Great black hope

By Jeremy Taylor

Toussaint Louverture: A Biography, by Madison Smartt Bell
Pantheon, ISBN 978-0-375-42337-6, 338 pp

He wasn’t a handsome man. None of his biographers go quite that far. The American writer Madison Smartt Bell says he was short and slight, with a head too large for his body, probably bow-legged, and with the general build of a jockey. But he had the charisma, the vision, the intelligence and energy to lead Haiti’s enslaved Africans to freedom and to the brink of independence (and to father eleven children, only three of whom were born to his legal wife). His contradictions baffled even his friends and followers. A master of the unpredictable, he would appear where he was least expected, moving across mountains and plains with impossible speed. When you thought he was in the north, he turned up in the south. “One never knew what he was doing,” wrote the French general Pamphile de Lacroix, “if he was leaving, if he was staying; where he was going or whence he came.”

The Toussaint Louverture (I follow Bell in using the spelling “Louverture”, instead of the more familiar “L’Ouverture”) who strides through this new biography is a deeply humane man who preferred diplomacy to combat, a libertarian with an instinct for forgiveness and reconciliation. And a man who could be utterly ruthless and merciless. He did not shrink from necessary violence and bloodshed; and he was prepared to impose harsh authority and discipline in defence of freedom.

He is not quite the Toussaint of popular narrative, the humble slave who rouses his people and leads them to freedom and victory. He is a good deal more complicated. He certainly led “the only successful slave revolution in recorded history,” and founded “the only independent black state in the Western Hemisphere ever to be created by former slaves.” In a slightly odd choice of phrase, Bell calls him the “highest-achieving African-American hero of all time.” But there are no happy endings in this story: not for Toussaint, and not for Haiti.

Toussaint Louverture
Nineteenth-century engraving of Toussaint Louverture. Image courtesy El Bibliomata

Toussaint was already in his late forties or early fifties — old age for an enslaved man of that time — when the Haitian revolution of 1791–1804 began in earnest. His father was a “prince” (Bell’s word) of the Arada people of West Africa, who reportedly had a “reddish-yellow skin tone” and were known for their “intelligence and ferocity.” Toussaint himself was no longer a slave: he had been freed fifteen years before. Indeed he had slaves of his own, and substantial land holdings. He was a supervisor, a commandeur, on the Bréda plantation not far from Cap Français (now Cap Haïtien) in northern Haiti, a friend and colleague of its French manager, trusted by its owner.

Toussaint à Bréda drove the estate’s coach, looked after the livestock, and was a skilled veterinarian. He knew something about western medicine. He was at least partially literate, familiar with the stoic Epictetus, and could quote Machiavelli. He turned out to be a prolific correspondent. He was also a Freemason: apparently, even in late-eighteenth-century Haiti, the lodge was not wholly restricted to whites.

In 1791, Haiti, labouring under its colonial name of Saint Domingue, was the richest colony in the Americas. It had more plantations — sugar, cocoa, coffee, indigo, cotton — than all the Anglo-Caribbean islands put together. Its production, trade, and shipping were completely monopolised by France. The system depended on about half a million enslaved Africans doing the hard work: many were recent arrivals, and all were controlled by cruelty and fear. The white planter class (the grands blancs) numbered around forty thousand; the thirty thousand gens de couleur or mulattoes, people of mixed race, were kept on a short leash.

In 1789, revolution erupted in Paris, shocking the colony and its ancien régime. Suddenly the whole wealth-producing system was uncertain. Liberté, égalité, and fraternité had never sounded so threatening to the royalist planters of Saint Domingue. Within two years, a hundred thousand enslaved Africans from plantations all over the fertile northern plain erupted in revolt. They burned the estates, killed their owners, hurled themselves at their enemies in wild onslaughts, often prevailing by numbers alone.

Bell plausibly sees the influence of Toussaint in a strategic shift to more deadly and less costly guerrilla warfare. But Toussaint’s role in this early phase of the revolution is still mysterious. For some weeks after the first upheaval he remained at Bréda as if nothing was going on; the estate itself was left untouched. Was he at the secret meeting of commandeurs at Bois Caïman which laid plans for the uprising? Was he a puppet-master pulling the front men’s strings?

Only in August 1793, after two years of fighting, did Toussaint unmask himself, in a message from the mountains which suggests that he was already the de facto leader of the revolt. It was signed by Toussaint as “General of the armies of the king, for the public good.”

Brothers and Friends, I am Toussaint Louverture; perhaps my name has made itself known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want Liberty and Equality to reign in Saint Domingue. I am working to make that happen. Unite yourselves to us, brothers, and fight with us for the same cause.

Toussaint’s new public role and identity were marked by a new name: Louverture. He chose it himself, and scholars are still disputing what this “opening” meant. Was it due to the French officer who exclaimed that Toussaint, brilliant military opportunist and lateral thinker, could make an “opening” anywhere? Did it have to do with a gap between Toussaint’s front teeth?

Bell flirts with the idea that the “opening” was actually the portal or crossroads between the human world and the spirit world in vodou thought. Toussaint was a Catholic, but always wore the symbolic headscarf, even under his general’s bicorne hat. The daughter of one of his secretaries once described Toussaint’s late-night meditations: he “withdrew into himself, masked his regard. Raising his eyes to heaven, he hid his pupil beneath his thick eyelid, letting nothing show but the white.” Bell comments: “In hypnosis, such eye movement is a symptom of trance. In vodou it is a sign of possession.”

Being Haitian, it would be surprising if Toussaint was not steeped in his country’s central belief system. Bell returns more than once to vodou as the key to understanding Toussaint. His contradictions “are most easily resolved in terms of vodou,” Bell thinks, “where the individual ego can disappear altogether, ceding control of the person and his actions to an angry or gentle spirit.”

Bell traces in detail the years of relentless fighting, as one by one the great European powers try to take over Saint Domingue and the gens de couleur seek to smash African dominance.

Out of the 1791 uprising, this elderly commandeur from Bréda methodically builds an army. For a while, he joins the Spanish across the border. When France abolishes slavery in 1794, he switches sides, accompanied by four thousand men. He beats back Spanish and British forces by a mixture of brilliant fighting and cunning diplomacy.

He becomes governor general of Saint Domingue, and crushes the mulatto uprising in a vicious civil war. He annexes the eastern part of Hispaniola on behalf of France. By 1801 he is virtually unchallenged, and can start reconstructing Saint Domingue and reforming education, the legal system, and the economy.

Viewed from Paris, these events seem more and more alarming, as the spirit of 1789 fades and Napoleon Bonaparte emerges as maximum leader. An ex-slave has taken over precious Saint Domingue. He has humbled one French potentate after another. He sports the uniform of a French general. He enacts his own constitution. He annexes Spanish Santo Domingo against express orders. He makes treaties with Britain and the United States behind France’s back.

Napoleon Bonaparte, first consul of France, is no great lover of liberty for natives. Early in 1802 he sends a formidable invasion force to Saint Domingue, ostensibly to reassert French authority, but in fact to re-establish slavery, decapitate Toussaint’s army, and haul the impertinent general back to France in chains. The fighting is horrendous; the French are appalled by their losses. Toussaint fights the invasion to a standstill. When both sides are exhausted, he accepts a truce and retires to his home and family in the mountains, honour intact.

He is lured out one last time to a meeting with the young French commander Leclerc, Napoleon’s brother-in-law. It is a trap. Despite the truce, Toussaint is arrested, shipped back to France, and thrown into the most secure jail Napoleon can find — the formidable Fort de Joux, high in the Jura mountains near the Swiss border.

There, Toussaint is stripped of his few possessions and identity, and is methodically starved and frozen to death.

The revolution continued without Toussaint, given new resolve by French brutality. Leclerc died of fever and despair.

General Jean-Jacques Dessalines took over from Toussaint, and declared independence on January 1, 1804. He restored Haiti’s proper name, drove out the French, declared himself emperor, and unleashed a new wave of slaughter before being assassinated. Haiti divided into African and mulatto sectors, an ethnic conflict that bedevils the country to this day.

General Henri Christophe declared himself king, and eventually shot himself. The international community of the day threw a cordon sanitaire around Haiti. France imposed massive reparations as the price for “recognition” and to compensate the poor grands blancs for their losses. Haiti did not finish paying until 1922, and never recovered. It sank into a mire of undevelopment. Between 1822 and 1915 only one of its twenty-two presidents finished his term without being overthrown or assassinated.

There followed an American occupation, the Duvaliers, more dictators in military hats, and the “second revolution” of Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Today he is in exile in South Africa while UN peacekeepers patrol the streets of Port-au-Prince.

So Toussaint’s revolution did not last. In that sense it was a failure. But it still has to be measured against his own objectives.

After the first wild phase of revolt, its leaders were ready to settle for improved working conditions. The grands blancs, like the idiots they were, rejected this astonishing concession. Toussaint then began to develop more radical goals.

Above all, he was determined to wipe out slavery in Saint Domingue for ever. Second, he envisaged a free society, a multiracial commonwealth, in which the skills of the grands blancs and the gens de couleur would combine with voluntary paid labour to recover and sustain prosperity. Bell says:

He [Toussaint] would manage Saint Domingue so as to prove to the whole European world that slavery was not necessary to the success of the plantation economy, that sugar and coffee production could be revived, and the Jewel of the Antilles restored to its former luster — with free labour.

And Toussaint wanted to accomplish all this within the context of Frenchness: the people of Saint Domingue, regardless of race or colour, would be French citizens, entitled to equality and liberty and the full protection of the law.

On the first count, emancipation, Toussaint was successful. Haitians had freed themselves and were ready to defend their liberty. But paid voluntary labour was another matter. To many, that felt like a return to slavery, especially when Toussaint tried to enforce it.

Freed Africans preferred subsistence farming to plantation labour, and were suspicious of Toussaint’s concessions to the whites. What use was freedom if you were still forced to work, and former owners were still part of the new system? Toussaint argued that you cannot create wealth without labour and without know-how. Dessalines had a more cynical approach: “Blacks don’t know how to work unless they are forced.”

But Toussaint’s great mistake was to put his trust in France and in Frenchness. He did not call for independence, which would have rallied the doubters (but antagonised Paris). The French system was all he knew. Revolutionary France had abolished slavery, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen guaranteed all the prerogatives of French citizenship. That was enough. Even during Napoleon’s invasion, Toussaint believed he was fighting Leclerc, not France.

Toussaint could not believe that France was prepared to re-establish the old régime by force. He could not believe that the ringing declarations of 1789 really applied only to whites. He could not believe that France would betray him, wreck Saint Domingue all over again, reimpose slavery, and treat him like a common criminal.

For a man who had read and profited from Machiavelli, this was a disastrous innocence.

During his own final exile on St Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte gave much thought to Toussaint Louverture. He understood that he had made the wrong choice in 1801. He could have worked with Toussaint and used him — made him governor general, validated his reforms, confirmed his generals in office. He could have turned the former slaves into leaseholders paying rent to landowners, and maintained the French monopoly. That was his instinct. By co-opting Toussaint’s army of twenty-five or thirty thousand, a force “sufficient to make all America tremble”, he could have launched his New World empire. What might he not have done “in Jamaica, the Antilles, Canada, the United States even, and the Spanish colonies?”

But instead, he chose to invade Saint Domingue.

Perhaps his new wife Josephine, who came from the planter class of Martinique, whispered in the great man’s ear. Perhaps Napoleon was blinded by hatred of Toussaint, that “gilded African” who had been hailed as a “black Spartacus”. Perhaps Napoleon hated Toussaint because a black man had stolen Saint Domingue.

Toussaint came to that conclusion. From the Fort de Joux he sent letter after letter to Napoleon asking for his day in court, for the treatment due to a senior French army officer. Eventually he ran out of other explanations. “No doubt,” he wrote, “I owe this treatment to my colour”. Bell comments: “With that, Toussaint had struck to the heart of the matter.”

Toussaint’s colleagues knew it instinctively. Early in the revolution, Jean-François Papillon had written caustically to General Laveaux: “Equality, Liberty &c &c &c . . . I will only believe in all that when I see that Monsieur Laveaux and other French gentlemen of his quality give their daughters in marriage to blacks. Then I will be able to believe in this pretended equality.” And Laveaux was an ally and friend.

Today, Haiti is the most miserably poor country in the hemisphere, high on the list of failed states.

Napoleon, after his disastrous expedition to Saint Domingue, gave up his dream of a French empire in the Americas. He sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States at the knock-down price of three cents an acre, thus doubling the size and potential of that future great power.

The story of Toussaint’s revolution rippled out into the wider world. It emboldened slaves in other countries, spread alarm in slave-holding states, and deepened American disputes which would only be settled by civil war.

Bell doesn’t linger over these outcomes. His biography tends to get bogged down in the details of Toussaint’s campaigns, and thus requires a slow, concentrated reading. This is unsurprising: Bell has been immersed in Haiti and the revolution for more than a decade, and is deep in the details. He has already fleshed out the main narrative and themes in three novels published between 1995 and 2004 (All Souls’ Rising, Master of the Crossroads, The Stone That the Builders Refused).

For this biography, he has been back to many of the primary sources. He carefully demonstrates the interaction between the Haitian and French revolutions. Determined to be neither prosecutor nor defence counsel, he is cautious and even-handed, weighing the evidence, rarely venturing a personal opinion. He has collected enough anecdotal material to give a sense of Toussaint the man, despite the huge blanks in the historical record, and a subject who “left next to no visible tracks at all”.

With all respect to Bell, it’s a shame that this new biography did not come from a Caribbean scholar. For nearly seventy years, C.L.R. James’s compelling Black Jacobins (1938) has been the standard biography: it stands up remarkably well despite all the later research (Bell rather impolitely refers to the great man in passing as “a historian from Trinidad”). Wenda Parkinson, wife of the late British photographer Norman Parkinson, wrote a very readable biography of Toussaint, “This Gilded African” (1978). Bell’s version, with its “African-American” hero, is likely to become the standard account now. I’m trying to remember the last time such a solid biography emerged from the Caribbean itself.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2007

Jeremy Taylor was born and grew up in the United Kingdom, but has been based in Trinidad for over thirty years. He has been a writer, editor, broadcaster, and publisher since 1975. Many of his essays, columns, and reviews are collected in Going to Ground (1994).