1802: Sanite Belair, tigress

Add comment October 5th, 2016 Headsman

On October 5, 1802, Haitian soldier Suzanne Bélair, called Sanité Bélair, was shot with her husband by the French.

This “tigress” is the most famous of the Haitian Revolution’s numerous female protagonists. A free black woman, she married Charles Belair, the nephew and aide of the man who in the 1790s established pre-eminence on Saint-DomingueToussaint L’Ouverture.

L’Ouverture tragically vacillated when the French made their move in 1802 to reverse the revolution’s gains and re-establish slavery, but the tigress rallied General Belair to take the field in resistance — and not only rallied him, but fought alongside him as a regular in his army, attaining the rank of Lieutenant.

It’s said that at her capture, when threatened with beheading, she successfuly asserted the right to an honorable soldier’s death by musketry, and standing before their muzzles cried “Viv libète! Anba esclavaj!” (“Long live freedom! Down with slavery!”)

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1793: Philibert Francois Rouxel de Blanchelande, governor of Saint-Domingue

Add comment April 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Philibert Francois Rouxel de Blanchelande was guillotined in Paris — victim of two revolutions an ocean apart.

Blanchelande (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a comfortable henchmen of the ancien regime, descended of a marshal.

At the outbreak of the French Revolution, Blanchelande was the governor of the Caribbean sugar colony of Saint-Domingue.

Like other New World colonies, Saint-Domingue’s brutal slave plantations generated vast wealth for the grand blancs, a tiny white oligopoly which was massively outnumbered by its black servile chattel. The demographics made for a perpetual source of conflict and danger — but that was the price of doing business for Europe’s sweet tooth.

The promised liberte, egalite, fraternite of 1789 fell into this tinderbox like a torch.

By 1791, slaves were in full rebellion. Mirabeau had once said that Saint-Domingue’s masters “slept at the foot of Vesuvius”; when it exploded, Blanchelande fell into the caldera with the grand blancs. The slave rebellion quickly overran the western third of Saint-Domingue — the germ of the imminent Republic of Haiti. But the situation on the ground in the early 1790s was extremely fluid, and perilous from the French perspective: Great Britain lurked at nearby Jamaica, scheming to swipe the lucrative island away from its rival amid the chaos. So here Britain accepted Saint-Domingue’s white refugees, and there she treated with black rebels to grant their emancipation in exchange for their allegiance.

The old royal hand Blanchelande was impotent to control the cataclysm with only a handful of troops, and he must have looked increasingly antiquated by the rapid progress of the Revolution too. A 1792 relief force of 6,000 soldiers arrived bearing word of the National Assembly’s too-little-too-late grant of political rights to free blacks, and bearing also Blanchelande’s replacement: a Girondin envoy named Leger-Felicite Sonthonax.

Both these steps were also swiftly overrun by the eruption. Blanchelande returned to Paris and was forgettably guillotined as a counterrevolutionary on April 15, 1793, not long after France and Britain officially went to war. “For losing Saint-Domingo,” Carlyle says a bit dismissively, and maybe that’s even right. But if so the loss reounded to the glory of the Jacobins. The Revolution’s ideals would soon come to mesh with the pragmatics of maintaining the allegiance of Saint-Domingue.

On February 4, 1794 — 16 Pluviose Year II, if you like the revolutionary calendar — the National Convention thrilled to “launch liberty into the colonies” (Danton) with a momentous proclamation abolishing slavery throughout the empire.

Slavery of the blacks is abolished in all the colonies … all men living in the colonies, without distinction of color, are French citizens and enjoy all the rights guaranteed by the constitution.


“Les Mortels sont égaux, ce n’est pas la naissance c’est la seule vertu qui fait la différence…” (Via).

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1797: Figaro the Elder and Jean Louis, Charleston slaves of Dominguan exiles

Add comment November 21st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1797, two French slaves were hanged in Charleston for plotting rebellion.

This plot was the product of the liberation-minded aftermath of the Haitian Revolution … although whether the product was in the minds of the slaves, or those of the paranoid slaveowners, is still up for debate.

As the great slave revolution unfolded, many of Saint Domingue’s white planters had fled abroad. Charleston, South Carolina was a major destination, one of several Atlantic cities in the U.S. that received these refugees in quantity* — lugging along as many slaves as they could. “My Fellow-Citizens know your goodness,” said one of their number in an address to the South Carolina legislature, “and anticipate the Share you are about to take in their Calamities.” The state government accordingly granted relief money to these put-upon immigrants; the British themselves are thought to have been kicking into the relief kitties in Charleston as part of 18th century covert ops to check the spread of Jacobinism.

With the Haitian Revolution and its beneficiaries aligned (for the moment) with the French Revolution,** these French exiles fit right in with pro-British federalists to a continental reactionary backlash.

Revolutionary France’s consul in Charleston (he was U.S. ambassador by the time of the events in this post) maneuvered against that city’s planter exiles (“colonial aristocrats,” as he called them†) and eyed hemispheric emancipation, according to this book.

Yet the very flight of Saint Domingue planters also brought like a contagion the idea and experience of successful revolt in the breast of those refugees’ own chattel slaves … and in the midnight terrors of those slaves’ owners. As early as August 1793, rumor gripped Charleston that a slave revolt was in the offing. Jittery Southern states began passing laws to restrict slave imports from the West Indies who might be carriers of the virulent dream of liberty.

It was in this context that Charleston authorities discovered in 1797 “a conspiracy of several French Negroes to fire the City and to act here as they formerly done at St. Domingo.”

These several Negroes denied the plot, for a while.

Eventually, and surely encouraged by what me might today dignify “enhanced” interrogation, one of them turned state’s evidence. This “Figaro the Younger” — there were two named Figaro arrested for this same plot‡ — was the property of one Jacques Delaire, one of the Dominguan community’s more belligerent aristocratic grandees. Figaro the Younger’s evidence, though only a “partial confession” was enough to doom two of his fellows.

After the condemnation of Jean Louis, he turned to the two Figaros and said, “I do not blame the whites, though I suffer, they have done right, but it is you who have brought me to this trouble.”

(A French freedman named Mercredi hanged for the same affair a week later.)

For testifying against his mates, Figaro the Younger saved his own life and was sentenced to be transported to Suriname. En route, the pressure of his leg irons caused “a swelling about the ankles which turn’d into a sore & … a mortification of the flesh ensuing his toes rotted & one of his feet drop’d of[f] entirely.”

The southern anti-slavery cause was soon crippled, too.

Especially after the 1800 Gabriel Prosser revolt, any dalliance with emancipation, republicanism, revolution, became practically unutterable, as if to speak the words would conjure up the flames of Cap-Francais. “Beyond a reasoned fear of domestic insurrection seems to have lain a desire to banish the reality of St. Domingo,” as Winthrop Jordan put it.

But the threat and the example of Haiti long stalked the imagination of those caught in the toils of the South’s peculiar institution. And more literally than that, as Robert J. Alderson notes,

Captain Joseph Vesey … was [one] of the dispensers of [refugee relief] aid, [and] many Domingan refugees made calls on him. When the Domingan planters visited, their slaves had a chance to speak with one of Captain Vesey’s slaves, Denmark Vesey.

* For example, see Gary Nash, “Reverberations of Haiti in the American North: Black Saint Dominguans in Philadelphia” in Pennsylvania History, Vol. 65 (1998). Philadelphia was at the time still the U.S. capital.

** Said alignment between revolutionary Haiti and the mother country was, of course, tenuous and not permanent.

There’s a report in the Paris archives from this period of the French consulate’s low opinion of Charleston’s Dominguans: “tricky people, at the end of their resources that vengeance towards their country and despair may lead to anything. Among the French whom we have here, there are some very good patriots who know what the hospitality of the country demands of their gratitude, but the number is small.”

‡ The Figaro plays and some of their operatic adaptations were culturally current in the 1780s and 1790s. That includes Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro but not yet Rossini’s Barber of Seville with its definitive Figaro aria … although such would be very poor excuse not to post the latter.

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1799: Isaac Yeshurun Sasportas, anti-slavery insurrectionist

Add comment December 23rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1799, Portuguese Jew Isaac Yeshurun Sasportas was publicly hanged in Kingston for attempting to incite a slave revolt in the British colony of Jamaica.

Here in a revolutionary age, probably no insurrection could terrify Europe’s ancien regimes like the Haitian Revolution.

History’s most successful slave revolt, the rising that seized Saint-Domingue from the French conceivably threatened — if it should spread — the entire material foundation of Europe’s colonial exploitation, and the racist intellectual superstructure that justified it.

This nightmare of crowned heads was also the dream of the epoch’s visionaries, and the subject of a struggle whose victims included Isaac Yeshurun Sasportas among many, many others.

Domingue if I do

An insurrection of Caribbean slaves against European exploiters had obvious appeal to their brethren groaning at the bottom of the Atlantic economy. In “Saint Domingue in Virginia: Ideology, Local Meanings, and Resistance to Slavery, 1790-1800” (Journal of Southern History, Aug. 1997) James Sidbury explores the (to whites) nerve-wracking arrival in that U.S. state of both news and refugees from revolutionary Saint-Domingue.

In 1793 Willis Wilson complained to Governor Lee of the “defenceless situation” of the town of Portsmouth, whose militia lacked arms and whose streets contained “many hundreds [of] French Negroes” including, Wilson had been “inform’d,” many who “belong[ed] tothe insurrection of Hispaniola.” … a commander at the state arsenal of Point of Fork — located on the James River west of Richmond and southesat of Charlottesville — reported dangerous “conversations amount the “people of colour” … “particularly since the Arrival of the French from C[ap] F[rancois],” Saint Domingue.

While these currents carried along Gabriel Prosser and a young Denmark Vesey, they also swept up men who were not slaves at all.

Isaac Sasportas, the nephew of a prominent Charleston trader (said trader’s 200-year-old home still stands there), was himself a wealthy Caribbean shipper who in the 1790s seems to have taken a nearly professional interest in revolution. After trying and failing to re-ignite a rebellion in Dutch Curacao, he started zeroing in on Haiti’s next-door neighbor, the brutal British sugar colony of Jamaica. Distinguished as it was by a running history of slave revolts, it was a natural target for the fin de siecle‘s savvy revolution-exporter.

Sasportas landed there in 1799 under cover of his gadabout-merchant act to reconnoiter British defenses and make contact with the island’s maroons.

Diplomatic L’Ouverture

The Haitian Revolution’s progress through the 1790s and into the first years of the 19th century was itself a complicated political process entailing the realest of realpolitik. Here was a colony surrounded by rival empires’ outposts, whose home country was itself engulfed in revolution. This could, and did, cut a lot of different ways.

Legendary national liberator Toussaint L’Ouverture agreed to work with the French revolutionary government in April 1793 to repel the inroads of Brits, who smelled an opportunity to swipe the lucrative colony. Alliance with the French (L’Ouverture’s black regiments served under French colors) came in exchange for the French recognizing emancipation. Win-win.

But the script had flipped by the last years of the decade.

Toussaint L’Ouverture reveals to British officer Thomas Maitland papers from the French representative d’Hedouville.

In 1798, the British were evacuating their Saint-Domingue enclaves … and L’Ouverture, now the Bonaparte figure of a somewhat autonomous polity, had to maneuver it regionally vis-a-vis its neighbors.

Fomenting slave rebellions willy-nilly was not on his agenda. Indeed, “one could even describe Louverture, in the diplomatic field, as an active impediment to the spread of emancipation.”*

So far was the former slave L’Ouverture from anti-slavery firebrand that in 1798-99 he made arrangements with the slave powers Britain and the United States, helping them oppose the French. And when the French envoy went to work on the grab-Jamaica scheme with Sasportas as an agent — Paris now being the one to smell an opportunity to steal a rival’s colony — L’Ouverture found it expedient to play along whilst quietly tipping the British to the whole plot. In effect, L’Ouverture shopped Sasportas.

Louverture could have used his newfound power to advocate independence and emancipation across the Caribbean; he decided otherwise.

Napoleon Bonaparte and other French leaders hoped that Louverture would turn Saint-Domingue into the centerpiece of a revolutionary French empire in the Americas. With an army of twenty thousand veteran black soldiers, Louverture could have threatened France’s enemies in North America, most notably British Jamaica and the United States. But Louverture declined the offer, choosing instead to sign secret treaies of nonaggression and commerce with these two countries in 1799 …

That same year, the French agent Roume drafted an ambitious plan to use part of Louverture’s army to invade British Jamaica. After the landing, Roume redicted, Jamaica’s slaves would revolt and join local maroons and Dominguian liberators on a victorious march to Kingston. Dominguian troops would become heralds of freedom, France would acquire a lucrative colony at little cost, and the expedition would deal a mortal blow to British commerce. Louverture acquiesced in public, but in private he notified British and U.S. authorities of Roume’s bellicose plans. England subsequently captured France’s secret agent in Jamaica, a French Jew named Isaac Sasportas, and the entire venture foundered. Having apparently concluded that an expedition would divert key troops and resources that were needed to secure his power base in Saint-Domingue, Louverture chose to sacrifice the Jamaiacans’ freedom on the altar of his own ambitions. Jamaican slaves would remain in bondage until 1834.

– From Haiti: The Tumultuous History — From Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation

Haiti the Game

Whether one rates it as dextrous statecraft or unconscionble betrayal, L’Ouverture’s maneuvering to maintain a scope of action for himself and his fledgling nation would continue until 1802. It featured brutal continuation of Haiti’s cash crop plantation economy — now worked by cultivateurs supporting black elites, instead of slaves supporting French elites — rough suppression of labor protests, high-minded assertion of racial equality, and unsentimental diplomatic skullduggery shifting arrangents among France, Britain, and the U.S. He even bought slaves to regenerate the half-island’s labor force, decimated by years of warfare.

In the end, this Bonaparte of Haiti was undone by the Bonaparte of France** in 1802, with the full support of the British. During a lull in those nations’ hostilities, they found frank agreement that “Toussaint’s black empire” was to neither’s liking — and “We both want to destroy Jacobinism, especially that of the blacks”.† L’Ouverture played the diplomatic game very adroitly, but he had no card to match a mutual agreement of white privilege among his opposite numbers.

Toussaint L’Ouverture died of pneumonia in a French dungeon … but his countrymen rallied against the French incursion and completed the Haitian Revolution. Its independence day is January 1, 1804.‡

* Philippe R. Girard, “Black Talleyrand: Toussaint Louverture’s Diplomacy, 1798-1802,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Jan. 2009

** Napoleon’s wife Josephine was herself of Caribbean aristocratic stock: she grew up on her family’s sugar plantation in Martinique.

† Prime Minister Henry Addington, as quoted in The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence, 1801-1804. Thomas Jefferson, fretting “another Algiers in the seas of America,” also kinda-sorta went along with the idea, although Jefferson was at least equally concerned about a potential French resurgence keyed by its unruly Caribbean base; for America, this politicking set up the Louisiana Purchase, and that transaction was considerably facilitated by the French failure to re-establish control in Haiti after arresting L’Ouverture.

‡ In one last warped expression of colonialism — and a dreadful preview of the ruinous debt peonage more familiar to our present day — Haiti had to pay “reparations” to France for the loss to the French empire of itself, Haiti. It made these payments until 1947. France has no plans to repair the reparations.

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1802: Jacques Maurepas and his entire family

1 comment November 17th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1802, a Haitian general, his family, and his men, were butchered by French forces fighting to retain control of Saint-Domingue.

Haing recently mastered the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte — ever one for keeping it in the family — late in 1801 dispatched his brother-in-law* and brother-in-arms Leclerc to suppress the Haitian Revolution.

Over the course of 1802, Leclerc made headway towards accomplishing just that, as much with carrots as with sticks.

Maurepas was one of the Haitian commanders tasked by Toussaint L’Ouverture with defending Saint-Domingue, in his case, Port-de-Paix. Faced with a French landing, Maurepas burned the town to the ground and withdrew for an effective guerrilla resistance in the mountains.

But he eventually came to terms with the French, as did other Haitian officers, L’Ouverture included — reintegrating forces back with the French on the understanding that all that liberte, egalite, fraternite stuff would at least extend as far as not reintroducing slavery.

The French had other plans for their lucrative once-and-future colony, and when the Haitians caught wind of them, trouble resumed — now under the leadership (since the French had sagely deported L’Ouverture) of Jean-Jacques Dessalines.**

Leclerc had the, er, “fortune” of succumbing to yellow fever shortly after Dessalines’ promising revolt got underway; he was succeeded by the brutal Rochambeau, who threw away the carrots and relied on naked violence to control the island. (Again, not uncharacteristic of Napoleonic conquests.)

Maurepas had not actually gone over to Dessalines, but the fact that he was a black Haitian general was reason enough for his white French superior officer to arrest him preventively. Immediately upon assuming command, Rochambeau made an example of Maurepas.

The sea off the Cape was chosen to be the theatre of an execution, unparalleled in what is called civilized life. For fear that Maurepas, who had gained distinction under Toussaint L’Ouverture, after having embraced the side of France, should join the insurgents, Leclerc had written to him to come by sea, with his family and his troop, to take the command of the Cape, which he destined for him as a reward for his services. No sooner had he arrived than he and his soldiers were seized and disarmed. Rochambeau ordered preparations to be made for a barbarous punishment in order to put the negro general to death, with his troop, consisting of 400 blacks. It was also put in deliberation whether death should be inflicted on his children, in order to prevent them from rising up to avenge their father.

After having been bound to the mast of a vessel, Maurepas was frightfully insulted. His wife, his children, and his soldiers were brought to be drowned under his eyes. The executioners were astounded when they beheld a father fix his dying eyes by turns on his children, his wife, and his companions in arms, undergoing a violent death; while they, on their part, turned their eyes away from a father, a husband, a general, whose countenance was disfigured by the tortures he was enduring. After being made to contemplate each other’s sufferings, they were all tossed into the ocean. They died without complaining in a manner worthy the champions of liberty. With a reversal of the order of nature, the father died last; he also suffered most.

Thus died Maurepas, whose character was a compound of frankness and severity. Thrice had he repulsed the French at the gorge of Trois-Rivières; he had at once the glory and the misfortune to go over to the French with victorious arms. The elevation of his soul equalled his valor. He preserved a tender feeling for the master whose slave he had been; he caused funeral honors to be paid to that master, and when his grave had been negligently prepared, he threw off his upper garment in order to perform the pious office properly. Among men of his own blood he was a powerful chief. A spirit of order and justice prevailed in his life. His riches, which were considerable, were given up to pillage. It would almost seem as if so much excellence were subjected to so much ignominy, expressly to show that while black men are capable of any virtue, white men are capable of any crime. Certainly, my narrative is replete with instances which, beyond a question, prove that moral as well as mental excellence is independent of the varieties of color.

This brutal punishment, preceded by vile perfidy, filled the camps of the insurgents with horror. That horror was augmented when Rochambeau, at the Cape, put to death five hundred prisoners. On the place of execution, and under the eyes of the victims, they dug a large hole for their grave, so that the poor wretches may be said to have been present at their own funeral.

Far from cowing the rebels into submission, this savagery fired more ferocious resistance from men, women, and children who now perceived that their race subjected them to wholesale and arbitrary cruelty that no display of loyalty could overcome.

A terrible retribution was determined upon. Dessalines erected 500 gibbets, and hanged half a regiment of French that he had captured by a bold countermarch. A war of extermination followed, and in December, 1803, aided by an English squadron, the French were compelled to evacuate the island.

January 1, 1804 is Haiti’s Independence Day.

* By way of marriage to Napoleon’s sister Pauline. Pauline enjoyed the Saint-Domingue adventure more than did her spouse; she sported with lovers and balked at returning to France. “Here,” she noted, “I reign like Josephine; I hold first place.”

This character is the subject of a recent biography.

** After expelling the French and becoming the first ruler of independent Haiti, Dessalines took a page from Napoleon’s own playbook and crowned himself Emperor.

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1758: Francois Macandal, forgotten black messiah

6 comments January 20th, 2009 Headsman

(Thanks to Mark Davis of macandal.org for the guest post on a remarkable historical parallel to today’s inauguration of Barack Obama. -ed.)

The world was astounded when Barack Obama was elected to the Presidency in 2008 knowing the cultural barriers minorities have faced for hundreds of years. The date of inauguration, January 20, also happens to be the anniversary of the burning at the stake of a virtually unknown man, Francois Macandal,* whose epic war against cultural barriers has been buried for centuries.

Read some of his story and judge if the historic election of Barack Obama could have occurred without the man they called “Macandal.”

The parallels with Barack Obama’s journey are numerous, but the life of Macandal was perhaps even more remarkable, reaching great heights and falling into the darkest chasms of despair, yet succeeding in spite of staggering odds. Macandal’s travails may be about finding one’s purpose and dreaming of victory even when condemned by a majority, as he was relentlessly pursued by soldiers and hounded by countless naysayers.

251 years ago on January 20, 1758, Macandal was chained to a post on a platform before thousands of slaves brought together to witness his brutal torture and execution. Because of his importance, the French gathered slaves from hundreds of plantations throughout the colony of St. Domingue (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). They believed such a horrific spectacle would quash Macandal’s Revolution, which he began to end French rule and abolish slavery, 12 years before.

Around 1746 Macandal escaped his plantation, united thousands of escaped slaves along with many still enslaved, and proclaimed that he would lead them all to independence and freedom. This declaration, from someone who had only six years before been taken from his home in the Congo, was unprecedented, since no slave colony had ever defeated a European nation. Then Macandal mobilized tens of thousands and may have inspired millions to end slavery and defeat colonial hegemony in the Haitian Revolution consummated decades after his death.

But ironically even the famous, black Marxist writer C.L.R. James, attributed one of the greatest revolutions in history to something akin to ‘spontaneous rioting’ by 500,000 black slaves in 1791. Since 1791 almost every historian has reduced the “Haitian Revolution,” the only successful overthrow of a colonial power by black slaves, to a ‘collective rage,’ inspired by the whites of the “French Revolution.” Yet it may have been Macandal’s Revolution, not the starving peasants of France, that inspired their uprising in 1789.

The true story of Macandal represents obscure but recorded testimonies about his life and explains why the slave revolt of 1791 was in fact, “Macandal’s Revolution,” almost 50 years in the making. Macandal foretold the end of slavery, then planned it, plotted it and began it. His story shatters a myth that has gone unchallenged for over 200 years: that the Haitian Revolution of 1791 was a spontaneous slave uprising inspired by the French peasants who had charged the Bastille Prison in Paris two years earlier.

The Haitian Revolution ultimately ousted the French, defeating Napoleon and numerous French generals. It also succeeded against the vaunted British army and established a new government run by former slaves. It was the first domino in a series of colonial defeats and changes in law that led to the end of institutional slavery; and Macandal started it all.

Correcting the Historical Record

Macandal is rarely the focus of historians and when mentioned only his insignificance is noted. But the popular version of his story was immortalized by the original French writers themselves, in the interest of bolstering a self-image of innate superiority as a nation and a race. To have recognized Macandal’s brilliance would have acknowledged slavery’s illegitimacy, so Macandal’s real story had to be trivialized and buried.

This telling of Macandal’s journey from a free child in Africa to slavery and then revolution, relies less on popular writings and more on a review of all of the records in context. For example French writers claimed Macandal broke free because he was tied with ropes and the post was made of rotted wood that fell apart when he was set ablaze. Historians have repeated this without scrutiny. The French on St. Domingue regularly burned slaves to death at the town square of the capital, “Cap Francais.” At Macandal’s execution they gathered thousands of slaves as witnesses, to insure a humiliating defeat and halt his widely supported rebellion. Yet, despite this grandiose staging, we are supposed to believe Macandal was insignificant. And we must accept that the French military was so inept they forgot how to execute and did not know that ropes burn and untreated, rotted wood is flammable. Many such dubious “facts,” are still repeated blithely about Macandal and few Westerners grant him his bravery, genius or impact.

Interestingly, the U.S. Bill of Rights guaranteeing equality for all was also adopted in 1791, but it would be more than seven decades before slavery was outlawed in the U.S. and almost two centuries before equal opportunity laws were passed and enforced. For one tiny nation, Macandal enabled this to occur over 200 years ago.

Background

I began researching the life of Macandal 20 years ago, startled and inspired by one chapter in Wade Davis’ popular book The Serpent and the Rainbow, which focused on secret societies, Voodoo and Zombification. His version of Macandal’s story was dictated to him by Rachel Bouvoir-Dominique, a Haitian Anthropologist I interviewed in 1997, at her office in Cap Haitien. Working under the tutelage of well-known author and expert on Haitian history Michel Laguerre, a professor at U.C. Berkeley, I received grants for a field study and documentary on the subject of Macandal.

Anthropologists often allocate greater weight to oral history, informal observer accounts, burial remains, maps and gravures, re-evaluating more accepted published works historians rely on, and so this account reflects my perspective and research as an Anthropologist. I examined European gravures (illustrations) and colonial records cited commonly more skeptically, because they were clearly burdened by religious, sexist and racial paradigms of the day. For example illustrations portrayed slaves with happy smiles and sanguine facades, enjoying their lives in idyllic settings on the plantations. Yet slaves faced torture, rape, separation of family and death from over-work, every day. Blacks were often drawn with monkey features (toes, ears etc.) and other demeaning caricatures.

Western writers were fiercely loyal to provincial rhetoric, including the gender and racial bias then considered crucial foundations of Christian theology. Western scholars dehumanized natives and women to rationalize slavery, prejudice and justify the infamous “hierarchy of being,” which granted “white men” a closeness to God that no one else could approach. This endowed them with the right to use others as they saw fit.

There were many reasons colonial authorities destroyed or buried the noteworthy exploits of slaves. Few accounts of courageous acts from among the ranks of millions of Africans during 400 years of slavery were recorded and preserved, primarily to maintain the perception that slavery was justified, necessary and Nubian Africans were not truly human but beasts of burden. There are literally thousands of articles, books and films about individuals among the six million Jews who died during the holocaust but only a scant few from among the 100-200 million indigenous peoples killed during the colonial expansion; all the more reason to re-evaluate slaves like Macandal.

A Brief History of Macandal

During the early 18th century, around the age of 12, Macandal was taken from the west coast of Africa, probably the Loango Kingdom in the Congo. I claim the date of his birth was 1728 primarily because oral historians in Haiti I interviewed believed him to be 30 when he was fastened to a post before thousands and set on fire in 1758.

The French called him Macandal which may derive from a city in the Congo called “Makanda.” The town of Makanda no longer exists due to civil war but could have ancient roots and slaves were often named after the places they came from. His name may have been taken from the term makanda (plural form of “kanda”) referring to African societal groups. Some written accounts report that Macandal claimed to be descended from a ranking societal group and the son of a Chief or King.

Amazingly, Macandal could speak, read and write Arabic fluently. Some believe this is because he was raised Muslim, yet the Congo was Christianized long before Macandal was born. Portuguese mercenaries, missionaries and armies had combed every square inch of the Congo beginning in the late 1400’s, searching for gold, diamonds and slaves, forcing conversion to Christianity. However Macandal’s words and actions reveal a unique knowledge of both Christianity and Islam. His ancestors may have emigrated from the east coast where Muslims and Asians had allied with Swahilis to build beautiful cities and schools before the Portuguese invasion. His family may have then hidden themselves for centuries.

Conversion to Christianity was also a requirement for slaves on colony plantations but Macandal defied the French by learning the underpinnings of Christianity, to understand the roots of slavery and challenge newly acquired doctrines. Despite many influences the adult Macandal claimed no affiliation with Christianity, Islam, Voodoo or Animism.

As a child Macandal was educated and known to be accomplished in both music and art, including painting and sculpture. His dedication to learning was apparent throughout his life. He displayed a vast knowledge of plants, became a doctor on the plantation he was taken to and was sought by even the French themselves for treatment of diseases and ailments. Yet the vegetation on St. Domingue was completely different from that of the Congo; therefore, Macandal had to study his new environment and learn the properties of perhaps hundreds of plants. He secretly taught himself French and became so eloquent that the French aristocrats remarked that he could speak it better than they themselves, though education was strictly forbidden for slaves.

Based on historical records and interviews, it appears that Macandal was first sentenced to death on his plantation, around 1746 at the age of 18, for falling in love with the plantation owner’s favorite lover, a young and beautiful house slave. He underwent a scene of heinous torture intended to culminate in his death in front of many witnesses, but escaped mysteriously and fled into the hills. The French replaced this account with a tale about Macandal becoming handicapped from losing a hand in a sugar mill and then being left unguarded. His escapes were always attributed to poor guard oversight.

Though Macandal probably began his new life of freedom with the intention of bringing vengeance to his former owner Lenormand de Mezy and rescuing his true love, for some reason his objective evolved. Perhaps because of the totality of his traumatic experiences or because of the influence of Maroons (ex-slaves already living in the distant mountains) Macandal met after escaping, he began working for a new goal of freedom for all.

Macandal led a sweeping and unwavering revolution during the 12 years after his escape from the plantation. Unlike other escaped slaves, Macandal actually made the end of slavery his stated mission. He became the first to unite thousands of disparate Maroons who were living free but divided by tribal affiliation and known to be ardently dedicated to the destruction of each other. His uniting of these groups was an extraordinary accomplishment and he is the first known black leader and ex-slave to do so.

He began calling himself the “Black Messiah” and gave rousing speeches in secret locations to recruit slaves. He made dangerous and daring appearances on plantations during the night to urge loyalty and inspire hope. The name “Black Messiah” had great meaning to Macandal as evidenced by one of his famous speeches at a secret recruitment meeting. The words exposed Macandal’s understanding of Islam and Christianity and their link to institutional slavery. The term was a powerful catalyst he used to preempt religious and ethical indoctrination of blacks and free them from the ideological bonds of slavery. He had to usurp the authority of the Church and French government to convince slaves they deserved equality, freedom, family sanctity, education and self-government.

Macandal became a brilliant strategist and had a large, organized camp with lieutenants, captains and other ranks. He led countless attacks and escaped capture mysteriously many times. His tactics were unique and devastating. They were known to be carried on after his disappearance despite the brutal efforts of the French to extinguish illegal grassroots activity. During his reign as a Maroon leader he may have recruited half or more of the 100,000 slaves living on the plantations as secret agents of his revolution.

Maroons and slaves apparently employed his tactics for decades after his disappearance in 1758. During the decade before the final thrust for overthrow in 1791, and despite harsh measures to thwart rebellion, Maroon activity greatly increased. This activity was so secret that virtually nothing is known about this period and is one reason historians assume the war for independence was unplanned, even though the first massive attack was led by Boukman Dutty, formerly a cruel black overseer who was a contemporary of Macandal. His gathering, which launched the war, was convened at a hidden location where Macandal formerly gave his speeches, the symbolism of which cannot be denied.

Generals that followed Boukman used ingenuity and unique strategies to win the 13-year war and Toussaint L’Ouverture is given most of the credit for the victory. But Toussaint refused to support the war until after it had begun; its inevitability certain. He was 13 when Macandal was sentenced to death in 1758. A voracious reader and student of warfare he was well aware of Macandal but content as a slave under a liberal planter.

It is my thesis the “Macandal Revolution” continued through the three decades preceding the Haitian Revolution. No other slave is known to have prophesied and promised the end of slavery yet Macandal predicted that blacks would defeat the French, become free and independent of colonial rule and control the colony of St. Domingue. His rally cry and pronouncement repeatedly rang throughout the colony despite opposition and betrayal from many slaves who greatly feared the French and did not believe victory was possible.

The Haitian Revolution remains the only successful movement by black slaves to defeat a colonial power and achieve complete independence. It stands alone as a towering victory against incalculable odds. Though it is characterized as a ‘riot’ that generated its own momentum, 500,000 slaves and free blacks mysteriously rose up in unison, using sticks and stones, against over 50,000 heavily armed soldiers, landowners and henchmen.

The Fall of Colonialism

As Macandal’s victories mounted I propose that word of his revolution spread to Europe and bolstered many anti-colonial movements. For example one of his closest secret allies was a French Jesuit priest and the Jesuits along with other religious leaders in Europe began fomenting rebellion during this period. Before news of Macandal’s revolt spread, many in Europe believed the slave trade was not only profitable but philanthropic. It had long been heard in the churches that slaves were heathens being brought to Christ and treated well in the process. His uprising no doubt made many Europeans aware that slaves were not being treated well and were desperate. Macandal’s shocking victories may have provoked Europeans to finally condemn colonialism and slavery. His fearless attacks and disregard for colonial might may have also seeded the French Revolution.

What really happened on January 20, 1758? Macandal endured great agony during an intense and excruciating punishment. He did this so that slaves everywhere might become free. The French claim Macandal was burned alive at the town square in Cap Francais.** Admitting he broke free and leaped out of the fire, they wrote that soldiers reclaimed Macandal and threw him back in. However some observers claimed Macandal broke his chains and fled, never to be seen again. How he broke free during any of his escapes despite being surrounded by guards and soldiers, is not known. It is interesting to note that his remains were never found and there is no burial site. Given the French proclivity for making examples of slaves to increase fear and enforce discipline, a successful execution should have been commemorated by another French monument.

For most historians, January 20, 1758, came and went with barely a mention in official memorandums. Yet a detailed search of documents reveals a massive cover-up, confusion and consternation. Macandal’s Revolution was not quashed or even slowed; instead it was impelled and sent wildly rumbling down a path of manifest destiny. Plantation owners later discovered their most trusted slaves were working for the revolution. New restrictions were put on all blacks throughout the colony and 4-5 rebels were burned at the town square every month to strike fear into the rest. Intense interrogation and torture revealed ever more depth to the conspiracy. Macandal’s execution day inflamed slaves and intensified their commitment to him and they became more united and fervently bent on winning freedom. Jesuits were banned from St. Domingue five years later.

As the first U.S. President with African roots is inaugurated on January 20, no one will speak of Macandal or Macandal’s Revolution, which led to equal rights in 1804 for one small nation. January 20, 1758, the day the French sought to secure colonialism and slavery in perpetuity, became a day of victory for Macandal and a watershed event which brought colonialism down. Though Macandal has been denied his place, his actions may have ended slavery and paved the way for people like Barack Obama to make history.

Mark Davis received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology from U.C. Berkeley and a Master’s in Anthropology from the University of Hawaii. He is the foremost authority on Macandal and his one hour documentary The Black Messiah was broadcast on PBS in 1997. He publishes information through his website at www.macandal.org.

* The man’s true name is lost to us; the one he was given by the French can be alternately spelled “Mackandal” or “Makandal” or “Mackendal”.

** Renamed Cap Haitien after Haiti won its independence.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Botched Executions,Burned,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Famous,France,Guerrillas,Guest Writers,Haiti,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Slaves,Soldiers,Torture

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