François Mackandal (or Macandal or Makandal) has been the focus of a persistent legend of St. Domingue. Some stories have it that his soul escaped the flames in which he was burned at the stake, and that it still roams through Haiti.
Like thousands of others, Mackandal was brought to St. Domingue probably from West Africa. and possibly as a slave already at the age of 12. Sold to Lenormand plantation near Cap Français, he brought with him exceptional accomplishments and a remarkable intellect.
Drawing on seldom-considered oral history (beyond folklore and myth) as well as conventional research and the corroborated work of others, anthropologist Mark Davis asserts that Mackandal had been educated by an 'important' family in the Congo. He says that Mackandal spoke, read and wrote Arabic fluently, and had a highly absorbent and clever mind. Davis says he also knew music, sculpture and painting, and that his broad knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs was widely sought after.
Davis credits Mackandal with having been first to cry freedom for the slaves, and with setting up such a solid phalanx of slaves who believed in his mad dream of freedom that even after his death the core of his revolution survived. It was that fundamental core that Toussaint reawakened and drove on to completion.
Most accounts state that Mackandal worked on the plantation until he lost his hand (or arm) in a sugar press accident. Davis believes it more likely that he fled after having been sentenced to 50 lashes with a knotted leather whip for having fallen in love with a house slave. This kind of whip inflicted such vicious damage that 50 lashes constituted a death sentence.
Davis goes on to say that both stories may have been fabricated. It would have been too humiliating to admit that a slave, particularly this one, had the wits to escape his far superior captors. Someone's head likely would have rolled. Writings at the time were dedicated to cementing the notion of slaves as barely human -- certainly not either accomplished or clever, for that would have undermined a key justification for slavery.
Whatever the impetus, having gained the relative safety of St. Domingue's wild hills Mackandal prophesied that slaves ultimately would have their freedom and independence. To that end this strong, charismatic, natural leader recruited and organized his fellow marooons (who already had become effective plantation raiders in order to survive) into an effective fighting force uniquely suited to St. Domingue's tropical and mountainous terrain. To that he added ingeniously recruited plantation slaves. During these dangerous years he became legendary for repeatedly escaping capture.
After 12 years of meticulous planning and preparation, Mackandal very nearly pulled off a successful rebellion of the scope that Toussaint later accomplished. But as he prepared to carry out a mass poisoning of whites toward the end of 1757 that would have precipitated that coup, he was betrayed by a tortured female slave, and was captured. He was chained to the stake on 20 January 1758 in Le Cap. (Mackandal Rebellion)
The most common written accounts (most of which are re-tellings based on the same sources) state that Mackandal escaped his first burning by wriggling free from bonds that had been inadequately secured over the stump of his arm. Most of those go on to say that he was re-captured, retied and consumed in a second burning.
Slave accounts (which more strongly reflect the Mackandal mystique) state that he escaped either the first burning only, or the first and the second, but in both cases generally depict his final flight as that of a fly or a mosquito. Before being captured, Mackandal had claimed to be immortal. Davis notes with interest the massive yellow fever epidemic that was brought by hordes of mosquitoes during Toussaint's rebellion, helping to decimate the invading forces and make his rebellion successful.
- Mark Davis. "Macandal: The Greatest Unknown Story in History" (©1996, 1999, 2003). http://www.macandal.com (Note: Davis invariably spells his subject's name 'Macandal,' but Mackandal' is used here as it is throughout this site.