The Black Jacobin who bested the Brits

The Black Jacobin who bested the Brits

Tue 20 Mar


A REVOLUTIONARY LEGACY: Haiti and Toussaint Louverture. THE BRITISH MUSEUM, 22nd February – 22nd April 2018

"I was born a slave, but nature gave me the soul of a free man."

He was the first black man to lead a European-style government in the western Atlantic world. He out-manoeuvred French, Spanish, British, and Dominguan adversaries. His pioneering achievements in military and political leadership paved the way for leaders of colour across Latin America. Historians have compared him to George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte, and yet he was born into slavery in Saint-Domingue c1743. Toussaint Louverture is currently the subject of an exhibition at the British Museum and a new biography. 

Saint-Domingue is now known as Haiti. In 1492 the island was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus who was poking around the Caribbean on behalf of the Spanish government. It was an encounter the authors of A Black Jacobin remark, “resulted in the half-a-million strong existing indigenous Taino population being all but exterminated within a generation as a ruthless search for rivers of gold led only to rivers of blood.”

This is a well-written book detailing a tragic and horrific story. Whereas the lack of documentary evidence leaves the lived experiences of many eighteenth-century people of color beyond the reach of academic historians, the authors have dug deep to revise not only the events of Louverture's life but changing perceptions of him. 

There are scant archival records detailing the life of a slave. What we do know is that the average life expectancy was 37. Furthermore, the authors make clear that those whose liberty slavery removed remained "quite invincibly human beings".

In his own memoir, Louverture was vague about his origins, possibly due to the stigma surrounding slavery. His son's biography of him gave him royal antecedents in Benin, sold into bondage. But Louverture was made a free man in adulthood, ran a plantation on behalf of a white landowner, and possibly had his own slaves. It was the French Revolution that inspired ideas of liberty amongst the islanders. White landowners wanted to be free of their French colonial masters in order to trade with the rest of the world. The white colonial bureaucratic elite, however, governed in the interests of whoever was paying them.

Meanwhile in France, Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité were concepts that did not extend to black slaves on sugar plantations. But the slaves had taken note and were forming alliances amongst themselves. The authors take time out from the particulars of Louverture's life to delineate the strands of revolutionary thought and vested interests that gripped the island. Conflicting interests led to the paradox that it was the land-owning plantocracy who advocated independence from colonial rule, while rebel slaves thought their best bet would be to remain royalist. When the Spanish king came out for the abolition of slavery in a bid to forestall French republicanism, black slaves grouped under his banner. Louverture was one of these. Meanwhile the British Empire was watching from the sidelines, wanting the "Queen of the Antilles" for herself.

Not much is known of Louverture's education, but it is probable he was schooled by French Catholic missionaries who opened schools for the children of slaves. Whatever the case he certainly knew how to manoeuvre. In 1791, when the military campaign of the Haitian Revolution began, Louverture was numbered among its early leadership. On 4th February 1794 (16 Pluviôse an II) the National Convention in Revolutionary France abolished slavery throughout the French Empire. By 1797, Louverture had abandoned the Spanish cause and become the general-in-chief of French armed forces in Saint-Domingue. With 4,000 troops he helped the French defeat the Spanish.

He also laid siege to the British garrison at Port-au-Prince. Louverture led from the front, and beat the British back with brilliant deployment of guerilla warfare, conventional warfare and rapid troop movements. The British, sworn enemies of freedom and equality, were foxed by the subtle subterfuges of Louverture and his men. Four years later, as with Washington and Bonaparte, Louverture became the head of a government he had helped to establish. 

The bold moves of a brilliant leader are delivered blow by blow while the authors conjure a French colony of opulence and high European culture financed by the enslavement of Africans. But soon it would become the first country in history to be governed by the descendant of enslaved Africans. By 1795 Toussaint Louverture was widely renowned throughout the world. He was adored by blacks and appreciated by most Europeans for he did much to restore the economy of sugar. Controlling all Saint-Domingue, Toussaint turned to Spanish Santo Domingo, where slavery persisted. Ignoring commands to the contrary from Napoleon Bonaparte, who had become first consul of France, Toussaint overran the Spanish colony in January 1801, and freed the slaves.

Although biographies have been written, and this latest frames his achievements and mistakes with clarity and an even hand, this is the story of a man who is barely known today. Perhaps this is because it is also the story of a man who in prerevolutionary life was enslaved by a brutal society. Louverture's rise to prominence was tethered to the Napoleonic assessment of him: a former slave who would always be defined by his African ancestry.

Louverture died in a French prison. His ideas were too threatening to the self-interest of any regime - whether royalist or republican - to allow him to survive. So just as Napoleon was exiled to a slow death in St Helena, Napoleon ended the life of Toussaint Louverture in a French prison cell with no light and little food. Under intense interrogation, Louverture died of pneumonia and starvation on 7th April 1803.

In overthrowing me, you have done no more than cut down the trunk of the tree of liberty - it will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and deep.

Toussaint Louverture

Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee …
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee

“To Toussaint L’Ouverture”
William Wordsworth, 1803

 Review by Lilian Pizzichini, editor of The Revisionist.

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