BIOGRAPHY | TOUSSAINT LOUVERTURE
THE NOVELIST HUMANIZES THE PERSON BEHIND THE LEGEND OF HAITI'S INDEPENDENCE
BY MICHAEL DEIBERT
Toussaint Louverture: A Biography. Madison Smartt Bell. Pantheon. 352 pages. $27.
http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/en ... 500645.htm
Novelist Madison Smartt Bell's new biography of Haiti's independence hero Toussaint Louverture attempts to lift the veils of romance and symbolism from one of history's most compelling figures to examine the man beneath. It largely succeeds in its long overdue re-examination of one of the central individuals of that tumultuous nation's earliest days.
Perhaps no figure in Haitian history has been as much wrapped in myth and legend as Louverture, and Bell, author of a trilogy of historical novels chronicling some of the major personalities of the Haitian revolution, goes a long way toward humanizing the character of the freed slave whose challenge to the armies of the European powers would eventually result in the only successful slave rebellion in history and the establishment of an independent nation in 1804, a victory Louverture never lived to see.
Though Bell's initial descriptions of Haiti's pre-Columbian civilization are somewhat pedestrian, he soon hits his stride in detailing the complicated and often absurd color scale of the slave-holding society into which Louverture, claimed by some to be the descendant of an Arada king, was born as ''Toussaint Bréda,'' after the Bréda plantation where he was enslaved. He chose the moniker Louverture -- ''the opening'' -- many years later.
Freed from slavery 17 years before the outset of the Haitian revolt, Louverture was, Bell reminds us, ''a member of a very small group: free blacks who owned slaves as well as property.'' Why and how he sought to make common cause with other like-minded rebel leaders such as Jean-Francois Papillion and Georges Biassou -- masterfully resurrected from historical obscurity by Bell -- forms one of the book's most intriguing questions.
At times leaning heavily on the work of the anthropologist Gérard Barthelemy and historian Gerard Laurent, Bell illuminates many of the long-forgotten minutiae of the Haitian revolution. If he may occasionally be faulted for belaboring some of his points -- the description of a minor 1796 skirmish outside of the city of Port-de-Paix drags on for many pages -- he nevertheless must be saluted for his elucidation of the effect that Louverture's blending of European and African styles of command and authority had on Haiti's independence struggle.
Seeking to counter the misconception that the leaders of Haiti's revolt were ''a gang of supposedly ignorant, illiterate and generally uncivilized blacks,'' Bell brilliantly evokes the bitter eloquence of the writing of Haiti's revolutionary leadership, as is evidenced in a passage from a July 1792 letter signed by the rebel generals Jean-Francois and Biassou (as well as, curiously, Louverture's 14-year-old nephew Belair) to the representatives of the French government: ``Under the blows of your barbarous whip we have accumulated for you the treasures you enjoy in this colony; the human race has suffered to see what barbarity you have treated men like yourself -- yes, men -- over whom you have no right except that you are stronger and more barbaric than we are. For too long we have borne your chains without thinking of shaking them off, but any authority which is not founded on virtue and humanity, and which only tends to subject one's fellowman to slavery, must come to an end, and that end is yours.''
The Louverture we see in these pages comes across as resilient, brave and politically savvy , switching allegiance between French and the Spanish colonial forces with dizzying speed and eventually uniting the entire island under his rule before being shipped off to ignoble exile and imprisonment in France by Napoleon's brother-in-law, General Charles Leclerq. With Louverture spirited out of Haiti and imprisoned in a jail amidst the Jura Mountains, Bell writes movingly of the petty humiliations the courageous Louverture was forced to endure at the behest of the pint-sized French tyrant: Stripped of his military uniform and given peasant rags to wear, fed meager rations and given inadequate heating during a brutal French winter, Louverture died in prison in April 1803.
When Bell attempts to bring Louverture's legacy up to the present day, his footing is less sure, and he unquestioningly repeats popular myths regarding Haiti's recent history that, coming after such detailed and comprehensive analysis of its distant past, strike the reader as disappointingly facile. One is left wishing that Bell had displayed as much interest in the nuances of the democratic struggle in Haiti's second century as he did in its outset, but the overall effect doesn't diminish the value of what has come before.
Despite its imperfections, though, the biography serves as a well-researched and timely reminder that Haiti's political travails are no recent phenomenon, and that human beings, however symbolic they may become, are creatures of complex motivation, not easily summed up by the empty sloganeering that has characterized much of the recent debate on Louverture's tormented homeland. Before there was the legend, there was the man, and Bell's book does all students of Haiti a favor by bringing a bit of him back to public consciousness.
Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti.