Brief Introduction to Macandal

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Introduction to Macandal, Mackendal or Makandal 01/22/09

Macandal; The Unknown Soldier

By Mark Davis

The date of President Obama’s inauguration, January 20, was the anniversary of the burning at the stake of Francois Macandal, who began the war against slavery. The parallels with Barack Obama’s journey are numerous, but the life of Macandal was perhaps even more remarkable, succeeding in spite of staggering odds.

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. Due to his importance, the French gathered slaves from plantations throughout St. Domingue (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), believing such a horrific spectacle would quash “Macandal’s Revolution,” which he began 12 years before to abolish slavery.

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. 50 years after Macandal’s Revolution began his vision was realized.

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 until now most historians have 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 the “Macandal Revolution,” which began around 1746, that ignited the French peasants.

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 uprisinginspired by the French peasants who had charged the Bastille Prison in Paris two years earlier in 1789.

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 accomplishments had to be trivialized and buried.

This telling of Macandal’s journey from a free child in Africa to slavery, then revolution, relies less on popular writings and more on an expansive review of the known 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, along with other demeaning characterizations from French writers, with little 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. Nowhere does the vestige of colonial racism raise its head more noticeably than here, as few Westerners grant Macandal his bravery, genius or impact. Instead they rely on the French loyalist Moreau de St. Mery, condemned by the revolutionary court for supporting the monarchy and whose book came 40 years after Macandal vanished. His treatise on Macandal is uniformly disparaging and censors all of the accomplishments.

In actuality Macandal was the first known black to condemn the slave system. The U.S. Bill of Rights guaranteed equality in 1791, but it would take more than seven decades for slavery to be outlawed and almost two centuries before equal opportunity laws would be passed and enforced. For one 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 the Secret Societies, Voodoo and Zombification. Macandal’s story was dictated to Davis by Rachel Bouvoir-Dominique, a Haitian Anthropologist I interviewed in Haiti in 1997. Under the tutelage of well-known author, professor at U.C. Berkeley and authority on Haitian history Michel Laguerre, I received grants for a field study and documentary.

Anthropologists often allocate greater weight to oral history, informal accounts, burial remains, maps and gravures, re-evaluating more accepted published works historians rely on. 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 portrayed by 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 and few accounts of courageous acts from among the ranks of millions of Africans during 400 years of slavery were preserved. Primarily to maintain the perception that order was being maintained in isolated colonies, governors allowed only trivialized reporting of slave exploits. Western journalists pandered to benefactors and clergymen, insisting slavery was justified and necessary. Nubian Africans were not considered to be human but beasts of burden. In fact, only a scant few accounts of bravery from among 100-200 million indigenous peoples killed during the colonial expansion are in tact.

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 Arabic fluently; also able to read and write it. 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 literally combed every square inch of the Congo beginning in the late 1400’s, searching for gold, diamonds and slaves and forcing conversion to Christianity. There are still no Muslims in the Congo however Macandal’s words and actions reveal a unique knowledge of both Christianity and Islam. Perhaps his ancestors 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 fled to the Congo and hidden for centuries.

Before enslavement Macandal was not only fluent in Arabic but accomplished in music and art, including painting and sculpture and dedication to learning continued 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. The vegetation on St. Domingue was unique so Macandal had to study his new environment and learn the properties of perhaps dozens of plants. Macandal was known to be very charismatic and buoyed the spirit of other slaves with stories of ancient Africa. Though education was forbidden to slaves he taught himself French and became so eloquent that French aristocrats remarked he could speak it better than they themselves.

Based on historical records and interviews, it appears Macandal was first sentenced to death around 1746 at the age of 18, for falling in love with the plantation owner's favorite concubine; a young and beautiful house slave. Macandal underwent a scene of heinous torture intended to culminate in his death, however he escaped mysteriously and fled into the hills. The French rationalized his escape by replacing this account with a tale about Macandal becoming handicapped, losing his hand in a sugar mill accident and then being left unguarded. His escapes were never attributed to ability but faulty 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 the influence of Maroons (ex-slaves already living in the distant mountains) he met after escaping, Macandal began working for the new goal of freedom for all slaves.

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 as evidenced by one of Macandal’s 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 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 and were known to be carried on after his disappearance despite brutal reprisals by the French used 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 was unplanned, even though the first massive attack of the Haitian Revolution in 1791, was led by Boukman Dutty, a formerly cruel, black overseer, who was a contemporary of Macandal. This gathering, which launched the war, was convened at the location where Macandal gave his speeches, the symbolism of which is obvious. Professor Michel Laguerre told me he believed Macandal’s maroons led this invasion.

Generals that followed Boukman used ingenuity and unique strategies to win the 13-year revolt 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.

The “Macandal Revolution” must have continued during the three decades preceding the Haitian Revolution since no other slave is known to have promised the end of slavery. Only Macandal predicted that blacks would defeat the French, become free of colonial rule and control the colony of St. Domingue. His rally cry repeatedly rang loudly throughout the colony despite the betrayal of many slaves who greatly feared the French.

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, word of his revolution must have spread to Europe and bolstered many anti-colonial movements. 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 the news of Macandal’s Revolution 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 made Europeans aware that slaves were not treated well and were in fact, desperate. Macandal’s victories may have provoked many Europeans to finally condemn colonialism and slavery. His fearless attacks and disregard for colonial might may have emboldened French peasants and seeded the French Revolution.

Of course any hint of such colossal attributions to an “inferior black” and “odious ex-slave” would not even be considered worthy of discussion by most Western writers.

What really happened on January 20, 1758? Macandal endured great agony during an intense and excruciating torture; one of many. 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, leaping out of the fire, they wrote that soldiers reclaimed him and threw Macandal back into his funeral pyre. 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 no burial site exists. Given the French proclivity for making examples of slaves to increase fear and discipline, a successful execution should have been commemorated by another famous monument.

For most historians, January 20, 1758, came and went with barely a mention in official memorandums. Yet a detailed search of the French archives by historian Carolyn Fick revealed 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 discovered their most trusted slaves were working for the revolution. New restrictions were put on 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 actually enflamed slaves and intensified their commitment to him and they became even more united than ever, fervently bent on winning their freedom. And few historians know why the Jesuits were banned from St. Domingue, five years later.

As the first U.S. President with African roots was inaugurated on January 20, no one spoke of Macandal or Macandal’s Revolution, which led to equal rights and the first black president for one small, ex-colonial nation in 1804. On January 20, 1758 the French sought to secure colonialism and slavery in perpetuity, but instead it became a day of victory for Macandal and a watershed event which brought colonialism down.

Though Macandal has been denied his place in history, his actions helped pave the way for someone like Barack Obama to become President of the United States.


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;

Mark Davis is the foremost authority on Macandal 

©1996, 1997, 2008, 2009

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A Brief Introduction to Makandal

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