Key Text: Gil Blas de Santillane

Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane 

Introduction   Kate Simpkins

An 1825 edition of the novel, Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane by Alain-René Lesage only briefly mentions Makandal in a footnote, but this minor moment in an otherwise long novel binds the worlds French agronomy and West African knowledge ways with French literature. In the footnote, Makandal prophesies and demonstrates the end of white rule on the island through a performance using vases of water and pieces of white cloth. It says:


The famous Makandal . . . filled three clear vases with water. He

took three white kerchiefs and put them in the three vases. The

first kerchief that he took out of the first vase came out yellow, and

it represented, according to him, the reign of the whites, which

would pass. The second handkerchief came out more and more

red, which represented the Caribs destroyed by the European,

whose reign had passed. The last white handkerchief came out of

the vase completely black: and there we have the reign of the

blacks!cried the juggler. Makandal sported this black flag at

the end of a pole . . . and one can judge the effect which it produced on the assembly of these poor slaves. (Lesage and Neufchâteau 1825: 286, Dillon and Simpkins 729). 


On its surface, this embedded Makandal story in Lesage’s Gil Blas seems unrelated to Victor Hugo’s fictional novel of the Haitian Revolution, Bug-Jargal, but it is because of this footnote that Hugo’s novel so clearly works as a Makandal text, since,in a twisting history,” Hugo helped to research and translate Neufchâteau’s edition. In addition, the footnote concerning Makandal “repeats a story” already told in Sebastien Courtins “Mémoire Sommaire Sur Les Prétendus Pratiques Magiques et Empoisonnements…(Dillon and Simpkins 728-29). The footnote’s story is also recounted in the anonymous Relation d’une conspiration (1758) (in the same year as Courtin’s handbook) as well as other places we have just begun to map to our network. 

Neufchâteau was the literary mentor and patron to Victor Hugo when the then nineteen-year old wrote Bug-Jargal, the story of an African revolutionary maroon with followers, super-human physical strength and social sway. Though the former Attorney General to Saint-Domingue, earlier, in 1786, as an attorney in Saint-Domingue, Neufchâteau had investigated a “nocturnal class of macandals” in Marmelade parish while under a ban against these activities. (That is, Africans were banned from gathering to make objects thought to be both poisonous and socially disruptive after laws were enacted against them following Makandal’s revolution.) Though Neufchâteau’s investigation took place in Marmelade, a different parish than Makandal’s (Limbe Parish), Marmelade was populated mostly by enslaved West Central Africans like Makandal (Margairaz 2005:138; Dillon and Simpkins 733). More, like Moreau de Saint-Mery, Neufchâteau also wrote about the exciting new designs of the sugar mill and refinery belonging to Monsieur Belin de Villeneuve, the owner of the gin where Makandal may have lost his arm. 

Both Hugo’s intellectual and literary relationship with Neufchâteau and the latter’s exposure to macandals demonstrate the scientific and literary intertwining of French agronomy and West African knowledge of plants in the intellectual production of its scientists and storytellers and shows this intertwining is made possible by Makandal. 

Neufchâteau’s footnote about Makandal in Gil Blas follows the novel’s narrative, in which a mysterious sage makes an elixir from unknown plants that induces magic healing effects. In other words, the occasion for the footnote about Makandal is a story about inexplicable knowledge related to plants; what’s more, the word “elixir” was commonly associated with West African rituals. Given this parallel, it is also notable that while in Saint-Domingue, Neufchâteau himself had proposed censoring advertisements for the “elixirs” maroons made in the colony (Cheney 2017, 65). 

Hugo’s knowledge of Makandal through Neufchâteau and Gil Blas means that Bug-Jargal is, despite its distance from the colony, a novel that reflects elements of the first-hand knowledge and experience of one of France’s most accomplished agricultural experts, and one who is clearly unable to explain the know-how employed in African medicine or poisonmaking. Scholarship has shown that the historical fiction of Bug-Jargal relies on a combination of sources scrambled to Hugo’s fictional needs, and those sources are mainly military memoirs. But, Neufchâteau’s intervening footnote indicates that Hugo has envisioned a different kind of revolution taking place--a new knowledge to which he is intimately connected and in conflict; in this way, Gil Blas enables a reading of Bug-Jargal, a story of military conflict, in terms of another kind of battlefield--one that Hugo explicitly names as the theater of African and European conflict and engagement: colonial soil (Hugo 2004, 31). In this sense, Bug-Jargal is about and shaped through a war of knowledge production as much as military conflict.


Works Cited

Cheney, Paul. Cul de Sac: Patrimony, Capitalism, and Slavery in French Saint-Domingue. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Dillon, Elizabeth Maddock, and Kate Simpkins. “Makandal and Pandemic Knowledge: Literature, Fetish, and Health in the Plantationocene.” American Literature, no. 8780935 (October 6, 2020).

Hugo, Victor. Bug-Jargal. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2004.

Lesage, Alain-René, and François de Neufchâteau. 1825. Histoire de Gil Blas

de Santillane, par Le Sage, avec des notes . . . par M. le comte François de

Neufchâteau. 3 vols. Paris: Lefèvre.

Margairaz, Dominique. François de Neufchâteau: biographie intellectuelle. Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2005.

Simpkins, Patricia Catherine “Kate.” The Absent Agronomist and the Lord of Poison: Cultivating Modernity in Transatlantic Literature, 1758-1854. Northeastern University, 2016.