Haiti’s Jacobin

Haiti’s Jacobin

A new biography explores the mysterious life and times of Toussaint Louverture.


Historians generally try not to favor the rich and powerful, but their efforts are all too often frustrated by the ways that inequality can structure the historical record, relegating the poor and weak to the shadows. Compare, for instance, what we know about the founding fathers of the first two independent states in the Western Hemisphere. The men who led the American colonies to independence were, for the most part, wealthy and highly literate, and they left voluminous paper trails. Well-­funded teams of dedicated scholars, working for decades in state-of-the-art research libraries, have since then lovingly collected, cataloged, and published this material. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, for example, began appearing in 1950. It now runs to some 54 volumes, each averaging well over 600 pages—and the editors are still at work.

In contrast, the founding fathers of Haiti, the hemisphere’s second postcolonial state, were mostly born into slavery, and some remained illiterate all their lives. The turmoil of the country’s founding between 1791 and 1804 destroyed many written records and left the remainder scattered across the Atlantic world. Subsequently, poverty, political upheavals, and natural disasters have tragically limited what scholars can accomplish and have made anything resembling a Haitian version of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson an utter fantasy. For most of the country’s existence, historians in Europe and America took little notice of it. As a result, students of the figures who led Haiti to independence still find it difficult to answer some of the most basic questions about their subjects.

Toussaint Louverture was the most important of these Haitian founding fathers. In 1791, in the midst of disruption caused by the French Revolution, a massive slave revolt took place in what was then the French Caribbean colony called Saint-Domingue. Within a few years, Louverture emerged as its principal leader, fighting for the emancipation and rights of the enslaved blacks who represented close to 90 percent of the population. In a chaotic conflict involving Britain and Spain as well as shifting local forces, Louverture eventually allied with agents of France’s radical First Republic, who abolished slavery in the colony in 1793 in the hope of winning over the black masses.

Between 1794 and 1801, Louverture showed himself to be a deft politician and an exceptionally inspiring military leader, rising to supreme command of French forces in Saint-Domingue, and eventually becoming its governor-general. In 1800, shortly after Napoleon Bonaparte seized power back in the metropole, Louverture asserted Saint-Domingue’s autonomy. In response, Napoleon dispatched an expedition led by his own brother-in-law to recover the colony. It defeated Louverture, captured him, and sent him to France as a prisoner. Louverture’s successors eventually overcame the French forces, thanks in large part to an epidemic of yellow fever that decimated unaccli­mated white soldiers, and on the first day of 1804, the new state of Haiti was proclaimed. Louverture himself had died eight months before, in a cold, miserable prison in the Jura Mountains near the Swiss border.

Louverture’s achievements, and the sheer drama of his life, match anything seen in the Atlantic world during the age of revolutions. His career was all the more impressive because he looked small and frail—before the revolution he had the nickname “Sickly Stick”—and in 1791 was already elderly by the standards of Caribbean slave societies, being nearly 50. He has always had a mixed reputation in Haiti, because while he brought the country to the brink of independence, he never broke fully with France, and during his rule he subjected many former slaves to a form of near-serfdom in an attempt to repair a plantation economy that had generated enormous wealth before the revolution. African Americans, though, have long hailed him as model and inspiration—Frederick Douglass was a particular admirer—and there is no question he deserves to be better known.

But the gaps in what the historical record tells us about Louverture are immense and frustrate scholars’ efforts. We are not sure about the year of his birth (it was probably 1743), and have no evidence to support his son’s claim that he descended from African kings. It was only in the 1970s that historians discovered that he had won his freedom at least 15 years before the 1791 revolt and had subsequently tried to start a plantation of his own, complete with slave labor. His later career is better documented, but for information about his motivations, ideas, and character, biographers have had to rely heavily on the writings of often prejudiced, unreliable, and hostile French officials and travelers. Frustratingly, we do not even know for sure what role Louverture played in the 1791 slave revolt. Some contemporaries identify him as its mastermind, but the evidence is fragmentary, unreliable, and often contradictory. Here, as with much else about Louverture’s life, we are faced with a mystery.

* * *

Many writers have tried their hand at telling Louverture’s story, but the lack of source material has sometimes led to rather strange results. One of the earliest biographies, written in German and published in Bavaria in 1802, gave Louverture an African birthplace, described a torrid affair with a white plantation owner, and told the dramatic tale of his escape from slavery. It was all pure fiction.

Since then, more scrupulous biographers, while sometimes accomplishing impressive feats of detection, have still needed to fall back on a large measure of speculation and inference. Not surprisingly, they have also generally found it hard to resist favoring the sources that support their own particular arguments, while dismissing others as unreliable. All historians suffer from this temptation, of course, but in Louverture’s case the nature of the sources makes it particularly easy to succumb, leaving the man looking strikingly different from one biography to the next.

For the great Caribbean Marxist writer C.L.R. James, writing in 1938, Louverture was a heroic, if tragically flawed, independence fighter: He was, in other words, a model for 20th-century anticolonial activists. Fifty years later, the French diplomat Pierre Pluchon characterized Louverture as a man of the old regime, intent above all on acquiring land and money. The most recent English-language biography, by the novelist Madison Smartt Bell, who also wrote a marvelous fictional trilogy about the Haitian Revolution, did more than previous authors to emphasize Louverture’s African roots. He suggested that the apparent contradictions in the Haitian leader’s personality could be best understood by what vodun teaches about the way different spirits can possess a single person.

* * *

Philippe Girard, author of the newest biography, has a different point of view. A white native of Guadeloupe (which forms part of France loosely comparably to the way Hawaii forms part of the United States), Girard now teaches in Louisiana and has devoted his career to writing Haitian history, including a long monograph on Louverture and Haiti’s war of independence from 1801 to 1804, published in 2011 as The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon. But Girard has also courted controversy, suggesting in this previous book that the revolutionaries themselves bear much of the blame for Haiti’s subsequent misfortunes, and that the country would have fared better without them.

True, black Guadeloupeans, with their French citizenship, today enjoy a much higher standard of living and greater political stability than many Haitians, but there are many ways to play the game of historical “what if?” and it’s misleading to privilege just one possible outcome. There are many scenarios under which an independent Haiti might have flourished. What if Bonaparte had not tried to reassert control over the colony? Or what if France, when it finally recognized Haitian independence in 1825, had not imposed ruinous reparations on the country (to compensate white colonists for their lost property, including human property)? Indeed, what if France had itself paid reparations to the men and women whom it had subjected, before 1791, to one of the cruelest systems of slave labor ever seen on the planet?

Girard doesn’t repeat his thought experiment in his new book, which is to his credit, but the hypothetical still clearly shapes his thinking, and he still takes a decidedly critical view of the revolutionaries, starting with Louverture. He shows the greatest sympathy for Louverture when recounting the man’s service as a loyal French officer. Elsewhere, he is considerably more critical. Indeed, at points he comes close to blaming Louverture, and his moves toward independence from France, for some of the most tragic aspects of Haiti’s subsequent history.

* * *

Girard has certainly come to his task well prepared. He knows the scattered, difficult sources well, citing documents from several dozen archives across five countries. The book draws on the most recent scholarship, including fascinating new revelations about its protagonist’s family life. Scholars always knew of Louverture’s wife Suzanne, whom he married as a freedman, and their children, but only recently have they found out about an earlier family from his time as a slave, including a daughter who bore a mixed-race child—possibly her master’s.

Girard also provides a fine analysis of the long, self-justifying report that Louverture composed for Bonaparte while in prison, which often goes by the misleading name of “Memoir” and which mostly defends his conduct while in power. Girard himself has published a useful English translation of this document and agrees with the scholarly consensus that although Louverture never learned proper spelling, he was fully literate by the time he came to power and could speak an elegant literary French, in addition to Creole and his African parents’ native Fon language. In fact, Girard persuasively stresses Louverture’s embrace of French culture, although he goes too far when he quotes, uncritically, an unreliable secondhand account in which Louverture supposedly claimed, “I have the soul of a white.”

When confronting the gaps in the record, Girard mostly resorts, like his predecessors, to speculation. Again and again, he describes how Louverture “perhaps” acted or felt, and how events “could have” or “might have” taken place. When he feels more confident, he writes of how things “most likely” took place, or how they “must have been.” One sympathizes. Thanks to the state of the sources, one must, by necessity, write in the conditional mood when narrating many of the important moments in Louverture’s life.

Unfortunately, this caution largely de­serts Girard when it comes to the question of Toussaint’s role in the 1791 slave revolt. Girard himself wrote three years ago, in a Haitian newspaper, that “the role Louverture played in the revolt of 1791 is still a mystery…. We still know nothing definitively, as the sources are contradictory.” In his new book, without adducing new evidence, he calls Louverture the revolt’s “mastermind.” To be fair, in this instance, he adds the qualifier “apparently,” but elsewhere states unequivocally that Louverture “launched” the revolt and accepts the plausible but unproven idea, based on very thin source material, that it began with a white conspiracy gone wrong. (Supposedly, conservative planters enlisted Louverture, a trusted former slave, to start a small uprising so as to panic the white population and thwart the progress of revolutionary radicalism in Saint-Domingue.) Girard further speculates that Louverture hid his own involvement for a time, so as to protect his family and possibly to allow more physically prepossessing comrades to take the leading roles. Scholars have the right to change their minds, but I see little justification for Girard’s newfound certainty.

* * *

There are moments in this new biography in which Girard expresses admiration for his subject. He acknowledges Louverture’s “extraordinary” qualities and achievements and his genuine abolitionist principles, and perhaps unsurprisingly, particularly appreciates his service as a French general. In a chapter titled “French Patriot,” he praises Louverture’s efforts to reconcile freed slaves with their former colonial overlords. “The black population of Saint-Domingue saw close bonds with the former country as an asset,” Girard explains, “and welcomed the colony’s ascension to département”—the status possessed by Guadeloupe today. But overall, the book does more to stress Louverture’s flaws than his strengths, casting him as a frequently “deceitful” opportunist, who readily betrayed his principles and his allies in pursuit of wealth and power.

Girard puts particular emphasis on the fact that, early on, Louverture and his fellow leaders offered to end their rebellion in exchange for freedom for their families alone (“It was neither the first nor the last time that Saint-Domingue’s laboring masses were betrayed by their elites”). Later, he highlights an episode in which Louverture, eager for British aid, first seemed to support but then deliberately betrayed a plot by a young Jewish merchant named Isaac Sasportas to start a slave rebellion in the British colony of Jamaica. Sasportas died on a British gallows—and the rebellion went nowhere.

Girard invokes the name of Machia­velli, and confidently states—based on paltry evidence—­that Louverture publicly berated a subordinate for carrying out a massacre that he himself had ordered, a move straight out of The Prince. In contrast to recent historians who have argued that the Haitian revolutionaries fashioned a creed of universal liberation and deserve to be seen as participants in the Enlightenment who extended its scope and purpose, Girard insists that “enlightened dictatorship was [Louverture’s] model, not the Enlightenment.” Indeed, he goes on to write that Louverture’s rule amounted to “a de facto military dictatorship, foreshadowing the political culture of postindependence Haiti.” He stresses Louverture’s egotism and acquisitiveness, suggesting that the properties he had collected by 1801 could have made him “the richest man in the Americas.”

* * *

Most serious students of Louverture’s life, including C.L.R. James, have acknowledged the man’s weaknesses. They have criticized the foolhardiness that led him to challenge Bonaparte as boldly as he did, and condemned the constraints he imposed on the freed slaves in his attempt to restart the plantation economy. But Girard’s interpretation is harsher. While trying to maintain a distanced position, he ultimately judges Louverture to be a “political shape-shifter” who took on many roles, including that of revolutionary liberator, but whose loyalty lay above all with himself and his family.

The interpretation is not only ungenerous, but seriously overestimates the extent to which Louverture actually controlled events. He was by any account an extraordinarily talented man, but it is worth remembering what Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace: “The historians provided cunningly devised proofs of the foresight and genius of the generals, who of all the blind instruments of history were the most enslaved and involuntary.”

Rarely have the instruments of history been as blind as in the bewildering chaos into which the Haitian Revolution frequently descended. After 1791, regardless of the role he played in triggering the revolt, Louverture had to compete with several other leaders for control of the disorganized forces in which former slaves born in different parts of Africa, speaking different languages, and drawing on different military traditions may well have outnumbered the native-born. At various times, he found himself fighting regular troops from France, Spain, and Britain, not to mention white French colonists and powerful groups of mixed-race rivals who controlled much of Saint-Domingue. He feared assassination attempts—with some justification—and worried endlessly about two of his sons whom he had sent to be educated in France. During the revolution, the colony’s principal city at the time, Le Cap Français (now Le Cap Haïtien), burned to the ground twice. When Louverture became Saint-Domingue’s leader, he had to deal not only with the threats of external attack and civil war, but also with a ruined plantation economy.

Did he ever feel in control of events? What Girard interprets as cunning political shape-shifting was more likely a series of often-desperate improvisations in the face of wildly shifting circumstances. Yes, Louverture took advantage of these circumstances when he could to enrich himself and to surround himself with the gaudy trappings of power. Yes, he was no democrat, and by 1801 had developed distinct authoritarian tendencies. The new Constitution he devised for the colony that year proclaimed him governor for life and imposed no restraints on his power. But even these choices derived, in part, from the need to unify a bloodily fragmented and unstable country. And while they deserve censure, they also need to be weighed in the balance against the enormous fact that Louverture, fighting incredible odds, did more than anyone else to lead a people out of slavery and to found a new, free nation.

* * *

In the final line of the book, returning to a position of ambivalence, Girard does acknowledge this point, with a rhetorical flourish: “He was, in the end, a citizen of both Haiti and France—and of every other nation that has fought and continues to fight for the liberty of man.” But the book undermines this praise with its emphasis on Louverture’s opportunism—and also, especially, with a caustic epilogue in which Girard again connects Louverture’s rule to the political pathologies of postindependence Haiti: its numerous coups d’état, dictatorships, and bouts of civic strife.

Remarkably, Girard makes no mention in this epilogue of the ruinous reparations Haiti paid to France, of the numerous military threats the country faced, or of the American occupation that began under Woodrow Wilson and lasted until 1934. Some elements of Louverture’s rule cer­tainly foreshadowed Haiti’s subsequent history, but does this mean that Louverture himself bore responsibility for what followed? Or does it mean that both he and his successors confronted the same implacable challenges of leading an impoverished and embattled black nation in an Atlantic world dominated by powerful imperial states, whose white elites had long had little but scorn for its people? We should not forget that until quite recently, in much of the Western world, and in particular in much of the United States, the Haitian Revolution was synonymous not with liberation from slavery, but with the massacre of white colonists by supposedly “bloodthirsty” blacks.

Will there ever be a truly authoritative biography of Toussaint Louverture? Unfortunately, the answer is probably no. Girard’s is certainly the most up-to-date scholarly treatment and provides a useful guide to the Haitian Revolution’s fearsome complexities, but ultimately his ungenerous portrait of Louverture is simply not convincing. Madison Smartt Bell’s more sensitive, sympathetic, and beautifully written, if less scholarly, 2007 study offers a good alternative. But as for a work that resolves the many mysteries that still surround the life of this great revolutionary, its appearance is likely precluded by the very same turmoil, poverty, and prejudice that beset the Haitian nation from the start. These misfortunes have not only blighted Haitians’ hope for a better future, they have significantly cut them—and us—off from their past.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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