The black Spartacus
Toussaint L'Ouverture defeated Britain, France and Spain to create a country free from slavery. Now, as Haiti marks the bicentenary of its birth, Ian Thomson hails its founder, who inspired many artists and writers, including Wordsworth
Saturday January 31, 2004
In January 1804, 200 years ago, the West Indian island of Saint Domingue became the world's first black republic. The African slaves toiling on the sugar plantations overthrew their French masters and declared independence. Following the revolt, the name Saint Domingue was replaced by the aboriginal Indian word Haiti (meaning "mountainous land") and the Haitian flag created when the white band was ripped from the French tricolour.
This new year marked the bicentennial of Haiti's independence. In spite of widespread political violence, buildings across the republic were daubed in patriotic reds and blues. The South African president, Thabo Mbeki, attended government festivities in the Haitian capital and Fidel Castro sent a congratulatory telegram. The main airport has been renamed "Toussaint L'Ouverture" after the Haitian slave leader and national hero.
A gifted military strategist, Toussaint L'Ouverture fought and defeated the three mighty empires of France, Britain and Spain to transform Haiti into a cradle of liberty for enslaved Africans everywhere. This was half a century before the American civil war liberated the slaves of the United States. Patrick Leigh Fermor hailed L'Ouverture as the "black Spartacus" after the slave who challenged Rome; for others he is a herald of Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King.
No portraits of L'Ouverture were drawn from life, so we have little idea of what he looked like. Today, despite his historical legacy, he is barely recognised in the west. Yet he was the subject of many books and poems from his death in 1803 until the 19th century's end. For the Romantics, L'Ouverture was the morning star of a new era for the Americas and an emblem of slavery's hoped-for abolition.
In 1935, in Harlem, Orson Welles staged an African version of Macbeth in which Macduff was portrayed as a princely L'Ouverture. The Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, in his dazzling novel, The Kingdom of this World (1949), celebrated him as the father of African emancipation. And in the 1970s the rock band Santana dedicated half a triple album to L'Ouverture. But these tributes pale beside the work of the great Trinidad-born cricket commentator and historian CLR James, whose pioneering account of L'Ouverture and his rebel armies, The Black Jacobins (1938), showed how the struggle among European powers to dominate the new world was mirrored in L'Ouverture's Saint Domingue.
According to James, L'Ouverture was born in northern Haiti in 1743 as the grandson of a captured African chieftain. A slave until he was 45, he rode his horse so well, he was known as the centaur of the savannahs. In early childhood he had taught himself to read and was familiar with Caesar's military writings as well as the polemics of the French abolitionist Abbé Reynal.
Like most Haitians today, L'Ouverture was a voodooisant or adept of voodoo, a peaceable creed that marries Catholicism with African animism. Most historians agree that Haiti's slaves first rose up in rebellion under a Jamaican voodoo priest named Boukman. On the night of August 15 1791, Boukman called on the spirits of ancestral Africa to punish the plantocracy. L'Ouverture was said to have taken part in this ceremony and within six weeks the island's rebel slave armies had begun their 12-year struggle for freedom; that night, a thousand French whites were reportedly massacred and their plantations set ablaze.
L'Ouverture led the only successful slave revolt in modern history. What made it possible? The French Revolution of 1789-91 had proclaimed equality among all men; slavery was now an intolerable injury to human nature, and in 1794 the National Assembly in Paris ordered the French in colonial Saint Domingue to liberate their slaves. They refused: Haiti was too valuable. L'Ouverture vowed to defeat the enemies of the new French Republic, but encountered fierce resistance. The prospect of a free black state founded on the murder and expulsion of its white community horrified these French colonials as surely as it did all the western world. It was not until 1862 that the US recognised Haiti's independence.
In 1793, fearful that L'Ouverture's revolt would spread to the neighbouring British slave colony of Jamaica, and hoping to add the island to his own Caribbean possessions, King George III sent 27,000 troops to Haiti. The ensuing occupation turned out to be one of the greatest (if still least known) catastrophes of British imperial history. Tropical disease killed George III's Redcoat soldiers in their thousands before finally they capitulated to L'Ouverture. It was the first time in history that a European army had surrendered to a black general, and the defeat inspired William Blake's anti-royalist poem "America: A Prophecy", dated 1793:
Let the slave grinding at the mill run out into the field;
Let him look up into the heavens and laugh in the bright air.
A portrait of L'Ouverture, painted by the modern Haitian artist Wilson Bigaud, shows him in a scarlet uniform coat and plumed military hat, as he turns his gaze faithfully towards the French tricolour and away from the union jack. Napoleon's military failures in Egypt and the East had redoubled his determination to build a new dominion in the Americas. L'Ouverture had always acted as Napoleon's faithful envoy, but when, in May 1801, he declared himself governor for life of the island, the first consul was outraged.
In the winter of 1801, in flagrant violation of the principles of the French Revolution, Napoleon abandoned his support of the Haitian uprising and organised an expedition to overthrow L'Ouverture and his enfranchised slaves. The French set sail a week before Christmas from the harbours of Brest, Rochefort, Lorient and Toulon. L'Ouverture ("a maggot in a rag", Bonaparte's officers called him) should be clapped in irons, or perhaps carried to Paris in a golden cage and exhibited at the newly opened Jardin des Plantes. James Stephen MP, brother-in-law of the British abolitionist William Wilberforce, argued that Napoleon's counter-revolution in Haiti involved "interests more awfully important to the blacks than ever before gave violence and durability to the quarrels of mankind".
L'Ouverture was not to be fooled. He set fire to coastal towns and awaited the invaders in the interior. When the French landed they assumed the entire island was ablaze. Lady Nugent, the American wife of Jamaica's British governor, watched aghast as the conflagration raged. "It seems that Toussaint's plan is to distress the French as much as possible," she wrote in her journal, adding: "It makes me shudder to think of the horrible bloodshed and misery that must take place before anything can be settled in that wretched island."
Six months into Napoleon's invasion, on June 7 1802, the trap was set. Despite warnings from his allies, L'Ouverture agreed to discuss administrative matters with the French at their colonial headquarters in Cap-Français (today Cap-Haïtien). Once there, he was handcuffed and put on a frigate, aptly named The Hero, bound for France. No mercy was shown him; for five months he languished in a dungeon overlooking the Swiss frontier in the Jura mountains of France. On Bonaparte's orders he was humiliated by his jailers, dressed in convict's clothes and denied firewood.
News of L'Ouverture's imprisonment reached William Wordsworth in Calais that summer, as he sat watching English day-trippers disembark from the Dover packet. His sonnet "To Toussaint L'Ouverture", published in the February 2 1803 edition of the Morning Post, showed a rare sympathy for the "most unhappy Man" who had placed his trust in the French Republic:
Though fallen Thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth and skies;
There's not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou has great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And Love, and Man's unconquerable mind.
From his snow-bound captivity L'Ouverture pleaded with Napoleon for his release. His letters, mostly unanswered, make pitiful reading. "First Consul, father of all French soldiers, my wound is deep, apply a remedy to it." A remedy had already been devised: as the Haitian lay afflicted with pneumonia, all medical attention was abandoned. "The construction of Negroes," Toussaint's jailer declared, "being totally different to that of Europeans, I have dispensed with his doctor and his surgeon who would be useless to him." On April 7 1803 L'Ouverture was found dead on a chair by an empty fireplace. He was 57. "The Black Napoleon," observed the French writer Chateaubriand, "imitated and killed by the White Napoleon." Official cause of death: apoplexy. After 10 months in jail, L'Ouverture did not live to see the proclamation of the Haitian republic.
The slave leader's death became the subject of general horror and indignation throughout liberal Europe. "Perhaps Bonaparte hardly recollects his crime," Madame de Staël confided to her memoirs, "because he has been less approached with it than others." Three decades later, L'Ouverture's first British biographer, the Reverend John Beard, hailed a Christian martyr. "The wide earth will take cognisance of what thou didst attempt and achieve," the clergyman addressed the Haitian hopefully in his Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture (1850), "and pronounce thee a benefactor, not of thy colour, but of thy kind."
Fifteen years later in his St Helena exile Napoleon admitted that his campaign to oust L'Ouverture and restore slavery to Haiti had been a mistake. Yellow fever had devastated his armies and some of them had even defected to the rebel cause, among them 2,500 Polish auxiliaries. After his losses in Haiti Napoleon was forced to sell his territories west of the Mississippi River, notably Louisiana, to the US. That put an end to his dream of a new world empire in the Caribbean. "Damn sugar, damn coffee, damn colonies!" he raged.
If British abolitionists were sympathetic to L'Ouverture, others described him in racist terms. In 1807, three years after L'Ouverture's death, the German writer Heinrich von Kleist was imprisoned as a Prussian spy in the same mountain dungeon. His short story, "Betrothal in Saint Domingue" (1811), betrays an almost visceral loathing of Haiti's revolted slaves. "No acts of tyranny perpetrated by the whites," proclaims a French aristocrat who has lost his wife to the guillotine, "could ever justify the depths of treachery and degradation of those Negroes."
Even Victor Hugo, a democratic republican, belittled L'Ouverture's revolutionary example. In his lurid 1826 romance of the Saint Domingue uprising, Bug-Jargal, slaves ransack the French plantations while L'Ouverture yells brutally in Haitian Creole "Touyé blan yo toute!" (Kill all whites!) Admittedly Hugo had written the novel at 16, to be read aloud at a literary banquet, yet it remains a catalogue of horrors, including ritual decapitations.
Revealingly, it was not only Europeans who sought to undermine L'Ouverture. In his monumental seven-volume Histoire d'Haïti (1848), the Haitian historian Thomas Madiou portrayed the former slave as a "conspirator" with "Machiavellian" (even "bloodily despotic") ambitions. Madiou, who was of mixed race, had spent a privileged childhood in France. And while he recognised L'Ouverture as a great leader, he shared the 19th-century mulatto prejudice against the descendants of African tribes.
Two centuries after independence, Haiti is the battered pauper of the Americas, unimaginably destitute and corrupt. Yet L'Ouverture's spirit hovers over this bicentenaire, and he remains a potent symbol. Haiti's was perhaps the most radical of 18th-century revolutions, yet Britain has shown scarce interest in its anniversary. Elsewhere, though, he has been commemorated. In Little Haiti, Miami, children revere him as the "First of the Blacks", and voodoo shops display effigies of the Black Napoleon with his cavalry sabre and tricorn hat. At Miami's Toussaint L'Ouverture Elementary School, meanwhile, the Haitian red and blue bicolour hangs above a plaque engraved with the liberator's defiant words to Napoleon: "In overthrowing me, you have cut down only the trunk of the Tree of Liberty. It will spring up again by the roots for they are numerous and deep." http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,12084,1134518,00.html