Madison Smartt Bell’s Toussaint Louverture

In The Nation, Laurent Dubois reviews Madison Smartt Bell’s new biography of Toussaint Louverture:

In his acclaimed trilogy of novels about the Haitian Revolution–All Souls’ Rising, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That the Builder Refused–Madison Smartt Bell presented a riveting portrait of Louverture. The novels are deeply grounded in the historical sources of the period, no small feat given how extensive and often contradictory they are. But still hungry for the history of the Haitian Revolution–it has a way of grabbing you and holding on–Bell has now produced an excellent biography of Toussaint Louverture. For fans of the novels eager to read more, or for those daunted by the 2,000 pages of the trilogy, Toussaint Louverture provides a readable and engaging narrative, one likely to become the standard biography in English about this remarkable figure. (Full disclosure: I am thanked in the book’s acknowledgments.)

Who was Louverture? For nearly two centuries, most writers portrayed him as a former slave who was freed by the Haitian Revolution itself. Then, in 1977, a group of historians published an article in Haiti showing that he was freed during the 1770s, managed a coffee plantation and briefly owned a slave. As a revolutionary leader, Louverture rarely evoked this chapter in his life, preferring to emphasize his connection to the former slaves who made up the majority in the colony. Indeed, he was a master at presenting himself as he wished to be seen, to the point that, as Bell writes, “during the first fifty years of his life, Toussaint walked so very softly that he left next to no visible tracks at all.”

Bell, however, has tracked down a number of new sources located in private collections, and provides a very detailed account of Louverture’s life before and after the revolution. It makes clear there is no way to fit Louverture easily into one social category.