Account of a Remarkable Conspiracy (1787)

Spring 2016 – Just Teach One, no. 8
Text prepared by Duncan Faherty (Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center) and Ed White (Tulane University); introduction prepared by Duncan Faherty, Ed White, and Toni Wall Jaudon (Hendrix College)

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The narrative presented here first appeared in September of 1787 in the Mercure de France, called “the most important literary journal in prerevolutionary France” by historian Jeremy D. Popkin. It appeared with the title “Makandal, Histoire véritable” (Makandal, a true story), attributed to a “M[onsieur] de C…” By November of the same year, it had appeared in at least one other French journal, L’Esprit des Journaux, and in the next few months it began to circulate outside of France. By February of 1788, it was reprinted in the Universal Magazine of Knowledge & Pleasure (London) as “The Negro Makandal, an authentic History,” by April it appeared in The Gentleman’s and London Magazine, and sometime that year it appeared in the German journal Olla Potrida (Berlin). Another German version, in the Neue Litteratur und Völkerkunde (Dessau and Leipzig) appeared in 1790. In January of 1789, it appeared in another British journal, the Literary Magazine & British Review (LMBR) with the title “Account of a Conspiracy in St. Domingo,” and again in the 1794 New Wonderful Magazine and Marvellous Chronicle, and so popular was the tale in Britain that an extended drama based on the story, “King Caesar; or, The Negro Slaves,” appeared in 1801.

Notably, the 1789 version in the LMBR made some significant changes. The earliest English translations had preserved a title close to the French—“The Negro Makandal, an authentic History”—but now the title was changed to “Account of a Conspiracy in St. Domingo.” A paragraph musing about Zami’s love for Samba was removed, and sentences linking Makandal’s history with a broader conspiracy of race war were added (see notes 33 and 44 in the following text). The influence of these changes was focused in the United States, where the story found most of its English-language printings in the 1790s and beyond. The Massachusetts Magazine published the Makandal story in two parts in 1793 (January and February); the New-York Magazine, or Literary Repository published it in two parts in 1796 (August and September); The American Universal Magazine (Philadelphia) published it in January, 1798; and the Philadelphia Repository & Weekly Register published it again in 1802. It appeared in a few northern newspapers—in the Washington Patrol of Salem, New York, in September, 1795, and in the Chelsea Courier of Norwich, Connecticut in 1797, for instance—and would reappear again in 1823 (in the New York Minerva) and 1846 (in the New York Illustrated Magazine of Literature & Art). Every US version, with the exception of the Washington Patrol printing, seems to have used the version that appeared in the LMBR in 1789.

The US publications of the 1790s in part reflect a popular interest in the Haitian Revolution unfolding in what the French called Saint-Domingue or what was sometimes called St. Domingo. By the time of the first US printings, American readers would have been familiar with the 1791 burning of Cap François; by the time of the 1796 publication, they would have read about the thousands of refugees arriving in the United States and the British invasion of Saint-Domingue. François Makandal was a figure from an earlier moment, and likely became a way for readers then (as for historians later) to think about revolutionary actions and dynamics. In all likelihood, Makandal was born in West Africa and forcibly sold into slavery in Saint-Domingue as a young adult. According to 19C accounts, Makandal was fluent in Arabic, had significant religious training, and possessed rudimentary military experience before his abduction by European slavers. After his arrival in Saint-Domingue, he gained a reputation as a healer, especially for his knowledge of botanical cures. He lost an arm in a sugar mill accident, and after his recovery became a cattle driver, a position that provided the opportunity to escape to a maroon community of runaway resisters in the neighboring mountains. The length of his marronage is the subject of some debate, but he seems to have evaded capture for about twelve years. During this period, he became the leader of an insurgent resistance movement comprised of a network of agents who he taught to manufacture poisons. According to the historian Sylviane Diouf, Makandal’s “reputation was such that a French document of 1758 estimates— with much exaggeration, no doubt—the number of deaths he provoked at 6,000 over three years” (217). He was captured by the French in 1758 and burned alive in the central square of Cap François; contemporary accounts of the execution claim that plantation owners from surrounding districts forced enslaved people to watch the spectacle as a reassertion of their authority. Makandal’s name came to stand for attempts to emancipate Saint-Domingue by eradicating the French; various legends about Makandal also persisted, stressing his pledge to avoid death and return to liberate the island.

Both English and French versions of the Makandal story attempted to individualize resistance to slavery, making it a whim of a strong personality. The LMBR most explicitly attempted to make the widespread slave actions mere episodes in the scheming of a jealous, hypersexualized mastermind. But one also sees attempts to think more systematically about the culture of enslaved Africans, not only in the discussion of Makandal’s artistic aptitudes but also in references to African or West-Indian culture: the calinda, the fetiche, dishes like calilou and so on. Again, it is noteworthy that the LMBR removed many of these references. The concept of the fetish was just entering European lexicons in the mid-eighteenth-century, specifically to denote African religious idols in the form of objects. The original French version made much of the fetish, and the earliest English translations used the term and added a footnote (see note 16 below); term and footnote were removed in the LMBR.

Yet what remained of the discussion of Makandal’s religious and medical powers and his use of fetish objects does significant work within the text. As William Pietz notes, the idea of the fetish arose out of “the abrupt encounter of radically heterogeneous worlds” at the dawn of the African slave trade (“The Problem of the Fetish, I” 6). Stories about fetishes, like other accounts of African religious and medical knowledges, helped to determine when and how these heterogeneous worlds overlapped. So too might we say that the Makandal story sought to determine how African, creole, and European powers and knowledges intersected in the shared space of the colonies. Despite their skepticism about African religious beliefs, colonial authorities expressed significant concerns about the powers figures such as Makandal exercised, passing laws that targeted both the herbal preparations and the empowered objects rebel leaders such as Makandal used. As it recodes Makandal’s powers as individual strategems performed in the service of personal passions, the Makandal story we reprint here writes these powers out of the shared world in which politics happens.

We have here reproduced the 1796 text from the New-York Magazine, which used the LMBR version; the break in the text marks where the August installment ends and the September continuation begins. We have noted the more significant changes from the original French version. The variations may suggest the potential weight of even slight details in such works, not to mention the different tendencies of French and English writers and editors. Our summary of the printing history of this narrative is not comprehensive: very likely, it was reprinted more widely. We welcome any additional citations to those listed above.

Suggestions for further reading

The Mercure de France’s version of “The Story of Makandal” has somewhat surprisingly played an influential, and often unacknowledged, role in shaping the historiography surrounding François Makandal’s unsuccessful 1758 rebellion. In one of the most influential scholarly accounts of the Haitian Revolution, C.L.R. James compares Makandal to “Mahomet” and then repeats many of the details from the Mercure text in framing Makandal’s biography; see James, The Black Jacobins (Dial Press, 1938), 21. Carolyn E. Fick also discusses the Mercure story in detailing the scope and scale of Makandal’s conspiracy, seeing the French narrative as part of a retroactive whitewashing campaign “to interpret such acts [of resistance] purely in terms of individual interest: vengeance, jealousy, reduction of the workload, infliction of economic loss on the master” and so on, in order to erase the idea of black sovereignty from the operant understanding of slave revolts; see Fick, The Making of Haiti (Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1990). Colin (Joan) Dayan describes a 1758 French decree passed in the aftermath of Makandal’s execution which “prohibited both free coloreds and slaves ‘from composing, selling, distributing, or buying garde-corps or makandals’” which she describes “as ‘little, coarse figures, of wood or rock representing men or animals’ and thought to possess supernatural powers”; see Dayan, Haiti, History, and the Gods (University of California Press, 1995). John Saillant situates the depiction of Makandal within an eroticization of black bodies in early US writing; see “The Black Body Erotic and the Republican Body Politic, 1790-1820,” Journal of the History of Sexuality (January 1995), 418. Sylviane A. Diouf demonstrates how the Mercure’s account is full of “obvious fantasies, inaccurate names, and other literary licenses,” as she moves to uncover Makandal’s actual political ambitions and legacies; see Diouf, Servants of Allah (NYU Press, 1998), 216-220. David Geggus notes how “a novelette-like story published in a Paris newspaper in 1787” influentially linked Makandal to both conceptions of “pre-1791 marronage” and “religious or magical practices”; see Geggus, Haitian Revolutionary Studies (Indiana University Press, 2002), 75. Srinivas Aravamudan argues that after the quick suppression of 1758 rebellion, “the term ‘makandal’ in Haitian Kreyol became synonymous with ‘poison packets’ and ‘poisoner’”; see Aravamudan, Tropicopolitans (Duke: 1999), 322. While noting that Makandal was “not the first or only slave rebel to use poison” in Haiti, Laurent Dubois underscores how “the extent of his activities and the publicity they gained helped set in motion a cycle of paranoia and violence that continued” across the circum-Atlantic world “for decades”; see, Dubois, Avengers of the New World (Harvard University press, 2004), 52. Karol K. Weaver situates Makandal’s knowledge of poisons within a larger constellation of diasporic African medical and agricultural practices, and concludes that “Makandal and his followers initiated and implemented an ideology of resistance via occupational sabotage and the destruction of human and animal life”; see Weaver, Medical Revolutionaries (University of Illinois Press, 2006), 91. Christopher Iannini gestures to the popularity of information which circulated about Makandal when he describes how the creator of the first US museum of natural history “compiled a dossier of newspaper clippings, periodical accounts, and eyewitness correspondence” about the event which included a “herbal antidote for a local poison allegedly related by Makandal during his interrogation”; see Iannini, Fatal Revolutions (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 169. Diana Paton addresses the resonances between the Makandal conspiracy and British colonial conceptions of obeah, a creole religious and medical complex that figured prominently in English-language accounts of slave rebellion in the British West Indies in “Witchcraft, Poison, Law, and Atlantic Slavery,” William and Mary Quarterly, 69.2 (3rd ser., April 2012), 235-264.

For more information on the culture of reprinting and serialization in the early Republic we recommend Jared Gardner’s Rise and Fall of Early American Magazine Culture (University of Illinois Press, 2012). For an essential genealogy of the concept of the fetish in discourses about Africa and Africans, see William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, I” in RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 9 (Spring 1985), 5-17. For more information on non-Christian religious practices in the Caribbean we recommend Toni Wall Jaudon’s essay “Obeah’s Sensations: Rethinking Religion at the Transnational Turn,” American Literature (2012) 84(4): 715-741; for a discussion of obeah and colonial forms of knowledge, we recommend Kelly Wisecup, “Knowing Obeah,” Atlantic Studies (Fall 2013): 1-20; for more information about imperial discourses which linked obeah and poisoning we recommend chapter one of Iannini’s Fatal Revolutions.

Teaching Reflections

The following are responses written by participants who have included this text in their teachings.