The Makandal Text Network

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

Who is Makandal?

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 or arm to a sugar press, was made to herd cattle, became a maroon and then returned to poison people and animals in a campaign of resistance for anywhere between six and twelve 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. (Cont.)

The Word "Makandal"

He, his name, and the word have been traced to a number of West African coastal locations and traditions. In a 1788 voyage of the Caribbean that includes notes on illness in St. Domingue, he is called le nègre de Mezurade (the negro from Cape Mesurado or Montserrado, Liberia). C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins (1938),  says he was a “negro from Guinea” (according to Carolyn Fick (1990), a broad term for the West Coast of Africa) and the greatest chief among 3,000 living in many “bands of free men” in the mountains (James 20-1). In the 1750s, he was called “the old man of the mountain” (Rodriguez 2007). There are any number of spellings in use across the texts, including Macandal, Macandale, Mackendal, Makandale, and Mackandal.  

Christina Mobley’s dissertation, “The Kongolese Atlantic” (2015) traces the meanings of the word supported by interdisciplinary scholarship on the Haitian Revolution by Laurent Dubois (2009), on Voodoo and African culture in the Atlantic by Pierre Pluchon (1987), David Geggus (1991, 2011), and others. By first observing that Makandal and his accomplices’ names come from Mayombe, a region of West Africa, and that the names are associated with abilities to identify sources of illness, cure illness, or cause it. His name signifies that he was an nganga nkisi or “a creator of objects” for spirits (221).  A Makanda is a “packet of animal, vegetable, mineral matter wrapped in a leaf,” and the name “refers to the large, flat leaf that is like the palm of a hand (kanda)” (Mobley 218). These are containers recognized in Mayombe and Saint Domingue as macandals. Macandals are also associated with Rada rites and lwas (gods) of African Vodun/Vodou (African/Haitian variations). Geggus’s (1991) spelling and explanation for Makandal says it is a derivation of makunda/makwanda of Kongo origin meaning amulet or charm. He explains that the “protective paquets in late colonial Saint Domingue and independent Haiti were called macandals not just in the memory of the famous poisoner. More correctly, he himself was named for them” (75).  St. Domingue advertisements of the 1760s show Makandal listed as a nickname (unexplained) for an escaped slave as well a general term for poisoner.  

The name brings to mind a host of concepts that are linguistic, practical, spiritual, and botanical. It has historically had associations with magic, sorcery, poison, medicine, garde-corps (keyword), and fetish-making, but also literally refers to biotic materials such as leaves and roots. Overall, he has “symbolized and embodied fears of poison, slave uprising, and the danger of African knowledge about plants, medicine, and religion” (Mobley).

Exhibit Goals and Intentions

This exhibit maps a network of literature about Mackandal—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, earliest written by anonymous authors, were both published and sent privately, appeared in print cultures as varied as newspapers 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 and emerges from the literature and culture of colonial science, at least, from an agricultural colony and from the perspective of colonizers--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 agricultural philosophies that structured the plantation system and against which Makandal fought; though these multi-volume cultural and scientific treatises are not a part of the exhibit, providing some background shows that one way of understanding Mackandal is as a producer of knowledge who weaponized plants within and against a system that monetized and mass-produced them. In turn, West African spiritual and practical use of natural knowledge becomes representationally visible in Mackandal 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

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