Makandal and West African Knowledge

Origins – Who is Makandal?

There are any number of spellings of his name in use across the texts, including Macandal, Macandale, Mackendal, Makandale, and Mackandal.  

He has been traced to a number of West Central and West African coastal locations and traditions. Makandal and his accomplices’ names come from Mayombe, a region of West Africa, and the names are associated with abilities to identify sources of illness, cure illness, or cause it (Mobley). In 1788, Jean-Francois Bastien, who was the nephew of the Secretary of the Chamber of Agriculture of Cap Français, edited and published his deceased uncle’s anecdotes about sickness and medicine in Saint-Domingue; he embedded his uncle’s (an agronomist’s) notes into a larger travel narrative of the Caribbean by Nicolas Louis Bourgeois called Voyages Intéressans Dans Différentes Colonies Françaises…, and in that text, Makandal is called le nègre de Mezurade (the negro from Cape Mesurado or Montserrado, Liberia).

C.L.R. James’ history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins (1938), says he was a “negro from Guinea,” which is according to Carolyn Fick (1990), a broad term referencing the West Coast of Africa. He was most likely kidnapped and brought to Saint-Domingue in the 1720s-30s, but by the 1750s, he was called “the old man of the mountain” (Rodriguez 2007). As a long-term fugitive of the plantation, he became the greatest chief among 3,000 living in many “bands of free men” in the mountains (James 20-1).

What is a Makandal?

A Makandal [person] is an nganga nkisi or “a creator of objects” for spirits (Mobley 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 associated with Rada rites and lwas (gods) of African Vodun/Vodou/ Vaudou (African/Haitian variations and spellings). David Patrick Geggus’s 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” (Geggus 75). 

St. Domingue advertisements of the 1760s seem to support this versatile use of the word in general use. They show Makandal listed, unexplained, as a nickname for an escaped slave, as well a general term for poisoner. A recent sociological study of African ritual and resistance confirms that the name could have been given to him as a nickname by two accomplices, Mayombo and Teysello, whose names are also indicative of their African origins and roles in ritual worship (Eddins 2017). Despite its general use, an historical individual of African origin also called François, to whom the name Makandal belongs, persists in literature.

In short, the name brings to mind a host of concepts that are linguistic, practical, spiritual, and botanical. Historically, his writers have associated it with magic, sorcery, poison, medicine, garde-corps, and fetish-making, but the word also literally refers to biotic materials such as leaves and roots, and is related to the fear of poisoning and the possibility of mass disorder in pre-revolutionary slave society. Our exhibit foregrounds the relationship between Makandal and African knowledge about plants, medicine, and religion.

What is Makandal Literature?

Twentieth-century critical interest in Makandal began with James’ The Black Jacobins (1938), and equally with Alejo Carpentier’s postcolonial historical fiction of the Haitian Revolution, The Kingdom of This World (1949), and our site employs interdisciplinary thinking in merging the historical and literary traditions as integral to one another.

While a literary genealogy of his appearance in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century print cultures has remained scattered, that historical 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. Essential historical questions and doubts persist about how many years the poisonings lasted, (six to eighteen years) how many people or animals died, (6,000, more, or none) whether the poison was made by or came from enslaved people, or whether it was actually poison, or something else, that caused such death in St. Domingue in the first place. One recent history of the Seven Years’ War argues that it was not a poison responsible for the thousands of deaths attributed to Makandal and his network, but instead, most likely the result of food poisoning from supplies having gone bad during shipment (Burnard and Garrigus). Beyond these questions, there are other questions of just how significant the literal or historical effects of his use of poison may have been, since the Haitian Revolution has more readily been understood in terms of the influence of French revolutionary thought of the end of the decade rather than poison scares of the 1750s.  Our background section on French agronomy further explores these issuesin order to re-examine the plantation as a space controlled and brought to crisis by the European knowledge discipline known in applied sciences as agronomy, to recognize Makandal as a fugitive agent of the plantation, and the plantation itself as a space that Makandal dis-ordered, working counter to the ways in which French agronomy attempted to monetize and extract resources through race slavery and monoculture. The explosions in agronomic scientific knowledge that produced yields in sugar in the northern district were coupled with the production of makandals; in Vodou practice, these are objects empowered through ancestral and botanical knowledge forms, but in the language of the colonizer, they became fetishes,  potions, devils, and paquets, and were associated with the poisoning of humans and zoonotic outbreak rather than healing, protection, or survival.  

Much of the later “literature” of the nineteenth-century, as opposed to historical documents, are highly romanticized, and at the same time, so much of the early “historical” documents that speak to his actual practice and biography must be understood through the lens of the fantasy of scientific racism, or, the way that agronomy’s application of engineering accompanies parallel constructions of the African as an installation of the plantation. “In other words, the agronomist’s perspective presents African knowledge practices (for medicine, spiritual healing, or harm) as superstitious and harmless, essentially evil and dangerous, or sometimes both; though, in any case, it is belief in the macandal’s power that presents the potential for disorder.   

Whatever the truth of his activities, the persistent point is that Makandal practiced some form of craft, teaching, and exchange related to the making of medicine and poison believed to be dangerous and only partially visible or understood to white colonials; more, his talents were, like the belief systems of West African origin themselves, such as Vodun, both brought with him from Africa and transformed on the French plantation and by the local ecology. 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. Whether actually poisonous or deadly, the belief in its and his power to empower people, and non-human agencies (such as objects), to dis-order the imposed orders of race science and plantation production, are historical and consequential to a revolution roots in material production and ecological crisis.

Works Cited

Nicolas Louis Bourgeois, and P. J. B. Nougaret, and Nougaret. Voyages Intéressans Dans Différentes Colonies Françaises, Espagnoles, Anglaises, &c: Contenant Des Observations Importantes Relatives à Ces Contrées; & Un Mémoire Sur Lesmaladies Les plus Communes à Saint-Domingue, Leurs Remèdes, & Le Moyen de s’en Préserver Moralement & Phisiquement: Avec Des Anecdotes Singulières, Qui n’avaient Jamais Été Publiées. A Londres ; et se trouve à Paris: ches J. F. Bastien, 1788.

Trevor G Burnard and John D. Garrigus. The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica. The Early Modern Americas. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Alejo Carpentier. The Kingdom of This World. André Deutsch, 1989.

Crystal Nicole Eddins. African Diaspora Collective Action: Rituals, Runaways, and the Haitian Revolution. Michigan State University. African American and African Studies, 2017.

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

David Patrick Geggus. Haitian Voodoo in the Eighteenth Century: Language, Culture, Resistance. Böhlau Verlag, 1991.$002fj$002fjbla.1991.28.issue-1$002fjbla.1991.28.1.21$002fjbla.1991.28.1.21.pdf?t:ac=j$002fjbla.1991.28.issue-1$002fjbla.1991.28.1.21$002fjbla.1991.28.1.21.xml.

C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (Penguin Books Limited, 2001).

Christina Frances Mobley. “The Kongolese Atlantic: Central African Slavery & Culture from Mayombe to Haiti.” Duke University, 2015.


Further Reading

Gómez, Pablo F. The Experiential Caribbean: Creating Knowledge and Healing in the Early Modern Atlantic. UNC Press Books, 2017.

Paton, Diana, and Maarit Forde. Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing. Duke University Press, 2012.

Schiebinger, Londa L. Plants and Empire. Harvard University Press, 2009.