Makandal in Context: French Agronomy in Saint-Domingue


“A good master is an absent one” – Jacques-François Dutrône de La Couture, Précis Sur La Canne, 1791 (341).

By the nineteenth century, Makandal was a character on stages in London and in the pages of novels read in France and the United States. Though he is variably a hero and villain of revolutionary fantasy, the first accounts were written in the agricultural colony of Saint-Domingue and concerned real events. Importantly, his associations with the power to prophesy or bring death are in part rooted in the belief that he had the power to disrupt society based in the production of sugar in what was the richest agricultural project in history and the model for human progress in the Enlightenment. Saint-Domingue was fueled by the development of French agronomy, so it is critical to the future iterations of the project to continue researching the ways in which his story intersects with the growth of the global agro-industrial complex that was ultimately both responsible for his death and the seed of his memory.

Long before its height of production in the mid-to-late 1700s of Saint-Domingue, agriculture saw an initial period of reform in farming methods on French estates of the 1600s. Agronomy in France can be traced to the dreams of a man who wanted to escape the apocalyptic horrors of the religious wars by retreating into a garden paradise (Heller 2002, 58-9). Bernard Palissy, a Huguenot most well-known for his contributions in pottery design and manufacture as well as in natural sciences, particularly hydrology and geology, was among other thinkers working out theories of “human progress,” having been personally marked by a “pessimism” emerging from persecution during the religious wars (Heller 2002). Palissy’s Recepte veritable (The true recipe of the earth) (1563) includes his recounting of a reverie in which both his agricultural and geometric tools (those combining the tools of scientific scholars and agrarians--a compass, a bevel, a plumb-line, and others) fight with one another for which tool would measure, organize, and rule the earth.

Olivier de Serres’ Théâtre d'Agriculture (1600) was inspired by Palissy. Serres paired this abstract concern with the manipulation of earthly order through tools with years of agrarian experience in a determination to promote philosophical principles rather than be ruled by soley by empiricism. Serres’ patron, King Henri IV, made it his “after-dinner reading” and recommended it “to everyone he encountered “ (Heller 2002, 167).  Théâtre, along with the work of medical doctors, Charles Estienne and Jean Lièbault, L’agriculture et maison rustique [Agriculture and the rural home] (1589) contributed to creating a genre of writing and reading popular at the time; these works were “not only . . . representatives of a certain kind of writing,” but also . . . “symbols of a certain French craftsmanship” in which aristocratic readers “indulged” themselves (Bourde 2013, 7). Serres’ agriculture was a means of strengthening the nobility rather than an environment or common people and imposed a natural order of production and consumption that would be mapped onto the Caribbean in deathly labor practices. Palissy’s dream (in reality) had been to make agriculture function as both a utopic and economic means of recovery from civil and religious strife, but his nightmare of knowledge wars, symbolized by those tools of multiple disciplines rising-up against one another, also reflects that agricultural writing included a growing obsession with machines and experimentation.

Though Abbé Raynal is known as the philosophic father of the revolution, his (and Diderot’s) Histoire des deux Indes, a well-known history of French colonialism, was a project aimed at imposing efficiency on plantation operations and saving imperial wealth; Denis Diderot’s engravings of happy cultivators and tools for processing raw cotton and sugar featured numbered black bodies and machine parts as one harmonious operation, but this fantasy draws a sharp contrast to the bodies it broke and the death it brought for laborers like Makandal. It is in Saint-Domingue that the French put mechanical invention to the project of efficiency in production. When the notion of agricultural utopia was mapped onto Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), the “pearl of the Antilles” produced what was thought would eventually sustain an inexhaustible commodity surplus of goods. 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. In every sense, the planter’s transient existence and global occupation was made possible through the forced presence and increased importation of Africans. In fact, Africans had been the missing parts of the natural order under development and were naturalized to agricultural and manual labor in this new model for civilized progress.

European agronomy aimed for efficiency in production, high volume, and automated predictable yields through data logs and overseers. Toward this project, many planters, like Makandal’s enslaver, Lenormand de Mezy, were absent because they travelled from one plantation geography to another for months or years at a time. The wealthiest 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 (Dutrone de la Couture 1791). Local councils and assemblies of wealthy planters who goverened 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. Taxes were a subject that greatly interested agronomists, and so it is telling that Lenormand received tax breaks on the labor of his slaves in Saint-Domingue while he was away and in the period of Makandal’s accident. Mezy’s absence was typical of those with shifting posts as administrators, and these moves doubled as opportunity to reproduce Saint-Domingue in other places like Louisiana--in effect, to create an autonomous agriculture as a system that would reproduce, through data and prediction, at a distance.  

The network of planters who wrote about or who can be associated with Makandal’s history continue to produce further connections, either to agronomic writing and/or writing about African knowledge ways. The core texts related to Makandal by agronomists or about agronomy that we have analyzed so far include a few pages of Moreau de Saint-Méry’s Description de la partie francaise, taken from his expansive scientific and cultural treatise written and published in Philadelphia after this Creole planter’s flight from both the French and Haitian Revolutions. Moreau, who had been in Saint-Domingue, wrote about Makandal in the same volume of agricultural and social notes on the island that also produced what has been 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 employed racialized categories such as octoroon and mulatto. Another text co-authored by Moreau de Saint-Mery and M. Belin de Villeneuve, Mémoire sur un nouvel équipage de chaudieres a sucre : pour les colonies, avec le plan dudit equipage (1786) (Memoir on a new crew of sugar boilers…) includes two engravings of the refinery operation and mill of the plantation where Makandal is thought to have lost his arm (and about which Moreau writes).  “Relation d’une conspiration trammée par les negres,” is a set of anonymous planter’s letters, about the scare in the colony. Other important works not yet networked include those by agronomists, François de Neufchateau, Sebastien François Ange Le Normant de Mézy, and others.


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