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Toussaint Louverture: A Biography by Madison…
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Toussaint Louverture: A Biography

by Madison Smartt Bell

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"Madison Smartt Bell offers us another magnific insight into Haitian society. His biography of Toussaint Louverture combines the magic of fiction with impeccable erudition"
  LASC | Feb 12, 2013 |
"Toussaint Louverture" (Pantheon, 333 pages, $27) is a beautifully composed discourse on a revolutionary world, a work in a class all its own. Madison Smart Bell's sentences seem suffused with the steamy intrigue and violence of Saint Domingue, the French name for 18th century Haiti.

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Reunion Des Musees Nationaux / Art Resource, NY
Toussaint Louverture emerged as the hero from the Haitian Revolution, only to become a dictator, Carl Rollyson writes in a review of Madison Smart Bell’s ‘Toussaint Louverture’. Above, a detail of an engraving of Louverture by an anonymous artist.

Toussaint Louverture (c. 1743–1803) arose from the murk of events as mysteriously and as forcefully as Faulkner's Thomas Sutpen in "Absalom, Absalom!" Like the "demon" Sutpen, a refugee planter from the West Indies ruthlessly establishing his kingdom in southern Mississippi, Louverture was like a "voudou" spirit, exploding on the colonial scene: "Toussaint slept for no more than two hours a night, and his endurance, both in the saddle and in the office, was astounding to all who encountered it." Toussaint had the mind of an administrator but also the tactical skills of a great general.

Toussaint, in Mr. Bell's prose, figures as a Nietzschean superman in a hurry. He was in his 50s when a half million Haitian slaves rose up against their oppressors in 1794. But Toussaint, a Creole, had already been free for a good decade before the mass revolt. He was built like a jockey, and seems to have made himself invaluable to his white owners because he was so good with horses and on horses. This skill served him well: He appeared, in his revolutionary heydey, to be everywhere at once. No one could pin him down.

But Toussaint had owned slaves. He was not a nationalist. And it is not clear to Mr. Bell that Toussaint ever wanted independence for his land. So what did Toussaint want, and why did he, like Napoleon, emerge from the ranks of the revolution to become its dictator? He played one faction off another in Machiavellian fashion while at the same time demonstrating a strategic skill in deploying troops and negotiating victories without taking many casualties. Like Bonaparte, he believed he had to take charge among rivals that were tearing one another apart.

To begin, Toussaint wanted to preserve a plantation system in which ex-slaves would return to their labors as free men reasonably compensated for their work.

Mr. Bell does not say why Toussaint favored such a moderate solution, but I infer from the narrative that since Toussaint himself had prospered in the ancien régime, a political solution had to be found that did not destroy the economic basis of his civilization.

But Toussaint also had to deal with a fragmented body politic that would have tested the wits of any political genius: a Byzantine color grid of 64 gradations of gens de couleur (colored people) that inevitably fomented rivalries that had Toussaint negotiating at his Machiavellian best; a rancorous relationship between the grande blancs and the petits blancs, "a population of merchants, artisans, sailors, international transients, and fortune seekers," and a French colonial administration that see-sawed between free-theblacks radicals and return-themto-slavery reactionaries.

Still, I did not realize just how complicated Toussaint was until Mr. Bell's last chapter, where he deftly describes how earlier Toussaint biographies made Toussaint out to be a saint or devil. He is neither one in Mr. Bell's book. Instead, as in the progress of "Absalom, Absalom!," in which Sutpen and the circumstances he encountered become steadily more complex as more narrators interact with one another to tell his story, Toussaint becomes caught up in events that are partly the result of his own duplicity.

Napoleon knew he had two choices: work with Toussaint and accept free labor as a consequence, or invade and restore the grande blancs to power. Against his better judgment (or so he claimed in retrospect), Napoleon acceded to the importunate grande blancs and sent General LeClerc to put down Toussaint and bring him back to a French prison.

Toussaint resisted the invasion because the price of French hegemony meant a return to slavery. Mr. Bell suggests that the French forces were not overwhelming — another reason Toussaint saw no need to capitulate. Yet, in the end, Toussaint put himself into French custody, for reasons historians and biographers still debate and which Mr. Bell does not presume to settle.

Judging by his letters, Toussaint thought he could cut a deal with the French. He also rightly believed that a French victory would only be temporary and that the roots of liberty in his land were already deep enough to survive his defeat and demise.

If Toussaint's motivations remain something of an enigma in Mr. Bell's biography, this is all to the good. Like any great novelist, this biographer respects the inscrutability of human nature, thereby elevating the genre of biography to the highest level. ( )
  carl.rollyson | Sep 26, 2012 |
English professor and novelist Madison Smartt Bell's new book, Toussaint Louverture (Pantheon, 2007) is at once a biography of the Haitian Revolution's main leader and at the same time a remarkably useful overall history of that conflict. Louverture makes for an incredibly difficult subject given the paucity of objective sources on his life and legacy, but Bell has handled that dilemma carefully and well.

As Bell notes in his afterword, most portrayals of Louverture show "an extreme Toussaint: either a vicious, duplicitous, Machiavellian figure ... or a military and political genius, autodidact, and self-made man, a wise and good humanitarian who not only led his people to freedom but also envisioned and briefly created a society based on racial harmony, at least two hundred years ahead of its time." What Bell has - I suspect consciously - attempted to do here is tack toward the middle, showing Toussaint (to the extent possible) in his own context.

We don't get a great deal here about the motivations of the man, and to his great credit Bell has refrained from attempting to psycho-analyze his subject. Where there are speculations - and there are some, of necessity - they're carefully noted. In the absence of a huge amount of personal detail, Bell provides a fascinating and detailed account of the incredibly complicated politics of Saint Domingue during the years of revolutionary conflict. The balance of power seemed to be constantly shifting (both between and amongst the groups within the colony and with the various European powers), and Bell has managed to recreate the essence of that without bogging the book down. I do wish that he'd included more about the relationship with the fledging United States, including the support offered by the Adams administration during the early years of the rebellion.

Louverture was and remains an impossible figure to pin down. Was he in fact out to secure an independent St. Domingue? If so, why not declare it (he insisted throughout that he remained loyal to France)? Why did he fall into the trap that led to his arrest and deportation? These questions, unfortunately, will probably never be answered. But Bell's book provides a fresh examination of these and other issues, and is an important introduction to its subject. Recommended.

http://philobiblos.blogspot.com/2007/02/book-review-toussaint-louverture.html ( )
1 vote JBD1 | Feb 27, 2007 |
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Book description
Loin de succomber à la tentation de mythifier le genera lnoir, Madison Smartt Bell , tout en éxaminant les stratégies , souvent controversées ,adoptées par Toussaint , s'emploie à démontrer , archives à l'appui ,que le destin de cet homme d'exception s'enracine authentiquement dans le seul et inébranlanble désir d'aboutir à la liberation des noirs de Saint-Domingue . " Ce Napoléon noir est assurément l'une des plus facinantes figures tant de l'histoire du Nouveau Monde que de celle de l'humanité"
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375423370, Hardcover)

In 1791, Saint Domingue was both the richest and cruelest colony in the Western Hemisphere; more than a third of African slaves died within a few years of their arrival there. Thirteen years later, Haitian rebels declared independence from France after the first--and only--successful slave revolution in history. Much of the success of this uprising can be credited to one man, Toussaint Louverture--a figure about whom surprisingly little is known.

In this fascinating biography, the first about Toussaint to appear in English in more than fifty years, Madison Smartt Bell combines a novelist's passion for his subject with a deep knowledge of the historical milieu that produced the man. Toussaint has been known either as a martyr of the revolution or as the instigator of one of history’s most savagely violent events. Bell shatters this binary perception, producing a clear-eyed picture of a complicated figure.

Toussaint, born a slave, became a slaveholder himself, with associates among the white planter class. Bell demonstrates how his privileged position served as both an asset and a liability, enabling him to gain the love of blacks and mulattoes as "Papa Toussaint" but also sowing mistrust in their minds.

Another of Bell's brilliant achievements is demonstrating how Toussaint’s often surprising actions, such as his support for the king of France even as the French Revolution promised an end to slavery and his betrayal of a planned slave revolt in Jamaica, can be explained by his desire to achieve liberation for the blacks of Saint Domingue.

This masterly biography is a revelation of one of the most fascinating and important figures in New World history.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:00:35 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Presents a biography of Toussaint Louverture that captures the frequently contradictory and complex life of the leader of the late-eighteenth-century Haitian Revolution that became the only successful slave revolt in history.

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