The introductory chapter of Madison Smartt Bell’s biography describes the culture and economic conditions in the French colony of Saint Domingue during the late eighteenth century. Although contemporary Haiti is commonly characterized as the poorest country of the Western Hemisphere, Saint Domingue was for many years the richest European colony in all of the Americas. The large sugar and coffee plantations enriched both the landowners and the French nation as a whole. Unfortunately, this prosperity was built upon slave labor, with conditions that were “extraordinarily severe.” Although the Black Code of 1685 set minimum conditions, Bell writes that they were “more often honored in the breach than in the observance.” Flogging was common, and amputation of an arm or a leg was sometimes the punishment for attempted escape.
The colony was composed of three ethnic groups: about 500,000 slaves of African ancestry, 40,000 white Europeans, and 30,000 mostly free “mulattos” of mixed African-European ancestry, commonly called gens de couleur (colored persons). The Europeans were divided into two groups: the wealthy, conservative property owners, called grands blancs, who usually opposed the French Revolution, and persons of limited economic resources, called petits blancs, who tended to support the Revolution. Although the official religion of the colony was Catholicism, a large percentage of the African-ancestry population combined the official religion with a variety of traditional animistic beliefs and practices called Voodoo. Practitioners of this syncretism believed that the spirits (lwa or zanj) of the dead remained nearby and were capable of having contact with living persons, often with the aid of hypnotic chanting and drumming.
As the most prominent leader of the only successful slave revolution in recorded history, Toussaint-Louverture was a person of great historical significance. The grandson of an African chieftain, he was born a slave on the large Bréda Plantation in 1743. He never showed an inclination to rebel until about the age of fifty. As a young man, in fact, he fully cooperated with his owner, distinguishing himself as a dependable supervisor of the other slaves. He also demonstrated an unusual ability to work with domestic animals. After gaining his freedom about 1774, he acquired considerable wealth in land and slaves, an unusual accomplishment for a former slave. He fathered at least eleven children (eight out of wedlock). Because so little information has been preserved about the first fifty years of his life, Bell writes that he “walked so very softly that he left next to no visible tracks at all.”
There is no evidence that Louverture expressed any opposition to the institution of slavery before 1791, when large numbers of slaves rebelled in the northern plain. That year, he joined a band of rebel slaves led by George Biassou, but he opposed widespread bloodshed and even helped his former master’s family to escape. By 1793, he was a recognized leader when he wrote in the Camp Turel Proclamation: “I have undertaken vengeance. I want Liberty and Equality to reign in Saint Domingue. I am working to make that happen.” This proclamation is the earliest surviving record that he had changed his last name from Bréda to Louverture (which means “opening,” frequently misspelled “L’Ouverture”). The reasons for his name change are unclear. Some historians have written that the new name was based on a gap between his two front teeth, while others believe that it referred to his ability to find openings for surprise military attacks. Without definitely rejecting such suggestions, Bell suggests that the name was probably a reference to a Voodoo spirit named Legba, the spirit of the gates and crossroads, a spirit believed to open the gateway between the living and the dead.
From the beginning, the revolt was complicated by the fact that the three ethnic groups were attacking each other, even murdering women and infants, in a violent orgy that Bell characterizes as a “three-way genocidal race war.” In addition, rival groups of angry slaves frequently fought with one another. It is not known how many people died in the mass slaughter, but certainly they numbered in the thousands. Louverture recognized that violence was an inherent part of warfare, but unlike his associate, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, he was reluctant to order the mass slaughter of persons because of their race or economic class.
The government of the French Revolution, despite the announced principles of “liberty, equality, and brotherhood,” was very hesitant to end slavery in the colonies. It was not until May, 1791, the third year of the revolution, that the French National Assembly passed a law recognizing some civil rights for the free gens de couleur, and it was not until the next year that the assembly decreed full civil rights to all...
(The entire section is 2023 words.)