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.
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.
Originally posted: 1758: Francois Macandal, forgotten black messiah