The Makandal Text Network

By: Kate Simpkins (Auburn University), Laura Johnson (Northeastern University), and Dannie Brice (Brandeis University)

Exhibit Introduction

The exhibit contributes to interdisciplinary interest in the relationship of the early Caribbean to American studies by bringing together historic and literary sources across genres according to a methodology that foregrounds the figure of François Makandal as an embodiment of African syncretic religious cultures. 

François Makandal d. 1758 was most likely enslaved in Africa and taken to the French colony of Saint-Domingue (today’s Haiti) in the first half of the eighteenth century. He was an influential figure on a plantation in the northern district of Limbé owned by Lenormand Demesi before he lost a hand to a sugar mill and the mechanized drums or rollers that process sugar cane. He was demoted in the hierarchy of labor on the plantation and made to herd cattle, but instead, he became a maroon or fugitive of the plantation who may have poisoned thousands of the colony’s people and animals in a campaign of resistance for anywhere between six and eighteen years. He was executed by fire on January 20, 1758 in Cap-Français (Cap-Haïtien) and swore that he would not burn in the flames but transform into a snake, fly, or other natural form. Though he died thirty-three years before the 1791 Vodou ceremony of Bois Caïman that many believe initiated the Haitian Revolution, the events took place on and in the mountains surrounding the plantation where Makandal was enslaved, and he is regarded as an important historical and spiritual figure whose appearance presaged these events.

Despite his abilities to heal using the indigenous African knowledge of plants practiced in Vodou, Makandal is more often remembered for having led a campaign of resistance using theft and poisoning following his injury. Our purpose is to network literatures about him across boundaries of archival discipline and study, to in effect, decolonize Makandal from the epistemological suspicion through which Enlightenment science frames non-European knowledge ways, and to advance scholarship on Makandal as an active agent of counter-colonial knowledge production within context of his resistance to the plantation.

Exhibit Goal and Intentions

This exhibit maps a network of literature about François Makandal—a collection that is complex to consider because of its translational gaps in language and other media; for instance, the texts and criticism are written in multiple languages, by both anonymous and well-known authors, were both published and sent privately, appeared in print cultures as varied as newspapers, novels, and post-revolutionary memoirs, and are fictional as well as documentary in their attention to the events of his life. Much of critical interest in Makandal has been historical rather than literary, and he has been strongly identified or characterized as any number of things: a poisoner, a healer or physician, a maroon, and a Vodou priest; this exhibit traces his transformation over time and geography from historical to more literary genres such as pantomime and novel as well as the circulation of texts in which all of these character associations variably emerge. 

On one level, what this evolving archive illustrates is that much of Makandal’s story is embedded within or emerges from the literature and culture of colonial science, at least, from an agricultural colony and from the perspective of colonizers, or the French planters who wrote accounts of his activities. In this context, one of the network’s approaches is to provide an introduction to some of the planters-writers and agricultural philosophies that structured the plantation system and against which Makandal fought; this aspect of our curation works as a means of contextualizing his persistence in other kinds of literature and media far from the colony and from the eighteenth century archives. Our evolving sub-section, French Agronomy in the Atlantic, shows Makandal is first a producer of knowledge who weaponized plants within and against a system that monetized and mass-produced them while maintaining their varied use for healing. In turn, West African spiritual and practical use of natural knowledge becomes representationally visible in Makandal as his story grows in transatlantic circulation. 

Last, the text network foregrounds how these co-productive and competitive knowledge traditions and their fictional personifications in literature can connect the historical moment of the plantationocene to its contemporary, global effects. To explore these critical perspectives, this exhibit adopts digital mapping methods to visualize and contextualize the Makandal text network by genre, circulation, and primary or secondary source distinction. While this flattens certain intertextual relationships, it highlights the breadth and distribution of texts about Makandal across certain boundaries and distinctions of genre, time, and space. To further contextualize the contemporary legacy of Makandal, this exhibit also explores translation as scholarly practice, cultural production and memory, and point of access.   

A Guide to the Exhibit

There are four introductory sections that contextualize the Makandal Text Network for visitors and that will support the continuation of research on the Makandal materials not yet explored or added here: one is our section on French agronomy, or the scientific knowledge tradition that produced the riches of the global sugar industry through slavery in French colonial Haiti (St. Domingue); another is a set of visualizations that use digital mapping to represent how and when Makandal literature has been published or reproduced. These map the growth and transformation of literatures forming a Makandal Text Network through which we have traced the circulation of literature about him in the Atlantic over more than two hundred years. The third is a background on the historical person, François Makandal, in relation to West African culture in the Atlantic. Finally, the section on translations introduces the methodologies and critical thinking supporting our effort to grow a network of media about Makandal that networks together the rare materials of the archive to oral traditions as well as contemporary re-imaginings of him in painting, photography, song, and gaming that bridge across languages and cultures including French, English, and Haitian Creole.

Contributing to the Exhibit

This exhibit is an ongoing effort to bring together disparate sources, narratives, historical documents, and cultural artifacts about François Makandal. It is designed to center Makandal’s narrative on modes of knowledge and production across boundaries, time, and genre for the largest possible audience. We hope to curate a space where everyone—scholars and non-scholars—is invited to explore, analyze, and learn about Makandal. If you would like to contribute to this exhibit, please reach out to the creators and share your ideas. Do you know of additional historic, cultural, or artistic materials about Makandal? Send us an email with your thoughts, suggestions, and ideas for further expansion on this project. We will add your name to our contributors list and look into incorporating your material into future editions of the exhibit.

Citing the Exhibit

Simpkins, Kate, Juniper Johnson, and Dannie Brice. “Makandal Exhibit.” Early Caribbean Digital Archive. Northeastern University, 2019. [URL]. Accessed [date].