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  • "Our Hero":Toussaint Louverture in British Representations
  • Grégory Pierrot

For most students and scholars outside of Haiti, finding out about the Haitian Revolution remains to this day an epiphany of sorts. To be sure, however much one learns of other countries' histories depends on personal interest and access to documents and information, but comparing the historical importance of the Haitian Revolution to what little credit it is given outside of higher education never fails to provoke deep incredulity. Not only did the former slaves of Santo Domingo defeat three of the most powerful countries of their time, they also created the first independent Caribbean nation. As students of the Haitian Revolution come across the "innumerable popular and partisan works"1 inspired by the revolution and its charismatic leader Toussaint Louverture, they often feel that they are (re)discovering an event buried in historical record. This feeling, of course, is quite paradoxical: from its beginning in 1791, the Haitian Revolution was followed closely across the world; journalists covered the events as they unfolded, politicians discussed it in the courts and parliaments of Europe and America, authors used it as background for their stories, and philosophers as fodder for theory. The recent resurgence in scholarly interest in the Haitian Revolution cannot hide the fact that authors never stopped writing about it. The revolution, this whole time, was hiding in plain sight, covered by the very pages written about it. The Haitian Revolution has always been a thorn in the side of Western liberal democracy for the way it revealed contradictions inherent to the Enlightenment. Impossible to defeat militarily, Haiti was mastered culturally in a process that started with the revolution itself.

In the bibliography of The Black Jacobins, the groundbreaking historiography of the Haitian Revolution first published in 1938, C. L. R. James mentions that "during the Napoleonic war, Marcus Rainsford and James Stephen wrote panegyrics of Toussaint in English. These books are little more than propaganda pamphlets."2 James's scathing assessment of Stephen's [End Page 581] 1803 Buonaparte in the West Indies; or the History of Toussaint Louverture, the African Hero3 and Rainsford's 1805 Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti is not wide of the mark, and it is echoed by Geggus's comments some fifty years later. Stephen at least recognized that the ulterior motive in writing his book was to sway British opinion against Napoleon at a time when the French leader had found short-lived popularity across the English Channel. Yet, the very fact that these publications seem to James so clearly partisan is what makes them especially interesting. These books, among other literary and pictorial treatments of the Haitian Revolution, participated actively in the deliberate obfuscation of Haitian history that C. L. R. James eventually did so much to reverse. Ironically, this obfuscation was organized around the appropriation of Toussaint Louverture by British culture. Studying Toussaint's representations in British contexts is crucial to uncover the role Haitian general Toussaint played in this process. In caricatures, newspaper articles, and books of the time, Toussaint was systematically presented as a British figure, in spirit if not in fact. Simultaneously, in making Toussaint into a lone hero separated from his political actions and background, journalists and writers were working on the erasure of the Haitian Revolution from British history. In the last years of his life, but even more so immediately after his death, Toussaint Louverture was turned into a British literary character to neutralize his political legacy and dissolve it into British culture and hegemony.

The Rise of Toussaint

The British expedition in the Caribbean was at first a success: early in 1793, British troops had managed to take over most French possessions in the Caribbean, with strong support from the local white planters. The tide turned when the French Convention officially abolished slavery in all French colonies in February 1794. On hearing the news around June of the same year, Toussaint Louverture joined the French side and rekindled the war against the British, who at that point had all but completely defeated the French.4 Toussaint's name was mentioned for the first time in British documents in October 1793...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-0342
Print ISSN
0011-1589
Pages
pp. 581-607
Launched on MUSE
2009-05-06
Open Access
No
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