Makandal in Context: French Agronomy in Saint-Domingue

Mackandal was enslaved on a plantation owned by Sébastien François-Ange Le Normant de Mézy (who went by Lenormant or Lenormand Demesi); he was largely known as an absentee planter. He was eventually made Deputy Minister of the Marine, and while in various positiosn of power in other places (including as chief of revenue, as Ordonnateur in Louisiana he also established botanical gardens and, determined to reproduce Saint Domingue cotton in Louisiana, also worked to design a more efficient cotton gin.  As a shrewd manager and beauracrat, he spent his later life in and died in Paris with a fortune, (1789). 

By the 1750s, the elaborate roller and cooking technologies increasingly installed on sugar plantations called “the new machines” (les nouvelles machines) made Saint-Domingue the chosen geography and material environment for the most modern scientific practice. 

It is through the explosion in gin technology that the plantation complex was also able to support the development of other specific scientific knowledge sets such as medicine, veterinary medicine, botany, forestry, and pharmacology. The planter’s transient existence and global occupation in developing these fields of knowledge and practice were made possible through the forced presence and increased importation, and increased mortality of Africans. 

European agronomy aimed for efficiency in production, high volume, and automated predictable yields through data logs and overseers. Toward this project, many planters were absent because they travelled from one plantation geography to another for months or years at a time. The most wealthy planters also held judicial or administrative positions in government and employed professional refiners (called rassineurs) who “represented” the Master while the planter instead dealt with the greater business and law of the colony.  Local councils and assemblies of wealthy planters who governed colonies like Louisiana, Saint-Domingue, and Louisbourg (Nova Scotia) were notoriously competitive and marked by conflicted alliances on local and transatlantic scales, since the wealth they secured through land development and fisheries equaled tax breaks and higher governmental assignments. Their shifting posts as administrators doubled as opportunity to reproduce Saint-Domingue in other places like Louisiana, and in effect, to create an autonomous agriculture as a system that would reproduce, through data and prediction, at a distance.  

While agronomy in Saint-Domingue increasingly operated through physical absence of the planter from the site of production, his absence did not denote a disconnectedness, but rather, a complex attachment to the project of disciplining the African into the planter’s view of natural logic through confinement, surveillance, documentation of status according to color, origin, reproductive function and past, labor duties, modes of ability or disability (e.g., size, pregnancy status, injury, and other means).  Even though scientists dismissed alternative knowledge as superstition or non- knowledge, the slave is both an economic and ecological object. 

For example, the work of early French scientist, Hilliard d’Auberteuil, influenced Moreau de Saint-Méry, who recorded the story of Makandal’s injury on a sugar gin, and d’Auberteuil’s natural order, dictates that “the negro” is “connected to” and “follow[s] the fate of the earth.” Moreau, who was a French Creole planter in Saint-Domingue, wrote about Makandal in the same volume of agricultural and other reflections on the island that also produced what is now called the Franklin system for racialization—a taxonomy of race identity arranged in a table and created through algebraic formulations that measured hues of skin in fractional parts of Africanness and used terms like octoroon and mulatto to describe them. Author of a treatise on sugar, Dutrône de La Couture, built on Moreau’s logic to create a racial algorithm in relation to labor (including the number of slaves unable to work because of illness or pregnancy) to corresponding relationships between average yield in sugar and predictions in future wealth. The same planter comments that all “the eyes” on the plantation are representationally the Master in his absence. To make an economic prediction, the planter formulates an equation in which a particular number of bodies-of-color are measured in terms of their particular agricultural labor. In doing so, he aligns a stream of production through data collection according to the desired corresponding yields in sugar and silver. The raw capital of the slave in data logs is directly relational to the planter’s ability to predict his commodity futures, and with it, his inching toward total agricultural occupation.