Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life by Philippe Girard

Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life BY Philippe Girard. Basic Books. . $30.
The cover of Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life

In 1840, soon after Napoleon Bonaparte's spectacular rise and fall, the always-provocative Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle declared, "The History of the world is but the Biography of great men": Individual heroes who changed the world through sheer willpower, charisma, or exceptional virtue. Carlyle's pantheon included Napoleon, as well as Luther, Shakespeare, Cromwell, and others. The "Great Man" theory of history launched a public debate, one Carlyle would ultimately lose to Herbert Spencer and his enduring thesis that even "great men" must be understood as products of their society.

In 1849, Carlyle penned a vicious pro-slavery screed, "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question," in which he argued that Africans cannot rule themselves and therefore need European masters. Carlyle pointed to one country in particular:

"Alas, let him look across to Haiti, and trace a far sterner prophecy! Let him . . . banish all white men from the West Indies, and make it all one Haiti, with little or no sugar-growing, black Peter exterminating black Paul, and, where a garden of the Hesperides might be, nothing but a tropical dog-kennel and pestiferous jungle."

There may not be an obvious connection between his pro-slavery and "Great Man" theories, but a reader could take pleasure in imagining Carlyle, as he wrote those words about Haiti, trying to suppress unpleasant thoughts about how, from those "pestiferous jungles," emerged the extraordinary leadership of a great black man: Toussaint Louverture.

In the course of masterminding and leading the Haitian Revolution—the only successful slave revolt in history, which ended with Haitian independence in 1804—Louverture climbed to the top of the political and military hierarchy of colonial Haiti, then known as Saint-Domingue, defeated Spanish royal forces in neighboring Santo Domingo (present-day Dominican Republic), and repelled a large British invasion force. In 1802 and 1803, when Napoleon sought to end the rule of "ungrateful and rebellious Africans," Louverture's army of ex-slaves instead halted Napoleon's imperial aspirations. The twenty-six warships and forty-three thousand soldiers—part of the largest and most powerful naval forces of the time—was no match for guerilla warfare (and yellow fever). And, as W. E. B. Du Bois has noted, Napoleon's quagmire in the Caribbean forced France to sell its North American territories to the US in 1803 (in the Louisiana Purchase), which made the continental United States a reality.

So it's a shame that few Americans know about the man who helped make manifest their country's "destiny" to expand westward. Though Louverture has been written about before, most notably in Trinidadian historian C. L. R. James's 1938 masterpiece, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, he remains a tricky subject for historians. Two competing historical schools have debated Louverture's legacy: One casts him as an idealistic black-revolutionary emancipator and nationalist; the other, which emerged in part after archival findings revealed that Louverture owned slaves, portrays him as a cynical political operator whose fundamental desire was simply to be accepted into white French society. In Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life, history professor Philippe Girard ultimately lands closer to the latter school, but still manages to portray a man who "was all of these things at once . . . a slave rebel and a conservative planter, a caring father and a cold-blooded general, a passionate idealist and a scheming politician. Above all, he was a pragmatist."

Girard's choice to focus on the tension between idealistic movements and pragmatic politics continues a encouraging trend in recent biographies—see, for example, the newest Jefferson biography, "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs": Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination, which centers on Jefferson's personal and philosophical struggle with slavery. Books like these are particularly relevant to the current political moment, when many Americans, especially young progressives, are struggling to square their own political demands with a complex, resistant reality, and are apt to let the best be the enemy of the good. From the outset, Girard is determined to draw out Louverture's complexities and contradictions, to portray him as a political pragmatist—neither the hero of racial egalitarians' dreams nor the monster of anxious American and European caricatures—driven nonetheless by his own ego, hubris, and desires. Girard's writing is straightforward and only lightly decorous—much the opposite of the man he portrays—but what he sometimes lacks in style Girard more than makes up for in his ability to integrate a wide range of subjects into an accessible, fascinating historical biography. Girard writes with an inviting, understated confidence that feels welcoming, especially to newcomers to Louverture and Haitian history.

Louverture lived a long, hard life before his ascent to power. Born into slavery around 1743, he was freed in his thirties, a difficult achievement at a plantation where "95 slaves died in 1774–1785 out of a total workforce of 130 to 150 slaves . . . a 70 percent turnover in a decade's time." It wasn't until 1791, when Louverture was nearly fifty years old, that he began his public life as a top commander of insurrectionist slaves. His long life coincided with a period of dramatic social change, during which he developed his preternatural political instincts. In addition to absorbing the lessons of the American and French revolutions, Louverture lived through a time in which the category of race shifted dramatically. According to Girard, "race in early Saint-Domingue was defined not simply by biological traits, but also by social status. One could lose the prestige attached to whiteness by being poor; conversely, talented blacks like Louverture could raise their standing through financial success." Indeed, "some wealthy mixed-race planters managed to be listed as white in legal documents." But through the mid- and late-1700s, Girard writes, French authorities "purposely fostered tensions between free whites and free people of color for fear that they might unite in a common bid for independence." According to Girard, by 1779, having African blood made a person "indelibly stained," no matter how much money or merit they had earned. Louverture, along with much of black Saint-Domingue, adopted this mindset.

Although there are few sources that detail how Louverture managed during his first fifty years of life, archival findings do reveal a skilled social tactician and an opportunist. The circumstances surrounding his manumission are still mysterious; he lived as a free man from 1772 to 1781, although no official record deemed him a freeman and his plantation later relisted him as a slave. The available evidence leads Girard to conclude that "history's most famous slave earned his freedom [by] forging a special bond with a 'big white.'" But this shouldn't be considered a mark against Louverture, because ingratiation was the most effective way to escape bondage. A slave in Saint-Domingue, according to Girard, had less than a 1 percent chance of being freed. The only way out was "if they collaborated with the plantation system."

In fact, Louverture did more than collaborate—he actively participated in and attempted to profit from the brutal system. He used his freedom and scarce resources to lease a small coffee plantation and thirteen slaves. A shocking 2012 archival finding identified one of those slaves as Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who would eventually become Louverture's subordinate general during the Revolution and the first leader of independent Haiti. The finding, Girard writes, "came as a jolt, as if it had suddenly been revealed that Thomas Jefferson had once been George Washington's indentured servant." And, Saint-Domingue's volatile weather made upward mobility within the colony's socioeconomic hierarchy a Sisyphean pursuit: A hurricane hit Saint-Domingue in 1780, which was followed by flooding and drought over the next year. The extreme weather at Louverture's coffee plantation ultimately killed two of his slaves and forced him to cancel the lease. According to a 2013 finding, "Louverture simply headed back to [his former plantation], where he resumed the duties that had been his as a slave."

These incidents raise one of the most challenging questions about Louverture: What inspired him to take up revolutionary politics? Girard doesn't provide any easy answers—rather, he retains a subtle touch that's unafraid of ambiguity. This approach honors his subject's complexity: He traces a number of fascinating strands, but all of them end in knots of contradiction. Louverture was strongly Catholic but abandoned his faith as his power collapsed. He was a slave, but only became pro-abolitionist after the revolutionary government in France made it law, and even tried to reestablish the slave trade as governor general. He was black, but to a sanctimonious, liberal white governor, Louverture declared that he had "the soul of a white man." As a military commander and head of government, Louverture demonstrated no compunction about betraying, or even murdering, his black allies, particularly the more radical ones who were eager to kill or exile white planters. Louverture may have marched under the French revolutionary tricolor but, according Girard's account, most of his actions favored the white ruling class. His words and deeds do not betray any particular motive outside securing his own power (which has often been the case with revolutionary leaders). With most "Great Man" biographies, we get a grand vision and then the (often unseemly) politicking that brought it to fruition. With Louverture, we get only the politicking. His vision is, for the time being, concealed.

In the end, his political maneuvering caught up with him: Having betrayed the loyalty of too many, too few answered his recruitments to fight Napoleon's armada. Although the soldiers that did show up were able to hold the French navy back, they were unable to win a decisive victory. In a final twist, Louverture's most loyal, most ruthless subordinate, Jean-Jacques Dessalines—his former slave—betrayed Louverture to the French, who deported him to France in June 1802. Nonetheless, Louverture's strategy had inflicted enough damage to French forces that, by the time he died in 1803, the expedition "had become an utter fiasco" and it was easily expelled by Dessalines.

The epithet often used for the diminutive Louverture was "the Black Napoleon." But this is an insult to a leader who, at five feet two inches, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Napoleon and bettered his forces on the battlefield. Truly respecting Louverture means giving him the same measure of analysis as Napoleon has received. Previous generations of pro-colonialist, racialist, and anti-abolitionist detractors on one hand, and black nationalist and pro-abolitionist admirers on the other, have failed to depict Louverture in all his complexity. Ultimately, Girard's Louverture remains a mystery, but what his biography makes certain is that Louverture was both a Great Man, à la Carlyle, and the product of a time and place in history, à la Spencer.

Joshua Alvarez is a writer and journalist. He’s written for the Brooklyn Rail and The Atlantic. He tweets at @jshalv.