History makers: Toussaint L’Ouverture

At a time when the capacity of individuals to shape the future is widely mocked by fashionable determinisms, we celebrate those heroes from history who really did change the world. This week, as various abolition-of-slavery anniversaries come and go, we look at Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743 - 1803), one-time slave and the leader of the Haitian revolution.

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An artist’s impression of
Toussaint L’Ouverture

A French colony dominated by a sybaritic class of slave-holding plantation owners, governed by a royalist bureaucracy, and riven with tensions between the white haves and the multiracial have-nothings – that was San Domingo, a West Indian island, in the 1780s. But the locomotive of history was moving at speed. Mercantilist opponents – the rulers of France, Britain and Spain – were fighting each other for an ever greater stake in the New World. And as the colonial powers scuffled abroad, the disenfranchised were struggling for liberty at home, be it the rebel colonists in North America or the Jacobins in France.

It was the revolutions in America and particularly France which pushed San Domingo to the brink. La Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, universal in principle but steadfastly selective in application, stirred San Domingo’s several thousand Mulattoes – people of white and black lineage – to demand their due. The French National Assembly assented recognising – although not fully acknowledging – the colonial corruption of the ideal of liberty, but the plantocracy, aided and abetted by the Royalist bureaucracy, refused. It wasn’t really the Mulattoes whom San Domingo’s colonial overlords feared, however. Rather, it was that voiceless, faceless import from Africa: the slave. And there were thousands upon thousands of them.

For the enslaved, the French Revolution symbolised something profound. As they saw it, the white slaves from across the Atlantic had risen, killed their masters, and were now enjoying the fruits of the earth. The black slaves may not have caught the facts of the uprising, but they had caught its spirit. And it was that revolutionary spark, commingled with a disintegrating status quo and the amassed, almost proletarianised existence of the slaves, which was to give rise to the slave army organising in and around Le Cap towards the end of 1791. At the time, the de facto leader was a Voodoo high priest known as Boukman – his head was soon to end up on a colonist’s spike. But prominent among their number was a 45-year-old free black (some slaves could eventually buy their way out of bondage) known variously as Toussaint Breda, Old Toussaint, or, as he is more widely known today, Toussaint L’Ouverture. 

Toussaint’s achievements stand tall. He was to lead the only successful slave revolt in history, a struggle marked with unprecedented military and political victories. In 1793, for instance, Britain’s King George III spied an opportunity to take San Domingo and prevent unrest spreading to the British colony of Jamaica. But the 27,000-strong force sent to face down Toussaint was not only roundly defeated; it became the first European army to surrender to a black general. The following year, Toussaint fought off the armies of whites and one-time slave owners who refused to accept the decree from the National Assembly to liberate the slaves.

At that point, Toussaint was rallying to the French Republic’s cause, but in 1802, the Republic under Napoleon, the figure in whom Toussaint invested so much faith, turned on its dark-skinned supporter and attempted to re-take the island. Toussaint responded to the approaching fleet with walls of fire at every port, and retreated into the interior. It was a successful strategy, but Toussaint’s willingness to then trust Napoleon, and agree to a meeting, led to his capture and eventual incarceration in the Jura mountains on the French-Swiss border. It was there on 7 April 1803, freezing and starving, that Toussaint was allowed to die by the man Toussaint sought most to imitate, Napoleon.

With slave leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines continuing the fight, French troops withdrew from San Domingo in late 1803. On 1 January 1804, the independent state of Haiti was proclaimed. Toussaint’s victory was posthumous, but complete. 

The great CLR James, unsurpassed biographer of ‘the Black Jacobins’ (the title of his 1938 classic), was in no doubt of Toussaint’s significance: ‘We have stated the vast impersonal forces at work in the crisis of San Domingo. But men make history, and Toussaint made the history that he made because he was the man he was.’

This is not to say a great deal is known of the man Toussaint was. We know he was literate, that he was a superb horse rider, that his master Monsieur Bayou de Libertas treated him with relative respect. We know also that he studied the military writings of Caesar, the philosophical and economic writings of Abbé Raynal, indeed anything he could get his hands on. But beyond that, there will remain a lot of speculation. Even his face is largely the figment of various painters’ imagination. ‘All the materials for his biography are from the lips of his enemies’, noted American abolitionist Wendell Phillips in 1861. But while little is known of him personally, certainly prior to the 1790s, his singular achievement – a product of genuine heroism, of a moment seized – is writ large.

Or at least it ought to be. But Toussaint and the revolution he made are rarely marked with the fanfare that continues to greet the anniversaries of either the French and American Revolutions or, indeed, the various moments that culminated in the abolition of slavery. Which is perplexing given the significance of what happened in San Domingo: Toussaint effectively led the most radical of all the great freedom struggles of the long eighteenth century. That is, he made good on the universal promise of the idea of liberty; he completed what neither American nor French radicals could. Raynal’s words in Philiosphical and Political History of the Establishment and Commerce of the Europeans in the Two Indies (1770), a book Toussaint pored over, rang truer in the actions and ambitions of Toussaint than in any of his white contemporaries: ‘Natural liberty is the right which nature has given every one to dispose of himself according to his will.’ Toussaint, according to James, saw himself as Raynal’s ‘courageous chief’, come forward to ‘raise the sacred standard of liberty’.

And raise it he did, which is partly why he remains a wilfully obscured figure. His pursuit of liberty highlights the hypocrisy, the double standards and the economic limits of his white peers’ pursuit; Toussaint undermines their pretence to universality; he gives the various declarations of the rights of man a hollow sound. Thomas Jefferson, founding father and principal author of the The Declaration of Independence, even ordered arms and ammunition to be sent to counter-revolutionary forces in San Domingo.

And more profoundly, for those who like to think that the abolition of slavery was accomplished by a respectable Brit like William Wilberforce; indeed, for those who still think that black people need the guidance and direction of enlightened Westerners to achieve anything, Toussaint illustrated something that the revolutionaries of Europe and America knew only too well. Emancipation can only be achieved by the people to be emancipated. To use the words of Wendell Phillips, Toussaint showed that the black slave was to be ‘neither an object of pity nor contempt’; he was to be a subject of history.

Tim Black is deputy editor of spiked.

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