Key Text: Mémoire Sommaire Sur Les Prétendus Pratiques Magiques et Empoisonnements

by Sébastien Jacques Courtin


Sébastien Jacques Courtin. “Mémoire Sommaire Sur Les Prétendus Pratiques Magiques et Empoisonnements Prouvés Au Procès Instruit et Jugé Au Cap Contre Plusieurs Nègres et Négresses Dont Le Chef Nommé François Macandal a Été Condamné Au Feu et Exécuté Le Vingt Janvier Mille Sept Cents Cinquante Huit,’ 1758, ANOM F/3/88,” January 20, 1758. Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer. [1]

[Trans.] Summary Memorandum On The Alleged Magic Practices And Poisonings Proven In The Trial in Le Cap Against Several Negroes And Negresses Whose Chief Named François Macandal Was Condemned To Fire And Executed On January Twenty One Thousand Seven Hundred Fifty Eight.

Sébastien Jacques Courtin’s Mémoire is a first-hand reflection on fetish-making and African spiritual practice that the author based on his role as Interim Sénéschal, or chief justice, in the investigation of and legal proceedings against François Makandal (Fick 1990). It serves as a summary of alleged magic practices to have reportedly turned from merely superstitious to criminal, and the author employs his knowledge of the topic as an authoritative argument for the suppression of these activities (Ramsey 2014). Another anonymous letter from a planter in 1758 mentions Courtin’s arrival from Cap Français to investigate the apparent conspiracy; Courtin’s manuscript is an item located within the varied and related materials belonging to or written by another Makandal author, M.L.E. Moreau de Saint-Mery, within the Collection of Moreau de Saint-Méry. Where many aspects of this early history of an enslaved African person will likely remain unknown, the proximities among agronomists’ papers nonetheless organize a collective focus and corroborate Makandal through one another’s accounts and cross-reference (as well as narrate the focus of agricultural society) in such a way to narrate revolutionary non-European culture in parallel to and counter to the rise of Enlightenment agronomic science in the districts of Limbé and Plaine du Nord, an agricultural occupation and monocultural operation beginning in the 1720s and reaching its breaking point in 1791.   

Pierre Pluchon’s first-hand transcription and translation of the entire text appears in his Vaudou, Sorciers, empoisonneurs: De Saint-Domingue à Haiti (1987). As do many other scholars, Carolyn Fick’s The Making of Haiti (1990) refers to Pluchon’s transcription in addition to her own transcription and translation of other Courtin manuscripts that record interrogations with accused poisoners in 1757. Her research reveals the way in which such interrogation sessions gathered information on the making of makandals as a means of surveillance and eradication of such knowledge practices in the heart of the most profitable agricultural operations in history; she argues that what makes Makandal’s revolt more successful than others was the way in which his communication carried over a long period of time across the lines of plantation slave and maroon communities (238-9). This picture of material and social exchange based in both spiritual and ecological knowledge practices suggests that the ideologies of revolution taking hold in Saint-Domingue depended on the pre-existent material crisis of conditions brought on through plantation sugar production and the anti-colonial strategies of resistance taking place according to documents like Courtin’s mémoire. Hers is a striking and important assertion given the way that Saint-Domingue was not comparatively overrun with reports of poisoning the way other colonies had been. The combined difference pre-revolution is in both the intensification of agricultural operations and the counter-insurgence of resistance to its production, so that, where it is difficult to label “slave resistance” as the cause of the Haitian Revolution, it is also impossible to imagine the Revolution without years of specific strategies of resistance taking place across plantation lines. 

Christina Mobley (2015) employs the handbook in her tracing of Kongolese language in early Caribbean archives, which in turn permits us to see the impact of West Central African spiritual practice on Saint-Domingue and further understand its role in mediating the lived experience of slavery. Paired with Courtin’s account, she also investigates the letters of former Attorney General, François de Neufchâteau, an agronomist and later mentor to Victor Hugo, whose account of Marie Kingué, a powerful female Vaudouiste of the 1780s, shows that Makandal was one among others who continued to produce and circulate plant-based, anti-colonial knowledge practices that colonial administrators thought threatening to the order of nature and the order of life in the colony. Most recently, Monique Allewaert’s “Super Fly: François Makandal’s Colonial Semiotics” analyze’s the text’s  Europeanization and colonization of the macandal as the fetish.

Beyond Courtin’s other writings, we have still to translate a Mémoire by Courtin’s widow, who, years later, looks back on Makandal as the germe fatale—the fatal seed or germ—of the colony.        



[1] Note: (E96 is the location of Courtin’s Dossier, F3.88, the Mémoire, see Pluchon 208 n. 24 and 25.


Works Cited

Allewaert, Monique. “Super Fly: François Makandal’s Colonial Semiotics.” American Literature 91, no. 3 (September 1, 2019): 459–90.

Debien, Gabriel. Les colons de Saint-Domingue et la Révolution: essai sur le club Massiac (août 1789-août 1792). Paris: A. Colin, 1953.

Debien, Gabriel. Les esclaves aux Antilles françaises: XVIIe - XVIIIe siècles. Gourbeyre: Soc. d’Histoire de la Guadeloupe, 2000.

Fick, Carolyn E. The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.

Fouchard, Jean. The Haitian Maroons: Liberty Or Death. New York: Edward W Blyden Press, 1981.

Garrigus, John D. Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Geggus, David Patrick. Haitian Revolutionary Studies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.

Kerboull, Jean. Vaudou et pratiques magiques. Belfond: réédition numérique FeniXX, 1977.

Métraux, Alfred. Voodoo in Haiti. Auckland: Pickle Partners Publishing, 2016.

Mobley, Christina Frances. “The Kongolese Atlantic: Central African Slavery & Culture from Mayombe to Haiti.” PhD diss. Durham: Duke University, 2015.

Pluchon, Pierre. Vaudou, sorciers, empoisonneurs: de Saint-Domingue a Haiti. Paris: Karthala, 1987.

Ramsey, Kate. The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Sosis, Howard Justin. “The Colonial Environment and Religion in Haiti: An Introduction to the Black Slave Cults in Eighteenth Century Saint-Domingue.” PhD diss. New York: Columbia University, 1971.