Toussaint Louverture; A Revolutionary Life by Philippe Girard. Basic Books, 2016.
Toussaint Louverture, the Haitian revolutionary, is credited with having led the only successful slave revolt in the New World. It began in 1791 in French speaking Hispaniola, and Louverture succeeded in keeping the leadership amidst challenges from the Spanish colonial regime in Saint-Domingue, from British Jamaica, Spanish Cuba, Colonial America, and Metropolitan France in the midst of its own revolution.
Haiti was at the time of its slave revolt, perhaps the wealthiest European colony in the Caribbean. That was due largely to its production of two crops: sugar and coffee. It fortunately had good soil, sufficient rainfall, and mostly sunny days.
But it was also a deadly environment for its slave cultivators. The mortality rates from malaria, yellow fever, and other contagious diseases, were so high, (7 to 14% a year) that it had to continuously import new slaves from Africa. Hence Haiti was an active participant in the African slave trade. Louverture grew up a slave, a muleteer. Both of Toussaint Louverture’s parents were African. So recent was their African heritage that Louverture claimed that he was descended from African royalty.
Most of the owners of the Haitian sugar plantations were absentee whites. They employed three different layers of land management: the managers who ran the plantations on a daily basis, attorneys who dealt with legal matters and represented the owners in their court battles, and accountants. Many of the estates were poorly managed. It was possible that black slaves might ultimately be contracted out as a manager of several sugar estates owned by the same person.
Girard explains that the slave economy of Saint-Dominague was initially not a racist society. Louverture, ambitious and black, could rise within the island’s Creole society. But that changed with the rise of racism in Haiti. Girard argues that the racist ideas were useful because that hierarchy, which generally ignored skin color, gave opportunity for a black man of talents to rise. But it also provided opportunity for a fall. Like racism elsewhere in the New World, one drop of black blood made you a Negro. Hence there were two categories of whites – “little whites” and “big whites” and the opportunity to descend in social standing. On the other hand, the Haitian army provided opportunity for movement of blacks and whites in both directions on the social ladder.
There is no answer to the questions who, how, and why Louverture was a “free black.” He began acquiring land, small plots when they came up for sale and then larger estates. Making good money, he could buy his family’s manumission. Unfortunately there is no civic or church record of his changing social status.
The author reminds us also that there was always some level of slave resistance in the Caribbean. There were numerous groups of fugitive slaves (in Haiti they were called Maroons). They congregated alongside working plantations, disrupting discipline and providing opportunities for flight. Good reason for flight; Caribbean plantation owners were known for their cruelty. Maroonage was harshly punished. Men had their bones broken and were often castrated; women severely burned and frequently whipped. The general practice was branding for a first offense, hamstringing for a second, and death for a third. So there was a substantial risk involved in protesting against your slave status by running away.
Toussaint Louverture should be hailed as an abolitionist, if it weren’t for his acknowledgment of the importance of the plantation culture to the economic welfare of its slave population. And vice versa. Louverture, cooperated with Spanish officials in Saint-Domingue in their efforts to restore the colonial economy. In 1801 he agreed to a restoration of the slave trade.
In July 1789, the Bréda family decided to sell off some of their properties and slaves at auction. This always resulted in the breaking up of slave families and Louverture decided that this was a sufficient reason for him to act. He was also being challenged by rivals for the leadership amongst the restless slave population. In 1791 Haiti’s slaves rose in rebellion.
Girard’s account of Toussaint Louverture’s life was enormously complicated by the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Empire. Louverture, surprisingly, turns out to have been a loyalist, faithful to the Bourbons because of their efforts to establish a set of rules to govern the slave/owner relationship in their colonies and control some of the cruelty, but also introduce what the author suggests is a “pronatalist” policy of supporting slave families and promoting infant care.
Through his alliances with men of power in France, Louverture had by 1801 become both governor of the colony and general of the army. He was also a statesmen who was of sufficient status to be trusted to represent France in negotiations with the British in 1798. As governor, he worked to restore the colonial economy of Saint-Domingue, a restoration from which he would benefit as a major landowner.