Just Teach One

Makandal and the African Wild Boar: Reprinting and Race Science in the American Literature Classroom

Gordon Fraser
English Department
North Dakota State University


What does the story of Makandal have to do with a copperplate engraving of a four-tusked African wild boar? A great deal, as my students and I discovered.

On the day we discussed the “Account of a Remarkable Conspiracy,” I passed out reproductions of the August issue of the New-York Magazine, or Literary Repository, one of the US periodicals in which the Makandal account had appeared. This was the second week of my Nineteenth-Century Fiction course, and my goal had been to grapple with the complexities and idiosyncrasies of print culture at the beginning of the nineteenth century. What might it mean, I asked my students, to imagine “fiction” as a discrete literary genre during a period when the print-cultural public sphere blurred lines of fact and speculation, and when publications mixed poetry, letters, scientific accounts, and visual culture?

But my class had other, perhaps more interesting, questions to pursue.

This depiction of the African Wild Boar was emblematizes numerous accounts from the late eighteenth century. “The African Wild Boar,” The New-York Magazine, or Literary Repository August 1796. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

After dividing students into groups and asking each group to characterize the New-York Magazine as a whole, I found that nearly the entire class had turned its focus to the periodical’s single illustration: a copperplate engraving of the four-tusked “African Wild Boar.” Editors Thomas Swords and James Swords had resources enough to print one engraving, my students pointed out, and they had chosen the picture of a pig. The Swords had also chosen to publish an article about the animal. The first essay in August issue of the New-York Magazine is entitled “Description of the African Wild Boar.” To those in my class, who found the Makandal account much more interesting than the boar account, this was a puzzle. Why not an illustration Makandal himself? Or, instead, why not illustrate one of the other essays, stories, or poems? The Swords should have given the reader something more interesting to look at than a pig, my students suggested.

It was here that we benefitted from an idiosyncrasy of the literature program at North Dakota State. Many advanced literature courses, such as my 300-level class in fiction, are open as electives to interested non-majors. As our discussion began, several of the English majors drew from their experience working on the university literary magazine by suggesting that the New-York Magazine editors must have seen this boar as extremely important. It was, after all, the very first article in the issue, and that article provided the subject for the issue’s one and only illustration. Another student—Nick, a STEM major with an interest in the history of science—then told the class that he recognized the description of the boar. This wasn’t just any pig. Rather, it had been central to the Enlightenment-scientific project of speciation and, I would add, racialization.

Indeed, it is not surprising that Nick recognized the so-called “African Wild Boar.” Accounts of the boar, like the account of Makandal, had traced a circum-Atlantic path, and both stories were implicated in the project of explaining African-ness through Enlightenment rationalism. What my science-major student recognized, in short, was the product of an eighteenth-century conversation among naturalists seeking to explain and codify African difference.

The boar account in the New-York Magazine—copied, like the Makandal story, from the Literary Magazine & British Review—can be traced to Anders Sparman’s journey to the Cape of Good Hope. Sparman had in 1775 encountered the “salted and dried” head of a so-called African wild boar, which was anomalous for the disproportionate largeness of its cranium in relation to its body, for its four tusks, and for its supposed viciousness.[1] Sparman’s observations would be repeated and elaborated upon in the Histoire Naturelle (1749-1804) by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. In this study, the French naturalist made much the same argument about boars that he made about human beings. The boar, Buffon suggests, is merely another “variety” of the European hog. Differences between pigs, like differences between people, were produced by environmental influences. Such differences, Buffon writes, are not innate.[2] Thomas Jefferson would attack this environmentalist claim in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), marshalling tables of data to demonstrate that species did not degenerate when brought to the Western Hemisphere.[3] One can easily see why Buffon’s environmentalist claims represented such a threat. For Buffon, the African boar demonstrates that Africa is not a site of innate difference. The boars and the humans of Africa might simply be different varieties of the boars and humans of Europe, and of everywhere else.

It is noteworthy then, that Buffon’s explanation of the boar—which had been translated into English by 1780—is entirely excluded from both the Literary Magazine and the New-York Magazine descriptions of the animal. In both periodicals, the “African Wild Boar” is described only in terms of difference. In fact, the anonymous author is explicit about the creature’s radical African-ness and blackness. The animal’s snout is “broad and flat,” its eyes are closer together “than those of the European wild boar,” its hair is “bristly,” and its coloring is “brown, inclining a little to black.” Significantly, this animal endowed with “formidable weapons” (its tusks), which enable it to struggle against “ferocious neighbours.”[4] This version of the boar might be suited to its environment, but it is not a product of that environment. Rather, it is a singularly terrifying species from an exotic, dangerous continent.

The “Account of a Remarkable Conspiracy” makes similar claims, as my students pointed out during our discussion. As the notes and introduction provided by Duncan Faherty and Ed White reveal, the Literary Magazine account represented a change from the original French version. The English translator heaped condemnation upon Makandal when describing his supposed crimes. While the French original hints that Makandal’s actions might be justified, in that his enemies received “just punishment,” the English account transforms Makandal’s violence into a form of unprompted vindictiveness. In the English versions, Makandal’s enemies receive only “punishment,” without justification (7). Indeed, it is Makandal himself who is justly punished in the English versions of the story. While Makandal’s final, gruesome death is presented without didactic interpretation in the French, the English edition provided here informs the reader that Makandal,

… suffered the punishment which he so justly deserved.

Such was the origin of the devastations occasioned by poison in the island of St. Domingo, where such practices are become more rare, thought they are not yet entirely eradicated. (10)

This English-language version of the story, in which exotic African violence represents a dangerous import requiring eradication, is copied wholesale in the New-York Magazine—just as the account of an exotic and dangerous black boar is copied. Both periodicals report to their readers that Makandal’s gruesome death is “deserved.” Both report that the trade in violent African bodies has been a source of devastation, disorder, and chaos in Africa and in the Western Hemisphere. Note the slippage in the language. Is the “poison” in St. Domingo a reference to the drugs manufactured by Makandal, or a reference to Makandal himself? The “Account of a Remarkable Conspiracy” tells the story of threatening, innate difference, and of the importation of that difference to the Western Hemisphere.

In my class, these observations have led to more questions than answers. Why did the Literary Magazine & British Review eliminate environmental explanations for African difference? When the New-York Magazine adopted wholesale this explanation of Africa as a site of intrinsically violent bodies, were its editors responding to ideology or to the idiosyncrasies of the transatlantic publishing world. In other words, did the Swords brothers have access to alternative explanations of Makandal, or alternative accounts of the differences between boars? Finally, considering the role played by the New-York Magazine in US political culture at the time—George Washington, John Adams, John Jay, and New York Mayor Richard Varick were all subscribers—what might it mean that blackness and African-ness are imagined in the magazine’s pages as sinister, violent, alien, and innate?[5]



[1] Anders Sparman, A voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, toward the Antarctic Polar Circle, and round the world: … from the year 1772, to 1776, Volume II (Dublin: 1785), 25-26.

[2] Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, Natural history, general and particular, by the Count de Buffon, translated into English. Illustrated with above 260 copper-plates (Edinburgh: 1780), 250, 256-257. See also Londa Schiebinger, Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004), 138.

[3] See, for instance, Lee Alan Dugatkin, Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

[4] “Description of the African Wild Boar. With an Elegant Plate,” Literary Magazine & British Review vol. 8 (1792): 31.

[5] David Paul Nord, “A Republican Literature: A Study of Magazine Reading and Readers in Late Eighteenth-Century New York,” American Quarterly 40, no. 1 (1988): 42.

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