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The elusive Louverture

For sometimes scant evidence, Bell pieces together his path from slave to father of modern Haiti

Toussaint Louverture led the only successful slave revolt in recorded history. Toussaint Louverture led the only successful slave revolt in recorded history. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

Toussaint Louverture: A Biography
By Madison Smartt Bell
Pantheon, 333 pp., $27

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a trio of interconnected revolutions rocked the Atlantic world. The first was the American, and the second the French. The third, the Haitian Revolution, established the second independent postcolonial nation in the Western Hemisphere in 1804 -- and the first in the Americas to be governed by people of African descent. As Madison Smartt Bell notes in his new biography of revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture, the emergence of an independent Haiti constituted the most successful slave revolt in history, sending shock waves through the slaveholding societies of the Americas, including the United States.

The French colony of Saint Domingue occupied the western third of the island of Hispaniola. Its sugar, coffee, and indigo plantations produced fantastic wealth, making it the most lucrative European colony in the Americas. The motor for this wealth was the labor of a half-million black slaves, more than half of whom had been born in Africa.

As Bell, the author of a trilogy of novels about the Haitian Revolution, ably demonstrates, the society of Saint Domingue in the late 18th century was extraordinarily complex, ethnically, socially, and politically. Most of the colony's wealth was concentrated in the hands of the large plantation owners, the so-called grands blancs, who were generally royalist in their politics. A class of striving white merchants and artisans known as the petits blancs tended to support the emerging French Revolution while remaining invested in the slave system. There also existed a significant group of mixed European and African ancestry, the gens du couleur, for the most part the descendants of grand blanc slave masters and slave women.

The gens du couleur, too, were often planters and slave owners with significant, if ambiguous, ties to their grand blanc relatives. While they fought for their own equality, the gens du couleur were often ambivalent at best about the rights of the black majority that formed more than 85 percent of the population. Even this black majority was divided between a small group of those who either had been born free or had gained their freedom and the vastly greater number who labored in slavery. The former group, which included Toussaint (who learned to read and write at an early age), often rivaled the gens du couleur economically while retaining an inferior social status. The black majority was also divided between the somewhat larger portion that had been born in Africa and the creoles born on the island.

Rising from a slave to a prosperous landowner, Toussaint threw in his lot with the black masses in their revolt against the abuses of the slave system on the Northern Plain of Saint Domingue, developing into an astute and sometimes ruthless and self-interested military and political leader. He needed these qualities to negotiate the treacherous path between the colonial powers of France, Great Britain, and Spain, and the new nation of the United States, between grands blancs, petits blancs, mixed-race gens du couleur, and black slaves and free men and women, between royalists, republicans, and Bonapartists.

One of the great strengths of Bell's book is the way it succinctly delineates and animates the swiftly changing alliances and conflicts inside and outside the island as Toussaint and his forces successfully battle French, Spanish, British, planter, and gens du couleur armies. Though Toussaint died a captive of Napoleon in 1803 after, perhaps intentionally, walking into a French trap, the forces he did much to set in motion ultimately triumphed over Bonaparte's armies that same year in what might be the greatest defeat of European colonialism in the 19th century. The Republic of Haiti (from the old Taino name for Hispaniola) declared its independence on Jan. 1, 1804 .

One of the great challenges that Bell faced in writing the biography is that Toussaint was a notoriously guarded man who seldom revealed his deeper emotions and motivations. In addition, many of the contemporary accounts of him were written by detractors. As a result Bell is often forced to speculate about Toussaint's inner life (his religious beliefs in a culture in which Catholicism and the syncretic African-American vodou were widely and often simultaneously practiced, for example) in ways that are not as satisfying as his narration and explication of complex historical events -- though to his credit, Bell's speculations are generally clearly labeled as such. At times, too, when Bell moves away from Haiti to a larger frame, his touch is not as sure. For example, Négritude was not, as he describes, a " pan-Caribbean" movement, but a Francophone pan-African movement that included artists, activists, and intellectuals from Africa and the Americas. Also, his tendency to describe various African peoples from a range of economies, polities, and social structures as "tribes" seems anachronistic.

Still, as the first English-language biography of Toussaint in decades, "Toussaint Louverture" is an excellent introduction to one of the great, if elusive, personalities of history, one who was central to the epoch-making events of the Haitian Revolution. While the significance of Toussaint and the revolution remains obscure to many white Americans, as Bell points out in his afterword, it remains very much in the minds of artists and intellectuals of African descent in this hemisphere even now.

James Smethurst teaches in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.