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The complex, contradictory, and revolutionary life of Toussaint Louverture


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At the Bookforum website, Joshua Alvarez reviews Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life, a new biography of the Haitian rebel leader by history professor Philippe Girard. Louverture is best known for leading the only successful slave revolt in history, which culminated in Haiti’s independence from France in 1804. But as Girard’s biography adroitly shows, Louverture was a more complex and contradictory figure than history has made him out to be. He was a brilliant general who fought doggedly for black independence, but he was also a former slave owner who didn’t hesitate to collaborate with the white establishment when it benefited him. Girard suggests that Louverture was ultimately a pragmatist whose person pursuit of power served revolutionary ends. Read an excerpt of the review below, or the full text here.

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.

Image of Toussaint Louverture via Caribbean National Weekly.