Saturday, November 8, 2014

Toussaint Louverture

Fig.1: "Turn around, the revolt is
back there!"
There are a lot of sucky things about slavery. But probably the worst part about it of all was that once you were a slave, chances are you'd be a slave for the rest of your life. Sure, there have been a bunch of slave revolts throughout history, but rarely do they get very far, and even the "successful" ones get squashed in the end (just ask Spartacus, if you can pinpoint which one he is). The glaring exception is the revolt against colonialism and forced servitude on the Caribbean island now known as Hispaniola, led by a man who called himself Toussaint Louverture (fig.1). While he was not a slave at the time the revolt began, nor did he initiate the revolt, nor did he live to see it finish (man, that's a lot of qualifiers), his impact on the events in French-held Saint-Domingue from 1791 to 1804 led directly to the independence and rule by former slaves in the western part of the island, now called Haiti. As such, he is considered to be a founding father of his country, on par with contemporaries like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (I see no irony there whatsoever).

Sources credit Toussaint's father, Gaou Guinou, as being a prince in West Africa before being captured in war and sold into slavery (talk about a fall from grace). He was brought to the French colony of Saint-Domingue, which, like most colonies in the Caribbean, relied on forced labor to cultivate the money-making but bad-for-your-teeth crops of sugar, coffee, and tobacco. Sometime in the 1740s, he fathered a son who was named François-Dominique Toussaint by the happy French planters who were super excited about having a nice strong boy do all the work for them for the next ten to fifty years. Though rare for a slave, Toussaint was given a pretty decent education by another slave, Pierre Baptiste, and later demonstrated an acute understanding of the French language, political theory, Greek philosophy, and square dancing from that one week in gym class. Without specifying why, records show that he became a free man around 1776, and continued to work as an overseer on the plantation for actual money (that's a nice thing to receive in return for one's services). Toussaint appears to have gained a decent bit of wealth by 1790, and strangely might have had slaves of his own! It's like we're swimming in irony here!

Fig.2: The island was divided into the French colony of Saint-Dominque on the left, 
the Spanish colony of  Santo Domingo on the right, and the small Pig Latin 
settlement of Aintsay Ominicday on the southeast coast.
Like most everything else in the world, things changed following the French Revolution starting in 1789. Slaves who saw the French promoting French things like Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité wanted a piece of that Frenchy action, and rose in revolt against their French planters. Though a free man himself, Toussaint decided to join the rebel army as a doctor, and served under the revolt's leader, Georges Biassou. Toussaint worked his way up the ranks like someone who deserves to have me write a history about him, and was given his own force to command as well as his own fort to construct out of the couch cushions. He was also instrumental in securing an alliance with the Spanish part of the island, called Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) to invade and help liberate the slaves. It was during this time that Toussaint adopted the cognomen "Louverture" (l'ouverture meaning "the opening"); it is argued if it was for his ability to finding openings during battle, for the gap in his front teeth, or for the title of the crummy low-budget horror film he made with his friends freshman year.

Fig.3: Looking at Sonthonax's figure,
accents weren't the only thing he was
But just as the rebellion against the French was getting good, the National Assembly in France suddenly proclaimed in 1794 that slavery was now illegal in the colonies. This convinced Toussaint that he was better off going to the other side, and all of a sudden he went from fighting with the invading Spanish against the French to fighting with the French against the invading Spanish (what a flip-flopper!). Since Georges Biassou remained on the Spanish side, the two were now enemies; Toussaint defeated Biassou in battle, and he fled to the beaches of Florida to live out his retirement playing Parcheesi and shuffleboard. Toussaint soon became the leader of the formerly enslaved population, and openly welcomed French representatives from the revolutionary government, led by accent-hog Léger-Félicité Sonthonax (fig.3). He and Sonthonax got along swimmingly at first, but they came to argue over the role of former slaveholders; the Frenchman wanted them banished as enemies of the Revolution, but Toussaint thought their presence could be useful to provide an economic backbone for the colony, and even personally ensured the return of his former master as the ultimate example of "let's have bygones be bygones." Sonthonax got fed up and was forced to buy tickets for two seats on his return trip to France the next year.

Things were now looking up for Toussaint. While Saint-Domingue was still a French colony, he basically had free reign over the land, and was made president for life. He scored favorable treaties with both Great Britain and the United States in 1798, who promised recognition in return for more teeth-rotting sugar. In 1801, he invaded the Spanish Santo Domingo side, and soon brought the entire island under his rule. To top it all off, Toussaint claimed he had fathered sixteen children with a bunch of different women by this time, proving he was adept at playing more of the field than just the battlefield. But the tables turned with the rise of a little-known historical figure named Napoleon Bonaparte. He announced he would making small changes to the laws of France and its colonies, and dropped tiny hints that slavery might be reintroduced in the Caribbean. Toussaint countered this by appointing an assembly to write a new constitution, which reaffirmed the colony's position in the French Empire but proclaimed that, "There can be no slaves in this territory, servitude is therein forever abolished. All men are born, live and die free and French" (I could get behind the free part, but you can keep the French). Of course, Napoleon got a bit annoyed by this, and let loose his short temper by sending 20,000 soldiers to the island.

Fig.4: It was a lot less confusing when they fought 
battles in straight lines.
As with most people to make themselves "president for life," Toussaint had a few enemies that, while they appreciated the whole no slavery thing, didn't take too kindly to all the power grabbing. These folks helped the French force, led by Napoleon's brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc, achieve victories over Toussaint's army who lost a lot of that rebellious edge that worked so well for them before. In May 1802, Toussaint received a letter from a French general that if he showed up to surrender, he would be treated fairly and equally. In good faith, he did just that, but Leclerc had orders to arrest him and deport him to France, so he did just that. As Toussaint boarded the French frigate and departed from his homeland, he demonstrated his knowledge of metaphors by saying:
In overthrowing me you have cut down in Saint Domingue only the trunk of the tree of liberty; it will spring up again from the roots, for they are numerous and they are deep. 
While initially laughed off with calls of, "Is this guy serious?" Toussaint's words were backed up by massive epidemic of yellow fever that killed many Frenchmen, including Leclerc. Soon, a coalition of former slaves under the command of Toussaint's lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, achieved a final victory at the Battle of Vertières in November 1803 (fig.4). With Napoleon's invasion proving quite stunted in growth, French forces fled the island, and Saint-Domingue became the independent nation of Haiti. And so Toussaint Louverture's dream of permanent freedom and independence for his people was finally accomplished.

Fig.5: Toussaint always presented
his book reports with confidence.
Except he sadly wasn't around to see it. Toussaint would die imprisoned in the east of France in April 1803, either from mistreatment and malnutrition (if you talk to the Haitians) or regular old pneumonia and tuberculosis (if you talk to the French).  Dessalines would take up his mantle to become the Emperor of Haiti, ruling with an iron fist until his assassination in 1806 (his heavy fist made it difficult to run away from the gunman). Even though Toussaint would not live to see the nation he helped create, it is doubtful that the world's only successful slave revolt would have made it so far without his strong leadership and upright posture (fig.5). Yes, Haiti might just be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, but one thing that Haitian people possess in abundance is pride, and this could very well stem from the success and confidence exerted by their founding father: Toussaint Louverture. Now if only they could buy food with that.

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