Rebel, slave-owner, aristocrat: the real ‘Black Napoleon’
Girard’s chapter headings catch Toussaint in a bewildering sequence of identities: aristocrat (African), revolutionary apprentice, family man, slave driver (shockingly), rebel, politician, diplomat and finally icon. He ended his days, betrayed by the parent country and by another diminutive leader who feared his own charisma was being challenged, in a Napoleonic jail. His death was quiet – probably a heart attack – and unheroic. The real vanquisher of the French forces sent to quell the uprising wasn’t a slave army but yellow fever. Girard rightly warns that to “anoint Louverture as an abolitionist saint is a mistake but so is [to depict] him as an elite individual completely cut off from the realities of slavery”. In the same way, easy divisions of black vs white, slave vs free, French vs Haitian simply don’t work in this narrative. The reality that Girard teases out is far more interesting, and in many respects more impressive, than the myth. Toussaint emerges as a man of extraordinary natural gifts, a shrewd negotiator, a careful temporiser when the moment didn’t yet seem to serve his needs, and one in whom courage and caution were evenly mixed.
The slave revolt of 1791 had many causes. Worsening economic conditions were the most obvious. Girard presents some astonishing figures. By 1790, SaintDomingue was exporting 70 million pounds of white sugar (think “cocaine” to get a sense of present-day values and addictiveness), as well as 93 million pounds of brown sugar, 68 million pounds of coffee and six million pounds of cotton. We’re reminded that only a minority of African slaves (Girard quotes 6%) went to the American colonies. An overwhelming majority went either to Brazil or the Caribbean. The huge economic edifice of SaintDomingue was, though, little more than a bubble drifting among sharp edges, just waiting to be blown. By 1790 the French Revolution had happened, promising freedom, but only to the right type and colour of man, and scarcely at all to women. Though the revolution was warmly enough greeted in SaintDomingue, not least by Toussaint, the old monarchy, which had been trying to reform its colonies for years, still seemed like a kindlier alternative to the Committee of Public Safety. Even so, the Haitian Revolution can’t be spun as a monarchist plot. It was infinitely more subtle and random than that. Toussaint became its leader by waiting largely behind the scenes. His heroism, again, is of a conspicuously unheroic sort and marked with brutality. Likewise his aims. The younger Toussaint, far from wanting to ruin and lynch his white “employers”, actually wanted to be like them. The older man, far from being a nationalist, in the usual separatist sense, wanted nothing more than to be a figure in a new French empire. Che Guevara had the good sense to die young and leave an easily screenprinted image of himself. With Toussaint, it’s not so easy. That old engraving still hangs there, but it’s as if he has turned a little away from his unseen troops and toward us. If he’s still not quite full-face, that is no fault of Philippe Girard’s but simply a measure of how far we now are from Toussaint’s complex mind-set.
Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, emerges as a man of extraordinary gifts, a shrewd negotiator, a careful temporiser when the moment didn’t yet seem to serve his needs, and one in whom courage and caution were evenly mixed