Docteur-feuille) to Reverend-Minister. In general, these houngans receive a negotiated lump sum which includes not only the totality of the workers’ wages, but also the estimated cost of feeding them for the duration of the work period.
The food clause is an important element of the agreement between the parties, because the workers are, in general, desperately poor men and women who can ill-afford to buy foods, while the landowners have a vested interest in keeping them well-fed and vigorous, able to work from dawn to dust. Unfortunately, this is just a handshake understanding, and in a country like Haiti that does not provide any form of institutional protection against workers abuse or exploitation, more often than not these men end up getting the shaft in these transactions. In lieu of nourishing meals, they are usually fed plain porridge (mayi moulin), which fills one’s stomach, appeases hunger, but has no nutritive value beyond its caloric input. Mayi Moulin is indeed the cheapest food staple in Haiti; it is the main staple of the poor. Meat is often excluded simply to contain cost.
So, it is quite plausible that the sugar cane workers alluded to in Dilworth’s article were, in fact, fed plain porridge. The main question is whether the porridge was, truly, totally unsalted or, perhaps, salted, but not enough to satisfy the workers’ taste and, thus was said to be “totally unsalted” in a fit of exaggeration, or just to stress the point. In any case, it is absurd to think that the workers were deprived of salt to prevent them from “returning to their graves” as the story goes. This is absolute nonsense.
The moral here is that while we have to learn to accept that Zombies can and will consume the bodies of the living to sate their unholy lust for flesh, occasionally the thought of Zombies can be used to justify truly despicable things, like depriving laborers of much needed food. We should not confuse the two.
Watch the clip, maybe Leonard Nimoy can clarify things a bit.