Makandal Exhibit Introduction

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

The Makandal Text Network

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 Vodun, 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

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).

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