- Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life by Philippe Girard
The Saint Domingue or Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804 is now recognized by historians as central to any proper understanding of the transformations that shook the economic and political foundations of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. Haitian revolutionary studies is a burgeoning field that continues to open new and challenging avenues of research on the revolution and its wider implications. This has not always been the case. Scholarly engagement with Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the revolution and one of the most extraordinary figures to emerge from that period, is illuminating. In the preface to his classic work The Black Jacobins, first published in 1938, C. L. R. James wrote of him "that between 1789 and 1815, with the single exception of [Napoléon] Bonaparte himself, no single figure appeared on the historical stage more greatly gifted than this Negro, a slave till he was 45."1 Astonishingly, nearly seventy years passed before the publication of another scholarly English-language biography of the man who reshaped the destinies of France's half-million slaves and altered the course of global history.
Philippe Girard's Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life is the second scholarly biography since James's.2 Based on extensive archival research in numerous countries and multiple languages and extensive consultation of contemporaneous accounts, memoirs, and secondary sources, it offers a revisionist counternarrative to the exceptionalist view of Louverture as a principled slave emancipationist, black nationalist, and precursor of Haitian independence. In this, the book breaks new ground and goes a long way toward demythologizing the revolutionary leader. It seeks to present Louverture as a multifaceted individual who fought slavery according to his own rationale but, once in power, maintained the colonial plantation system and kept the emancipated laborers in a state of semiserfdom. In Girard's account, Louverture's role as an emancipator was only a momentary identity. He could also direct his experience of slavery in other directions; for example, having learned the art of deceit early on during his days as a slave, he later deployed it in Machiavellian fashion as a politician in his dealings with foreign powers. Girard's Louverture is thus a pragmatist and opportunist, motivated by personal concerns for his own well-being and that of his family rather than ideals or principles, driven by ambition and the quest for power throughout most of his life. [End Page 790]
Above all, according to Girard, this pragmatism was directed toward Louverture's desire to be accepted into and respected by white planter society. This claim runs through the book almost as a leitmotif to explain many of Louverture's seemingly paradoxical positions with regard to the planter class. Thus from his early beginnings as a slave, and then as a freedman, property owner, and slaveholder, Louverture strove to work his way up in the racially stratified slave society of Saint Domingue and overcome the humiliations of his origins. Girard sees his identity as fully altering with his social advancement; because he had once leased a plantation with slaves before the revolution broke out, Girard suggests he had actually become "one of them" (66). Although Girard acknowledges it would be a mistake to depict Louverture exclusively as an elite individual cut off from the realities of slavery, this portrayal effectively underlies Girard's overall assessment of him as "a citizen of the modern, capitalist world" (82). Colonial Saint Domingue was indeed part of an expanding world of trade, commerce, and imperialist politics, and both the revolution and its paramount leader were certainly shaped by the forces of that age. But Girard goes further to imply that Louverture was himself a member of the modern capitalist bourgeoisie, emphasizing his identity as a slave trader, property owner, exploiter of labor, and "the richest individual in the colony [Saint Domingue]" (193), and possibly "one of the richest men in the Americas" (1).
Girard's revisionism takes aim at Louverture's purported adherence to the lofty ideals typically associated with him. In particular, Louverture's attitude toward...