François Makandal, an African brought to Haiti from Africa, is the first formerly enslaved African to have openly criticized and launched an assault of great proportion on the institution of slavery. Although rarely credited for his efforts and his vision, this Hougan or Haitian Vodou priest single-handedly laid the foundation not only for the Haitian Revolution, but also for the eventual abolition of slavery. To this day, charms, amulets, and poisons are called “makandal.” To his credit also, a subgroup of Vodou practitioners is named after him. This entry looks at his life and legacy.
The Slave Years
Makandal is generally believed to have been born in the Guinea coast of Africa, which in the 18th century referred to the entire western part of the continent. His birth name, birth place, and exact birth date are unknown. Some scholars, however, have suggested that Makandal may have come from the village of Makandal, which is located in the Loango region in what is now the Republic of Congo, which should not be confused with the DRC (formerly known as Zaire). This assumption is based on two facts. First, enslaved African were sometimes named after their hometowns. Second, it is on record that Makandal had a close friend named Mayombe, which is also a village in southern Congo.
Makandal is believed to have been captured at the age of 12 and taken to St. Domingue, now Haiti, betweenl745 and 1750, and sold to a French colonist named Le Normand de Mézy. Makandal is alleged to have told some of his confidants that his father was a figure of authority in Africa. In fact, Makandal's ability to speak, write, and read Arabic fluently lent credence to the view that he was born to an affluent family. Usually, only privileged families could afford to educate their children in the 18th century in Africa.
He is believed to have been a Muslim when he was captured into slavery. Makandal is also said to have possessed an incredible knowledge of herbs and medicine. In fact, his vast knowledge of herbs and medicine was sought after by blacks and whites alike, making him a popular figure. Makandal treated illnesses among the enslaved Africans, the French, and the livestock. He became the gardien de bêtes or caretaker of the white man's animals after he lost a wrist in a farm accident.
Makandal is said to have been held in quite high esteem by Le Normand de Mézy until he had an affair with an enslaved African woman. Makandal was subsequently sentenced to 50 lashes, but he ran away because such a sentence usually and ultimately meant death. He settled in the mountains, where he became the leader of the Maroons, that is, of those Africans who had managed to escape the plantocratic environment.
A Fugitive Leader
Makandal became even more famous and legendary for his magic and ability to poison during his years as a fugitive. After his escape, he became determined to liberate the Africans from white oppression. He was so successful in recruiting additional Maroons that it is believed that he had agents in all of the colonies. At the height of his operations, it is estimated that Makandal had more than 20,000 maroons who belonged to ethnic groups that, hitherto, did not coexist, working for him. More than any group of people, Makandal relied on the pacotilleurs, the free blacks who visited the white plantations to sell cheap goods to the enslaved Africans. Makandal used them as conduits to relay information throughout the plantations. Well aware of the military might of the French, Makandal sought the financial assistance of the free blacks who benefited from the colonial economy.
Most of the free blacks were, however, too content with their positions in society and did not want to risk their livelihood by joining Makandal's course. Without the needed help from this group, Makandal resorted to his easiest resources: magic and medicine. Although it is not known exactly when he became a Vodou practitioner, it is safe to assume that this most probably occurred during this period of his life because he was free to practice the religion.
He and his agents were alleged to have fatally poisoned more than 6,000 people, both blacks and whites. Because his plan was to cause the collapse of the colonial economy, he is believed to have poisoned enslaved Africans who refused to participate in his plan. It is estimated that some plantations lost as much as 90% of their labor force through his poisoning schemes. The animals on the various plantations were not spared either as their work and sale contributed to the colonial economy.
Makandal's grand plan was to annihilate all white people in St. Domingue. To this end, he commissioned his agents to poison the water system of the second-largest city, Cap François, now Cap Haïtien. However, he was betrayed and captured during a dance festival at a plantation owned by a white man named Mr. Dufresne. Knowing the difficulty of capturing Makandal because of his manipulations, Tafia, a locally made rum, was abundantly distributed, and this made his capture easy after he was inebriated.
His Death and Legacy
Makandal was able to escape from his cell, but he was recaptured and eventually sentenced to death at the stake. He was burned at the stake on January 20, 1758, but not without drama. Although he had only one wrist, he is said to have broken free at the stake, but was captured and retied and burned. Selected enslaved Africans were brought from all around the colony to witness Makandal's death so as to deter future black rebellions. The enslaved Africans, however, believed that Makandal did not die in the fire, but rather turned into a fly and flew away as he is alleged to have promised. He also promised to return to win freedom for the Africans still held in bondage.
Even after his death or disappearance, the legend of Makandal continued to impact the lives and activities of many enslaved Africans. Another Hougan, Boukman, in particular, continued the work of Makandal. He incited the uprising that eventually led to the Haitian revolution, in which Vodou played a significant and successful part. Interestingly, another weapon for the blacks was the malaria- and yellow fever-carrying mosquitoes. It is estimated that thousands of French and British soldiers either died or suffered from malaria and yellow fever. Remembering Makandal's last words, the enslaved Africans saw the mosquitoes as a fulfillment of his promise.
- Haitian Revolution
- Davis, M. (2003). Makandal: The Greatest Unknown Story in History [Online]. Available here.
- Fick, C. E. (1990). The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution From Below. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
- Weaver, K. K. (2006). Medical Revolutionaries: The Enslaved Healers of Eighteenth-Century Saint-Domingue. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.