TOUSSAINT AND THE BLACK LIBERATION STRUGGLE IN HAITI
BLACK JACOBIN-TOUSSAINT L'OUVERTURE AND THE SAN DOMINGO REVOLUTION, C.R.L.JAMES,VINTAGE BOOKS, 1989 NEW YORK
FEBRUARY IS BLACK HISTORY MONTH
The French Revolution, as all great revolutions do, had effects on world politics and the struggle of other peoples whom it awoken to political life in its aftermath. The fight for freedom in French San Domingo (now Haiti, the name that I will use to avoid confusion hereafter) led by Toussaint to a point just short of independence is a prime example of that effect. Without the revolution in the metropolis it is very unlikely that at that time the struggle in Haiti could have been successful, or progressed as far as it did. The history of the times was replete with isolated unsuccessful slave rebellions. Why it was successful in Haiti and how that success was accomplished, mainly under the leadership of Toussaint in its decisive phases, is the subject of the eccentric Marxist, later Pan-Africanist historian C.L.R. James. Although originally written in 1938 Black Jacobin is still the best biography of Toussaint in English.
The freedom struggle in Haiti, a tropical island well suited to intensive agricultural development for the new international market in those goods necessary for the embryonic industrial system, was above all the struggle for the abolition of slavery. The fight against that servile condition was a struggle that many revolutionaries, white and black, and former revolutionaries of the time broke their teeth on. Today that freedom struggle, successful in its way in the Haiti of the early 19th century, remains a shining example of the most successful fight against slavery by the slaves. So it pays to pay particular attention to the fight.
The forces which pushed the French Revolution forward in the metropolis had their its own set of priorities, among them the fight to move the population from a condition of subjugation to a monarch to citizens of a democracy. I have noted elsewhere how important that changed social status was to the historical and psychological development of modern humankind. That same psychology applied to the struggle in Haiti although even more so under conditions of chattel slavery. Thus, the events in French had their reflection in the colonies particularly in Haiti. One can observe in France the changes in attitude and policy from the early revolutionary days when representatives all classes opposed to the monarchy were 'good fellows and true' through the rise of the leftist Robespierre regime based on the plebian masses, its eventually overthrow and establishment of the Directory and then the various manifestations of Napoleon's rule. That Napoleonic regime and its treacherous colonial policy attempting to reimpose slavery was a very far drop down hill from the early, heady days when even moderate revolutionaries were in both places prepared to go quite far to eliminate slavery.
There is something of a truism in the statement that great revolutions throw up personalities fit for the times. Certainly revolutions shake up the traditional order of things and let some individuals who might have stayed dormant rise to the occasion. That is the case with Toussaint. For most of his life he was a middle level functionary on his master’s estate respected by most but not slated for greatness. Early on, as the struggle against slavery heated up among the black slaves, he exhibited the military, social, political diplomatic and other skills that would eventual thrust him into the leadership of the liberation struggle.
This is really saying something special about the man because in the context of that Haitian revolution with the initial disputes between British, Spanish and French interests and then the conflicting interests on the island itself between white, black and mulatto would have driven a lesser man around the bend. That it did not do so and that in his errors of judgement that were, at times, grievous especially around his seemingly obsessive commitment to maintain the French connection, does not take away from the grandeur of the experience. A cursory look at the latter developments on the island and the seemingly never ending series of tin pot despots who in their turn devastated the island only brings out Toussaint’s fascinating role, warts and all, in the earlier liberation struggle in broader relief.