Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions

Charles Forsdick is James Barrow Professor of French at the University of Liverpool. He is currently Arts and Humanities Research Council theme leadership fellow for “Translating Cultures”. He has published on travel writing, colonial history, postcolonial and world literature, and the memorialization of slavery. Recent publications include The Black Jacobins Reader (Duke University Press, 2016) and he has also contributed to several Achac Research Group’s collections, including Ruptures postcoloniales (La Découverte, 2010).  In this newsletter, he provides an overview of the newly-released Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions (Pluto, 2017), which he co-authored with Christian Hogsbjerg.


It was in 1998, the year of the sesquicentenary of the abolition of slavery in the French colonial Empire, that I first became very interested in Toussaint Louverture. I had previously read C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins, long a classic on the British Left, but it was seeing the conscription of the Haitian revolutionary to what was essentially a French republican celebration of abolitionism (in Edouard Glissant’s terms, “une affaire franco-française”) that drew me to study this enigmatic, incendiary figure. What troubled me was the way in which Louverture was integrated into an exclusively French revolutionary tradition, a manoeuvre that contributed to a wider process of what Michel-Rolph Trouillot saw as the “silencing” of the Haitian Revolution and what Sibylle Fischer has called its active “disavowal”. What better evidence is there of these processes of denial in a French context than President Jacques Chirac’s comment, at Pointe-à-Pitre in 2002, that: “Haïti n'a jamais été une colonie française”? A historical error, or a more telling example of crafted amnesia?


My primary interest over the past two decades has been in cataloguing and analysing representations of Toussaint Louverture, a task that has now taken on encyclopaedic proportions as the examples I have collected encompass a global range of cultural contexts and a remarkable variety of genres and media. This is in many ways unsurprising. Louverture was highly attentive to his own image whilst he was still alive, not least because he sought to respond the calumnies of contemporary biographers such as Dubroca and Cousin d’Avallon (both of whom wrote highly negative accounts of the revolutionary’s life as early as 1802). Posthumously, the Haitian revolutionary was translated into a number of other contexts, where he served by turns as inspiration, warning or threat: he was associated with abolitionism in France (most notably in Lamartine’s eponymous play), served as a repeated point of reference among African-American politicians and intellectuals following the Civil War, was a key figure in interwar debates around Pan-Africanism and anti-colonialism, and has continued to feature in postcolonial culture and politics. In one of the most useful anthologies of this extensive catalogue of re-figurings of Louverture (published by Prentice-Hall in 1973), George Tyson states: “he has been all things to all men, from bloodthirsty black savage to ‘the greatest black man in history’. Still widely (indeed increasingly) depicted in literature and art, in sculpture and on screen, it could even be argued that Louverture is acquiring a global iconicity comparable only to that of Che Guevara.


A particularly intensive moment in this process of representation was the 1930s, when Louverture featured in the cultural manifestations of Soviet power struggles (most notably, although the film was never actually made, among the projects of Sergei Eisenstein), emerged in some of the most important work of the Harlem Renaissance (such as Jacob Lawrence’s forty-one panel painted life of the Haitian revolutionary), and became central to the early writings of one of the twentieth century’s leading intellectuals, the Trinidadian C.L.R. James. James’s Black Jacobins (1938) – to which Christian Hogsbjerg and I have just devoted a reader, published by Duke University Press – recounts the Haitian Revolution through the life of Louverture, exploring from a Marxist perspective the struggle for both emancipation and decolonization, and highlighting the limitations of the revolutionary leader. (Les Jacobins noirs appeared in a French translation by Pierre Naville in 1949, and was republished by Editions d’Amsterdam in 2008; a life of its author, by Matthieu Renault, recently appeared in French.) James exemplifies a radical historiography of Haiti and its Revolution, underlining, in the face of European celebration of abolitionism, the persistent resistance of the enslaved – a resistance that culminated in the declaration of independence by Jean-Jacques Dessalines on 1 January 1804.


Edouard Glissant – in Le Discours antillais – describes the need to “argumenter autour de Toussaint”, a process he stages in his remarkable play Monsieur Toussaint, in which the protagonist, stripped of his military rank and imprisoned by Napoleon Bonaparte, is surrounded by voices from his past as he slowly explires in his frozen cell in the Château de Joux. The work of C.L.R. James is central to this interrogation, and served as the main inspiration for the biography of Louverture – in Pluto’s inspiring “Revolutionary Lives” series – that I have recently co-authored with historian Christian Hogsbjerg. Concerned by the “conservative turn” evident in recent work on the Haitian Revolution and more specifically in interpretations of Louverture himself (evident in Pierre Pluchon’s 1989 biography, but also in the more recent work of Philippe Girard), we have sought to understand the revolutionary leader in the political context of eighteenth-century Atlantic slavery and to challenge efforts to domesticate the incendiary implications of his revolutionary life.


Our approach is to consider Louverture’s “marination” in pre-revolutionary Saint-Domingue, to explore his emergence as a revolutionary leader, and then to analyse the various decisions, dilemmas and turning points of his later career as he steered Haiti towards becoming an independent black state – a state perceived as dangerously “postcolonial” 150 years before that term would have any wider applicability. As such, our biography seeks to create connections between, on the one hand, the Haitian Revolution and, on the other, modern-day resistance movements as well as a wider black political radicalism today. Louverture took the ideals of the French Revolution regarding universal emancipation and, in the frame of the struggle he led, stretched them to limits largely unimaginable in France and elsewhere at the time. We argue that his struggle continues to have global resonance, across the Americas and across the Atlantic. This is true not least in France itself, where Haiti and its revolution are central to the “fracture coloniale” evident in contemporary society as well as in the structural flaws that turn ethnicity and cultural heritage into indicators of persistent social inequalities. In discussing The Black Jacobins, Paul Foot described the Haitian Revolution as “perhaps the most glorious victory of the oppressed over their oppressors in all history”. It was not an exotic sideshow to the French Revolution, but a complex set of events without which the French Revolution (and its limitations) can never be fully understood. As such, this is a story that demands to be told and re-told.


Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions by Charles Forsdick & Christian Hogsbjerg (Pluto, 2017)