MADISON SMARTT BELLPRIVATE
THE STONE THAT THE BUILDER REFUSED
In 1776, the American Revolution began in the guise of a tax revolt, while proclaiming self-evident natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In 1789, the French Revolution began as a violent class struggle, declaring an ideology of liberty, equality, and brotherhood among all men. That all white men were intended went without saying.
In 1791, what would become known as the Haitian Revolution began as a rebellion of African slaves against their white masters in the French colony of Saint Domingue. Ripples expanding from the French Revolution had begun reaching Saint Domingue two years before. The whites of the colony, who numbered some forty thousand, were bitterly divided between Jacobin Revolutionaries of the lower economic classes and the large property holders, who were more likely to be royalists and who hoped to make Saint Domingue a refuge for the ancien régime. These two classes agreed only on the absolute necessity of denying political rights to the people of mixed European and African blood who inhabited the colony. Many of these gens de couleur, as they were called, had been educated in Europe; many owned property and slaves themselves. Recognized as a third race under the French slave system, this group had begun, on the eve of the French Revolution, to agitate for political privileges to match its already considerable economic power. Repression from the whites (who had fathered of this third race) was extraordinarily vicious. The first genocidal pogroms in Saint Domingue were conducted by whites against mulattos in the mid-1780s. In 1790, a final mulatto uprising ended with the ringleaders, Ogé and Chavannes, being tortured to death in a public square in the town of Cap Français.
In 1791 there were about twenty-eight thousand free persons of color in Saint Domingue, or a little less than the number of whites. Both groups depended for their prosperity--in what had become France's richest colony and the source for much of Europe's sugar and coffee-- on the labor of at least seven hundred thousand black slaves, of whom over half had been born in Africa. The conditions of slavery in Saint Domingue were so atrocious that the slave population did not reproduce itself-- an importation of more than twenty thousand per year was necessary to maintain a stable work force. The fighting of the white slavemasters among themselves and against the mulattos took place within their view, while the revolutionary events in France in Europe were discussed within their hearing. The carelessness of the whites in this hazardous situation can only be explained by their belief that their slaves were something other and less than human.
The slaves set out to prove them wrong. By the autumn of 1791 most of the colony's vast sugar plantations had been destroyed by fire, a great many white colonists had been massacred, and many more had fled. Those who held on were isolated in the cities of the coast; the interior had become an anarchy travelled by roaming bands of rebel slaves. Over the next several years the situation of Saint Domingue degenerated into a three-way genocidal race war in which each race did everything in its power to exterminate the other two. Meanwhile the European powers-- England, Spain, and France-- circled the perimeter, hoping to regain a foothold.
On August 29th, 1793, the same day that the French Revolutionary Commissioner Léger Félicité Sonthonax proclaimed the abolition of slavery in Cap Français, another proclamation issued from the camps of the rebel slaves in the mountains: "Brothers and Friends, I am Toussaint Louverture. My name is perhaps not unknown to you. I have undertaken to avenge you. I want liberty and equality to reign throughout Saint Domingue. I am working toward that end. Come and join me, brothers, and fight by our side for the same cause."
Since the fall of 1791, the man formerly known as Toussaint Bréda had been among the armed bands of rebel slaves in the interior-- bands that were nominally in the service of the Spanish government in the eastern half of the island, though not under much actual Spanish control. Toussaint was over fifty years old when the first uprisings broke out. Born in slavery, he could read and write, had served as an overseer on Bréda plantation, and had some knowledge of both native and European medicine. He served the rebel leaders as a doctor first, then began to assemble his own fighting force-- small at first, but unusually well-trained and well-disciplined. When he learned that the French National Assembly had abolished slavery, he turned on the other black leaders who were still in the service of royalist Spain, drove them over the border and made himself master of the chain of mountain forts called the Cordon de l'Ouest, which controlled the passages between the Northern and Western Departments of Saint Domingue. That much accomplished, he offered his services to General Etienne Laveaux, who commanded for Revolutionary France in the colony.
Toussaint's volte face turned what had seemed inevitable defeat for the French in Saint Domingue into victory. Acting as Laveaux's second-in-command, Toussaint repelled both Spanish and British invasions from the colony between 1794 and 1798. Laveaux hailed him as "the Black Spartacus," and made him Lieutenant-Governor of the Saint-Domingue. Meanwhile, Toussaint proved himself to be as adept in politics as on the battlefield. Outmaneuvered by the black leader, Commissioner Sonthonax returned to France in 1797; Laveaux followed him not long after. A new commission headed by General Thomas Hédouville, sent to reassert the authority of the French government, succeeded only in fomenting a bloody civil war between the blacks led by Toussaint and the mulatto faction.
When Toussaint's forces had won this struggle, Toussaint stood unchallenged as the de facto ruler of Saint Domingue. He seems never to have intended to make the colony independent (when offered a British alliance if he would crown himself king, he refused it), but rather to govern it as a French protectorate. By 1801 he had done much to stabilize the war-ravaged territory and had made real progress in restoring the economy, inviting the exiled white planters, whose expertise was needed, to return and manage their properties with free labor. The foundation of a society based on liberty and on genuine equality and brotherhood among Saint Domingue's three races appeared to be in place. Toussaint consolidated these gains by creating a constitution for the colony which, among other things, appointed him governor for life, with the right to choose his own successor.
France, meanwhile, had passed through the Terror into reaction. When Toussaint sent his constitution to the capital for ratification, Napoleon Bonaparte, though not yet Emperor, ruled under the title of First Consul. The story that Toussaint began his letter to Napoleon with the phrase "from the first of the blacks to the first of the whites" is apocryphal, though inspired by real similarities between these two extraordinary, self-made men, who each had risen to power through the military. Napoleon would certainly have recognized their likeness, though perhaps he was mistaken to measure Toussaint's ambition by his own. The strongest ideological objections to slavery had been swept away with the Terror, and Napoleon was under strong pressure to restore the slave system in the French colonies, from factions of dispossessed Caribbean planters who included his own consort, Josephine. No doubt his vanity was pricked by the temerity of Toussaint's constitution, which could easily have appeared to be a declaration of independence in all but name. But Napoleon was very much a pragmatist, and he saw the attraction of accepting Toussaint's cooperation so as to use his forces and the base of Saint Domingue not only to threaten the English in Caribbean but also to secure or even expand the French presence on the North American continent, via Louisiana, then still a French possession. So the decision would not have been a obvious one for him.