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.