Toussaint Louverture, the freed slave who led the revolutionary uprising in Haiti at the end of the 18th century, usually gets no more than a brief mention in American history texts. Although he has been revered as a hero in the African American community—there’s an African American cemetery named for him in Williamson County—many Americans have at most a vague image of a uniformed figure on horseback, leading a revolt invariably described as “bloody.” Nashville native Madison Smartt Bell has done his bit to clarify and flesh out that image, making Toussaint a central character in three sprawling and widely praised novels about the revolution—All Souls’ Rising (1995), Master of the Crossroads (2000) and The Stone That the Builder Refused (2004). In his latest book, Toussaint Louverture: A Biography, Bell has set out to write a straightforward history of the man that reconciles the conflicting accounts of him as humane liberator and ruthless rebel.
The French colony of Saint Domingue, which became the independent nation of Haiti, was home to a complex society of white plantation owners, landless whites and black slaves—most of them African born—who vastly outnumbered both white groups. There were a few free blacks, and also a substantial number of gens de coleur, the offspring of master-slave liaisons, who were regarded as a third race. As Bell describes it, the aim of the white landowners, or grands blancs, was gaining wealth through sugar cultivation; they had no interest in settlement or society-building. This single-minded ethos fostered a particularly merciless attitude toward slaves—even more brutal than chattel slavery in the American South. Caribbean slaves were routinely worked to death at a young age, and Bell describes a host of horrific punishments inflicted on them: “A slave who ate fruit or sugarcane in the field would be forced to work with his or her head locked in a tin cage. Some slaves were thrown alive into ovens, others buried neck-deep in the ground and left to be tormented by mosquitoes and biting ants. Still others had their anuses packed with gunpowder and exploded—a sport called ‘making a nigger jump.’ ”
This was the world into which the slave Toussaint Bréda—i.e., Toussaint of Bréda plantation—was born between 1739 and 1746. There are no reliable records of his early life, but he seems to have been generally well treated. At the age of 18, he reportedly hit one of the plantation’s white managers during an argument—normally a capital offense—and came away unscathed. Bell speculates that Toussaint may have spent some time with the Jesuits, who probably taught him to read and write. He was freed in his early 30s, and showed up as the leaseholder of a plantation just a few years later, in 1779. We know that he owned slaves, because there is a record of his freeing one. Otherwise, he seems to have kept a very low profile until he appeared as a leader among the rebels in 1791.
Gaps in the record of a life are a gift to the novelist but a curse to the biographer. They loosen the narrative reins so the fiction writer can go where he pleases—an indulgence historians aren’t allowed. Bell, however, makes the lack of material work for him by suggesting that his subject’s early invisibility was deliberate: Toussaint was ambitious and intelligent, risky things for a black man to be. He protected himself from white hostility by refusing to sign documents (claiming illiteracy) and continuing to work in the service of his former masters at Bréda, even after he had substantial landholdings of his own. It wasn’t until 1793, two years into the rebellion, that he issued a public statement committing himself to the abolition of slavery. Until that time he had been careful to continue good relations at Bréda and kept his name off rebel documents.
It was also at this time that he took the name “Louverture.” Bell doesn’t accept the usual explanation of the name—that it was a play on the French word for “opening,” bestowed on him in grudging admiration of his military prowess (“That man makes an opening everywhere”). Instead, he chose the name himself for its spiritual significance. The slaves of Saint Domingue were nominally Catholic, but the practice of Vodou was almost universal. “Louverture” is a reference to the Vodou prayer to the spirit of gates and crossroads: “Attibon Legba, open the way for me.” As Bell explains, the association with Legba lent Toussaint a spiritual power: “Toussaint Louverture alone was master of the crossroads of liberty for the former slaves of Saint Domingue.”
Toussaint himself practiced Vodou in private but publicly espoused a Catholic faith “at least as sincere as any of the Borgia popes,” according to Bell—a comparison that gets to the heart of Bell’s take on Toussaint’s character: a true believer in human rights and racial equality, but also ambitious and ruthless, with a keen eye on his public image. He feigned illiteracy to placate whites when he was young, and later to ingratiate himself with rebel slaves who might have resented his wealth and privilege. He was a great fighter, but he was also a small, homely man who made sure he was seen to his best advantage astride his famous white horse. He was careful to distance himself from the many massacres of white civilians during the war, though he clearly condoned some of them.
It was once widely accepted that the initial uprising of slaves in 1791 was actually plotted by the grands blancs as a way of frightening poor whites away from any ideas of reform that may have been fostered by the French Revolution. But the slave insurrection, so the theory goes, took on a life of its own and destroyed its instigators. This idea has been largely discredited by modern historians, but it continues to intrigue Bell: “[I]f the grands blancs actually did light the fuse to the bomb that blew up their whole society, that is simply one of history’s most magnificent ironies—it takes nothing at all away from the achievement of the black revolutionaries and their leaders, who almost immediately wrested control of the scheme away from the original plotters and took it over for themselves. Toussaint, especially, was always adept at redirecting the energy of others to serve his own ends.”
In fact, Haiti’s struggle for independence is filled with intrigue and betrayal, and within that context the landowners’ scheme seems plausible. It must have taxed Bell’s tremendous storytelling skills to guide the reader through endless power shifts among a large cast of characters while simultaneously explaining the global events that triggered them. It’s a staggering amount of material to cram into 300 pages, and Bell does a remarkable job of weaving it all together. Still, there’s a disorienting “Alice through the looking glass” sensation as the facts and anecdotes pile up on the page. Understanding the events that surround a man is not the same as understanding him.
Only near the end of the book, when we see the defeated Toussaint and read his own words, does a fully human portrait emerge. Napoleon, determined to retain French control of Haiti, betrayed Toussaint and shipped him off to a desolate French prison where he died, starving and entirely alone. Toussaint pleaded his case in a poignant appeal that went ignored: “No doubt I owe this treatment to my color; but my color…has my color ever hindered me from serving my country with fidelity and zeal? Does the color of my body tarnish my honor and my courage?”
Bell begins each novel of his Haitian trilogy with a moving account of this Toussaint—the brilliant man thwarted by the greed and race hatred of the white world. With unerring narrative instinct, Bell recognized Toussaint’s inevitable destruction as the heart of the story, the essential truth to be gleaned from the tragedy of the man and his still-troubled country. In Toussaint Louverture, Bell the historian can provide only a backdrop to the insights of Bell the novelist.