Key Text: Description topographique, physique, civile, politique et historique de la partie francaise de l'isle Saint Domingue

By Mederic-Louis-Élie Moreau de Saint-Mery

Médéric-Louis-Élie (M.L.E.) Moreau de Saint-Méry. Description topographique, physique, civile, politique et historique de la partie francaise de l’isle Saint-Domingue. : Avec des observations générales sur la population, sur le caractère & les moeurs de ses divers habitans; sur son climat, sa culture, ses productions, son administration, &c. &c. Accompagnées des détails les plus propres à faire connâitre l’état de cette colonie à l’époque du 18 octobre 1789; et d’une nouvelle carte de la totalité de l’isle. A Philadelphie : Et s’y trouve chez l’auteur, au coin de Front & de Callow-Hill streets. A Paris, chez Dupont, libraire, rue de la Loi. Et à Hambourg, chez les principaux libraires, 1797.

[Trans.] Topographical, physical, civil, political and historical description of the French part of the island of Saint-Domingue. : With general observations on the population, on the character and customs of its various inhabitants; on its climate, its culture, its productions, its administration, & c. & vs. Accompanied by the most suitable details to make known the state of this colony at the time of October 18, 1789; and a new map of the whole island.

“A small, almost imperceptible fly whose sting penetrates the skin and causes great pain”

Definition of mosquito from Moreau de Saint-Méry’s list of terms (xix).


M.L.E. (Louis-Médéric) Moreau de Saint-Méry’s Description Topographique (1797) is one of twenty-four editions of a two-volume work published between 1796 and 1798. Though published in Philadelphia, the work is based on the author’s writings about living in Saint-Domingue as an administrator and member of the Superior Council (a council of legal administrators) for a period that began more than a decade earlier (Dubois 2005). His wide-ranging study of the island conveys a long-term intimate knowledge of all aspects of Saint-Domingue culture despite the temporal and geographical distance from its first appearance in the post-revolutionary United States.

Moreau de Saint-Méry was from a modest background as a white Creole born in Fort Royal, Martinique, but he was educated in France and eventually rose to prominence as a politician in Paris during the French Revolution. Born in 1750, he would not have been a first-hand witness to Makandal’s accident, marronage, or execution (d. 1758), so despite his authority on all aspects of Saint-Domingue, his narration is yet another level removed from actual events. Still, his account makes reference to the earliest record of events related to Makandal’s capture and execution. Arriving in 1772 from his law education in Paris, Moreau de Saint-Méry married the daughter of a planter and set up legal practice at Cap Français (Furstenberg 2015). The attorney was a part of the culture of Cap Français at a time when it had its own royally chartered scientific academy with ties to America and France. He was a member of the Cercle de Philadelphes, and associated with Benjamin Franklin’s American Philosophical Society (Stanley).  After leaving Saint-Domingue, he returned to France to write this extensive history, but soon had to sail for Virginia to escape just before his own arrest in 1793 in Paris. He and his family eventually arrived on Virgnia’s “hospitable soil” after a nearly four-month winter’s journey during which time they ran out of provisions in the middle of the North Atlantic (Furstenberg 75).  

After arriving in Philadelphia, Moreau de Saint-Méry opened a bookshop from 1794-1798 that served as a center for publication and social gathering for the French refugee community (Johnson 2015). The author of many other works, including seven volumes on law in the Caribbean, he is best known for Description, which, beyond the story of Makandal, is better known for promoting his theory of racial taxonomy, which divides color according to the amount of black blood into 128 categories. As an agronomist, he speaks from the position of a planter who is proslavery and large monoculture, but he is also critical toward monarchical oversight and absenteeism in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution. Moreau de Saint-Méry’s greatest aim was to secure an autonomously controlled economy in Saint-Domingue. Because his research concerns the plantation business in the years before the Haitian Revolution, he looks back in an editorial stance to prior research on a place he mourns as a utopia now lost (Miller 1998).  

Makandal has become more well-known by the time of Description’s publication in 1796, as the most studied Makandal story, Mercure de France’s “Makandal, Histoire véitable” (1787), had already been translated, adapted and published in European and American newspapers under various titles including “Account of a Remarkable Conspiracy formed by a Negro of Saint Domingue” (Faherty, White, and Jaudon 2016). Moreau was familiar with the publication of that version of events because, though the account had been published many times, including in the same years as Description) he closes his own story by mentioning the 1787 original edition as a romanticization of reality. 

Description’s most notable claim is that Makandal lost his hand in an accident on a sugar mill and was made to shepherd livestock, which presents a very different story than the narrative of the 1787 account of a jilted and jealous lover on a killing rampage (Faherty, White, and Jaudon 2016). This critical difference between settings (on the one hand, the violence and danger of the labor of the mill, and on the other, a love triangle and murder spree by Makandal) is ironic given the way in which Moreau de Saint-Méry’s theories on race created correlations (like Benjamin Franklin’s) between pure blackness (Africanness) and malicious character (evil). The planter’s account is also brief in context of the size of the entire work as well as the general size of the more than two hundred items in the Moreau de Saint-Méry Collection at the National Archives of Overseas [Territories and Colonies, ANOM], which includes letters and other writings by other planters on medicine, poison, and slave resistance that we have just begun to explore.  

Besides the account of Makandal, Moreau also writes more than once in less than positive terms about Lenormand de Mézy, the absentee agronomist and royal administrator who purchased Makandal. A closer look at the Collection may provide further opportunities to explore information on Lenormand, including his agronomic philosophies and practices, since only his absence so far figures as the most remarkable role in Makandal studies. In addition, Marlene Daut’s Tropics of Haiti (2015) reveals that Moreau de Saint-Méry wrote many letters to his daughter, and it is possible that these letters in the Archivio di Stato in Parma, Italy may hold further relevant information on Makandal, the planters, and plantations around his narrative at the time of Moreau de Saint-Méry’s time in Saint-Domingue (241).


Works Cited

Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.

Fick, Carolyn. The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.

FranceArchives. “COLLECTION MOREAU DE SAINT-MÉRY — Sous-série F 3.” Accessed November 17, 2020.

Furstenberg, François. When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees Who Shaped a Nation. Penguin, 2015.

Garraway, Doris L. The Libertine Colony: Creolization in the Early French Caribbean. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

Garrigus, John D. “Redrawing the Colour Line: Gender and the Social Construction of Race in Pre-Revolutionary Haiti.” The Journal of Caribbean History 30, no. 1 (1996).

Johnson, Sara E. “Moreau de Saint-Méry: Itinerant Bibliophile.” Library & Information History 31, no. 3 (August 1, 2015): 171–97.

Miller, Nancy K. “Libertinage and Feminism,” Yale French Studies, no. 94 (1998): 17–28. doi:10.2307/3040695, quoted in Doris L Garraway, The Libertine Colony: Creolization in the Early French Caribbean. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005, 271-3.

Reinhardt, Catherine A. Claims to Memory: Beyond Slavery and Emancipation in the French Caribbean. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006.

Stanley, Jeffrey L. “The Language of Race in Revolutionary France and Saint-Domingue, 1789-1792.” PhD diss. University of Kentucky, 2016.


Further Reading

For more on Makandal Moreau de Saint-Méry’s writings about Lenormand de Mézy as well as a closer reading of this excerpt’s full chapter, see Simpkins The Absent Agronomist

See the French-language introduction to a collection of readings of Moreau de Saint-Méry’s work by Dominique Taffin, ed., Moreau de Saint-Méry, ou, Les ambiguïtés d’un créole des Lumières: actes du colloque organisé par les Archives départementales de la Martinique et la Sociéte des amis des archives et de la recherche sur le patrimoine des Antilles, avec le concours de l’Université des Antilles et de la Guyane, 10-11 septembre 2004. Fort France L’Archives de la Martinique, and Université Antilles-Guyane/ Société des amis des archives et de la recherche sur le patrimoine culturel des Antilles, 2006.

For more extensive research on race and taxonomy in Enlightenment thinking, in Moreau de Saint-Méry’s writing, and in literature about the Haitian Revolution, see Daut, Marlene. “From ‘Monstrous Hybridity’ to Enlightenment Literacy.” Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, 1789-1865. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, 49-196.

Begin Transcription

Bottom 651 within a chapter that begins 641-653

From “QUARTIER DU LIMBÉ. XV. Paroisse du Limbé.”

  1. 651

C’est de l’habitation de M. le Normand de Mézy, au Limbé, que dépendait le nègre Macandal, né en Afrique. Sa main ayant été prise au mouin, il avait fallu la lui couper, & on le fit gardien d’animaux. Il devin fugitif.

*On lit sur le maneau de la cheminée de la sucerie de M. Belin, ces quatre vers qu’elle a inspire à M. de la Borde, enseigne de vaisseau, qui a péri dans le voyage de M. de la Pérouse autour du Monde.



*L’homme actif a les biens, l’homme oisif a les maux,

Tout travail a sa recompense,

Et la plus douce ici compense

L’amertume de nos travaux.[1]

  1. 652

Pendant sa desertion il se rendit célèbre par des empoisonnemens qui répandirent la terreur parmi les négres, & qui les lui soumit tous. Il tenait école ouverte de cet art exécrable, il avait des agens dans tous les points de la Colonie, & la mort volait au moindre signal qu’il faisait. Enfin dans son vaste plan, il avait onçu l’invernal projet de faire disparaître de la surface de Saint-Domingue tous les hommes qui ne seraient pas noirs, & les succès qui allaient toujours croissans avaient propagé un effroi qui les assuraient encore. La vigilance des magistrats, celle du gouvernement, rien n’avait pu conduire jusqu’aux moyens de s’emparer de ce scélérat, & des tentatives punies d’une mot Presque soudaine, n’avait qu’à terrifer encore plus.

Un jour les nègres de l’habitation Dufresne, du Limbé, y avaient formé un calenda nombreux, Macandal qui était accoutumé à une longue impunité, vint se mêler á la danse.

Un jeune nègre, peut-être par l’impression que la presence de ce monster avait produite sur lui, vin ten avertir M. Duplessis, arpenteur, & M. Trévan qui se trouvaient sur cette habitation, & qui firent répandre la tafia avec tant de profusion, que les nègres s’envirèrent tous, & que Macandal, malgré sa prudence, se trouva privé de sa raison. 

On la arrêter dans une café à nègre, d’où on le conduisit dans une chambre de l’un des bouts de la maison principale. On lui lia les main derrière le dos, & faute de fer on lui mit des enverges [sic] de chevaux. Les deux blancs écrivirent au Cap pour prévenir de cette capture, & avec deux nègres domestiques ils gardèrent Macandal, ayant des pistolets chargés sur la table où était une lumière. 

Les gardiens s’endormirent. Macandal, peut-être aide par les deux nègres, délia ses mains, éteignit la chandelle, ouvrit une fenêtre au pignon de la maison, se jetta dans la savane & gagna des casiers en sautant comme une pie.

L brise de terre qui augmenta, fit batter le crochet de la fenêtre, ce bruit réveilla; grande rumeur, on cherche Macandal que les chiens éventèrent bien-tôt & qu’on reprit.

Macandal qui, s’il avail fait usage des deux pistolets au lieu de fuir, était sûr d’échapper, fut condamné à être brûlé vif par un arrêt du Conseil du Cap du 20 Janvier 1758. Comme il s’était vanté plusieurs fois que si les blancs le prenait il leur échapperait sous différentes forms, il déclara qu’il prendrait celle d’une mouche pour échapper aux flammes.


  1. 653

Le hazard ayant voulu que le Poteau où l’on avait mis la chaîne qui le fai fissait fut pourri , les efforts violens que lui faisaient faire les tourmens du feu, arrachérent le piton & il culbuta par-dessu le bucher. Les nègres crièrent : Macandal sauvé ; la terreur fut extreme ; toutes les portes furent fermées. Le détachement de Suisses qui gardait la place de l’exécution la fit évacuer ; le geolier Masse voulait le tuer d’un coup d’épée , lorsque d’après l’ordre du Procureur-général, il fut lié sur une planchet & lance dans le feu. Quoique le corps de Macandal ait été incinéré, bien des négres croyent, méme à present, qu’il n;’a pas péri dans le supplice.

Le souvenir de cet être pour lequel les épithètes manquent, réveillent encore des idées tellement  sinistres, que les nègres appellant les poison & les empoisonneurs  des Macandals,  & que ce nom est devenu l’unedes plus cruelles injures qu’ils puissant s’addresser entr’eux.

Une peintre  de Paris nommé Dupont, fit en prison le portrait de Macandal & de trois de sex principaux complices, & les apporta en France. Sa veuve les faisant vendre sur le quai du Louvre, M. Courrejolles les acheta & les donna à M. Mazéres, à la mort duquel ils ont été vendus. J’ai acheté celui de Macandal à Versailles, d’un étaleur au coin de la grande écurie dans l’avenue de Paris. Ce portrai est á l’huile & très-bien fait. 

On serait un ouvrage volumineux de tout ce que l’on rapporte sur Macandal ; mais il était réservé à un anonyme de la presenter dans le Mercure de France du 15 Septembre 1787, comme les héros d’un conte intitule Histoire veritable où l’amour & la jalousie agissent comme deux grands ressorts.

L’épizootie s’est montrée sur l’habitation Belin, mais en faisants tuer les mulets chez lesquels

La morve était bien caractérisée & en iselant ceux quin’en offraient que des atteintes, il est parevenuà en arrêter les ravages.


Begin Translation

  1. 651

It’s to the plantation of M. le Normand de Mézy in Limbé that that the negro Macandal, born in Africa, belonged. His hand was pulled into the mill, it had to be cut off, and he was made a herder of livestock. He became a fugitive.

* We read on the mantel of the chimney of M. Belin's sugar factory, these four lines which it inspired in M. de la Borde, ensign of the ship, who perished in M. de la Pérouse's journey around the World.



(footnote on page corresponding to text previous to the excerpt)

* The active man has goods (property), the idle man has evils,

All work has its reward,

And the sweetest here makes up for

The bitterness of our work.

  1. 652

During his desertion, he became famous for poisonings that spread terror among the negroes & to him they all submitted. He held an open air school in this abominable art, he had agents in all points of the colony, and death stole at the smallest sign of his hand.

Finally, in his ambitious plan, we understood his ambitious project to make all men who weren’t black disappear from the face of saint-Domingue, & his growing success had increased fear and further assured them. The vigilance of magistrates, of government, nothing had led to a means to capture the villain, and threatening words of punishment suddenly only terrified them further.

One day when a great number of negroes from Dufresne plantation in Limbé had organized a big calenda, Macandal who was long accustomed to impunity, came to join the dance.    

A young negro, perhaps because of the impression that the presence of this monster had produced on him, came to warn the surveyor, Mr. Duplessis, and Mr. Trévan who were in this house, and who served so much of the sugar brandy that all the negroes wanted, & Macandal, despite his caution, found himself deprived of his reason. [lost his senses].     

They arrested him in a negro café, where they we led him into one of the rooms at the back end of the main house. They bound his hands behind his back, & having no shackles, they used horse shoes on him. The two whites wrote to Cap [Français] to inform them of this capture with two house negroes guarding Macandal, having loaded pistols on a table where there was a light.

The guards fell asleep. Macandal, perhaps aided by the two negroes, untied his hands, put out the light, opened the window at the gabled-end of the house, threw himself into the savannah & escaped confinement by jumping like a magpie.[2]

The land breeze that had picked up, made the window latch knock against the window, this noise awoke them; big rumor [news?], they’re looking for Macandal tracking him with dogs earlier & recaptured him.  

Macandal who, if he had made use of the two pistols instead of fleeing, was sure of escaping, was condemned to be burned alive by a decree of the Cape Town Council of January 20, 1758. As he had boasted several times that if the whites took him he would escape them in different ways, he declared that he would take the form of a fly to escape the flames.

As chance would have it, the post where the chain was placed was rotten, the violent efforts he made in torment from the fire, tore the nail out and he tumbled from the stake. The negroes cried: Macandal is saved; the terror was extreme; all the doors were closed. The Swiss detachment guarding the execution evacuated the place; the jailer Masse wanted to kill him with a sword, when, by order of the Attorney General, he was tied on a plank & thrown into the fire. Although Macandal's body was incinerated, many negroes believe, even now, that he did not perish from the torment.

The memory of this being for whom the epithets are lacking, still awaken ideas so sinister, that the negroes call the poison & poisoners Macandals, & this name has become one of the most cruel insults that they can use to address themselves and between them.

A painter from Paris named Dupont, painted Macandal’s portrait & those of three of his principal accomplices in prison, & took them to France.  His widow sold them on the quai du Louvre, M. Courrejolles bought them & gave them to M. Mazères, on whose death they were sold.  I bought the one of Macandal in Versailles, from a stall-holder in la grande écurie on l’avenue de Paris. This portrait is in oil & very-well done. 

There would be an enormous oeuvre of all they say about Macandal; but it was reserved for an anonymous person to present it in the Mercure de France [issue] of September 15, 1787, like the heroes of a tale entitled Histoire véritable where love and jealousy act as the two main thrusts.

Epizootic outbreak came to Belin's[2] plantation, but killing the mules in which la morve[3] was well-advanced & by isolating those who only proposed attacks, he succeeded in stopping the ravages.


[1] *On lit…travaux.  This footnote and its preceding explanation by the author is his documentation of words that were written on the chimney of the sugar mill. Though the whole chapter is not translated here, I preserve its place on the page, since the author’s account of Makandal takes place in context of his injury laboring in the sugar mill, and the larger context is of the author’s reflections on the plantation and sugar refinery designed and owned by M. Belin de Villeneuve.

[2] Though Moreau de Saint-Méry never explicitly says that Makandal’s hand was cut off in Belin’s machine / on Belin’s plantation, he tells the story as an episode within a larger passage about Belin’s refinery, then closes the story about the poisoner through commentary about how the animals on Belin’s plantation became sick; (Macandal poisoned animals and water sources as well as people). From this framing, we can infer that it was Belin’s gin where he was injured. It is also notable that, though Moreau wrote with and speaks about Paul Belin de Villeneuve’s refinery design, and though Moreau was not present for the accident, Belin de Villeneuve’s father was also a planter here and the family owned multiple plantations, so that in fact he is telling an agricultural history.

[3] I believe la morve is a contagious disease in animals, particularly horses. It translates literally as snot, but I think it’s a disease and not a symptom.