Commonplace


Just Teach One

Makandal, Change Agent: Teaching Account of a remarkable Conspiracy formed by a Negro in the Island of St. Domingo

Kate Simpkins
Northeastern University (PhD), Wallace Community College (Faculty, English)

When I had the opportunity this spring to teach a work of literature about François Makandal—the African-born, eighteenth-century maroon healer and poisoner of Saint-Domingue—I had already been writing a dissertation on Makandal literature for three years.[1] Though the dissertation is finished, the gathering of texts continues to grow, since stories about him span multiple genres, languages, nations, and centuries.

Given this special circumstance, my initial task as a teacher was in some sense to table a great deal of graduate research on this mytho-historical figure of the early Caribbean in order to foreground this particular work—Account of a remarkable Conspiracy—in terms of the broader purposes of the course. My first-year college students read Account in context of other material relevant to the Haitian Revolution as well as in context of other materials relevant to the course’s overall aims. My reflections on teaching Account speak to the way in which the text fits into the course’s themes and objectives.

My class, First-Year Writing, is a core requirement at Northeastern University and is designed to introduce students to reading and writing critically on the college level. Teachers of FYW are free to choose any wide variety of texts that engage students in an introduction to the writing process. The course’s subtitle, Change Agents: Race, Revolution, and Resources, puts Makandal’s rebellion against the plantocracy of early Haiti in context of other modes of effecting social change and foregrounded the way that human struggle and environmental practice are intertwined.

When they met Makandal and his story, students had already finished two prior units that both focused on combined issues of politics, race, ecology, and history. Each unit examined these ideas in terms of the way that colonial culture of the past can be read in legacies of poverty and environmental unsustainability today in the Americas, the Caribbean, and beyond. Our course schedule followed a timeline from the present toward the past; (we worked backwards from 2015 to his emergence in 1758). Makandal was the last figure of change and revolution the students studied for the semester. I did not expect first-year college students to consume the complexities of the Haitian Revolution, nor a literary tradition on Makandal that began in the French language, in a such a short period of time. My greater aim was to capitalize on how Makandal literature helps us conceptualize historical and literary study as a common project, and how human and environmental politics—another binary promoted in the idea of modern culture—seem to merge in the counter-modern revolution Makandal started against the plantation economy. In order to present Makandal in this light, I chose texts and media that would complement Account and help students draw correlations between this seemingly distant event of the eighteenth century and more contemporary resonances to his cause.

Drawing on Bruno Latour’s panel presentation, “Fifty Shades of Green,” our introduction to the course material asked students to consider the ways in which seemingly separate issues such as race and environmental justice have common historical paths as well as modes of intellectual and actual resistance; some of our essential focusing questions included: How can the study of literature propose ambiguity and or intimacy between our ideas of nature and society instead of the dualism and clear distinction that modernity ensures? How does what we know or believe about ourselves and our surroundings speak to our engagement with ourselves and our surroundings? Some topics for discussion and reading response included Latour’s idea that nature is not a “wilderness,” but rather, a form of “excess.”[2] More basically, students journaled and talked in efforts to describe the way in which they conceptualize nature vs. society. Conversely, we considered what we commonly believe to not be nature and why. As a further extension of that thought, we discussed how and why a word or concept such as farming might seem more natural or positive in connotation than the word plantation and what they associated with these words. In addition, students discussed the ways in which Latour explains the term “modern” and how he challenges our understanding of what modern or modernity means; some of their associative words were: industry, civilization, new, and society. Why, I asked, does he suggest that humanity, as the only form of recognizable agency, is an anachronistic idea? If being modern is about enacting a radical departure from what is known or a part of a given order of things, we questioned, how can we reconceptualize the notion that we humans are acting—as Latour says—“alone on stage?”[3] As a pre-reading and writing response prompt for the semester—one to which we would return several times—I asked students to consider how the agents of change we studied (including Makandal) create a “redistribution of agencies,” in non-human terms, or, in Latour’s terms, away from the idea of human agents and passive environments for human use. In early writing responses, students addressed the relationship between humanity and nature as a one-way (human) act upon a passive landscape and communicated that humanity has changed from its prior mysterious and perfected reality. With each writing assignment, these assumptions became less reliable.

Unit 1 began with a coupling of Audre Lorde’s “Of Generators and Survival-Hugo Letter,” and a viewing of excerpts from Spike Lee’s documentary about Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. The essay assignment asked students to respond to one of these two central texts, either by adapting Lorde’s use of the genre of the letter, or by responding to the way in which Lee’s story creates a collectively drawn view of history from personal perspectives. The assignment asked students to write about how one or multiple survivors’ stories create a view of history, of culture, of nature, or of human nature. Some students chose to respond to Lorde’s letter-diary about Hurricane Hugo, which is addressed to “a friend” and written from the morning after the Hurricane hit the island of St. Croix. Others responded to one or some of Lee’s interviewees—all survivors of the hurricane that struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. Essential concerns for discussion were the ways in which Lorde’s description of reality shifts when places and structures familiar to her are erased and replaced by a post-disaster landscape. A few essays reflected on the ironic idea of time after the storm as something that had produced a kind of ‘new’ place or paradise without a name in ways that evoked a consideration of the experience of reality in indigenous or even pre-colonial time. In contrast, those same student papers also remarked on her negative presentation of American military aid workers on the island, and these responses, which I presented in excerpts on screen, sparked conversation about the role of the United States in the world and in relation to natural resources, violence, assistance, and intervention. Still others responded on more intimate terms by meeting Lorde’s address to a “friend” as a challenge to act and empathize as a friend would. In one case, a student from New York whose family had survived serious damage to their home during Hurricane Sandy was able to speak for the first time in writing about the way in which the experience of environmental disaster both changed her ideas about community and environmental politics. Most strikingly, her essay argued for viewing nature as a continual disruption rather than a perfection to which we should return, and her paper’s conclusion added that comparing her story of survival to Lorde’s brought this idea forward in her thinking.

The second unit of study focused on themes of community, activism, and the ways in which humans interact with environment. We opened with an in-class viewing and critical discussion of still photos from the installations of contemporary Chicago artist and activist, Theaster Gates, who transforms condemned buildings into livable spaces by gathering repurposed materials.[4] Second, we viewed a 2009 documentary entitled Collapse, which features one long interview with peak oil activist and post-petroleum prophet and whistle-blower, Michael Ruppert, who provokes his audience by claiming that capitalism, socialism, and communism are all anachronistic ideas since they all depend on unsustainable economic and ecological paradigms. Though the syllabus was heavy with visual arts, students also read supplementary critical articles including Diane Solway’s, feature article on Theaster Gates, which names him a “Change Agent.”[5] In closing the unit, we viewed and read a transcript of Slavoj Zizek’s lecture on ecology in Examined Life, which is filmed in a dump. Zizek claims that we should get used to thinking about nature as a concept that includes garbage, and reconsider nature to be a phenomenon that moves continually toward a state of artificiality rather than purity (2008).[6] The essay assignment for this second unit asked students to reflect on their own roles as agents of change in the world and within their environments of origin (whether characterized as rural, urban, academic, familial, or otherwise.) Because Ruppert encourages the idea that humans should consider strategies for survival through the application of knowledge in their local community and economy, we brought to the table what parts of our educations and experiences would contribute to a post-petroleum world, and asked how we might conceptualize a possible world-life after fossil fuels. Students made lists of items for essential bug-out bags—of only necessary materials they could carry or bring with them to a place without petroleum luxuries, and we theorized ways in which we could rethink “economy” without paper money: what would we value and why? What currencies might replace paper money, or even oil, if it became unavailable or useless? In groups, I asked students to combine their essential materials, strategies, and talents toward building a local community while each student was randomly assigned a set of fictional social characteristics (on paper literally pulled from a hat). For example, one student was a medical doctor, and another had never attended college, but knew how to farm. This in class exercise built on the idea that community is necessary in order to survive. Students led discussions based on what they learned from working together as a heterogeneous group of people. Our discussions moved toward considerations of factors such as environmental and social health, questions regarding individual vs. collective power, the role of hierarchy in forming social order, as well as other concerns about differently-abled persons and the role of or need for pleasure in a space in which there is no certain “future” as once expected.

Finally, for Unit 3, I introduced Account of a remarkable Conspiracy in context of excerpts from two other narratives of Makandal. The first, “King Caesar, or The Negro Slaves,” is a pantomime first performed in 1801 that is based on another British newspaper version of the same Account.[7] Projecting song lyrics from the pantomime, students remarked on how this historical figure becomes a romanticized noble savage. However, they also noticed that even the pantomime preserves the central idea of Makandal as a knowledgeable slave with understandings of medicine and the ability to bring relief or pleasure to his community. On the other hand, in chorus, his plantation patients (especially the female slaves) sing praises for his medicine in ways that become more sexually suggestive than other versions. In contrast and as the text’s introduction suggests, we read from an excerpt of C.L.R.’s presentation of Makandal in his well-known history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins.[8] At this point, I asked students to reflect on how Makandal’s use of poison/medicine or knowledge of plants in the world of the plantation makes his rebellion an example of human-environmental relations that produces a redistribution of agency. In follow up, I asked: How did Makandal evoke change in comparison to Theaster Gates? How can we compare the way in which Makandal changed history through gathering materials for charms and poisons from the detritus of the plantation to Gates’ use of the material of urban environments characterized by poverty and neglect? In addition, how would we characterize his methodology, politics, and the role of environmental materials on the plantation in terms of the way that Zizek asks us to reconsider the definitions of nature?

In one important homework assignment, students kept a triple-entry journal in which they annotated their thoughts about how the three Makandal stories compared and how the three genres of newspaper, pantomime, and history reproduced this historical person/character differently. They returned to class to present one idea about what these versions, in turn, tell us about the production of history and the role of creative literature (what we might assume to be fiction or more subjective versions of experience) in that production. The triple-entry journal, which required that students keep a three-column running tab of their readings, revealed that the world of Makandal was in some ways romanticized in James’s history just as much as in the pantomime. Students agreed that Account seems to strike a balance between Jacobins, which in sharp contrast, graphically tells of physical and psychological suffering under slavery, and “King Caesar,” which amplifies some aspects of the account’s biographical details on Makandal for performance, such as his “strong natural turn for music,” the “amusement” he brought to captives of the plantation, and the love story between Makandal and Samba (renamed Ada in the pantomime).[9]

Perhaps the most interesting part of the unit, after reading three texts on Makandal from three genres, was performing a simple gallery walk in which students responded and read each others’ responses to the stories of Makandal and his legacy.  I put several comparative excerpts from each text on three walls of the classroom. On one side, from Account, students could read the description of Makandal’s intellectual talents as well as the passage in which the overseer gives Makandal fifty lashes.[10] From The Black Jacobins, students read from James’s description of the middle passage and of the way in which slavers regarded Africans as “half-human” without intelligence.[11] In an excerpt from “King Caesar,” I combined three lyrical passages: Merry Mackendal’s [sic] “Solo,” the Overseer’s “Air,” in which he commands the slaves to work or else get the “arcau” or whip, and finally, Mackendal’s transformation into King Caesar following a meeting with La Rapiniere, a poison-making chieftain in a secret maroon encampment.[12] Using small post-it notes, students circulated silently and placed anonymous comments on the wall by each sample. Their responses ranged from commentary on Makandal as a leader to expressions of shock and disgust with the history of torture James relates in Jacobins. Some among many comments included were: “A leader is someone who chooses where his followers graves will be,” “It amazes me how much one person can affect so many people and cultures,” “I was not aware that poison was such a part of rebellion and that it was even used on other slaves,” “Makandal’s passion is commendable,” and “I am surprised that he was so highly regarded, since he poisoned his own people,” and “I am interested to learn much more about this man.” Surprisingly to me, several comments concerned the topic of terrorism, and students were most interested in extending this topic into the discussion that followed the gallery walk during the same class. “Does terrorism begin with revolution and revolutionaries?” one asked.  On another note, a student had commented: “Was Makandal a revolutionary hero or a terrorist? After all, he and his followers killed 6,000 people.” Another response said, “It makes sense that we have never heard of him, since a slave would have been seen as a villain instead of a hero.” The same note commented that C.L.R. James had a duty to retell the story of the Revolution including Makandal’s early chapter, since “today, black men are still viewed as villains.” And yet another post-it note asked how we can determine what the difference is between a terrorist and a “righteous rebel,” and questioned what role that the writing of history played in this respect. These were difficult conversations to manage as a whole group following the gallery walk, and I refrained from doing much more than facilitating discussion by setting up a circle of chairs and directing students to call on one another after speaking. One intensive portion of the conversation drew correlations to contemporary associations with revolution and violent resource appropriation, e.g., issues of neo-colonial appropriation of oil in places like Iraq and legal fights over water rights in the United States. Overall, the exercise was a useful one for building openness in dialogue in a diverse and concerned class of students following the attacks in Paris that semester. Finally, the writing assignment for the Makandal unit asked students to define one of the major concepts we had encountered and questioned during the course of the semester through a close reading of one or more of the accounts of Makandal.

As a last note, the class also enjoyed playing Assassin’s Creed: The Americas, which is a hands-on experiential strategy and role-playing (RPG) video game that features former Makandal followers who re-emerge to plan resistance activities on a Louisiana plantation. I brought a PS Vita handheld device to class, and students took turns playing, but we also viewed a brief introduction to the game that makes a point of informing the audience about Makandal and his appearance in “pre-game” history.[13] Students wrote a brief reflection on pre-game history as a concept that allows us as players (and authors of video games) to participate in history as an ongoing reality.  Through inhabiting the role of a female maroon who plots against the plantation owners, we navigated multiple landscapes and eco-systems such as plantations and swamps as well as investigated strategic Makandal-inspired weapons kept in an encampment, including a collection of charms, poisons and medicines, in an effort to understand how and why his story continues to be retold.

Makandal’s injury on a sugar gin and subsequent revenge against the plantation elite through the use of indigenous knowledge of plant poisons makes him an early anchor at the birth of modernity (and the plantation). Because Makandal’s resistance to slavery also formed a resistance to monocultural production of sugar and cotton, we were able to produce discussion and writing that considered other ways of thinking about the relationship between environment and human relations beyond the common binary of human and non-human agency. As a teacher and researcher of Makandal literature, I was glad to see that students could use writing to correlate neo-colonial injustices by/against humans and the environment. Students made connections between Makandal’s history and contemporary modes of resistance that had not occurred to me, and so the reward of the experience is seeing how teaching can create new directions in my research.

 

  1. Kate Simpkins, “The Absent Agronomist and the Lord of Poison: Cultivating Modernity in Transatlantic Literature, 1758-1859” (PhD diss., Northeastern University, 2016).
  2. Bruno Latour, “Fifty Shades of Green,” 2015, http://environmentalhumanities.org/arch/vol7/7.12.pdf. Accessed 21 January 2016.
  3. Ibid.
  4. “Theaster Gates – Dorchester Projects,” accessed August 11, 2014, http://theastergates.com/section/117693_Dorchester_Projects.html.
  5. Diane Solway, “The Change Agent,” W Magazine, May 17, 2013, http://www.wmagazine.com/culture/art-and-design/2013/06/theaster-gates-chicago-artist.
  6. Astra Taylor et al., Examined Life (New York: Zeitgeist Films, 2008).
  7. John Cartwright Cross, King Caesar or The Negro Slaves. (London, 1801).
  8. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, 2 edition (New York: Vintage, 1989).
  9. “Just Teach One: Account of a Remarkable Conspiracy (Makandal),” accessed February 13, 2016, http://jto.common-place.org/account-of-a-remarkable-conspiracy-makandal/.5-7.
  10. Account, 4-5.
  11. James 10, 17.
  12. Cross, 10, 12, 15.
  13. “Assassin’s Creed: The Real History – ‘François Mackandal’ – YouTube,” accessed November 4, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9ztpdSCyW4.

 

“Illustrious Villain”: On teaching “The Account of a Remarkable Conspiracy Formed by a Negro of the Island of St. Domingo”

Martha Elena Rojas
University of Rhode Island

 

I assigned “The Account of a remarkable Conspiracy formed by a Negro of the Island of St. Domingo” in a graduate seminar in early American literature. The course focused on the emergence of the interlinked discourses of “Americanness” and of what today we have come to call “race.” From the vantage of our own position in the 21st century, existing in what one of my students referred to as “an already racialized world” in which “[i]t is hard for us to see racial identity as something entirely in flux or uncertain, even as we come up against examples of this in everyday life,” the seminar considered how “race” came to be defined and defining for what would become the United States. We began the course by reading Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, chosen as a relatively recent example of the impetus to craft and re-craft foundational narratives, and because Morrison’s historical fiction animates those usually left silent in the historical record.

During the week in we read “The Account of a Remarkable Conspiracy” or “Makandal,” as we came to refer to it, the seminar also read “Theresa, a Haytien Tale,” Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence and portions of Notes on the State of Virginia. For a week late in the semester, this turned out to be too much material. It was also not quite enough. I underestimated the knowledge my students would already possess (many were or had been educators) and in retrospect I recognize that more context was needed: about the West Indies, St. Domingue, and the Haitian Revolution and also about the revolution in the United States, as well as the cultural and political contours of the early republic. Though I directed students to the critical pieces in Ed White and Duncan Faherty’s “Suggestions for Further Reading,” helpfully included in the JTO edition of “Makandal,” next time I will explicitly assign them.

I underestimated, too, the magnetic pull of Thomas Jefferson. As a consequence, despite an excellent opening graduate presentation devoted to “Makandal” and “Theresa,” the seminar devoted most of its attention to Jefferson. In the future, I anticipate devoting more time to each of these texts, either spacing them over several seminar sessions/lectures or constructing a multi-week unit on the Caribbean colonies and the Haitian Revolution for the course.

Nonetheless, the juxtaposition of these texts generated productive conversation. By this point in the semester, the group was well attuned to the disparate and exclusionary way the designation of “citizen” could function among and within different populations. They engaged in a lively discussion of what “Haytien” could have and might mean. This, in turn, led to an interrogation of Jefferson’s uses of “population,” and his reservations about “migration.” The seminar returned to the varying constructions of “the people” in “Makandal,” the writings of Thomas Jefferson, and “Theresa,” and to the performative, improvised aspects of “country” and “nation” across all of these texts.

They had read Gordon Sayre’s chapter, “Logan” from his The Indian Chief as a Tragic Hero, and that essay directed their attention to representations of indigeneity in Notes, and to the construction (in this section) of “whiteness” against the category of the “Indian.” They were particularly taken with a line in Logan’s speech —“This called on me for revenge. I have sought it: I have killed many. I have fully glutted my vengeance,”— and the dissonance between the elegance of its language and the “savagery” it encoded. They observed a similar dynamic at work in “The Account of a remarkable Conspiracy” with its ambivalent presentation of Makandal as an “illustrious villain,” an “ambitious fanatic” and as “distinguished among the negroes.”  Noting how this complicated binary notions of hero/villain, the seminar was also eager to discuss the forms “heroism” took in the context of resistance and revolution. Turning their attention to the titular character of “Theresa, a Haytien Tale,” they considered gendered expectations of the “heroic,” what constitutes agency, and speculated about why certain actions were presented as passive, or the result of irresistible forces of circumstance.

Reading “The Account of a remarkable Conspiracy formed by a Negro of the Island of St. Domingo” along with “Theresa, A Haytien Tale” had the effect of making the seminar tune into the contrasting tropes of masculinity at play in the narrative. They observed that Makandal is characterized by his qualities, not his physical attributes: learned, passionate, vengeful, both generous and treacherous. While the other noteworthy characters in “Makandal,” Zami and his lover Samba, display their nobility foremost through their exquisite bodies, incomparable physical beauty and their affection for each other. “Makandal,” variously presented as an enslaved African, as an escaped slave, a leader of and inhabitant among maroons, a murderer of “negros,” and a would-be assassin of the French Creole or European population of the island, is also Muslim, literate (a reader and writer of Arabic), and extraordinarily knowledgeable in botany and the medicinal properties of plants. Makandal’s fall from virtue is marked in “The Account of a remarkable Conspiracy formed by a Negro” by his ability to plot and conspire, to use his considerable knowledge to enact his own will rather than putting it at the service of someone else’s. His character should recall Melville’s Babo, that “hive of subtlety,” for students familiar with Benito Cereno — a pairing I will consider next time I teach the undergraduate survey course — and as such holds a place in a genealogy of fictional texts in which the intellect of black figures is underestimated and yet persistently feared for its capacity for vengeful insurrection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Revolutionary Style and Founder’s Chic

John Funchion
University of Miami

 

A group of graduate students discussed “Account of a remarkable Conspiracy formed by a Negro in the Island of St. Domingo” in a seminar that I structured around “Revolution and Recovery.” The course began with a discussion of Cathy Davidson’s Revolution and the Word and the expansion of the canon in the 1980s. In the weeks that followed Davidson, we read work by Charles Brockden Brown and Susanna Rowson. In addition to attending to print and literary history, we read a wide array of political documents such as The Declaration of Independence and The Articles of Confederation alongside theoretical work by Antonio Negri and Hannah Arendt. These readings set the stage for “Account,” a literary work exceptionally well-suited to a seminar invested in staging debates over the canon and over competing accounts of revolutionary politics. In addition to reading “Account,” students also looked at Leonora Sansay’s Secret History and a chapter from Michael Drexler and Ed White’s The Traumatic Colonel.

Examining the story of Makandal and the Haitian Revolution at this point in the semester led immediately to a reassessment of how we had been thinking about the state of the canon and of the field of early U.S. literary studies. Rather than approaching this debate as a largely resolved one, the stakes of what counts as U.S. literature or the literature of the Americas seemed just as pressing in 2016 as in the early 1980s. Our discussion began with a brilliant set of questions prepared by two graduate students, Samina Ali and Ray Leonard. Given our graduate program’s strength in Caribbean Studies, both of them incorporated their own intellectual commitments to that field into our conversation about the assigned reading. Many of their questions revolved around Drexler and White’s notion of “Founder’s chic.” We had already enumerated the pitfalls of mythbusting the hagiographic discourse surrounding the Founders, so they considered how both Secret History and the Makandal narrative might be studied from a mythic-literary rather than from an empirical perspective.

What kind of myth did the story of Makandal create? Our perception of its cultural power shifted remarkably, depending on whether we approached it within the context of recovery or revolution. In the case of the former, the narrative disrupted the transatlantic, Anglo-American framework that we had brought to bear on previous readings. In one clear sense, the story played upon the fears of slave insurrection that many white Americans harbored. Maniacally desiring to possess women without their consent and murder Europeans without mercy, Makandal also embodied a fusion of melodramatic archetypes already in transatlantic circulation. My graduate students recognized how he behaved in ways both reminiscent of Belcour in Charlotte Temple and Queen Mab in Edgar Huntly. But his occult proficiency at poisoning also called to mind the practice of voudou, implicitly caricatured here as superstitiously menacing “voodoo” (here my students appropriately drew upon the work of my colleague Kate Ramsay). By pulling us toward the Caribbean, however, “Account” further helped to disrupt the overemphasis earlier generations of literary critics and historians had placed on New England literary production during the post-Revolutionary and antebellum eras. Even as it participated in the creation of a mythology of its own, “Account” demanded further revision of U.S. cultural history.

Unlike the white revolutionaries of North America, Makandal remains in a state of perpetual revolution. The notion that a Haitian could found a state lay beyond the imagination of this narrative. “Account,” in my seminar, became another way of understanding the ascent of “Founder’s chic.” Whiteness figures as a fundamental quality of what it means to be a founder, and Makandal reinforced that perception. Blackness is the quality that renders Makandal unredeemable, because—as several students would later note—the insurrectionary activity of Makandal and his “zealous partizans” did not appear all that different in character from the actions of William Gilmore Simms’s white partisans (we read Simms later that semester).

My students concluded that while “Account of a remarkable Conspiracy formed by a Negro in the Island of St. Domingo” belongs to the white racist mythology of the Haitian Revolution, it is also reminder that we are only recently grappling with the formative role the Haitian Revolution played historically and presently in U.S. literature and culture (thanks especially to work by Ashli White, Marlene Daut, and Colin Dayan as well as the recently published collection of essays edited by Drexler and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon). Teaching the story of Makandal thus underscored that the process of literary recovery is a messy but necessary and unfinished business.

 

 

Makandal teaching reflection

Gordon Fraser
English Department
North Dakota State University
Gordon.fraser@ndsu.edu

 

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.

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 LMBR 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]

 

FIGURE CAPTION

  1. 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.

 

 

[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.

“Makandal” Reflections

Kelly Ross
Rider University

I taught “Account of a Remarkable Conspiracy” (1787) toward the end of a survey course on Early American literature for sophomore and junior English majors. This course is one of seven options that students can choose from to fulfill a requirement for the major (the literature before 1830 requirement). To entice students to choose Early American literature (over, for instance, Romantic literature), I designed the course to focus on the themes of “Sex and Sin in Early American Literature.” “Account of a Remarkable Conspiracy” fit into the course particularly well, given its focus on seduction, charisma, and revolutionary violence.

I organized the syllabus chronologically, so “Account”—published in the US in the 1790s—fell between part one of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland. This placement was serendipitous, as Makandal bridged the transition from Franklin’s Enlightenment dream of rationalized human perfectibility to Brown’s Gothic nightmare of deception and derangement. After reading “Account,” students were more aware of the dark side of Franklin’s vision and primed to analyze the epistemological underpinnings of Brown’s novel. Rather than simply dwelling on Carwin and Clara’s creepy psychosexual dynamics (as previous classes have focused on), students connected the personal relationships in the novel to larger ideas about empiricism, belief, and democracy. Having a third example to triangulate with Franklin and Brown facilitated a more nuanced discussion about the dangers of charisma and the limits of empiricism in the late-18th-century US. We compared Franklin’s emphasis on reputation (e.g. when Franklin carries his wares through the streets in a wheelbarrow to demonstrate that he “was not above my business”) to Makandal’s use of a fetish to mystify his own powers. Though Makandal’s reputation rests on belief in and fear of his “supernatural virtues” rather than his character as a frugal and industrious tradesman, the strategies the two men use are similar in their recognition of the importance of public perception and self-promotion.

Moreover, Franklin, Makandal, and Carwin all demonstrate the power and danger of charisma in a society in which public opinion rather than divine judgment underwrites authority. Our conversation about charisma led us to consider the ways in which violence can be framed as either personal animus or systemic rebellion. Students pointed to specific language in “Account” that reduced Makandal’s motive to jealousy or lust, as well as moments that implied a broader political purpose, such as his conspirators’ admission that “Makandal’s intention was to destroy privately the greater part of the planters, or to ruin them, by poisoning all their slaves who appeared to be attached to them; and lastly to exterminate the whole race of white men by a general massacre which would render him the deliverer and sovereign of the whole island” (10). Students imagined how anti-slavery readers might recast the story to highlight revolutionary principles rather than individual desires. These observations enabled us to locate our discussion of the US revolution in terms of the Haitian revolution and the larger Age of Revolution rather than isolating the US as exceptional.

When we discussed Wieland, students returned to “Account” to think through “M[onsieur] de C…”’s depiction of Makandal as a religious fanatic and compare Makandal to the Wielands (elder and younger). Students were particularly interested in the non-Christian religious practices described in “Account,” so when I teach the class again I plan to assign one of the recommended readings on obeah (Toni Wall Jaudon, Kelly Wisecup, and Christopher Iannini) alongside the narrative. Other parallels among the three texts that students explored included the emphasis on the hazards of pride and the importance of education and literacy, as “Account” begins with a paragraph outlining Makandal’s solid education and ability to read and write Arabic.

The narrative also resonated with semester-long concerns about fluid publication histories in Early American literature. As Duncan Faherty, Ed White, and Toni Wall Jaudon eloquently demonstrate in the headnote to the text, “Account” was reprinted and modified in significant ways from its first publication in 1787 to its late US printings in 1823 and 1846. We compared the aspect of “Account” to earlier texts we had read by John Smith, William Byrd, and Franklin, which also appeared in various editions aimed at distinct audiences. For example, students drew on “Account”’s headnote to consider the ways in which politics and racial prejudice influenced the shaping of the narrative in various venues, as we had discussed in relation to William Byrd’s History and Secret History.

Including “Account” in the course provided an opportunity to discuss the ways in which literary studies can move beyond the classroom. After students had read “Account,” I explained the “Just Teach One” project to them and showed them the website. This led to a conversation about canon formation and questions of race and representation in the texts we study. Though many of my colleagues and I raise these issues in most of the English courses we teach, foregrounding the editorial and scholarly labor involved in producing a teachable version of a noncanonical text (including notes and a contextual introduction) helped students to see a concrete example of how difficult it can be to introduce new texts into the classroom and thus why syllabi often remain focused on the same set of texts. Students also reported that reading “Account” and discussing the Just Teach One project expanded their understanding of what English professors do.

My students particularly wanted me to mention that they were glad I didn’t tell them anything about the text before they read it; they enjoyed contending with the (to them) unfamiliar world of Saint-Domingue, and reading the narrative inspired many of them to research the history of Haiti and the Dominican Republic on their own. They agreed that “Account” was an excellent addition to the syllabus and expanded our conception of Early American literature. We are all deeply grateful to Duncan Faherty and Ed White for the opportunity to participate in “Just Teach One” and for their work editing the narrative.

Editing Revolutionary Materials

Siân Silyn Roberts
Queens College

To introduce the “Account of a Remarkable Conspiracy” into my syllabus, I went with the most obvious pairing: Leonora Sansay’s Secret History. We had already discussed at length how Sansay’s novel uses the language of sexual politics to think through the operations of colonialism, empire, revolution, and slavery.  I suggested to my students that something similar might be at work in the Makandal piece, asking them why a figure from an earlier historical moment might have spoken in increasingly urgent ways to readers familiar with the turmoil in the West Indies and broader Atlantic world.

We also paid particular attention (more so than with any other text put out by JTO) to Makandal as an edited text.  Starting with the complex publication history, we considered why the change in title (as the text moved from French to English to American publications) potentially changed the reception of the piece. We then proceeded to look at the various editorial changes the text underwent as it was translated from French to English.  This meant paying close attention to the details provided in the footnotes (thank you Duncan and Ed!!), and considering why those changes might have been made.  This proved particularly productive, as it really asked students to engage with questions about reception, the editor function, and the dynamics of revolution and representation. A great text – many thanks again for such a teachable work!

 

Discovering Atlantic World reprint culture in the early African American literature survey

Laurel V. Hankins
University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth
lhankins@umassd.edu

I taught Account of a Remarkable Conspiracy formed by a Negro in the Island of St. Domingo in the first half of an African American literature survey. The Account was our final text in the first unit of the course; this unit grouped texts around an Atlantic World theme and included Phillis Wheatley, Thomas Jefferson, and Olaudah Equiano. Our first few weeks of class served as an introduction to important ideas in the history of critical race theory and the literary traditions that emerged out of the black Atlantic. The Account is short but full of opportunities to discuss literary form and genre, theory, and history. I found it an ideal reading assignment for a 75-minute class meeting.

Part of the reason I was excited to teach this text is because both its publication history and its narrative strategies capture the complexity of eighteenth-century Atlantic world networks and conventions. Students did need quite a bit of background information on the Haitian revolution and the history of U.S.-Haiti relations, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that students came into the class excited to talk about the differences they had noticed between the editions. These differences were a wonderful point of entry for our conversation, as they allowed students to produce close readings that were attentive to language and also informed by the temporal and spatial context of the text’s long and varied circulation history. This opening conversation also allowed us to think about early U.S. periodical and reprint culture.

Given our previous discussions of Wheatley, Jefferson, and Equiano, students were well-primed to discuss the contradictions of Enlightenment rhetoric surrounding natural rights and the slave trade present in this text. They recognized the ways that this text’s construction of race is informed by the post-revolutionary politics of the early national period, particularly the hypersexualization of Makandal and the depoliticization of his rebellion. Students also complicated their own initial responses by digging into the text’s contradictions – its moments of sympathy for “the unhappy negroes” for example led to a spirited conversation about spectacle and sympathy that carried into our next unit on the abolitionist movement. Additionally, students linked the text’s fascination with African-Caribbean cultural practices to earlier discussions of the black Atlantic’s contact zones.

The Account remained a useful text for our class moving forward. Particularly when reading David Walker’s Appeal and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, the Account provided an important touchstone for understanding the perceptions of black masculinity and slave resistance that Walker and Douglass are responding to and that their readers would have been influenced by.

One sign of the positive student reaction to this text is the amount of student writing it generated. Six students chose to write their first response papers on the Account. Additionally, a student taking the course for honors credit developed a final research project comparing the portrayal of Haiti in the Account to Alejo Carpentier’s response to such exoticized portrayals in the contemporary novel The Kingdom of this World. A graduate student in our MAT program used the JTO website to develop several sample lesson plans for teaching the Account, The Factory Girl, and Humanity in Algiers to high school students.

This is my second time teaching a JTO text, and both experiences have demonstrated how much students appreciate the sense of discovery the project provides. The students’ interest in Duncan and Ed’s excellent footnotes is a perfect example of why it’s so fun to teach unfamiliar texts. Even if teaching a new text makes me a bit apprehensive, it usually results in a conversation full of productive surprises where students are more confident to take risks because they sense that we’re all in the same boat.

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