The Magazine

Black Napoleon

The rise and fall of Haiti's liberating tyrant.

Mar 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 26 • By DIANE SCHARPER
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Toussaint Louverture

A Biography

by Madison Smartt Bell

Pantheon Books, 352 pp., $27

Toussaint Louverture, a former slave, declared himself commander in chief of the French army in Saint Domingue (modern-day Haiti), even though he was ostensibly at war with France. How he did so is adroitly explained in Madison Smartt Bell's new biography.

Bell sees Toussaint as a man of mystery and contradiction, who covered his tracks to protect himself. Toussaint's own memoir is more like a defense prepared for a trial that never took place than an unbiased look at his life. Two memoirs written by Toussaint's son, Isaac, depend on his father's recollection of events, memories fashioned to enhance Toussaint's image of himself.

The man known as Toussaint Breda was born, as his name would suggest, on All Saints' Day (November 1), probably in 1745. His surname was taken from the Breda Plantation, where he is believed to have worked as a slave. Others think he worked in Jesuit hospitals, where he learned European medicine. A practitioner of voodoo and a devout Roman Catholic, Toussaint changed his last name to Louverture, which Bell thinks has voodoo implications. Never handsome, Toussaint was attractive to women because of his knowledge, power, and wealth. He was proficient in French and Latin, and practiced veterinary medicine.

Toussaint was a freed black man who owned slaves as well as property, and early in the Haitian slave revolt, wanted only to ameliorate the slaves' harsh treatment. But as the revolution intensified, Toussaint came to believe all slaves should be free. Since Bell has visited that territory in his fictional trilogy--All Souls' Rising (1995), Master of the Crossroads (2000), and The Stone that the Builder Refused (2004)--this nonfiction account seems somewhat anticlimactic. Yet it dramatizes a significant period signaling the end of slavery in the Americas, leading to our own civil war.

Bell believes that the motive for the American Revolution was economic, but the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness inspired the French, who initiated a class revolution proclaiming the rights of all men. Of course, the French understood "all" to mean whites only.

But in Saint Domingue, the French half of Hispaniola, the concept was taken literally.

Begun in 1791 in the northern sugar plantations, the slave revolt spread so rapidly that by 1794 almost all slaves were planning a military strategy to obtain freedom. From 1793 to 1801, Toussaint formulated and successfully carried out that strategy. By 1797, he had outmaneuvered the French, beaten the Spanish, and repelled the British. In 1801, he promulgated a constitution that, while keeping the country part of the French empire, gave him absolute power, made him governor for life, and granted freedom to black men.

This enraged the French, who, as Bell puts it, had not brought half-a-million "savages" to the colonies to establish them as French citizens. In 1802, Napoleon's brother-in-law kidnapped Toussaint and had him taken to prison in the French Alps, where he died in 1803 from malnutrition.

An opportunist, Toussaint had sided at different times with the French, British, and Spanish during the revolution, but sent numerous letters to Napoleon pledging his unwavering fidelity to France.

Napoleon neither read Toussaint's letters nor responded to them, leading to this book's ultimate irony. In his twilight years, from the prison of St. Helena, Napoleon reproached himself for his handling of the slave revolt of Saint Domingue: "I should have contented myself to govern it through the intermediary of Toussaint," he wrote.

But he didn't, and in a little more than ten years, Saint Domingue went from being the world's biggest sugar producer and the Pearl of the Antilles to a wasteland of torched cities and wholesale slaughter. The devastation was so great, Bell suggests, that the island has yet to recover. Meanwhile, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Toussaint's second in command, helped by the Europeans' poor resistance to mosquito-born diseases such as yellow fever and malaria, routed the French army, and on January 1, 1804, proclaimed independence for Haiti--returning the country to its original Indian name, land of mountains.

All of which brings to mind the Haitian proverb "Behind the mountains are more mountains," adding a note of poetic justice to this account of an enigmatic man who left almost no visible tracks.

Diane Scharper is the author of the forthcoming Reading Lips.