July 26, 2017

Spotlight: Five Books about Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution

“Brothers and friends, I am Toussaint Louverture; perhaps my name has made itself known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want Liberty and Equality to reign in St Domingue. I am working to make that happen. Unite yourselves to us, brothers and fight with us for the same cause.

Your very humble and obedient servant, Toussaint Louverture.”

Toussaint Louverture is one of history's most enigmatic figures. Below are five books that describe in more detail who he was, and his role in the Haitian Revolution. In the late eighteenth century, enslaved people in Saint Domingue waged a successful insurrection against their French colonial rulers. Thereafter, Saint Domingue took on the name of Haiti, the indigenous word meaning ‘land of high mountains.’ This is the only slavery rebellion that resulted in the creation of an independent nation. Haiti’s victory inspired fear in colonialists throughout the Americas, and also encouraged millions of enslaved people to continue to resist their enslavement and the rule of their oppressors. The people of Haiti self-organized under incredibly brutal conditions - slaves in Haiti were given the bare minimum of food and shelter, and were expected to work up to eighteen hours a day. All the while, the profit they accumulated went into the hands of the plantation owners and, further afield, back to the colony of France across the Atlantic. As Saint Domingue was one of France’s wealthiest colonies, its successful insurrection was a major blow.

A man named Toussaint Louverture is best-known of all the Haitian Revolution’s leaders. In relation to many other Black Haitians, Louverture was well-educated, able to read and write both French and Haitian patois. Like many other freed black men in the French colony, he was well-informed on the political, moral, and economic justifications for the French Revolution, and was inspired by the French people’s demand for parity. But as the books listed below reveal, the history of the Haitian revolution is far more complicated than it might seem. Louverture, for example, interacted with French, Spanish, British, and American colonialists throughout the decade-long period of the war. But if anything, this narrative reveals his true diplomatic and militaristic skill, as he negotiated on behalf of the people of Haiti. The revolution culminated in his army defeating 35,000 troops that Napoleon Bonaparte imported to Haiti, but Louverture didn’t live to see the people declare the free Republic. Shortly after his wins on the battlefield, he was captured by the French and shipped across the Atlantic, where he died after contracting pneumonia in his jail cell. Although he didn’t live to witness the proclamation of Haitian independence, his memory persists as the indomitable spirit of freedom.

1. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution by CLR James

In his classic accounting of the Haitian Revolution, historian CLR James brings to life the historical events that led up to the only successful national slave revolt. Originally published in 1938, the book restored the Haitian Revolution from its forgotten and ignored place in history. James pays special attention to the relationships between the black revolutionaries in Haiti and the French men and women who recently staged their own revolt in the name of “iberté, égalité, et fraternité.” He demonstrates the ways in which the French selectively applied these ideals to exclude non-whites. This text is also a classic example of Marxist history, in the sense that James is very interested in how race and class intersected in the society of Saint Domingue, especially in relation to property, personhood, and privilege. Most relevant to this list, James spotlights Louverture’s role as the dynamic, flawed, passionate person he was.

2. Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life by Philippe Girard

Nowhere is Louverture’s complexity more deeply explained than in Philippe Girard’s incredible biography. How does a former slave become the leader of a revolution? How did Louverture reconcile his desire to be part of French society with his desire to form an independent Haiti? Indeed, Girard shows how Louverture did not, in fact, always have such insurrectionary zeal, but instead spent his early adulthood participating in the local economy and fraternizing with many of the white colonialists. Girard’s book is excellent precisely because it does not shy away from these contradictions, but rather embraces them as equal parts in the full-blooded picture of a historical figure.

3. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution by Laurent Dubois

This book is a more general examination of the Haitian Revolution. Dubois doesn’t limit the story to the events of Saint Domingue, but opens up the narrative to include the entirety of the colonial world. Through a careful analysis of documents, the author manages to translate what is a very, very complicated history into a readable text that will leave you with a full understanding of the people and events that drove the slave rebellion. While this book doesn’t focus exclusively on Louverture, he nevertheless plays a key role. As Dubois reminds his reader, the Haitian Revolution “was a central part in the destruction of slavery in the Americas and therefore a crucial moment in the history of democracy, one that laid the foundation for the continuing struggles for human rights everywhere. In this sense we are all descendants of the Haitian Revolution, and responsible to these ancestors.”

4. Toussaint Louverture: A Biography by Madison Smartt Bell

Madison Smartt Bell written a number of award-winning novels about the history of Haiti. (All Souls’ Rising, the first in a trilogy of novels about Haiti written by Bell, takes a close look at the slave rebellion.) In this book, he applies his research to Louverture’s biography with staggering attention to detail. Bell dispels a number of myths about Louverture’s life, including when he was freed from slavery. The biography’s greatest strength is it’s ability to maintain the enigmatic contradictions at the center of his life; for example, Bell goes into detail about how Louverture himself owned slaves for a period, and maintained close ties to the French bourgeoisie in the colony.

5. The Haitian Revolution (Revolutions) by Jean-Bertrand Aristide

It seems fitting to end this list with a book that contains Toussaint’s own words. His writings add an important layer to historical analysis and are indispensable in constructing an accurate portrait of Louverture, the man and leader. In these letters, he clarifies a number of his positions on the economy, statehood, and racial equality.

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