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Searching for the “Real” Toussaint Louverture

On August 24th of 1802, an elderly man reached the gate of the fort de Joux, in the Jura region of eastern France. Perched atop a mountain like an eagle in its aerie, the fort dated back to the Middle Ages and was now used as a political prison. The man was not just any prisoner: he had until recently been a general in the French army and the governor of France’s largest colony, Saint-Domingue (Haiti). He had also once been a slave. He was Toussaint Louverture.

Louverture’s was a household name by 1802. Born on a sugar plantation around 1743, he had helped organize in 1791 the Haitian Revolution, the world’s only successful slave revolt. He had then defeated armies sent by France, Spain, and Great Britain and made himself governor general for life of the island where he had once been enslaved. Slaves sang his praises throughout the Americas. The British Annual Register named him 1802’s most significant world figure. That year, William Wordsworth wrote a sonnet in his honor. “Every body has heard of Toussaint, the famous Negro general” noted one of his first biographers, the British abolitionist James Stephen, in 1803. The book went through four printings in a year. Other biographies also appeared in France, the United States, Germany, Italy, Denmark, and Sweden.

Though all his contemporaries agreed that Louverture was an extraordinary man, they disagreed on what his life actually meant. To his admirers, he was the Washington of his race, the new Spartacus, or even the Messiah. To his detractors, he was a murderer and a fraud. Some of his enemies faulted him for being too close to white planters; others accused him instead of being too friendly to them. He was the liberator of the black slaves; he was their oppressor. Napoléon Bonaparte, the first Consul of France, initially hoped to ally himself with Louverture and wage a common war against Britain and the United States; but he then concluded that Louverture was a traitor to France and sent a massive expeditionary force to unseat him. And so it was that in 1802 Louverture was captured and exiled from Haiti to the French port of Brest, and ultimately to the fort de Joux.

Louverture’s carriage passed through the first layer of fortifications, a tunnel dug directly into the rock. A moat and a drawbridge followed, after which the carriage halted in the medieval castle’s main courtyard. Louverture was led up a flight of stairs, through a gate, another courtyard, another gate, another courtyard, and yet more gates still until his journey ended deep in the fort’s innards. His cell was narrow, low, and dark. Because Louverture had many sympathizers in France and they might help him escape, the cell’s only window was obstructed by iron bars, bricks, and storm shutters. Not even as a slave had Louverture’s freedom been so restricted. “Isn’t it like burying a man alive?” he wondered. It was. He never left Joux alive.

Because Louverture’s record was so controversial, his first priority after reaching Joux was to defend his actions as governor. He set out to write a document often described today as his “memoirs.” He dictated early versions to a secretary and then penned a final version, 16,000 words long, entirely in his hand. This was a monumental effort for a man who had never been formally educated and who had only learned how to read and write proficiently in his fifties. Because nineteenth-century autobiographical accounts by slaves are rare, and because many of them were mediated by third parties, this text, written by history’s most important slave, was unique in many respects. But it raised more questions than it answered about the significance of Louverture’s life. Throughout, he described himself as a loyal servant of the French colonial empire, ignoring or distorting the many instances in which he had charted a quasi-independent course for Haiti. He generally avoided the salient issue of the Haitian Revolution, slave emancipation, and he wrote almost nothing about his pre-revolutionary life, though it had represented five sixths of his life. “I was a Slave, I dare to announce it:” this passing comment was the only reference to his time as a slave in the text. He never had a chance to clarify his views. In the weeks that followed, Bonaparte ordered his papers and writing materials confiscated in an effort to silence him. Louverture died of pneumonia in April 1803, taking his secrets with him.

Because of Louverture’s byzantine career and his willingness to obscure his record, his life has remained a matter of debate ever since. Scholars even disagree on basic facts like his birth date (no baptismal record has been found); the significance of his last name (which he adopted during the Revolution); his final resting place (his body has been lost); and his physical appearance (portraits of him vary widely). Mostly, they disagree about the meaning of his historical legacy.

In the nineteenth-century United States, Louverture was cited as a model by radical abolitionists like John Brown, who studied Haitian revolutionary tactics when preparing his raid at Harpers Ferry; but also by moderate abolitionists who viewed him as proof of the intellectual potential of black freedmen; and by pro-slavery apologists who appreciated his willingness to force black laborers back to the fields after their emancipation. Early Haitians were surprisingly critical of Louverture, whom they faulted for falling short of outright independence; many now idolize him as a founding father of the nation. The French initially denounced his autonomist agenda; they have now adopted him as a hero of their own revolution. In academic circles today, he tends to be regarded, often unquestioningly, as a one-sided herald of the abolitionist movement, an attitude that is seemingly respectful but also simplistic and even patronizing because it obscures the complexities of the Revolution he had to navigate and the skill he displayed in doing so. His multifaceted politics, which made him uniquely successful during the Revolution, have also contributed to his posthumous success: everyone can find a Louverture they like because there were so many Louvertures in the first place. He is a Rorschach test, on which people project their own beliefs.

Finding the “real” Louverture is trickier. Writing about slaves is usually difficult because history is written by the winners, so planters dominate the archival record. In Haiti, uniquely, it was the slaves who won, so documents by and about Louverture are accordingly plentiful, almost overwhelmingly so. Unfortunately, they are dispersed in dozens of archives, and until recently there were only two major biographies in English, one by C.L.R. James dating back to 1938, and a more recent one by Madison Smartt Bell that was based on limited original research. It took me ten years and trips to twenty-some archives in Europe, the Caribbean and the United States to explore Louverture’s papers.

We are only now beginning to rediscover the many facets of Louverture’s life. In recent years, I and other scholars have made many surprising discoveries. He was a devout Catholic and a family man, but he also had two wives, sixteen biological and adopted children, and many white mistresses (a habit that reflected his love-hate relationship with the white community). He obtained his freedom long before the Revolution and then purchased and rented some slaves, one of whom was the future emperor of Haiti, Jean-Jacques Dessalines; but he also helped manumit many friends and family members. He was the mastermind behind the world’s most successful slave revolt in 1791, but he also restricted the rights of field workers after their emancipation. He undermined a 1799 plot to export the Haitian slave revolt to Jamaica for fear of offending his British trading partners. He was at once committed to the principle that all men have an innate right to be free and intent on making abolition work, even if that meant quashing some of the hopes raised by his revolution in the name of expediency.

In the end, Toussaint Louverture was the consummate pragmatic idealist, whose life remains an inspiration to all those who try to reconcile the purity of their ideals with the messiness of the real world.

Philippe Girard is professor of history at McNeese State University and is the author of Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life (Basic Books, 2016).