Who is Makandal?
The story of the Mackandal can be traced in our network of texts from the 1750s through the 1780s in scientific and cultural treatises written by naturalists and planters, letters, administrative communications between France and the colony, and in other genres. But another better known text came two decades later with “Makandal, Histoire Veritable,” which was published in the French periodical, Mercure de France. A supposedly true story told by an all but anonymous author, [M de C], is an account based on a letter from an anonymous planter in the colony. This story was reprinted, translated, and circulated across North America and Europe from 1787 to 1846 in newspapers.
In 1820, Victor Hugo published Bug-Jargal, which was a fictional short story then novel of the Haitian Revolution with numerous translations and retellings, all centering on a runaway slave character that has previously been likened to Toussaint Louverture. In this network, Bug-Jargal is instead aligned with Makandal.
Twentieth-century critical interest in Makandal began with C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins (1938), and equally with Alejo Carpentier’s postcolonial historical fiction of the Haitian Revolution, The Kingdom of This World (1949). While a literary genealogy of his appearance in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century print cultures has remained scattered, that critical interest has remained strong. Today, scholars who study Makandal work to piece together his story and understand the way in which his story crosses geographical, national, and colonial boundaries of time and space.
One recent history of the seven-years war contends that it was not a poison responsible for the thousands of deaths attributed to Mackandal and his network, but instead, the result of food having gone bad during shipment. Similarly, a literary introduction to the ciruclation of the Mackandal story in European newspapers expresses doubt over the supposed 6,000 casualties that were attributed to him and his accomplices. Beyond these specifics, there are still doubts about just how significant the literal or historical effects of his campaign were.
One thing that doesn’t present much controversy is the persistent point that Mackandal practiced some form of craft and exchange in the making of medicine and poison, and that his talents were, like the belief systems of West African origin themselves, both brought with him from Africa and transformed on the French plantation. In addition, and though his rebellion is noted ultimately as a failure at bringing an end to slavery in the colony, three months following his execution, laws once neglected were revised and revived to prohibit free people of color and slaves alike from the making, trafficking, or buying of Macandals.
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