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While in exile on the island of Saint Helena, the fallen French Emperor Napoleon I said of Toussaint Louverture: “It was Josephine who made me do it. It was the greatest mistake I ever made as governor; I should have struck a deal with him and named him viceroy of Saint-Domingue.”
This retrospective tribute to the man Bonaparte deported to Fort de Joux (in the Doubs department in France), where he died, is especially significant given that before deciding to lead an expedition against Saint-Domingue in 1801, Bonaparte, serving as first consul, said the following: “If I had been at Martinique, I would have been for the English, because above all else one has to think of one’s own life. I am for the whites because I am white. This is reason enough. How could Frenchmen dream of granting freedom to Africans, to men who had no civilisation, who did not even know what a colony was, what a mother-country was? Does anyone believe that if the majority of the Convention had known what they were doing, and known the colonies, they would have given freedom to the blacks? No, undoubtedly.”
Beyond provoking this tremendous shift in an emperor adverse to self-criticism, the “Black Spartacus” influenced important historical figures the world over: Fidel Castro during the Cuban Revolution, civil rights movement activists in the United States and anti-colonial fighters. Toussaint was also celebrated by the French champion of négritude, Aimé Césaire. But who was Toussaint – at once the leader behind Saint-Domingue’s antislavery movement and an enduring source of fascination through the centuries – really?
The British historian Sudhir Hazareesingh gives substance to the myth of Toussaint in this in-depth, engaging biography. A professor of international relations at Oxford University, Hazareesingh has written other works on great French figures such as Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle. He explains his affinity for this cast of characters as follows: “I was born in Mauritius, a former French colony, and lived there during my teenage years, until 1980. French culture and intellectual life mattered a lot and still do to this day. I was exposed to writers like Le Clézio and Ananda Devi. My father, Kissoonsingh Hazareesingh, was a historian and a friend of Malraux and Senghor, so French culture was a family legacy.”
Painting a coherent picture
This family legacy had an indelible influence on the author’s interests: “I had always been interested in the revolutionary and republican tradition. Napoleon was a product of this tradition, even though he abandoned most of it later on, when he re-established slavery and built an empire. It’s not the great men in and of themselves that I’m interested in, but the ideas and values they embodied, which were then appropriated by everyday people. I had always wanted to further study the major internationalist movements of the post-colonial era, which is exactly what I’ve done in my biography on Toussaint.”
But he encountered an obstacle along the way. “The greatest challenge facing the historian of Toussaint’s pre-revolutionary life is painting a coherent picture of his political values. No record has been found reliably connecting him to any particular event, group or sensibility before 1791, and much of what he himself later declared was clearly intended to be consistent with his position as an eminent French revolutionary leader,” the author tells us.
The story behind ‘Louverture’ (‘opening’ in French), the name he gave himself in 1793, is a matter of debate.
Piecing back together the life of a man known for his secretiveness is a tall order. Toussaint Bréda, so named after the sugar estate on which he was born, strived throughout his life to spread conflicting information. It was a survival strategy on an island where foreign enemies and internal rivalries were rampant. It also stirred up suspicions as to Toussaint’s true intentions. He was talented at doublespeak and easily outmanoeuvred his opponents.
The story behind “Louverture” (“opening” in French), the name he gave himself in 1793, is “a matter of debate”: “There are suggestions that French officials first used the term to describe Toussaint’s talent for conciliation, or, conversely, his astonishing capacity to snatch territories from their control.”
Toussaint seemed destined from the outset to have an exceptional life. As a teenager, he fought a young white man two years his senior. A few years down the line, his unparalleled skills as a horseman helped him get a job as a coachman for a plantation. During that stint, he stood up to the owner. Such behaviour was punishable by death under the Code Noir (Black Code), a decree which defined the conditions of slavery. He would go on to demonstrate his prowess on the battlefield. Often outnumbered in the face of better equipped armies, he made up for the difference by way of “his capacity for creative adaptation”, which allowed him to become a master strategist.
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He was inhabited by a political vision – that of a fervent republican – and was wholly committed to the ideal of fraternity. Before he could turn his vision into reality, he had to fight for Spain, which declared war against France after the execution of Louis XVI in 1793. He once proclaimed with much panache: “I am Toussaint Louverture, you have perhaps heard my name. You are aware, brothers, that I have undertaken vengeance, and that I want freedom and equality to reign in Saint-Domingue.”
More than just words, it was a true mission statement, one that he applied on the battlefield, where he was reluctant to exact gratuitous acts of cruelty and where he severely punished his troops, made up of white, black and mixed-race soldiers, for acts of looting. He wasn’t hostile to whites in the way that other leaders, including Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the first ruler of an independent Haiti in 1804, were. For Toussaint, “integrity and competence were more important considerations than ideology or race”.
During these years of constant warfare, Toussaint was overactive, slept little and could travel incredible distances at top speed to reach the battlefield, nearly dying in the process and dictating letters by the shovelful.
His graphomania has proved to be a treasure trove for the historian: “I’ve made full use of Toussaint’s archives, including his letters, reports and speeches. My book’s greatest contribution is that it gives him a voice again by analysing his way of thinking, listing his favourite expressions and recognising his sense of humour and strength. Archival documents also reveal new and important things about his actions and ideas, especially his military strategy, his system of local government, his relations with French envoys, his foreign policy and his constitutional thought. I think I have also shed light on Toussaint’s role in the 1791 revolution, a topic which had divided historians until now.”
Hazareesingh’s book thus challenges “standard French accounts of the Haitian Revolution [and] abolitionism”, which “typically portrayed [these events] as a product of the ‘stimulating winds’ of the French Revolution”. With evidence in hand, he shows the central role the rebellion played, achieving rights through bloodshed. He also suggests that, from the outset, Toussaint was an ardent supporter of the abolition cause, whereas some historians considered him to be undecided due to his “privileged” status at the Bréda plantation.
In the 1792 ‘Lettre originale des chefs nègres révoltés’, signed by Jean-François, Biassou and Belair, the historian sees Toussaint’s hidden hand: “The Lettre’s explicit appeal to the ideal of a community of equals was the first glimpse of the later Louverturian vision of a multiracial Saint-Domingue.” This leads the author to say, “His thinking was ahead of that of his entourage and contemporaries: his conception of fraternity was much more radical than the French Revolution’s because it fully incorporated racial equality. And his vision of colonial autonomy wouldn’t be grasped by France until the mid-20th century.”
If his political efforts are so hard to interpret, it’s because he had to take a roundabout route to impose them. Upending alliances and even betraying military secrets at times, his strategy primarily served to further what he believed to be Saint-Domingue’s supreme interests: “He would ruthlessly pursue the ideal of a Saint-Domingue which remained an integral part of the French Republic but which also had the freedom to pursue its specific interests – even if these flew in the face of France’s diplomatic alignments and political goals.”
He believed he was still defending “his country”, as he called Saint-Domingue, when he proclaimed the 1801 constitution. Even though Toussaint had reaffirmed his attachment to the French Republic, Napoleon viewed the move as a provocation and sent his brother-in-law, General Leclerc, to the island to command an army of 20,000 troops.
Drift towards authoritarianism
A feeling of omnipotence led Toussaint to not only cross the line in this instance, but also to drift towards authoritarianism at the end of his life. Banning voodoo worship, he went as far as prohibiting divorce and requiring military members to ask him permission before getting married. The most cruel manifestation of this shift was that more planters were fleeing the plantations in 1800 than in 1791, before slavery was abolished, because of the ill-treatment they were experiencing. According to Toussaint, “this class of men must be compelled, even against its will, to play a socially useful role”. Obsessed by the economic recovery, he ended up alienating the population.
Hazareesingh explains this position, but doesn’t excuse it: “In 1800 and 1801, he was under intense pressure: the sedition of the rebel General Rigaud, his nephew Moyse’s attempted coup, the re-emergence of a powerful colonial lobby in France and persistent demands for the return of slavery left Toussaint with no choice but to take a forceful approach to governing and to incite planters to produce to keep the revolution alive. That doesn’t excuse his authoritarian spiral but, once again, you have to look at his action in context.”
Flying in the face of history, Toussaint’s trajectory is sometimes compared to that of his great enemy, Napoleon, who had him captured during a truce. Separated from his family, never to see them again, and betrayed by his generals, including Dessalines, he died at Fort de Joux.
The author ends with a discussion on the removal of statues, a subject that wasn’t yet topical in France at the time of the book’s writing: “In general, I’m not for the removal of statues: it’s better to actually educate people about them. Napoleon was a great man, but he also committed atrocious crimes, chiefly the re-establishment of slavery. You can’t put a genius like Bonaparte on the same level as Rochambeau [Leclerc’s successor who commanded the invading forces in Saint-Domingue], who was nothing more than a war criminal. Local authorities need to work with citizens to make these kinds of decisions. And I am obviously for the erection of monuments [honouring] the heroes who fought to dismantle colonialism.”
In fact, statues of Toussaint have been erected in France and he was even laid to rest in the Panthéon in 1998. This colourful biography pays tribute to a republican who died for his ideals and revealed the Enlightenment principles of liberty, equality and fraternity to a motherland that wasn’t very grateful for it.
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