In the 18th Century when slavery was rife, France had several colonies in the Caribbean.
However, the most important was Saint Domingue (now Haiti) as it was then a sugar island, and the French largely depended on it for economic growth.
Accounts state that around 1789, France had about 500,000 slaves in Saint Domingue who worked as sources of labour for cotton, sugar and coffee plantations.
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The enslaved people would, however, soon start rising against their French enslavers and this would begin the biggest and bloodiest slave revolt in history, otherwise known as the Haitian Revolution.
Most accounts state that Haiti’s fight towards independence was largely made possible by the role of Maroons; fugitive slaves who often fled into the mountains and lived in small bands or independent settlements.
One of these powerful maroon leaders was François Mackandal who became a pain in the butt of the French during the early– to mid-eighteenth century.
“Actually, Mackandal was the first to declare slaves would overthrow the French and end slavery,” writes The Louverture Project.
Mackandal, also Makandal or Macandal, conspired to poison all the white plantation owners in the North of Saint Domingue and to later spread this to all corners of the colony.
Some slaves even began poisoning their masters’ households across the North, including other slaves who couldn’t be trusted. But a female slave would later be Mackandal’s downfall, leading to his execution.
Believed to have been born in West Africa, Mackandal was brought to the North of Saint-Domingue to work on a sugar plantation at the age of twelve. He was sold to Lenormand plantation near Cap Français.
According to anthropologist Mark Davis, Mackandal had been educated by an ‘important’ family in the Congo as he was very clever and could speak, read and write Arabic fluently.
He also knew sculpture, painting, and music, and had in-depth knowledge of herbs and medicinal plants. These attributes would become useful in his later fight against the French.
While working on the plantation, Mackandal lost his arm in a sugar mill and was, therefore, made to care for livestock. He later fled the plantation and joined a maroon community where he became a leader.
Claiming to have supernatural abilities and having prophesied that slaves ultimately would have their freedom and independence, Mackandal was able to successfully organise the different maroon groups in Saint Domingue’s wild hills into a strong fighting force.
Having knowledge of herbs and plants, he was able to make powerful poisons as well.
“Using the network of maroons and sympathetic plantation slaves, Mackandal and his followers successfully poisoned plantation owners, animals, and even other enslaved people,” an account by Slavery and Remembrance said.
For years, the whites searched for the cause of the illnesses and deaths without any result. Meanwhile, Mackandal had also begun planning for a rebellion.
After 12 years, towards the end of 1757, the natural and charismatic leader was ready to carry out a mass poisoning of whites that would have heralded the revolt. However, he was betrayed by the female slave and was captured and sentenced to death at Cap-Français in January 1758.
Sources say he was to be burned at the stake, but he broke free at the first flames.
“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,” according to The Louverture Project.
Essentially, Mackandal was burned at the stake in the middle of the square in Le Cap. Plantation owners brought their slaves and forced them to watch.
It is documented that even after his death, many slaves insisted in his immortality and he, thus, became a major inspirational figure for the slaves during the Haitian revolution.
At the moment, many believe that his soul escaped the flames in which he was burned at the stake and that it still roams through Haiti.