Francois Macandal: The True Story, Facts, Myths and Legends
My papers were read by leading academics whose focus was Haitian and African History, but other than historian Carolyn Fick, Ph.D., who wrote making of Haiti, no contemporary historian I know of has done in-depth research on Macandal. Those who mention him accept a few prominent accounts written by the early French authorities. My version of Macandal’s life relies on the sources noted below, historians I interviewed in Haiti and Haitians I met who have guarded the oral history. I was also supported by U.C. Berkeley Professor Michel Laguerre, a world renowned author of numerous books on Haiti and Haitian history. Professor Laguerre reviewed and critiqued my papers and documentary. Some of the people I interviewed in Haiti appear in my one-hour documentary
Macandal lived during the 18th century when the mid-Atlantic slave trade was at its peak. He led an uprising on the French Colony of St. Domingue (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), which became one of the leading export markets for consumer goods in the world (primarily sugar, tobacco and indigo). Some historians call his revolt around 1750, another in a series of small uprisings that simply preceeded the “Haitian Revolution” that began in 1791 and ended in 1804. The Haitian Revolution of 1791 remains the only successful revolution by black slaves in history. However, the “Macandal Revolution” was unique in all of history. By virtue of his pronouncements and dedication to the abolition of slavery, he became the chief architect and progenitor of the Haitian Revolution. Here the position is presented that if not for the “Macandal Revolution,” which may have lasted 12 years, the Haitian Revolution of 1791 would never have happened.
The scholarly works about the Haitian Revolution focus on a few central figures who particular authors believe were most responsible for freeing the republic of St. Domingue or Haiti, in 1804. The black Marxist writer C.L.R. James focused his research on Toussaint l’ouverture, who most claim is responsible for that final revolution. Ralph Korngold’s well-researched work on the period also centers on Toussaint. Hubert Cole’s comprehensive study concentrates on the role of Christophe, who was a General under Toussaint and who then became the first King of free Haiti. Most of these writers deal only peripherally with Francois Macandal, as the French called him.
The source for C.L.R. James’ book on St. Domingue, published in 1963, is historical and archival documents that focus on the period around the revolution (1789-1804). The source for his information on Macandal is Moreau de Saint Mery’s work on Haiti written in 1797. Modern author’s who mention Macandal rely heavily on this work. One only needs to read Moreau de Saint Mery’s account of Macandal’s activities to understand the prejudice of colonial historians. His characterizations are consistently disparaging and demeaning. It is difficult to understand the almost unanimous concurrence of historians who rely on Moreau de Saint Mery’s work since he was a lawyer, loyal supporter of the monarchy and very biased. During the French Revolution he was himself sought for execution.
Historical research today relies on early reports, letters, books etc., by provincial colonialist “white men” regarding non-conformist personages such as Macandal. Judgments on the validity of Macandal’s revolution often derive from the documents handed down by the French, and writers who came afterward, who also relied on these same French documents. Some authors however, have been able to locate alternative versions of this period, which are presented here along with oral accounts passed down to modern Haitians I interviewed in 1997 while in Haiti.
We do not know all of the references available to the writers of the 18th, 19th and even 20th centuries, so it is difficult to weigh the value of each written work and their sources. Anthropologists and archaeologists are unique in that much information about the past is often derived from other records such as buried remains, geology and ruins. However “Processual Archaeologists” writing during the last 30 years have relied more on historical documents, discrediting other sources such as oral history. Thus, much of what has been written on Macandal, which derives from oral history, has been disregarded as folklore and myth.
As a student of Cultural Anthropology, I had the advantages afforded to those in the field, of giving more credence to oral history, myth and folklore. This evaluation allows for a more critical reading of colonialist writings recognizing that bias was rampant and required for success. A great deal of so-called “reliable documentation” handed down by colonialists is now widely challenged, as omission and co-mission was practiced extensively to perpetuate racist and sexist ideology. That is why we have very few accounts of women, American natives and black slaves who were effective rebels and leaders prior to the 20th Century.
One of the most complete works covering both Haitian history and Macandal is The Making of Haiti published in 1990 by Carolyn E. Fick, Ph.D. The Haitian Revolution was the subject of her doctoral dissertation at Concordia University, Montreal in 1979. She went on to expand her study to a larger historical period for her book. Several interesting items concerning Macandal are also added in Robert and Nancy Heinl’s well researched work, Written in Blood, published in 1978.
Many accounts collectively agree on the details of Toussaint and other leaders of the Haitian revolution, but Macandal is shrouded in mystery. Accounts of his life and accomplishments vary dramatically. Korngold partially explains the reason for this (p44) in stating that documentary evidence is lacking. He quotes heavily from a semi-official memorandum written in 1779, almost 22 years after the death or disappearance of Macandal. Even in this document there is a story but no proof. There is also no clear understanding of where the account came from or what part of the interview may have been censored by the French writer.
During my two month stay in Haiti I interviewed dozens of historians, students, voodoo priests, authors and “story keepers” in the countryside who claimed to be knowledgeable about Macandal. I also met with a Professor from the University of Paris who translated an article written in 1789 in Le Mercure de France, a prestigious review journal of the day. Some of what I write about Macandal comes from this article. It is my belief that the information in the journal came from the perspective of a compatriot of Macandal, whom he may have recruited after he escaped the plantation and began organizing revolution in the distant mountains. A close rebel associate and fellow “maroon” (escaped slave) would be in a position to know the information in the article. However the French author of the piece relates very little about Macandal’s accomplishments, instead focusing on negative elements, such as retribution by his followers for betrayal of their cause.
Colonialists were known to give slanted versions of slave uprisings and the individuals involved in them. One reason is that Governors could be replaced as overseers of a colony if it was believed they were not keeping order, thereby threatening profits. From St. Domingue, France received fully two-thirds of all of its export revenue. There was also the fear that authorities in France (or Europe) would want to exercise much greater control if too much trouble was encountered. Therefore, local French authorities in St. Domingue no doubt often painted unflattering and trivial portraits of their enemies. Local authorities were quoted as saying Macandal was basically a rasputin and a rebel dedicated to his own selfish gain, that he loved to drink and had a harem at his secret mountain retreat.
This version conflicts with other accounts and secrecy was a virtue prized by most slaves. Disclosure was so swiftly punished that knowledge of Macandal would be extremely difficult to obtain. Slaves were tortured and burned alive by the French for often dubious information. The French characterized Macandal as ineffectual and immoral, having many blacks executed arbitrarily. But most accounts describe a great devotion by the slaves. So revered was Macandal that they approached him on bended knee. Hundreds of slaves would gather secretly, at great personal risk, to hear him speak. Accounts also describe his many brave battles, mysterious escapes, stunning declarations and prophecies. His reputation as a doctor and brilliant orator were repeated by slaves and the French alike.
Macandal was well known throughout the colony and attacked French troops recklessly and fearlessly with little regard for personal safety. He believed he was sent by God to free blacks from white rule and called himself “The Black Messiah.” He prophesied that St. Domingue would soon be ruled by blacks themselves and the French defeated. This was an outlandish claim that brought him much hatred and ridicule, but it separates Macandal from every other slave during the entire 400-year history of the mid-Atlantic slave trade. No other black was ever known to have thought or proclaimed that colonial power could be defeated by slaves.
Macandal went far beyond this in working out intelligent strategies and recruitment techniques. He also developed a sophisticated military organization to make his prophecy come true. Many escaped slaves, called “Maroons,” rebelled and plotted for their own escape and freedom or for the safety or escape of a small tribal group. Many fought back defensively or attempted to wreak vengeance upon white owners. Many fought to preserve hidden slave communities. But no other is known to have worked for, much less “promise,” freedom and independence for all black slaves. Thus Macandal stands alone. This was an especially remarkable claim given the weaponry, infantry and torture that daily faced approximately 100,000 slaves in St. Domingue and insured French rule during Macandal’s time.
Macandal developed an intricate strategy for organizing slaves and “Maroons” to overthrow the whites. He was the first to accomplish an incredible unification of the separate tribes who were previously loath to associate or unite. He also recruited a massive army made up of possibly tens of thousands of slaves on the plantations. He did all this despite not possessing the money necessary for military hardware. While he was able to unite all of the secret societies and hidden maroon camps, itself an unprecedented achievement, he could not persuade the “free blacks,” with their money, to join his revolution.
Macandal came from Guinea according to most accounts. Guinea was a euphemism of colonists for all of West Africa, where most of the slaves came from. Carolyn Fick discusses the possibility that Macandal came from Makanda, the chief village of the Loango Kingdom in the ancient Congo, since slaves were often named after their villages. It is very likely Macandal was in fact from this region since a large percentage of the slaves taken to St. Domingue in the mid-18th century were from this area. Also, two men who became his closest confidants, Teysselo and Mayombe, had names which were the same as regions just to the north of Loango.
There is no way of knowing Macandal’s true birth name and the spelling of the name ascribed to him varies. Carolyn Fick spells his name “Makandal” and C.L.R. James spells it “Mackandal” which is the way it appears on a statue in Cap Haitien, Haiti, where he was fastened to a post in the town square in front of thousands and lit on fire. The spelling “Macandal” which I use, seems to be the most common form when he is written about in historical documents and research.
An important family in the Congo who placed a priority on his education (Fick, p60) raised Macandal. Macandal told associates that his father had been a tribal chief. He spoke fluent Arabic and could also read it and write it. This single fact, above all others, may fascinate the most. Arabic is an extremely difficult language. We don’t think of blacks in native tribal settings knowing how to read and write, especially in the 18th century. He also knew music, sculpture and how to paint. He apparently had a comprehensive knowledge of herbs and plants, which he put to use on the plantation in medicinal applications. Slaves and the French far and wide apparently sought his skills.
Macandal was taken from his village (some accounts say as a hostage) at the age of 12 and brought to the slave coast to be sold. The ship brought him and many other slaves to Le Cap (Cap Francais then, Cap Haitian now), on the north coast of St. Domingue, the largest individual market for slaves in the new world (James, preface), where 24% of all Africans were taken. The island of St. Domingue is about the size of Rhode Island in the U.S.
He became a slave on a Plantation in Limbe about 20 miles from Le Cap, owned by Lenormand de mezy, one of the largest plantation owners on the island. There he worked doing what most slaves did, harvesting sugar, in the crippling heat of the Caribbean, to meet the huge and growing worldwide demand. Citing Fouchard (a French historian), Fick says Macandal may have lost his hand in a sugar cane press working at night. He was then assigned to herding cattle, apparently under little or no guard. From this position he fled to the hills to join the maroon societies. Most writers have repeated this belief about Macandal’s hand loss, but Fick cites another version which I believe is more realistic written by M. de C. in Le Mercure de France dated September 15, 1789. In this article a fellow maroon reports that Macandal escaped his bonds as he was being tortured with 50 lashes. This sentence was exacted because he was in love with a beautiful house slave who was coveted by the white master. 50 lashes with the knotted leather whip was a death sentence as each lash flayed the flesh, lifting it off the body.
Somehow Macandal mysteriously escaped before or during this execution. The French would not want anyone to believe a lowly, inferior slave could escape based on wits and strength as this would discredit the French system of governance and white superiority. The story promulgated by the French that Macandal was “missing a hand” is a logical but dubious one. Allowing for a ‘free pass’ via an unguarded position herding cattle is also suspect. Macandal’s amazing eloquence with the French language, itself a very threatening sign of ability, his popularity and healing talents on the plantation, along with his revolutionary activities afterward, bespeak a cunning and intelligent man who would not likely be left unguarded.
The French aristocrats of St. Domingue were very troubled that Macandal had learned to speak French as well as they themselves who were born and raised French. Since education was strictly forbidden for slaves, they were at a loss to explain his seemingly uncharacteristic brilliance and eloquence. Seeing slaves as animals and focused on labor was critical to the health of the trade. The charismatic oratory for which he was known would therefore be considered a serious threat.
Macandal was considered witty, charming and confident in his position as a doctor and he constantly raised the morale of slaves around him. Fick says he began his 12-year career as a revolutionary after he escaped his execution at the plantation. Fleeing into the hills, he sought the secret societies of maroons. This 12-year period culminated in his death or disappearance on January 20, 1758. The oral tradition in Haiti held that he died around the age of 30. This would put him on the plantation in 1740 and his escape around the year 1746, at the age of 18. Other historians (James, Gibbs, Korngold, Heinl and others) write that he fled the plantation around 1751-1753 and that he was brought to Haiti sometime between 1745-1750.
Macandal uniquely distinguished himself after his escape from the plantation. Nearly all accounts testify to an extraordinarily organized and energized undertaking. Escaped slaves often survived using plantation raids where they would steal supplies and return to their hideouts via secret routes. Maroon leaders had separate communities in the hills with traditions and laws similar to their African tribal ones. But Macandal was different. Macandal began working for a new goal, that of freeing black slaves and removing all white rule. It is reported that he began visiting all of the plantations under stealth of night to urge slaves to join him. He gave rousing speeches in secret locations to convert them to his cause. Slaves would walk miles at night after a hard day’s labor to hear him speak (Korngold, p43) and they reportedly served him on bended knee. Women fought for the chance to share his bed. He carefully built a network of thousands of confidants from virtually every plantation covering points throughout the colony.
Macandal chose his army from both slaves and free blacks, relying heavily on the “pacotilleurs.” These were free blacks that went from plantation to plantation visiting slaves in their quarters to sell them cheap trinkets from Europe (Fick, p60). They alone had open access to most slaves throughout the colony. Laws forbade slaves from visiting slaves of other plantations or having gatherings at night so the pacotilleurs were in a strategically unique position that Macandal capitalized on. He used them to relay messages and set up secret meetings in hidden locations.
It was at these meetings that Macandal displayed deft oratory skills, persuading slaves by the thousands to join his revolution. Inspiring hope, fervor and loyalty he roused them in a way no other ever had, uniting men and women previously antithetical to associating and joining together for one common cause.
Many writers detail an often delivered speech Macandal would give at his secret gatherings in the woods, where he would pull different colored scarves from a vase. The vase itself symbolized the island of St. Domingue. First he would pull out a yellow scarf to symbolize and commemorate the original Arawak Indians who were exterminated (about one million of them in less than 50 years) by the Spanish in the 16th century. Then a white scarf to symbolize the French currently in power. Lastly, a black scarf would be withdrawn from the vase, representing they themselves, the people he guaranteed would soon come to power. This was and is a stunning prophecy which was unheard of and yet, actually came true shortly thereafter.
It is my belief that Macandal sought to acquire the firearms necessary to support his revolution. He no doubt approached the free blacks who had become benefactors of liberal French Planters and were the only ones possessing the capital and connections he needed. It soon became evident that well-off blacks were too content under French rule to help him. Toussaint l’ouverture who became a leader during the rebellion of 1791 was reluctant to join even after the final revolution of 1791 had already begun. He only did so when it became evident the revolution would happen with or without him.
33 years earlier, no one but Macandal and those he converted could believe in the concept of victory. Most blacks felt Macandal’s efforts were futile and free blacks refused to support him with money. Without firearms to defeat the French who were 50,000 strong and well-armed, Macandal fell back on the only resource he knew based on his childhood. The plants he knew so well for healing would now be used to produce poison. He would defeat the French anyway he could.
He conducted open schools on poison and folk medicine and used slaves on plantations for his secret army. Reports of convulsions and anguish among the French abounded (James, p21). He made his revolutionary goal of freedom absolutely sacrosanct and did not compromise with blacks opposing him. His advocates (James, p21) apparently met betrayal of his cause with swift retribution. By 1758 a report dated the same year said he had executed 6,000 people (Heinl, p27). This is one of the few documents preserved about Macandal, though it survived no doubt to discredit and humiliate him. But as pure evidence of his impact, it is actually more important in proving that his activity and accomplishment was more far reaching and comprehensive than the French wanted anyone to believe.
He had two primary associates, Mayombe and Teysselo, who apparently came from a region near his own in the Loango Kingdom, which was part of the Congo (Fick p62). Together they lived on an inaccessible mountain retreat with their women, children and crops. He appointed Captains, Lieutenants and other ranks and enforced strict discipline and training. There were 3,000 maroons estimated to be living secretly in the hills in 1751 and Macandal was known to be the first to organize and unite them all. This unification was previously inconceivable due to the animosity and mistrust that existed between slaves having different tribal roots.
However Macandal no doubt added greatly to their numbers, expanding his own camp and supporting recruitment for all of the other maroons.
Some in Haiti believe that by the time his mountain force was at its peak, 20,000 or more maroons were serving him. He raided and attacked the French troops and plantations repeatedly. Though he was captured again and again, he always managed to escape, often mysteriously. This added to his growing legend. As the years passed he became more and more fearless in his attacks and appearances and was referred to as “The Macandal” as if an oracle or talisman.
In 1757 he set upon a final “death-blow” strategy to take the island of St. Domingue. He planned a major assault using poison that would be joined by an attack from his forces in the hills. Distributing thousands of packets of poison, he instructed his followers to use it in every beverage and food consumed by whites in one fell swoop (Korngold, p45) on a planned day. He organized all of his soldiers and the other maroons to descend upon the French at the same time. However, before the attack was realized Macandal was betrayed and captured. Moreau de saint-mery said that a young male slave informed on him during a festival at the Dufresne plantation. The owner’s father-in-law, M. Trevan, gave out unlimited tafia (high proof sugar cane alcohol) and Macandal, becoming drunk, was captured.
However in a letter dated June, 1758 there is information about a female slave named Assam who was tortured, interrogated and finally betrayed him (Fick, p292). A Jesuit priest who supported Macandal’s revolution named Father Duquesnoy entreated Assam in prison to hold up under the torture and not betray Macandal and others. He threatened her with the fires of hell. She apparently succumbed to the torture and gave up Macandal and 50 other poisoners (Fick, p65).
In the former account Macandal was tied up and bound in the office of the Dufresne Plantation while workers were sent to get the authorities. True to his reputation, he freed himself and escaped. Later, he was reportedly tracked down by dogs and captured. He was taken to prison in Cap Francais and given a mock trial. Representative slaves from all over the colony were brought to the town to witness the execution. One way or another, Macandal was captured and chained to a stake to be burned alive on January 20, 1758. The fire was lit and Macandal was consumed in flames, but somehow he once again broke his bonds (Korngold, p45). Korngold states that after he broke free he collapsed in the flames. Some slaves claimed he disappeared and became a mosquito or other flying creature as he had promised he would. Other accounts say the French recaptured him and threw him back into the fire, but slaves reported that he fled and was never seen again by anyone who exposed his whereabouts.
He had told his followers that he was immortal and would be reincarnated as a deadly mosquito to come back and do more damage than ever before (Heinl, p27). It is interesting to note here that a massive plague of mosquitos carrying yellow fever arrived in swarms during the revolution around 1794 to bring death to over 30,000 British and French troops trying to take Haiti back from the revolutionaries. It was one of the major reasons for the success of the blacks.
French historians characterized his escapes as lucky and based on lackadaisical preparation. For example the post he was fastened to before being set on fire was reportedly rotted, so that it collapsed easily, and that his bonds were flammable. These excuses are suspect. Since the French regularly tortured and burned slaves alive, we are supposed to believe his captors were so incompetent they had not learned how to employ escape-proof or fire-resistant materials. We are to believe Macandal, who had escaped capture over and over and caused so much destruction, was carelessly bound with ropes instead of metal shackles. The French reportedly gathered thousands of slaves from all over the colony to witness his execution, yet they could not manage to set a proper post and fastenings.
33 years after Macandal disappeared, the final uprising began with a speech made by a voodoo priest and former harsh slave overseer, Boukman Dutty. There is little doubt that maroonage played a big part in that event. Michel S. Laguerre, Ph.D, and Professor at U.C. Berkeley, said he believed it was Macandal’s massive Maroon organization, greatly expanded, that Boukman led in 1791 to begin the final revolution which ultimately brought the historic victory. Boukman was no doubt guided by, or paying homage to, Macandal, when he gave a rousing speech to representatives of all the Maroon colonies at the same location (Bois Caiman), where Macandal used to speak to unite them. Bois Caiman, the dense forest located on the Lenormand plantation where Macandal was a slave, is far from Acul where Boukman was from, so it stands to reason that Boukman was directly linked to Macandal or rallying slaves around the memory of Macandal.
Soon after Boukman started the revolution he was killed, also burned at the stake in Cap Francais. Toussaint l’ouverture and others took over in his place. It is possible that Macandal, with his Maroons, were the first to develop the military strategies that Toussaint used to defeat the French. Macandal’s attacks were not minor events and his actions were undoubtedly known by virtually everyone on the island. He took many chances in setting up meetings and executing raids. Korngold said that Toussaint “must have heard Macandal’s death and teachings discussed in the negro quarter” (p45). Toussaint is considered one of the greatest Generals of all time for defeating Napolean’s forces in St. Domingue.
He knew Latin and was reportedly a voracious reader who studied warfare in history. St. Domingue had peculiar terrain requiring innovative tactics and this is considered one of the reasons he and other Generals were able to defeat both French and British forces.
After Macandal’s death or disappearance a great surge of repression was laid upon all slaves. New laws were made barring homemade medicines, sorcery and gatherings after 7PM. They restricted commerce and forbade the use of guns by even free blacks (Heinl, p29). 200 disciples of Macandal were placed in prison. Countless others were tortured and 4-5 were publicly burned at the stake every month. The planters were confident they had killed off the movement, but they were later shocked to learn their most trusted and expensive domestic slaves (4-5,000 livres cost each) were the ones most involved with the revolution and were still actively plotting against them in their own homes. The French plantation owners became so fearful of being poisoned that a simple stomachache would ignite intensive recrimination decades after Macandal seemingly left the scene.
Two years after Macandal disappeared it became obvious that the planters and soldiers had only captured a small minority of his followers. The French burned slaves alive to get confessions but the slaves were uncharacteristically fearless (Fick, p73). Poisoning didn’t subside until the 1780’s when a strange silence and absence of subversive acts by slaves occurred. At the same time escapes from the plantations and gatherings in the hills (maroonage) greatly increased (Fick, p74). The lack of documentation concerning what was going on during the decade before the revolution of 1791 may be evidence of a great gathering and readying of new forces preparing to take St. Domingue. The same strict code of silence enforced by Macandal during his reign was again apparent. The Maroons were ready.
Most historians point to the events surrounding the French Revolution, when rights were being distributed to everyone but blacks, as the catalyst for the ‘spontaneous and unplanned’ revolution in St. Domingue. More evidence supports the notion that the slaves were preparing their revolution for many years prior to August, 1791, when en masse they deserted plantations to join the revolution. Toussaint is given credit for the success of the Haitian Revolution. He is an example of someone drawn into the revolution spontaneously. He was a free black but without normal rights even though he had land and paid taxes and refused to join the revolution after it began. He only did so when overwhelming numbers supported Boukman and attacked the French. Most of the free blacks were probably the last to join and it was their reluctance to joining Macandal’s earlier movement that no doubt contributed to seemingly falling short of all of its goals.
In actuality, Macandal reached his goals, even if he was no longer alive when they were realized. He “broke through” the stigma of the weak and inferior slave and staged a great revolution. He dared to prophesy complete victory and the overthrow of the French. He established the strategies and tactics which may have been followed by Boukman and subsequent leaders of the Haitian Revolution. It is still not known for sure when Macandal left the stage and could have, for all we know, remained behind the scenes all the way through the revolution of 1791. Though there is a commemorative headstone where Macandal was burned at the stake in the town square of Cap Haitien, which was constructed in the 20th Century, no burial plot exists and Macandal’s remains have never been located. If the French had successfully executed Macandal, one would presume the French would have celebrated his defeat, burial and tomb with great pomp and ceremony.
Unlike the free blacks, Boukman and others seemed well prepared and brought the entire assortment of Maroons and slaves together at the right moment for the final Haitian Revolution. Given that there were then approximately 500,000 blacks (virtually all the blacks and “mulattos” in St. Domingue) who joined the revolution, spontaneous rioting seems a trivialized and biased characterization of the event. In fact, there is no evidence that the Maroons were rooted out or slowed down after Macandal disappeared. To the contrary, slaves became more recalcitrant than ever and Maroon recruitment greatly increased.
Why did it take the secret societies of Maroons and slaves 33 years after Macandal’s disappearance to attack en masse in 1791? The answer is logistical and not dissimilar to what preceded the French Revolution. The French Revolution had its roots among the peasants and productive classes who were coalescing and conspiring decades before 1789, when they stormed the Bastille. Many were suffering starvation because of food shortages and heavy taxation but it still took many years to organize the revolution. Secret societies plotting the overthrow of the Church and other bastions of power were fomenting insurrection in the 16th century. The Jesuits, Freemasons and others were fought by the nobles and clergy at every turn. Economic reform, advocated by the French Physiocrats, was attempted in 1774, by A. R. J. Turgot. The movement was thwarted by elite groups unwilling to sacrifice privileges and the King, who would not support changes.
The secret societies of Maroons in St. Domingue had to reorganize after Macandal began his revolution because French aristocrats increased the torture and applied greater restrictions. The free blacks with their financial resources had to be won over and arms had to be obtained from the Americans and others. Boukman and other Maroons had to adjust to massive changes in slave population as it swelled from 100,000 during Macandal’s time to 500,000 in the 1780’s.
Macandal was the first ex-slave to create a military organization with rank and soldiers and his vision was unprecedented, far-sighted and powerful enough to continue even without him. No known slave had ever developed such an organized network of soldiers and a strategy for the purpose of total overthrow. He molded the everyday population into a massive army with weapons of poison while he built a more professional organization out of the Maroon bands in the hills.
In the article written in Le Mercure de France in 1789, the Macandal Revolution is impugned because of acts of retribution carried out against slaves whom Macandal and his followers suspected of sedition. This kind of writing bias was characteristic of the time and there is no mention of his extraordinary declarations and accomplishments.
The French along with all of the other colonialists were capturing whole families, splitting them up, brutally torturing and raping them, working them to death and bartering with them while becoming rich off their labors. Naturally there would have to be an extraordinary amount of rationalization and dehumanizing of them as chattel. Since Europeans were “Christian” the only way to rationalize the dehumanization of blacks was to continuously cast them as “heathen” and “sub-human.” Most writings reported only the negative attributes of slaves and most sensational and derogatory versions of slave exploits.
So focused were all colonial nations on preserving slavery that even after Haiti became free they colluded to block trade, impoverish the country and ruin the new government. Toussaint himself was tricked and eliminated by Napolean to insure the new government would fail. The colonial powers were determined to maintain their strangle-hold on slavery at any cost.
Giving blacks any kind of credit for being human, virtuous or intelligent was far too self-incriminating. The Le Mercure de France article appears to be a scholarly treatise, published in a prestigious journal of the day, but the consistent bias is obvious. For example, there is no critical questioning of the informer who was supposedly associated with Macandal. What was this Maroon’s standing or motives? We do not know which parts of his account were selected. Much of the same kind of bias was used to disenfranchise other poor and indigenous peoples such as Native Americans who were usually described as savages and heathens.
The French revolutionaries were no different than Macandal’s followers in their enforcement of secrecy and loyalty. They were able to rationalize brutal treatment and the execution of many thousands of people, from numerous classes of society, both before and after the French Revolution, to achieve and insure their victory. If Macandal’s followers did execute those they suspected of treason, it could be considered a small price to pay for an independence movement that may have fomented the outlawing of slavery worldwide. More important, it is further proof of his and their commitment to a much larger imperative.
While such tactics would be no different than those used by many other successful military commanders or leaders in history, especially those employing “guerilla” forces, we are led to believe it was Macandal’s downfall. He may have been betrayed because at the time, most black slaves and freemen were in dread fear for their lives and also could not conceive of a larger vision, that of complete freedom and self-government. Most were uneducated and isolated and could not know that 6-12 million Africans had either been killed on the tiny island, slaughtered while defending their villages or lost on the journey from Africa to St. Domingue. Perhaps double that number or more would have followed them in death during the 19th century had the revolution Macandal led in the 1750’s, failed in 1791. Despite the often noted retribution against his betrayers, the immensity of his action, as a historical achievement, is staggering.
All that being said, the retribution claims could have been a subterfuge. More than likely it was the brutal torture by the French authorities, readily used to extract information, that was at the root of the betrayals which led to Macandal’s revolution being delayed.
While most credit the French Revolution for inspiring the slaves of St. Domingue to suddenly rise up en masse in 1791, no similar slave uprising occurred on any other colony either before, during or after the French Revolution. This theory, consistently perpetuated by contemporary historians, smacks of the same colonialist bias that existed during Macandal’s time. The notion that the black slaves themselves were secretly recruiting, plotting and planning to carry forth Macandal’s vision decades after his disappearance, is quickly dismissed in favor of the argument that blacks could only be motivated by white revolutionaries to finally rise up.
The “Macandal Revolution’s” impact and import in history can only be lost on those who accept the authority and accounts of those he threatened. His declarations and actions were diminished by writers who believed in the right of colonialists to take and abuse Africans. Few today understand the odds faced by slaves. The likelihood of actually defeating a colonial power with an army like the French had is totally incomprehensible. Macandal called himself the “Black Messiah” saying God had sent him to free all blacks. He is the first known black slave to set upon the singular goal of ending slavery. He developed a complex strategy and executed tactics for accomplishing this extraordinary objective; the defeat of the colonialists and their armies and setting black slaves free. He predicted slavery would end and that blacks themselves would rule St. Domingue without the whites. Ultimately he created the blueprint and began the only successful overthrow of a colonial power by black slaves in history. Macandal can therefore be considered one of the greatest black men in history and one of the greatest revolutionaries of all time from any race. Macandal began the Haitian Revolution. Such a blow to colonialism surely precipitated the defeat of worldwide slavery.
Zambrana de Sanchez, Heida. El reino de este mundo: Correlaciones historico-literarias. Puerto Rico, Editorial Edil, 1992 (translation by Anna Pomerantseva, U.C. Berkeley)
The following works were cited in the above
Cole, Hubert. Christophe, King of Haiti, New York, The Viking Press, 1967, p 157 Deive, Carlos Esteban. Vodu’ y magia en Santo Domingo, Santo Domingo, Ediciones Museo del Hombre dominicano, 1979, p427 Fagg, John Edwin.
Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, Inc. 1965, p181 Frazier, James. La rama dorada: Magia y religion, Mexico, Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1980 p860 Gonzalez Echevarria, Roberto.
Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrims at home, New York, Cornell University Press, 1977, p307 Metraux, Alfred. Vodu’, Buenos Aires, Sur, 1963 p341
Moreau de Saint-Mery, Louis-Elie.Description topographique physique, civile, politique et historique de la partie francaise de l’isle Saint Domingue, Paris, Societe de l’histoire des colonies francaises, et Librairie Lorose, 1958 Pattee, Ricardo. Haiti, Pueblo Afroantillano, Madrid, Ediciones Cultura Hispanica, 1956, p446
Carpentier, Alejo. El reino de este mundo, Chile, Editorial Universitaria, S. A., 1967,
Cooper, Anna Julia. Slavery and French Revolutionists (1788-1805), Lewiston, New York, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1988 p13
Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow, New York, Warner Books. 1987
Fick, Carolyn E. The Making of Haiti, 1990
James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins, Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, New York, Random House 1963, p6-8
Korngold, Ralph. Citizen Toussaint. Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1944 p xi
Shillington, Kevin. History of Africa (revised edition), New York, St. Martins Press. 1995