A flawed man with a revolutionary aim

Ethan Croft explores Philippe Girard's admirable Toussaint Louverture: a revolutionary life

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Toussaint Louverture treating with the British General, Maitland.

In 1938, the publication of CLR James’ The Black Jacobins challenged decades of whitewashing that wrote the Haitian Revolution off as a parody of the French. That the slaves Saint Dominique might have had their own grievances and beliefs was a prospect best kept hidden for many, who slept better at night in the belief that the victim of colonialism could only imitate his oppressor.

When looking over the press release for Philippe Girard’s new biography of Toussaint Louverture, I wondered how successful James’ endeavour really was. Littered with clunky comparisons such as “the black Napoleon”, it seemed that scholarship on the subject of Haiti had gone back to the future, to a situation where black historical figures could only be evaluated through the prism of Europe’s annals. It was a relief then, on reading Girard’s book, to realise the fault lay with the cliché ridden jargon of public relations, and not the good professor, whose portrait of Louverture is rich in detail and scope.

Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life is foremost a useful book, updating the scholarship of the revolutionary period with the many developments and discoveries made in the near 80 years since The Black Jacobins. But it is also entertaining, as the historian wrestles throughout with the conflicting stories of Toussaint the idol, and Toussaint the man.

In some of Louverture’s actions, particularly those that have come to light in recent times, it is difficult to recognise the legendary hero of modern anti-colonial and socialist movements. We now know that at the beginning of the revolution, Toussaint came to the aid of his former owner, Bayon, who had freed him from slavery. With supreme duplicity, Louverture used rebel resources to hide the Bayon family, the only people who would be able to verify his status as a freedman if the revolution was stamped out in its early stages. In another example of Toussaint’s collaboration with the slavers, Girard reveals that he traded a 22 year old woman with the Breda plantation owners in place of his mother. These actions are not indicative of a ‘revolutionary life’, instead suggesting that he was a man fighting for himself and his family, rather than higher ideals.

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With this in mind, Girard is slightly too imaginative at some points in the biography. Records show that through coincidence, Toussaint must have had some encounters in the pre-revolutionary period with those men who would go on to fight alongside him against the forces of European imperialism. Yet we can perhaps afford to call Professor Girard a little far-fetched when he writes: “One can almost imagine the revolutionaries-to-be whispering to one another in the courtyard.” Evidence instead suggests Toussaint was quite complicit and self-interested in the days before 1791. Far more heroic were the so-called ‘maroons’, slaves who (in a premature form of industrial action) abandoned their plantations for temporary periods if their limited rights under the 1685 Code Noir had been violated.

Under the horror of slavery, Toussaint’s questionable actions before the revolution can be justified. Saint Dominique was not a welcoming environment for idealism and moral fortitude. Yet at the turn of the century, when the revolutionaries finally expelled the western powers from their island, Louverture assumed the role of what was to all intents and purposes a military dictator. His work reforms, implemented from 1800, forced his comrades back onto the plantations in a system of mitigated slavery: the whips and chains were gone, but the threat of extreme punishment for dissent remained. The ‘military-agricultural complex’, as Girard terms it, soured the memory of Toussaint Louverture for generations in Haiti, and successor Jean-Jacques Dessalines was far more highly regarded by the people of the new nation.

In this biography, Girard never answers the central question of whether Toussaint Louverture led a truly revolutionary life. Instead, he provides us with a powerful illustration of one flawed man caught in the movement of history.