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Looking for Toussaint Louverture

I have a confession to make: I have a personal obsession with the Haitian revolutionary hero Toussaint Louverture, which has taken me from continent to continent in search of the “real” Toussaint Louverture.

My pilgrimage started outside Cap-Haïtien, Haiti’s second-largest town, in the suburb of Haut-du-Cap, where Toussaint Louverture was born a slave in what was then known as French Saint-Domingue. The spot is difficult to miss: a statue of Toussaint Louverture stands just off the road and the high school that now occupies the site bears his name. Toussaint Louverture’s presence is inescapable in Haiti: the main airport in Port-au-Prince is named after him and his likeness adorns various stamp issues and the 20-gourde note.

The man behind the myth is more difficult to trace. The sugar plantation where he was born has mostly disappeared (the last walls were bulldozed a few years ago because the high school principal wanted to extend the recess area). According to most books, he was born on 20 May 1743, exactly 274 years ago. But there is no evidence for this claim in the archives: early sources list various years ranging from 1737 to 1756. His first name, which means “All Saints Day” in French, also suggests that he was born on 1 November, not 20 May. His full name, typically rendered as François Dominique Toussaint Louverture, also owes more to legend than fact: no baptismal record has survived. Like all slaves, he only had a first name (he took on the surname of “Louverture” in the 1790s).

Sources about Toussaint Louverture only become plentiful with the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution in 1791, by which time he was about 50 years old. But his years as a revolutionary did nothing to clarify his record: he defeated French planters, as well as the British and Spanish invaders who tried to re-enslave his people, but he also opposed attempts to export the slave revolt to nearby isles and enforced a strict discipline on the workforce he had helped emancipate. His rhetoric changed markedly whether he addressed elite planters or rebel slaves.

Toussaint_Louverture,_chef_des_insurgés_de_Saint-Domingue
Toussaint Louverture on horseback. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Artistic depictions of Toussaint Louverture at his apex, when he became governor of Haiti in 1801, are equally confounding. They vary widely in appearance, his skin color ranging from very dark to almost white. Most were drawn by people who had never met him; he refused to have his likeness taken.

Archival sources should fill in the blanks, but the many official documents that bear his name often contradict one another. Forced to adapt to the changing circumstances of a revolution, he preferred to hide his true intentions.

Only after Toussaint Louverture was overthrown from office by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1802 did he reflect on his record. Exiled to the fort of Joux on the French-Swiss border, he drafted a lengthy account of his career in his own hand. But even that memoir was more remarkable for its omissions than its revelations: “I was a slave, I dare to declare it”—such was the only reference to his pre-revolutionary life in the text. He passed away on 7 April 1803, taking his secrets with him.

Toussaint Louverture’s cell can still be visited today. It is damp, dark, and gloomy—and mostly empty. For a time, a skull fragment allegedly taken from his remains was on display for the benefit of tourists. That relic was likely a fake—his actual body has been lost.

From Haut-du-Cap to Fort de Joux, Toussaint Louverture is at once omnipresent and elusive. This was intentional—he was purposely deceitful and secretive, which is why it’s so difficult (and fascinating) to pin him down.

As a result, the “real” Toussaint Louverture has been subsumed by mythical alter egos in popular memory. During the revolutionary era, British artists gave him a British officer’s uniform to claim him as their own. Nineteenth-century abolitionists also admired him as an apostle of emancipation, though they chose to Europeanize his features to make him less threatening to white audiences. By contrast, it was his very blackness and martial bearing that made him appealing to US black nationalists and to Haitians, who typically represented him as a black general striking a heroic pose.

Toussaint Louverture’s indefinability has made it easy to re-appropriate him. He is now an international icon. France, which has recently reexamined its implication in plantation slavery, has adopted him as a revolutionary hero: various government-commissioned statues now honor him from Bordeaux (where his son died) to La Rochelle (a prominent slave-trading center). Even Benin, which he never visited, now has a statue honoring “the proud son of Allada” to honor the millions of Africans (including his parents) who were victimized by the slave trade.

These conflicting interpretations of Toussaint Louverture tell us little about the real man. Instead, they serve as a Rorschach test. Tell me which Toussaint Louverture you like, and I’ll tell you who you are.

Full disclosure: the portrait I chose for my office features him as a French revolutionary officer fighting for emancipation and the rights of men.

Featured image credit: “Attack and take of the Crête-à-Pierrot” by Auguste Raffet. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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