Haiti's Mythical Man

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Michael Deibert

Haiti's Mythical Man

Post by Michael Deibert » Thu Feb 01, 2007 2:56 am





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.

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Welcome back MD

Post by Leoneljb » Thu Feb 01, 2007 7:59 am

MD, you were MIA for quite a while! Anyway, Welcome back!

I am wondering between Toussaint and the other Generals who participate at our Independence, which approach was better?

It seems to me that Dessalines, Petion, Christophe and the Heroes of the Independence were more Warriors and all. But Toussaint was the Diplomat or a great Thinker.

Perhaps, Bonaparte would have had a better chance dealing with the latter...

Well, we cannot rewrite History. This is a comparison or a parallel which is in the back head of a lot of us.

L'union fait la Force,


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Post by Guysanto » Fri Feb 02, 2007 12:02 pm

[quote]I am wondering between Toussaint and the other Generals who participate at our Independence, which approach was better?[/quote]

What sort of approach are you talking about :

- Approach to Haiti's independence?
Consider that the approach was collective, under a unified leadership, and that it resulted in the unthinkable: the abolishment of slavery in the colony and the creation of a free and autonomous African State among European colonies in the Americas. In the mind of most men at the time, that must have been as unthinkable as David prevailing over Goliath in a fight to the finish. In the face of such “catastrophic success” against overwhelming odds, would we second guess David's strategy or choice of weapon? I think not. In that same vein, when it comes to freedom from toiling under the whip of European Masters, be they French, Spanish, or British, it serves no useful purpose to speculate about other directions, because none might have led to August 1791, May 2003, November 2003, and January 2004.

- Approach to governance after the establishment of an independent state?
There is no question that Toussaint's uncontested skills in governance were sorely missed at the dawn of a new era for newly emancipated former slave-objects, now considered free citizens. There is also no question that Dessalines, Christophe and Pétion had vastly different styles of governing and that they were gifted in different ways. There is no doubt that Haiti would have had a more glorious start if our Founding Fathers had managed peace between themselves and honored their commitments to serve under one political leadership (for a considerable number of years, at least) while establishing a model of succession other than the "ôtes-toi que je m'y mette" compulsion that took roots immediately in our political culture and led to the generalized mistrust and runaway political ambitions that have afflicted our nation's history.

Elements, inimical to Haiti because of their slave-holding or colonial interests, from France, England, Spain, Germany, and the United States came through as many doors as were left unguarded to contribute to our destabilization, as our gatekeepers busied themselves with plotting against each other.

What if…?
To speculate that any individual general's approach post the revolutionary period would have yielded more benefits to the Haitian people is frivolous because in reality none of the post-1804 and pre-Francois-Duvalier leaders was able to dominate the political landscape. As you say, we cannot rewrite History and if we could, it's highly improbable that we would have done better than our forefathers. Let's learn from their major successes and from their significant failures, and thank heaven for the lessons. With this knowledge, we can look forward and do what is in our power to do and do it well, because we too will be subjected to the scrutiny of future generations.

Michael Deibert

Post by Michael Deibert » Mon Feb 05, 2007 6:02 am

Not M.I.A. Leonel, just busy! But thank you for the welcome!

All of the Haitian leaders were special characters, to be sure, as were many other figures in Haiti's history, but it is true, Toussaint seemed to be some special sort of magic.

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What if...

Post by Leoneljb » Fri Feb 16, 2007 8:45 am

Sometimes, I wonder if Toussaint were alive for a couple of years longer, what would have happened to Him or Haiti?

Would he be killed by one or all of his Generals who didn't like his approach to Independence?

Or, would He be able to deal with the Brits, Spanish and French altogether?

I believe that Toussaint's approach was, it won't be easy to jump from Slave to being Master... In other words, there are a lot things which could have been beneficial from those superpowers at that time.

I believe that it was the beginning of Industrialization! Would the Imperialists deal with a bunch of Slaves?

Well, anyway it is a lot of "What If".

Is Freedom (whatever it means) better than Mutual Respect or Acceptance?

Does Independence and Freedom coincide? Which is better?

For instance, your Son/Daughter is Free to choose His/her life. But, not Independent if He/She expects Money from You.

Haiti is Independent. But, I don't know about Freedom.

L'Union fait la Force,


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