Rebel, slave-owner, aris­to­crat: the real ‘Black Napoleon’

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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

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