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Madison Smartt Bell Plumbs The Enigmatic Depths Of Haitian Revolutionary Toussaint Louverture


Daniel Krall

Toussaint Louverture: A Biography

Author:Madison Smartt Bell
Release Date:2007
Publisher:Pantheon
Genre:Biography

By John Barry | Posted 2/14/2007

Sitting in permanent retirement in St. Helena in 1820, Napoleon wrote in his memoirs that the island of Saint-Domingue "would always rest on a volcano." He meant that figuratively and literally. In 1802 he sent 40,000 French troops to Saint-Domingue to quell the first successful slave revolt in history. Ravaged by yellow fever and insurgency and terrorized by brutal and bloody combat, only a few thousand ever returned. With the benefit of hindsight, Napoleon probably wondered why anyone would even try to gain control over an island that seemed doomed to political, racial, and natural eruptions.

Since then, the reputation of Saint-Domingue--which became Haiti in 1805--hasn't improved much. To most Americans, Haiti is a classic Third World environmental and political nightmare, whose history is an endless series of bloody coups. With Toussaint Louverture: A Biography Madison Smartt Bell reminds us that Haiti's history is a dark mix of triumphs and tragedies. Saint-Domingue, in 1791, was home of the first successful slave revolt in the Americas and, in 1805, the first independent black state. At the core of this revolution was the enigmatic and charismatic ex-slave Louverture, who served as leader of the revolt and, briefly, as governor of the new state.

Bell's fascination with the era is infectious. The Goucher College creative writing professor's three-part historical Haitian revolutionary trilogy--1995's All Souls' Rising, 2002's Master of the Crossroads, and 2004's Stone That the Builder Refused--revitalized the moribund genre of the historical epic with a richly conceived panorama of the Haitian revolution, woven together with fictional and historical characters. Readers may have a little trouble recognizing Bell here at first because Toussaint Louverture is a sober, stripped-down attempt to narrate the life of the ex-slave who put many of these events into motion.

The biography begins, appropriately enough, with the first recorded signature of his name when, in August 1803, Louverture--previously known as Toussaint Breda--identified himself as "general of the armies of the king." By choosing that moment for a jumping-off point, Bell shows you what he's up against. Louverture didn't even choose his last name, which in French means "opening," until he was 50, and while Bell offers suggestions, we're unsure why he chose it. The facts of Louverture's life before then are even harder to pin down.

Louverture's time in the public eye isn't much easier to read. The Haitian revolution began in 1791 when, in a bloody revolt against a cruel Spanish colonial government, slaves massacred the island's plantation owners. As Bell makes clear, Louverture's role for the first two years is ambiguous. What we do know is that, after laying low for several years and cannily playing his cards, Louverture eventually stepped forward as spiritual and military leader of the revolution. For the moment, at least, moderation won out. While his more brutal contemporaries had alienated large sectors of the population--both black and white--Louverture was able to build a network of supporters, even finding allies among former slaveholders.

The contradictions keep coming. Bell paints Louverture as an idealistic visionary who was inspired by the French Revolution's declaration of the Rights of Man. But he was also a Machiavellian pragmatist who wasn't averse to cracking the whip by initiating programs of forced labor in 1801 to shore up Saint-Domingue's faltering economy. And today in Haiti, Louverture juggles two legacies. He is considered the father of the black liberation movement in North America, and he also instituted a centralized regime that has been the template of dictatorial governments since.

Bell faces these contradictions squarely, which makes this biography a remarkable read. In a country that was the intersection of overwhelming religious, political, racial, and economic forces, the creation of a unifying central government sounds impossible. All you can do is admire Louverture for riding the tiger for as long as he did. Bell's extensive narration of Louverture's career as a military and political strategist may be a little dry at points--unless you're a military buff--but it contributes to a compelling portrait of a complex and talented manipulator whose guerrilla techniques can be looked at as a prototype for successful armed insurgencies.

For Bell fans, Toussaint Louverture fits easily into the central theme of his fictional explorations of the Haitian revolution: the intersection of parallel universes, real and unreal, that Bell locates at the heart of Haitian voodoo. There are certainly points here where Bell tries to make Louverture's own persona fit the mold of that vision, particularly since Louverture was outwardly a devout Roman Catholic. At first you wonder whether Bell is trying a little too hard to establish this dualism, but, given how tightly Louverture played his cards to his chest, any biography of him is going to be speculative.

The book's final chapters are probably the most rewarding. By then, Louverture has been captured by Napoleon's forces and transferred to France, and the parallels between the French colonel and the ex-slave are fascinating. Like Napoleon, Louverture rose to power with a mix of canniness and idealism. Like Napoleon, he earned respect as a brilliant military strategist. Napoleon, however, spent his sunset years in St. Helena, carefully recording his thoughts and memories for posterity. Louverture died in 1803 in a 20-foot-by-10-foot French prison cell, and his 74-page memoir is more of a heartbreaking attempt to gain an audience with captors who, regardless of their politics, never really accepted him as a human on their level.

This short biography is required reading for anyone who wants to tackle Bell's historical epic on Haiti. But more significantly, Bell leaves us asking more questions about this fascinating, enigmatic figure than we probably had to begin with. Given how little is taught about this father of African-American independence, that's an accomplishment.

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