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Makandal Text Network: NULab Project

By Laura Johnson

As a 2018–2019 NULab Fellow, I worked with the Early Caribbean Digital Archive (ECDA) to investigate disability and slavery in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts, studying how we can read, represent, and understand this complex history. The ECDA focuses on decolonizing the archive through remix and reassembly, using the affordances of a digital archive to create new representations, curations, and connections for historic materials.

Using this theoretical position as critical practice, I began my research with a survey of the archive, looking for texts where facets of ability and disability were both mentioned and conceptualized. When working with historic documents, one of the most important yet challenging components is deciding how to apply contemporary concepts to historic materials. Following Sari Altschuler and Cristobal SIlva’s theoretical framework for a disability studies reading of early American texts in “Early American Disability Studies,” I explored ability and disability in James Grainger’s The Sugar-Cane: A Poem and An Essay on the Most Common West-India Diseases. Grainger, a physician from the UK who worked on plantations in the Caribbean, combined natural history and medical knowledge in these texts. In my reading of Grainger, I explored the material and historic structures that disorder and classify bodies in physician’s journals, such as the empty casebook page (akin to our medical charts today) where a person’s health and ability were defined by disorder, ending in either cures or death. While Grainger’s medical text, An Essay, is a manual for plantation physicians and not a working roster of individuals, it reads as a symbol of the silenced voices and bodies that exist in the archives and must, as Altschuler and Silva note, continue to be examined.

However, this exercise in examining historic documents raised even further questions about practice: how can we reframe, revalue, and re-imagine historic knowledge and narratives? Are there ways that digital forms of exhibition and storytelling can facilitate this? The ECDA works to decolonize and reclaim silenced voices in the archive, in particular, the voices of enslaved individuals whose narratives are within colonial narratives. However, in thinking about positionality, materiality, and the body, there are further ways and needs to examine the connections between historic texts, individual narratives, and representations of ability across narratives. These questions led to the second part of my research: theorizing and planning a digital exhibit on the Haitian rebellion leader François Makandal.

François Makandal was an enslaved laborer in the 1750s French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) on a sugar plantation belonging to Sebastien François-Ange Lenormand de Mézy, a French naval officer, colonial administrator in Canada, and agricultural expert who traveled and worked across the transatlantic region, including Haiti and Louisianna (Simpkins 15). While there are differing accounts of Makandal’s life, he is often described as having many distinguishing skills, including speaking Arabic and possessing extensive medicinal knowledge of local plants and crop production. Most notably, Makandal has been identified as the “Lord of Poisons” (Carpentier 30); after an accident working a sugar gin that resulted in losing an arm, Makandal ran away on “grand marronage” and established an underground network that made, sold, and used poison (Simpkins 18). Over the course of twelve to eighteen years, Makandal is said to have poisoned over 6,000 people (largely white owners and plantation overseers) before his operation was discovered and he was sentenced to be executed in 1758. While colonial texts note his death on January 20th, some accounts insist that he was able to escape through supernatural means.

Like many other enslaved people whose stories have been erased, Makandal’s narrative must be pieced together from a wide variety of documents, ranging in genre and chronology. Working with Northeastern alumni Kate Simpkins—whose dissertation focused on Makandal and Lenormand de Mézy—to order and categorize these sources, there were two facets to consider; first, in categorizing these sources, what textual features should be prioritized? And second, how were their sources connected? While these questions are about data categorization and structure, they also deal with the circulation and proliferation of Makandal’s story. As a historic and mythic figure, Makandal’s narrative can be traced in legal documents, letters, pantomimes, periodicals, and even contemporary fiction. Similarly, Makandal can also be traced across the geography of the Atlantic as these stories circulated.

To emphasize the relationship between narrative, geography, and circulation, we decided to follow Susan Gillman and Kirsten Silva Gruesz’s concept of a “text network” that moves beyond normal types of boundaries: “thinking dialectically and translationally about the movements of texts across space, time, and language, such a worlded analysis would map a network of crosshatched, multidirectional influences rather than drawing one-way or even two-way lines” (231). As Gillman and Gruesz explain, a text network is a way to imagine and map such a relationship between genre, geography, and time. To apply this concept to Makandal’s narrative, I used Google My Maps, focusing on the ways that categorization significantly impacts representation.

When considering ways to categorize historical sources, one of the first distinctions is between primary and secondary materials. For this exhibit, primary sources are historical documents about Makandal, including letters from Lenormand de Mézy and the official legal report about Makandal’s execution. Secondary sources include fiction and nonfiction stories published after his death that detail some component of his narrative, everything from periodicals to contemporary novels. To map these sources, I utilized the place of publication, approximating latitude and longitude.1As this project is still largely theoretical, determining geographic location was not triangulated across sources. Mapping historic documents is a time-intensive and important process that, in the future, is a further component of this work worth exploring. When just these two categories of texts are displayed, we can make a few key observations: primary sources about Makandal are focused in Haiti and Canada—two important locations where Lenormand de Mézy was stationed as a naval officer. However, the secondary sources show a degree of transatlantic circulation of Makandal’s story. Without additional information about time and source type, this map raises more questions than it answers: what is the relationship between the place of publication and the circulation of Makanal’s story? Do differences in genre make this relationship more visible?

To explore this question, I sorted each document into further data types, classifying the texts by genres and by how they were archived. While this process could not be perfected—as we have incomplete information for many of these sources—this map shows a different facet to the data. For instance, out of all the data types, the largest category is novels. Makandal has appeared in some form (or inspired characters) in historic and contemporary novels, including different editions of Bug-Jargal (1820) by Victor Hugo and The Kingdom of the World (1949) by Alejo Carpentier. Published in Paris, Bug-Jargal was a popular text and was translated and republished in other places across the world, including London. This map shows one entry for a popular nineteenth-century periodical story about Makandal, “Makandal, Histoire veritable” which was first published in the Mercure de France in 1787; this story, by itself, was translated and reprinted over fifteen times in the next seventy years all across the Atlantic World.2For more information about this text, see “Account of a remarkable Conspiracy formed by a Negro in the Island of St. Domingo” by the Just Teach One Project.

However, “The Kingdom of the World” is one of the only fictional accounts of Makandal that was published in the Caribbean. While the genres of texts in the map can show the reach of Makandal’s narrative in literary history, many of these categories do not account for or show forms of this narrative in Haitian oral history, landmarks, or myths. Apart from the primary sources that directly relate to Makandal’s life in Haiti, this maps reads as a marker of the influence of colonialism on both literary and material history. While the map is organized by geographic place of publication, most of the historic documents still remain in archives in France like the Archives Nationales d’Outre mer.3One of the texts that has been digitized by Archives nationales d’outre mer (ANOM) is “Macandale, chef des noirs révoltés, arrêt de condamnation par le Conseil supérieur du Cap-Français à Saint-Domingue (1758)”, the judicial report about Makandal’s execution. You can view this document here. While the Makandal exhibit will bring together digital versions of these texts in the ECDA, they still remain in libraries and archives in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. The challenge, therefore, is how to utilize a digital platform to begin to bridge some of these gaps and divides.

Regardless of the differences between these maps, this form of geographic visualization highlights the effect of category choice and specificity on digital archiving and curation. What are the gaps in this narrative and what types of sources are missing? This project emphasizes the challenging yet important work of collecting and representing slave narratives, including the multiple methods through which narratives can be published, circulated, and understood. With each new addition and facet of this text network, we are able to better understand Makandal’s historic and cultural legacy. While I learned many exciting things about the affordances of digital platforms for digital storytelling, I am even more excited to follow as this exhibit is built and the legacy of Makandal’s narrative continues.

Featured Image Credit: image capture from “Relation d’une conspiration” from Internet Archive.


Altschuler, Sari and Cristobal Silva. “Early American Disability Studies.” Early American Literature, vol. 52, no. 1, 2017, 1-27. Project Muse, doi: Accessed 19 November 2018.

Carpentier, Alejo. The Kingdom of This World, Macmillan, 2006.

Faherty, Duncan, Ed White, and Toni Wall Jaudon. “Account of a Remarkable Conspiracy (1787).” Just Teach OneCommon-place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, Inc, Spring 2016,

Gillman, Susan and Kirsten Silva Gruesz. “Worlding America: The Hemispheric Text-Network.” A Companion to American Literary Studies, edited by Caroline F. Levander and Robert S. Levine, Blackwell Publishing, 2011, pp 228-247.

Grainger, James, and William Wright. An Essay on the More Common West India Diseases. Edinburgh, 1802.

“Macandale, head of the revolted blacks.” January 20, 1758, Secretariet d’Etat a la Marine – Personnel colonial ancient, Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer

Simpkins, Kate, “The Absent Agronomist and The Lord of Poison: Cultivating Modernity in Transatlantic Literature, 1758-1854”, Northeastern University, 2014.

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