From The Washington Post

The Moses of Haiti
A novelist explains a hero who led a revolt against French slavery in 1791.

Reviewed by Theola Labb?
Sunday, February 25, 2007; BW04


A Biography

By Madison Smartt Bell

Pantheon. 333 pp. $27

The framed sketch of Fran?ois Dominique Toussaint Louverture that hangs in my Haitian father's study shows the 18th-century general stiff-backed and in uniform, with large eyes and his hair combed back. I've seen the portrait more times than I can count but have little more than a superficial sense of the man who has merited a place in the heart, and on the wall, of my naturalized Haitian-American parents.

Madison Smartt Bell seems to believe that most readers will bring a similarly blank slate to his latest work, a biography of the Haitian leader who led "the only successful slave revolution in recorded history." Louverture is "the highest-achieving African American hero of all time," Bell writes. "And yet, two hundred years after his death in prison and the declaration of independence of Haiti, the nation whose birth he made possible, he remains one of the least known and most poorly understood among those heroes."

Bell, a prolific novelist, has become so consumed with the history of Haiti that he brushed up on his French, learned to speak Creole and wrote a fictional trilogy about the Haitian revolution. But even if you missed All Souls' Rising (1995), a finalist for the National Book Award, or Master of the Crossroads (2000) and The Stone That the Builder Refused (2004), you'll know from Bell's confident new venture into biography that he has spent a great deal of his career immersed in Haiti -- not only in giving Louverture and the Haitian people their due but in praising their achievements and exploring their cultural intricacies.

A country now mired in poverty and instability had its beginnings in the late 17th century as a French slave colony called Saint Domingue. Louverture himself was born Toussaint Br?da, named for the Br?da plantation. The country's mix of classes and races -- the inevitable result of years of slaves intermingling with their white French owners -- and the resentment among groups that included gens de couleur (mulattoes) and black slaves made the sugar and coffee plantation colony a powder keg. But it took Louverture's sheer determination to unite the fractured country and lead it to the brink of freedom from its white overseers -- a task that, upon Louverture's death in 1803 at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte's forces, was carried out by Gen. Jean-Jacques Dessalines.

This biography largely achieves Bell's aim of shedding light on the personality of Louverture. Haiti's liberator comes across here as a skilled orator, a gifted writer and a leader who exuded the utmost confidence -- whether when writing to the French civil commissioner, L?ger F?licit? Sonthonax, to argue for freedom or when speaking to field hands on a plantation. The impending slave revolt, which began in 1791 and culminated in 1803, serves as a driving narrative force that propels the book, as it did Louverture's real life. But the overall arc of that life often gets lost behind a myriad of details, giving the book a slightly academic feel that may limit its audience to college students and the most ardent devotees of Haitian culture and history. Those who do read Toussaint Louverture, however, will find an important recounting of a little-known piece of history. ?

Theola Labb? is a Washington Post staff writer.


From The Nation:

A Free Man


[from the April 16, 2007 issue]

Toussaint Louverture was born a slave in the thriving French colony of Saint-Domingue. In the early 1790s, he took part in a massive uprising that demolished slavery in the colony. He became the revolution's greatest military and political leader, consolidating the freedom it had won and laying the foundation for the creation of Haiti in 1804. Given this, you might imagine that Louverture would have a proper tomb. Or that we know what he looked like, and can agree on how to spell his name.

But after dying in a cold prison in the Jura Mountains in 1803, he was thrown into a nearby unmarked grave. No one knows where his bones are. Although there are a few images of him probably drawn from life, many others are the pure product of imagination. While he signed his name "Louverture," it is typically spelled "L'Ouverture." Many writers refer to him as "Toussaint." This makes sense, given that he took on the name "Louverture" only late in life. But even though his nemesis, Napoleon, gets the same treatment, it's still a bit jarring--imagine historians of the American Revolution writing about George and Thomas.

Louverture does have his monuments. An urn with dirt from the graveyard where he was buried sits in the Muse du Panthon in Port-au-Prince, and there is a statue of him across from the National Palace. In 2001 President Jean-Bertrand Aristide built a monument commemorating Louverture's 1801 Constitution. After being expelled from the country in 2004 Aristide quoted the famous statement Louverture made when he was deported two centuries earlier: "In overthrowing me, they have uprooted the trunk of the liberty of the blacks; it will grow back because its roots are many and deep." Aristide then rephrased the quote to cast himself as a descendant of Louverture: "I declare in overthrowing me they have uprooted the trunk of the tree of peace, but it will grow back because the roots are Louverturian."

Haitian leaders are not the only ones who have claimed Louverture as a founder. When, in 1998, the French government commemorated the (final) abolition of slavery in the French colonies in 1848, Louverture's name was inscribed in a wall in the Panthon, the temple of French national heroes. The gesture, urged by Caribbean activists in France, was an attempt to repudiate the actions of Bonaparte, who had Louverture imprisoned, and to argue that in his struggle against France Louverture embodied the Republic's true values. But can Louverture be a hero for France and Haiti at the same time?

In his acclaimed trilogy of novels about the Haitian Revolution--All Souls' Rising, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That the Builder Refused--Madison Smartt Bell presented a riveting portrait of Louverture. The novels are deeply grounded in the historical sources of the period, no small feat given how extensive and often contradictory they are. But still hungry for the history of the Haitian Revolution--it has a way of grabbing you and holding on--Bell has now produced an excellent biography of Toussaint Louverture. For fans of the novels eager to read more, or for those daunted by the 2,000 pages of the trilogy, Toussaint Louverture provides a readable and engaging narrative, one likely to become the standard biography in English about this remarkable figure. (Full disclosure: I am thanked in the book's acknowledgments.)

Who was Louverture? For nearly two centuries, most writers portrayed him as a former slave who was freed by the Haitian Revolution itself. Then, in 1977, a group of historians published an article in Haiti showing that he was freed during the 1770s, managed a coffee plantation and briefly owned a slave. As a revolutionary leader, Louverture rarely evoked this chapter in his life, preferring to emphasize his connection to the former slaves who made up the majority in the colony. Indeed, he was a master at presenting himself as he wished to be seen, to the point that, as Bell writes, "during the first fifty years of his life, Toussaint walked so very softly that he left next to no visible tracks at all."

Bell, however, has tracked down a number of new sources located in private collections, and provides a very detailed account of Louverture's life before and after the revolution. It makes clear there is no way to fit Louverture easily into one social category. A former slave but also a former slave owner, he was revered as a leader of the black masses in Haiti but also as a trusted collaborator of former slave owners. He used force to win freedom but also to contain it. He managed the colony, writes Bell, "so as to prove to the whole European world that slavery was not necessary to the success of the plantation economy," and that "sugar and coffee production could be revived" but "with free labor." He rebuilt the plantation economy, but at a cost: He created a coercive labor regime with aspects of "raw authoritarianism," in which the former slaves who led the army threatened other former slaves into continuing to work on the plantations.

To sustain his regime, he skillfully navigated the political currents of the broader Atlantic. Within France, many were eager to reverse emancipation, but for a time they were kept at bay by its defenders, who celebrated Louverture for winning battles and maintaining order. But Louverture's independence alarmed many French officials. He negotiated trade deals with Britain and the United States, insuring that the colony had markets for its sugar and coffee and that his army had plenty of guns and ammunition. Congress kept trade open with Louverture even when the United States boycotted France, and John Adams deployed the Navy to support Louverture against his internal enemy, Andr Rigaud, in the nation's first military intervention in the Caribbean. The support was short-lived: Thomas Jefferson, elected in 1800, was very hostile to Louverture, seeing the revolution mainly as a dangerous example for slaves in the United States.

The Haitian Revolution was the first American experiment in large-scale emancipation, and Louverture--with no guidance from precedent and little support from the French government--managed the transition. He had to confront daunting questions: What, precisely, is freedom? How do you transform a society made by slavery into one that assures the dignity and freedom of former slaves? He was a pioneer not only because he created and consolidated freedom in the colony but also because the regime he created ultimately fell short in crucial ways. It was a failure shared by all those governors in the Americas who would follow in his footsteps.

Despite the lengths to which Louverture went to prove that the colony could be profitable without slavery, the French under Bonaparte ultimately tried to re-establish slavery, with disastrous results for the tens of thousands of French troops and many local fighters and civilians who died in the conflict that ensued. Bonaparte and his advisers believed they could isolate and overthrow Louverture and the other black leaders of the colony, and that the population would submit. They did not understand how deeply the revolution had transformed the colony. It had created a racially integrated army made up largely of ex-slaves, many of them officers; in one case, a former master served in a unit commanded by his former slave. On the plantations, laborers received payment, had some control over their work regimes and were able to carve out more time and space to cultivate food for themselves. Whatever their dissatisfaction with Louverture's regime, they knew it was an important advance over slavery. When the French threatened to take freedom away, many were ready to fight. Even after Louverture was captured in mid-1802, and after most of his major generals had capitulated to the French, small groups of insurgents kept fighting. French brutality and the specter of a return to slavery steadily expanded the resistance, which finally triumphed with the creation of Haiti in 1804.

The pace of change during the Haitian Revolution was remarkable. In a few years, slaves gained not only freedom but French citizenship. When France turned against emancipation, they created an independent state. In forging a new community, they dramatically expanded the meaning of freedom.

At the time of independence the majority of Haitians had been born in Africa. Historians have struggled with the question of how best to understand the actions and ideas of this extremely diverse African population, most of whom left no written documents behind. In thinking about this question, Bell at times leans, unwisely, on the term "tribal" as a way of describing the perspective of these exiled survivors of the Middle Passage. While there were communities of language and meaning forged out of common background in Africa--there was a massive influx of people from the Kongo region during the decades before the revolution, when up to 40,000 slaves arrived each year in the colony--they were linked by a range of religious, linguistic and political affinities that cannot be subsumed under the term "tribe." The revolution, meanwhile, created and sustained new identities among people on the move, and on the march, as they forged a life for themselves beyond slavery. They often identified themselves not as members of a particular group from Africa but as "Africans," joined by the experience of exile and oppression in the New World.

In contrast to most of the African-born protagonists of the Haitian Revolution--indeed, most of the ex-slaves who participated in it--Louverture left behind a large collection of documents. A few were written by his hand in a phonetic French, but most--including many letters and occasional pamphlets--were dictated by him to secretaries, and edited and re-edited as they read drafts back to him in sessions that often lasted through the night. Among them is a series of letters, well showcased in Bell's biography, in which Louverture explains how he negotiated with a group of rebels, giving us a partial glimpse of his skills at oratory and negotiation. Such writings, only a few of which are translated into English, represent a major intellectual and political legacy, and they drive Bell's chronicle of his rise and fall.

When the first biographies of Louverture were written in the nineteenth century, to write about Haiti was inevitably to intervene in the debate about the morality of slavery and the capacities of former slaves to be free. For those who supported slavery, the violence of the insurgent slaves--often exaggerated in atrocity stories that maintain their purchase to this day--and the situation in Haiti in the nineteenth century were represented in such a way as to argue that blacks needed to be contained by white domination.

Abolitionists--including Thomas Clarkson, Frederick Douglass and Victor Schoelcher, who wrote a biography of Louverture--told a different story, celebrating the victory in Haiti as part of a larger assault on slavery, arguing that the violence of the insurrection was generated by the violence of the institution it justly sought to destroy. Even for those who had ambiguous feelings about the revolution, Louverture stood as a clear refutation of ideas of black inferiority. Effusively celebrated by his allies, he also gained the grudging (if conveniently posthumous) admiration of the French general Pamphile de Lacroix, who had fought against him.

Louverture inspired the great Trinidadian writer and activist C.L.R. James, who in the 1930s first wrote a play and then a history about him. James's The Black Jacobins (1938) channeled Louverture into the present, celebrating his heroism but also examining the tragedies and ironies of his often dictatorial rule, using his story to trace the promises and pitfalls of struggles for independence. The book has become a classic in the literature of anticolonial revolts, inspiring many readers, including Bell.

In Haiti, meanwhile, several generations of scholars, from Paulus Sannon and Edner Brutus to Roger Dorsinville and Claude Mose, have written important works about Louverture, though unfortunately none have been translated into English. Louverture's choices are often evoked in discussions about the course of Haitian history. Sometimes he is favorably compared with those who followed, particularly Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Louverture distinguished himself for the way that he negotiated both with white planters and the United States and Britain. Dessalines, in contrast, famously ordered the massacre of most of the white inhabitants who remained in Haiti after independence in an episode described in bloody detail by Bell in both his novels and the biography.

Would Louverture have spared the whites? Would he have crafted a better relationship between Haiti and other nations? Perhaps. But when he fought against the French, Louverture was in many ways as resolute and merciless as Dessalines would be later, and had he survived the brutal and genocidal campaigns of the French during their final days in Saint-Domingue--when even loyal black soldiers were massacred simply for the color of their skin--he may have reacted as Dessalines did. And Dessalines, like Louverture, combined repression with negotiation, allowing some whites to stay in the country, naturalizing them, welcoming them into the black race when he decreed all Haitian citizens to be black.

After independence, many elites sought to continue Louverture's economic policy of maintaining some plantations, and the coffee economy boomed during certain periods, something usually forgotten in streamlined histories that portray Haiti's subsequent economic history as one of inexorable decline. Much of the population, however, for obvious reasons, preferred to own their own land rather than toil on plantations, and to grow food for themselves and for sale in local rather than international markets. Had it not been for the relentless hostility of other countries, notably the crippling indemnity levied by France in 1825 in return for diplomatic recognition, these economic alternatives might have proved sustainable.

Today it is difficult to find a mention of Haiti in the American press without the phrase "the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere" tacked on like some kind of dogged trademark. But as Haitian architect Patrick Delatour noted in a conference last year, when Haiti was a colony most of its capital was invested in the bodies of its slaves. When Haitians refused their status as property and forced France to accept them as people, they also transformed a rich colony into a poor nation. Was it their fault that the two went together?

The autonomy and dignity that Louverture sought to achieve, in his sometimes troubling way, is still more of a promise than a reality in Haiti. To understand why, we need to grapple with both the successes and failures of Haiti's leaders and the intensity of the forces arrayed against them, much as Bell does with Louverture. That we still need to go back 200 years to find a way to look forward is in some sense a tragedy. But it is also, as Bell suggests, an opportunity and a responsibility.

When Louverture's jailers discovered his corpse in April 1803, they found a piece of paper tucked into the bandanna wrapped around his head. On it was a message. Louverture complained of being arbitrarily arrested and sent off "as naked as an earthworm," with no chance to hear the charges against him or to respond: "Is it not to cut off someone's legs and order him to walk? Is it not to cut out his tongue and tell him to talk? Is it not to bury a man alive?" Placing the paper on his forehead, writes Bell, "was a magical act: a plea to the unseen world for justice." If Louverture's plea for justice for himself is finally starting to be answered, his denunciation is as relevant today as ever.

From The Boston Globe:


The elusive Louverture

For sometimes scant evidence, Bell pieces together his path from slave to father of modern Haiti

By James Smethurst  |  February 25, 2007

Toussaint Louverture: A Biography
By Madison Smartt Bell
Pantheon, 333 pp., $27

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a trio of interconnected revolutions rocked the Atlantic world. The first was the American, and the second the French. The third, the Haitian Revolution, established the second independent postcolonial nation in the Western Hemisphere in 1804 -- and the first in the Americas to be governed by people of African descent. As Madison Smartt Bell notes in his new biography of revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture, the emergence of an independent Haiti constituted the most successful slave revolt in history, sending shock waves through the slaveholding societies of the Americas, including the United States.

The French colony of Saint Domingue occupied the western third of the island of Hispaniola. Its sugar, coffee, and indigo plantations produced fantastic wealth, making it the most lucrative European colony in the Americas. The motor for this wealth was the labor of a half-million black slaves, more than half of whom had been born in Africa.

As Bell, the author of a trilogy of novels about the Haitian Revolution, ably demonstrates, the society of Saint Domingue in the late 18th century was extraordinarily complex, ethnically, socially, and politically. Most of the colony's wealth was concentrated in the hands of the large plantation owners, the so-called grands blancs, who were generally royalist in their politics. A class of striving white merchants and artisans known as the petits blancs tended to support the emerging French Revolution while remaining invested in the slave system. There also existed a significant group of mixed European and African ancestry, the gens du couleur, for the most part the descendants of grand blanc slave masters and slave women.

The gens du couleur, too, were often planters and slave owners with significant, if ambiguous, ties to their grand blanc relatives. While they fought for their own equality, the gens du couleur were often ambivalent at best about the rights of the black majority that formed more than 85 percent of the population. Even this black majority was divided between a small group of those who either had been born free or had gained their freedom and the vastly greater number who labored in slavery. The former group, which included Toussaint (who learned to read and write at an early age), often rivaled the gens du couleur economically while retaining an inferior social status. The black majority was also divided between the somewhat larger portion that had been born in Africa and the creoles born on the island.

Rising from a slave to a prosperous landowner, Toussaint threw in his lot with the black masses in their revolt against the abuses of the slave system on the Northern Plain of Saint Domingue, developing into an astute and sometimes ruthless and self-interested military and political leader. He needed these qualities to negotiate the treacherous path between the colonial powers of France, Great Britain, and Spain, and the new nation of the United States, between grands blancs, petits blancs, mixed-race gens du couleur, and black slaves and free men and women, between royalists, republicans, and Bonapartists.

One of the great strengths of Bell's book is the way it succinctly delineates and animates the swiftly changing alliances and conflicts inside and outside the island as Toussaint and his forces successfully battle French, Spanish, British, planter, and gens du couleur armies. Though Toussaint died a captive of Napoleon in 1803 after, perhaps intentionally, walking into a French trap, the forces he did much to set in motion ultimately triumphed over Bonaparte's armies that same year in what might be the greatest defeat of European colonialism in the 19th century. The Republic of Haiti (from the old Taino name for Hispaniola) declared its independence on Jan. 1, 1804 .

One of the great challenges that Bell faced in writing the biography is that Toussaint was a notoriously guarded man who seldom revealed his deeper emotions and motivations. In addition, many of the contemporary accounts of him were written by detractors. As a result Bell is often forced to speculate about Toussaint's inner life (his religious beliefs in a culture in which Catholicism and the syncretic African-American vodou were widely and often simultaneously practiced, for example) in ways that are not as satisfying as his narration and explication of complex historical events -- though to his credit, Bell's speculations are generally clearly labeled as such. At times, too, when Bell moves away from Haiti to a larger frame, his touch is not as sure. For example, Négritude was not, as he describes, a " pan-Caribbean" movement, but a Francophone pan-African movement that included artists, activists, and intellectuals from Africa and the Americas. Also, his tendency to describe various African peoples from a range of economies, polities, and social structures as "tribes" seems anachronistic.

Still, as the first English-language biography of Toussaint in decades, "Toussaint Louverture" is an excellent introduction to one of the great, if elusive, personalities of history, one who was central to the epoch-making events of the Haitian Revolution. While the significance of Toussaint and the revolution remains obscure to many white Americans, as Bell points out in his afterword, it remains very much in the minds of artists and intellectuals of African descent in this hemisphere even now.

James Smethurst teaches in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

From The Miami Herald:


Toussaint Louverture: A Biography. Madison Smartt Bell. Pantheon. 352 pages. $27.

Novelist Madison Smartt Bell's new biography of Haiti's independence hero Toussaint Louverture attempts to lift the veils of romance and symbolism from one of history's most compelling figures to examine the man beneath. It largely succeeds in its long overdue re-examination of one of the central individuals of that tumultuous nation's earliest days.

Perhaps no figure in Haitian history has been as much wrapped in myth and legend as Louverture, and Bell, author of a trilogy of historical novels chronicling some of the major personalities of the Haitian revolution, goes a long way toward humanizing the character of the freed slave whose challenge to the armies of the European powers would eventually result in the only successful slave rebellion in history and the establishment of an independent nation in 1804, a victory Louverture never lived to see.

Though Bell's initial descriptions of Haiti's pre-Columbian civilization are somewhat pedestrian, he soon hits his stride in detailing the complicated and often absurd color scale of the slave-holding society into which Louverture, claimed by some to be the descendant of an Arada king, was born as ''Toussaint Bréda,'' after the Bréda plantation where he was enslaved. He chose the moniker Louverture -- ''the opening'' -- many years later.

Freed from slavery 17 years before the outset of the Haitian revolt, Louverture was, Bell reminds us, ''a member of a very small group: free blacks who owned slaves as well as property.'' Why and how he sought to make common cause with other like-minded rebel leaders such as Jean-Francois Papillion and Georges Biassou -- masterfully resurrected from historical obscurity by Bell -- forms one of the book's most intriguing questions.

At times leaning heavily on the work of the anthropologist Gérard Barthelemy and historian Gerard Laurent, Bell illuminates many of the long-forgotten minutiae of the Haitian revolution. If he may occasionally be faulted for belaboring some of his points -- the description of a minor 1796 skirmish outside of the city of Port-de-Paix drags on for many pages -- he nevertheless must be saluted for his elucidation of the effect that Louverture's blending of European and African styles of command and authority had on Haiti's independence struggle.

Seeking to counter the misconception that the leaders of Haiti's revolt were ''a gang of supposedly ignorant, illiterate and generally uncivilized blacks,'' Bell brilliantly evokes the bitter eloquence of the writing of Haiti's revolutionary leadership, as is evidenced in a passage from a July 1792 letter signed by the rebel generals Jean-Francois and Biassou (as well as, curiously, Louverture's 14-year-old nephew Belair) to the representatives of the French government: ``Under the blows of your barbarous whip we have accumulated for you the treasures you enjoy in this colony; the human race has suffered to see what barbarity you have treated men like yourself -- yes, men -- over whom you have no right except that you are stronger and more barbaric than we are. For too long we have borne your chains without thinking of shaking them off, but any authority which is not founded on virtue and humanity, and which only tends to subject one's fellowman to slavery, must come to an end, and that end is yours.''

The Louverture we see in these pages comes across as resilient, brave and politically savvy , switching allegiance between French and the Spanish colonial forces with dizzying speed and eventually uniting the entire island under his rule before being shipped off to ignoble exile and imprisonment in France by Napoleon's brother-in-law, General Charles Leclerq. With Louverture spirited out of Haiti and imprisoned in a jail amidst the Jura Mountains, Bell writes movingly of the petty humiliations the courageous Louverture was forced to endure at the behest of the pint-sized French tyrant: Stripped of his military uniform and given peasant rags to wear, fed meager rations and given inadequate heating during a brutal French winter, Louverture died in prison in April 1803.

When Bell attempts to bring Louverture's legacy up to the present day, his footing is less sure, and he unquestioningly repeats popular myths regarding Haiti's recent history that, coming after such detailed and comprehensive analysis of its distant past, strike the reader as disappointingly facile. One is left wishing that Bell had displayed as much interest in the nuances of the democratic struggle in Haiti's second century as he did in its outset, but the overall effect doesn't diminish the value of what has come before.

Despite its imperfections, though, the biography serves as a well-researched and timely reminder that Haiti's political travails are no recent phenomenon, and that human beings, however symbolic they may become, are creatures of complex motivation, not easily summed up by the empty sloganeering that has characterized much of the recent debate on Louverture's tormented homeland. Before there was the legend, there was the man, and Bell's book does all students of Haiti a favor by bringing a bit of him back to public consciousness.

Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti.