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The Originality of Toussaint Louverture
Toussaint Louverture was an emancipated black slave who became the emblematic figure of the Haitian Revolution. Lasting a decade and a half, this momentous process of social and political change began in 1789, in the aftermath of the fall of the Bastille in France, with demands for self-government and equal rights for free people of colour in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue. The revolution then took a radical turn with the launching of a massive slave revolt in August 1791, which led to the abolition of slavery by the colony’s republican authorities in 1793, and their recognition that the black population shared the same social and political rights as white and mixed-race citizens. As Toussaint put it in one of his early proclamations: ‘freedom is a right given by Nature’.1
These events, and the subsequent course of the Haitian Revolution, are narrated in this book.2 The revolution in Saint-Domingue was part of a wider series of transformations in the late-eighteenth-century Atlantic world, which were reflected in growing challenges to monarchical and imperial rule, the emergence of the principle of popular sovereignty and the advent of the American and French republics.3 Toussaint’s rise perfectly symbolized the broader characteristics of this age of revolution: its global nature (his parents were African-born slaves who were forcibly transported to Saint-Domingue); its defiant martialism (he rose through the ranks to become a French general); its unsettling of existing social hierarchies (he went from being a slave herdsman to assuming the governorship of Saint-Domingue); its shaping by European ideals (he was brought up in the Catholic faith, and in sincere admiration of the French grande nation); its immersion in Enlightenment culture (he championed administrative and economic reforms, and profoundly believed in the power of scientific ideas); and its dedication to building a better society, and even a better species of humankind. In Toussaint’s words: ‘reason and education will spread across our regenerated soil; once crushed under a yoke of enslavement which was as odious as it was degrading, man will elevate himself on the wings of liberty’.4
At the same time, Toussaint epitomized the uniqueness of Saint-Domingue’s revolution. It was the age’s most comprehensive example of radical change, combining democratic and republican goals with an emphasis on racial equality, and became a just war of national liberation which foreshadowed the anti-colonial struggles of the modern era. Saint-Domingue was also exceptional in that the driving forces of its revolution were not white bourgeois liberals but black slaves, who were partly revolting against slave-owning supporters of the French Revolution, such as the merchants of Bordeaux and Nantes. It was a revolution, too, which forced French leaders locally and in Paris to face up to the issue of slavery and proclaim its general abolition in 1794. This revolution wiped out the colony’s old ruling class, pioneered guerilla warfare and successfully confronted the military might of European imperialism. It shook the Enlightenment’s belief in the inherent superiority of all things European – its primary agents drew on native American forms of spirituality and African political cultures, and embodied the mutinous spirit of the African American rebels who disrupted colonial authority across the black Atlantic in the late eighteenth century.5
In short, Toussaint embodied the many facets of Saint-Domingue’s revolution by confronting the dominant forces of his age – slavery, settler colonialism, imperial domination, racial hierarchy and European cultural supremacy – and bending them to his will. Through his dynamism he acquired some striking epithets. His republican friends hailed him as the ‘Black Spartacus’, the modern incarnation of the legendary gladiator who led his fellow slaves against the Roman Republic; his miraculous appearance in Saint-Domingue had, in the words of one of his admirers, ‘transformed the chaos of destruction into the seeds of new life’.6 He was also described as the father of the blacks, the black son of the French Revolution, the black George Washington, the Bonaparte of the Caribbean, the African hero, the Hannibal of Saint-Domingue and the centaur of the savannah (a tribute to his horsemanship; his white steed Bel Argent was integral to his myth). By the early nineteenth century, Philadelphia’s newspapers were referring to him as ‘the celebrated African chief’.7 Even liberal opinion in England was moved by the sight of such an uncommon hero: an article in the London Gazette in 1798 hailed Toussaint as a ‘Negro King’, a proud representative of the ‘Black race whom the Christian world to their infamy have been accustomed to degrade’.8 In 1802 the London Annual Register described him as ‘the major public figure of the year, and a great man’.9
Toussaint also thrived in the collective imagination of the nineteenth century. It has been suggested that the revolutionary events in Saint-Domingue directly inspired Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, in which the slave eventually transcends his alienation and achieves self-consciousness.10 Precisely because of his subversive potential, his leadership caused panic among slave-owners across the Atlantic. In 1799 Thomas Jefferson denounced Toussaint and his revolutionary comrades as ‘cannibals of the terrible Republic’, warning that their ‘missionaries’ could provoke a ‘combustion’ in America,11 while in 1801 the British War Secretary, Lord Hobart, shuddered at the thought of the ‘power of a Black Empire under Toussaint’.12 From London and Paris through Virginia and Louisiana to Jamaica, Cuba, Brazil and Venezuela, planters and merchants echoed these alarms and lambasted the man they saw as the ‘Robespierre of Saint-Domingue’. Simon Taylor, the wealthiest sugar baron in Jamaica, ‘tossed and turned in his luxurious bed linen, suffering repeated bouts of fever’ as he imagined Toussaint and his revolutionaries arriving on his plantation and slitting his throat.13 Their slaves, conversely, cherished him as an energizing figure, and celebrated his military successes against French, Spanish and British forces. From the late eighteenth century onwards, Toussaint and the Haitian revolutionaries became potent symbols in the United States: tales of their civil and military accomplishments were recounted in American newspapers, notably in Philadelphia and Washington;14 their achievements helped inspire specific revolts such as those of Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, frame social attitudes towards slave emancipation, and embody the very ideal of black heroism.15 The anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass, the most eminent nineteenth-century African American, was a Toussaint devotee who helped spread his legend across the United States, notably by using images of him in the publicity for his New National Era newspaper.16 Toussaint’s extraordinary afterlives in print, music, painting and legend are the subject of the last chapters of this book.
Copyright © 2020 by Sudhir Hazareesingh