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At the end of the 1700s, French Saint Domingue was the richest
and most brutal colony in the Western Hemisphere. A mere twelve years
later, however, Haitian rebels had defeated the Spanish, British, and
French and declared independence after the first—and
only—successful slave revolt in history. Much of the success of
the revolution must be credited to one man, Toussaint Louverture, a
figure about whom surprisingly little is known. In this fascinating
biography, Madison Smartt Bell, award-winning author of a trilogy of
novels that investigate Haiti’s history, combines a
novelist’s passion with a deep knowledge of the historical milieu
that produced the man labeled a saint, a martyr, or a clever opportunist
who instigated one of the most violent events in modern history. The
first biography in English in over sixty years of the man who led the
Haitian Revolution, this is an engaging reexamination of the
controversial, paradoxical leader.

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Reviews for Toussaint Louverture: A Biography:

3

Jul 12, 2009

I don't care for this author at all, he's just not a very good writer. That aside the book appears to be fairly well researched and from what I can tell is an accurate and balanced portrait of Toussaint Louverture.



I first heard about Toussaint while reading A History of African Americans and was very eager to learn more about him. Of course the abbreviated story is 'ex-slave becomes a great military leader undertaking the only successful slave revolt in history, fights a war against Napoleon, I don't care for this author at all, he's just not a very good writer. That aside the book appears to be fairly well researched and from what I can tell is an accurate and balanced portrait of Toussaint Louverture.



I first heard about Toussaint while reading A History of African Americans and was very eager to learn more about him. Of course the abbreviated story is 'ex-slave becomes a great military leader undertaking the only successful slave revolt in history, fights a war against Napoleon, the end." As always the truth is far more nuanced and information about Toussaint is rather sketchy. He was quite a complicated figure and very much like a modern day politician and less like the 'freedom fighter' he is made out to be.



According to Bell, Toussaint was indeed born into slavery but long before the first outbreak of revolution he had obtained his freedom and was actually a fairly well off slave-holding landowner himself. In the first years of the revolution he was quite willing to compromise with the French and re-institute slavery in exchange for freedom for a few leaders of the revolt and an extra day off for slaves. It's only when he reaches a point-of-no-return does he begin to demand total liberty for all, using the rhetoric of the French revolution while still claiming to be a loyalist. He joins the Spanish army and two years later changes sides to the French just after France abolishes slavery. Bell contends the switch had far more to do with political maneuvering for control of the island than anything.



At this point the island is filled with warring factions: French loyalists vs. revolutionary French vs. Spain (which had control of modern day Dominican Republic) vs. the British (who had invaded by this point.) Beside the internal conflicts: wealthy land owners v. poorer class; the large population of somewhat well-off mulattoes v. newly freed Africans (later to erupt into a full scale civil war.) Toussaint is able to gain control of all these factions using a mix of violent repression, political maneuvering and strategic defense. After the British worked out a deal to surrender their territory and weapons to Toussaint (in exchange for his agreement not to interfere with Jamaica -it is rumored Toussaint honored this deal by going as far as warn the British of an upcoming slave revolt on Jamaica- which may or may not be true) and the Spanish left he eventually gained control the entire island. Toussaint's grand plan was to bring many of the white colonists back from exile to provide the technical knowledge needed for the manufacture of white sugar and indigo, but running the plantations with paid labor thus showing the world that slavery was obsolete and could be surpassed by free labor. He was so stuck on this idea that his generals often used very violent means to make it work.



While still claiming to be loyal to France he runs every commission they sent to the island away and this coupled with Napoleon's anger that he negotiated a deal with the British on his own, leads Napoleon to cave into the French colonists' demands (and his own racism and desire to reinstate slavery.) A decision Napoleon would later regret. Toussaint held out for three months against Napoleon's well trained army before frighting them to a stand still and eventually making a deal with them. He was later arrested and sent to France where he died in a prison cell, but at this point the cat was out of the bag, and there was no way to force slavery on a people who had spent the last decade fighting for their freedom.



Toussaint is truly an enigmatic figure full of contradictions, he could only write phonetically but read a very many great philosophical and historically works that he would often quote. He established Catholicism as the official religion but believed just as much in voodoo. He preferred to use strategy and diplomacy to get his way but was brilliant swordsman and general. He at one time owned slaves himself and yet inspired countless slave revolts throughout the Americas by his success.


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5

Sep 26, 2012

"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.

Click Image to Enlarge

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 "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.

Click Image to Enlarge

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. ...more
4

Feb 18, 2008

I first heard of Toussaint Loverture through an interview I had with Chris Webber, star forward for the NBA's Golden State Warriors. He owns manuscript documents penned by Louverture, a General in the French Army on Saint Domingue, now known as Haiti. Louverture is considered a hero for his advocacy of the abolition of black servitude on that Island.

However, Louverture was a complex individual: erudite, ruthless, cynical, brilliant, vain and exceptionally politically astute. He was ironically a I first heard of Toussaint Loverture through an interview I had with Chris Webber, star forward for the NBA's Golden State Warriors. He owns manuscript documents penned by Louverture, a General in the French Army on Saint Domingue, now known as Haiti. Louverture is considered a hero for his advocacy of the abolition of black servitude on that Island.

However, Louverture was a complex individual: erudite, ruthless, cynical, brilliant, vain and exceptionally politically astute. He was ironically a slaveowner himself who maintained strong relations with the white, slave-owning plantation owners on the Island, but nevertheless considered himself an ally of the "nouveau" and "ancient libres" - free blacks on the Island originally liberated by Colonial Governor Leger Felicite Sonthonax. Maintaining this delicate balance between factions, Louverture advocated their continued freedom through the political upheavals of the late 18th century - culminating with the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte saw Louverture as a threat once the latter attempted, through surrogates, to promulgate a constitution for Saint Dominique - which, in Napoleon's mind, called into question Toussaint's loyalty to France.
When combined with the favorable dealings he had with both America and Britain, Louverture was sealing his own fate.

Possessed of great charm, Louverture was equally capable of great cruelty - particularly in the book's denouement, where he and his Generals wholesale slaughter certain of Napoleon's forces in battles leading up to Louverture's capture and transport to France - where he ended his days imprisoned in irons.

Madison Smartt Bell has done an extraordinary job of research (through primary source documents), and has crafted a narrative of what was, in many ways, an unprecedented time in world history; and one which I will freely confess I was quite ignorant about. I would recommend it highly to any and all. I greatly enjoyed it. ...more
4

Nov 02, 2011

I approached this book through American history, somewhat fascinated by the idea that the mysterious Toussaint Louverture was busily leading a slave rebellion only several hundreds of miles away from the U.S., where the issue of slavery was waiting like a ticking time bomb.

The reality is more complex than that. In his book, Bell presents a portrait of a man of hidden character, whose actions embody many contradictory aspects that don't coalesce into a comfortable whole. Granted, a lot of this I approached this book through American history, somewhat fascinated by the idea that the mysterious Toussaint Louverture was busily leading a slave rebellion only several hundreds of miles away from the U.S., where the issue of slavery was waiting like a ticking time bomb.

The reality is more complex than that. In his book, Bell presents a portrait of a man of hidden character, whose actions embody many contradictory aspects that don't coalesce into a comfortable whole. Granted, a lot of this has to do with the fact that the famously tight-lipped Louverture did not leave a lot of written documentation lying around. This leads to a lot of passages where the Bell is left writing "I think it may have gone a little something like this..."

Bell does get a lot of leverage from the documentation he does find. It tracks the course of Louverture's life, from his somewhat privileged upbringing to his eventual marshaling of all the military and political might of Saint-Domingue. The climax of the book is, of course, the bloody, bloody Haitian revolution, which really kickstarts into high-gear with Louverture's arrest and deportation to France.

Unfortunately, this is not the book it could be. It's not always written with the interest of the reader in mind; many passages are dry and recount events rather matter-of-factly. There are also eventually some military diagrams which seem poorly integrated and out-of-order(?).

However, I do like that attempt Bell made to track down the person behind the myths surrounding Louverture. For instance, the introduction of the Vodoun aspects of Louverture's story are treated with a remarkable lack of sensationalism. I'm not sure that Bell is entirely successful, but the attempt caused me to mark this book one star that I otherwise would have. ...more
2

Jan 18, 2010

I really wanted to read up on the history of Haiti, and fast! So I read whatever was closest. This is what I would call a mainstream history; that is, it's a well-researched history based on common assumptions about how the world should work--- that capitalism is good, with a general sense of historical positivism, and that the state is necessary. I would say that you'll come out the other side of this book with a greater understanding about Haiti's troubled past, but I would of course recommend I really wanted to read up on the history of Haiti, and fast! So I read whatever was closest. This is what I would call a mainstream history; that is, it's a well-researched history based on common assumptions about how the world should work--- that capitalism is good, with a general sense of historical positivism, and that the state is necessary. I would say that you'll come out the other side of this book with a greater understanding about Haiti's troubled past, but I would of course recommend a lot of critical thinking while reading it.

Haiti's history is rife with brutality. And not just colonizing brutality, although there's plenty of that too. I kept thinking, "It's like the Poland of the Caribbean." (Ironic, because during the war for independence a large number of Polish mercenaries defected and became Haitian citizens.) Whites, blacks, and mixed race people were constantly pitting each other against each other. Entire villages would occasionally be razed, burned to the ground, and/or slaughtered just for military strategy. Freed black slaves would be later reindentured (by black commanders) to work for free on plantations because they had gotten "lazy" and returned to subsistence farming.

I'm looking forward to reading different perspectives on this history. ...more
0

Feb 05, 2009

Madison Smartt Bell's extensive work on Haitian history makes him the right man to tackle Louverture, an elusive but significant figure. Critics felt, however, that since so little is known about him prior to age 50 (something even Bell himself concedes), Bell might have better served his subject with historical fiction. Instead, he devotes much of the book to dry, academic information instead of dramatic storytelling. Bell's forthright presentation of Louverture's multifaceted personality and

Madison Smartt Bell's extensive work on Haitian history makes him the right man to tackle Louverture, an elusive but significant figure. Critics felt, however, that since so little is known about him prior to age 50 (something even Bell himself concedes), Bell might have better served his subject with historical fiction. Instead, he devotes much of the book to dry, academic information instead of dramatic storytelling. Bell's forthright presentation of Louverture's multifaceted personality and contradictions, however, intrigued critics the most. While reviewers debated the quality of previous biographies, all felt the necessity for something new on Louverture, especially considering his legacy in Haitian and African American cultures and his effect on Napoleonic expansion.

This is an excerpt from a review published in Bookmarks magazine.

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3

Mar 31, 2007

Whew!! It took awhile (3+ months), but I finally finished!! This history of the founder of Haiti, Toussaint Louverture, and the struggle for independence of the first independent black nation was worth plowing through, but, for me, a bit too serious. Too much history, not enough just plain story, I guess. Still, I discovered some interesting insights into "how Haiti got that way", and Martin Smartt Bell, a well-known Haiti scholar and novelist, gives an even-handed treatment of the enigmatic Whew!! It took awhile (3+ months), but I finally finished!! This history of the founder of Haiti, Toussaint Louverture, and the struggle for independence of the first independent black nation was worth plowing through, but, for me, a bit too serious. Too much history, not enough just plain story, I guess. Still, I discovered some interesting insights into "how Haiti got that way", and Martin Smartt Bell, a well-known Haiti scholar and novelist, gives an even-handed treatment of the enigmatic Louverture. I enjoyed reading about places I've actually been and some of the events that shaped the Haiti I have loved for the last 10 years. ...more
4

Nov 22, 2007

Where's the 3.5 star review option? This was a pretty good book about a fascinating subject, and it gave me a great deal of insight into Haiti that I had never had before. Toussaint, the father of the Haitian nation, is a tough figure to write about historically because the record about him is very poor. Most of what has been written is by Europeans, and such a polemical figure inspires demonization or beatification but rarely lucid, even-handed prose. The second half was better than the first, Where's the 3.5 star review option? This was a pretty good book about a fascinating subject, and it gave me a great deal of insight into Haiti that I had never had before. Toussaint, the father of the Haitian nation, is a tough figure to write about historically because the record about him is very poor. Most of what has been written is by Europeans, and such a polemical figure inspires demonization or beatification but rarely lucid, even-handed prose. The second half was better than the first, and I would be prepared to skim parts of this book. ...more
3

Feb 13, 2009

Brave attempt at untangling the amazingly complex factions in the war of Haitian independence. Readable popular but not potboiler history. If Toussaint et al. hadn't fought France to a standstill in Haiti, Napoleon would not have needed to sell Louisiana to Jefferson. And then slavery would have been crammed into just the small scope of the old slave states. And then, no launch pad for Mexican-American War. And then, no Civil War. You get my drift. Bell lets us know that the little sugar island Brave attempt at untangling the amazingly complex factions in the war of Haitian independence. Readable popular but not potboiler history. If Toussaint et al. hadn't fought France to a standstill in Haiti, Napoleon would not have needed to sell Louisiana to Jefferson. And then slavery would have been crammed into just the small scope of the old slave states. And then, no launch pad for Mexican-American War. And then, no Civil War. You get my drift. Bell lets us know that the little sugar island was inadvertantly in the middle of crucial imperial politics. ...more
2

Nov 28, 2009

Eh. Interesting story, but the biography was just not that well written. The chronology was weird so I had a hard time keeping track of the timeline, and Bell would often use redundant phrases (sometimes whole sentences) a few paragraphs apart, which I found really annoying. I could have gotten more (and probably would have been less confused) reading the wikipedia page. Maybe I'm spoiled because I'm also slogging my way through Chernow's Alexander Hamilton bio, which is simply amazing.
0

Feb 18, 2008

Madison Smartt Bell presents a fairly balanced portrayal of a larger-than-life figure in Caribbean and slave-revolution history. it's hard to sit by and read impassive accounts of the atrocities that surge through Haitian history, but Bell's attempt to examine this intense and ambitious man from the perspective of devoted admirers and violent detractors alike is fascinating and thorough.
4

Jun 24, 2010

I read this in the winter of 2008. I was initially interested in reading Bell's Haitian Revolution trilogy, but the task seemed somewhat daunting, so I settled for this. Louverture was fascinating man, and Bell tells the story of the Haitian Revolution brilliantly.
3

Jul 27, 2011

Un peu foulli mais interessant, avec des infos peu connues sur cette page difficile de l histoire de France...
4

Feb 23, 2008

Well written account of a fascinating period of history, includes deep descriptions of the different sections of pre-revolutionary Haitian society.
5

Jul 07, 2017

This is one of the most riveting biographies or history books I've read, a page turner filled with so much political intrigue it left my mind reeling. But the most remarkable part of the book is Toussaint Louverture himself, a former slave who raised mules on a plantation, gained his freedom, became a plantation owner himself, raised a European-style military to overthrow slaveowners, fought off invasions from the English and Spanish, took over Spanish Hispaniola, and set up his own government This is one of the most riveting biographies or history books I've read, a page turner filled with so much political intrigue it left my mind reeling. But the most remarkable part of the book is Toussaint Louverture himself, a former slave who raised mules on a plantation, gained his freedom, became a plantation owner himself, raised a European-style military to overthrow slaveowners, fought off invasions from the English and Spanish, took over Spanish Hispaniola, and set up his own government until Napoleon sent his veterans to reclaim the colony. ...more
3

Aug 19, 2017

Like most Americans (I suspect), I know very little of the history of Haiti or the French colony there. This biography of Louverture gives a nice introduction to that period and place. While not a 'riveting' account, it is a very readable one. The author does a credible and sympathetic job at rendering the life and times of Lourverture. Also shown is how foreign policy of Britain, France, and the United States all played a part in what became the Haitian revolution for independence.

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