Toussaint Louverture was born a slave in the thriving French colony of Saint-Domingue. In the early 1790s, he took part in a massive uprising that demolished slavery in the colony. He became the revolution’s greatest military and political leader, consolidating the freedom it had won and
laying the foundation for the creation of Haiti in 1804. Given this, you might imagine that Louverture would have a proper tomb. Or that we know what he looked like, and can agree on how to spell his name.
But after dying in a cold prison in the Jura Mountains in 1803, he was thrown into a nearby unmarked grave. No one knows where his bones are. Although there are a few images of him probably drawn from life, many others are the pure product of imagination. While he signed his name “Louverture,” it is typically spelled “L’Ouverture.” Many writers refer to him as “Toussaint.” This makes sense, given that he took on the name “Louverture” only late in life. But even though his nemesis, Napoleon, gets the same treatment, it’s still a bit jarring–imagine historians of the American Revolution writing about George and Thomas.
Louverture does have his monuments. An urn with dirt from the graveyard where he was buried sits in the Muse du Panthon in Port-au-Prince, and there is a statue of him across from the National Palace. In 2001 President Jean-Bertrand Aristide built a monument commemorating Louverture’s 1801 Constitution. After being expelled from the country in 2004 Aristide quoted the famous statement Louverture made when he was deported two centuries earlier: “In overthrowing me, they have uprooted the trunk of the liberty of the blacks; it will grow back because its roots are many and deep.” Aristide then rephrased the quote to cast himself as a descendant of Louverture: “I declare in overthrowing me they have uprooted the trunk of the tree of peace, but it will grow back because the roots are Louverturian.”
Haitian leaders are not the only ones who have claimed Louverture as a founder. When, in 1998, the French government commemorated the (final) abolition of slavery in the French colonies in 1848, Louverture’s name was inscribed in a wall in the Panthon, the temple of French national heroes. The gesture, urged by Caribbean activists in France, was an attempt to repudiate the actions of Bonaparte, who had Louverture imprisoned, and to argue that in his struggle against France Louverture embodied the Republic’s true values. But can Louverture be a hero for France and Haiti at the same time?
In his acclaimed trilogy of novels about the Haitian Revolution–All Souls’ Rising, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That the Builder Refused–Madison Smartt Bell presented a riveting portrait of Louverture. The novels are deeply grounded in the historical sources of the period, no small feat given how extensive and often contradictory they are. But still hungry for the history of the Haitian Revolution–it has a way of grabbing you and holding on–Bell has now produced an excellent biography of Toussaint Louverture. For fans of the novels eager to read more, or for those daunted by the 2,000 pages of the trilogy, Toussaint Louverture provides a readable and engaging narrative, one likely to become the standard biography in English about this remarkable figure. (Full disclosure: I am thanked in the book’s acknowledgments.)