Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Toussaint Louverture by Madison Smartt Bell

Toussaint Louverture - perhaps you have heard of him, perhaps not. Toussaint is the man popularly regarded as the George Washington, as it were, of Haiti, the man who made the nation a possibility.

As far as biography goes, this book was well written, enough. It must be a nightmare to write a bio like this - the first fifty years of this man's life practically don't exist, and after that, as the author quotes Wendell Phillips as saying, his tale is:
"...the story of a negro who has left hardly one written line. I am to glean it from the reluctant testimony of Britons, Frenchmen, Spaniards -- men who despised him as a negro and a slave, and hated him because he had beaten them in many a battle. All the materials from his biography are from the lips of his enemies."

The nightmare kind of shows in the writing, and this can be very frustrating. Frequently, the author will spend a page telling you one of the narratives of an event in his life, then tell you that the narrative might be completely untrue, and present an alternative narrative. Then he'll present a completely different narrative that he puts together from random clues sprinkled here and there through the documentation.

Partly, this is the nature of the Haitian revolution. The American revolution, while it was not beautiful, oftentimes, is easy to tell, historically. The men in this revolution were fairly wealthy, fairly well educated. They had, often, a military that was trained and on even footing with it's foes. And, while the British may have been angry with the colonists, they thought of them as human beings, as people who were mistaken and needed to be brough back into line.

Haiti is a different story. The Haitian revolution was not an idealistic disagreement about taxation. It was the primal uprising of a people who had been ripped from there hoomes and forced wholesale into a life cycle that was little more than torture, a world where it was cheaper to import slaves from Africa than to nourish and care for slaves well enough that they might provide free progeny, a world where *squeamishenss alert* slaves were sometimes punished by stuffing their rectums with gunpowder and lighting it off. Toussaint did some ugly things at times in his career (though nothing compared to Emperor Dessalines, his successor), but it is difficult to judge him - perhaps, as the author quotes one modern Haitian as saying, there are some sins so terrible, they can only be washed away with blood. I don't know.
Toussaint, again, was no saint. He instituted strict labor laws that forced cultivators into a state not much different from slavery (though one can argue over whether that was a neccesity to make the colony survive). He slept around. He lead a government that was awfully corrupt.

But there are two saving graces for him, in my mind - the first is that, again, I do not imagine that the records we have are impartial. They are the records of his enemies, and are probably wont to tell the story in a particular, and not a particularly nice, way. But more than this, I have never, and will never, live in a world as hellish as the one that he overturned. For all the nastiness that ensued, I cannot see that he is the worse offender - or that freedom would neccesarily come at any better price.

The book is a good introduction to both sides of his character, the saint and the demon. It touches upon the meaning behind his actions, the implications of the world he was in, the cultural significance of his dualistic character. If you want a review of a difficult man, this is an excellent, if frustrating, place to start. But, Toussaint is frustrating, to write him any other way is to write fiction of the worst sort.
Toussaint Louverture: A Biography
By: Madison Smartt Bell
Amazon Price: $27.00


hamilcar barca said...

accepting that no one can please everyone, how popular was he with the rank and file Haitian people? the newly-freed blacks might fear him and curse their lot, but were they loyal to him?

the USA has spent decades vilifying Fidel Castro, and we'll kick it up another gear once he passes on. but the fact remains, he's always been enormously popular in Cuba. that to me is a sign that what we're doing is nothing but a smear campaign.

Amanda said...

I don't know - is Castro really popular? I don't know much about the situation in Cuba, from an American perspective or any other. But recently we met a man from Cuba at my book club, and he spoke about Cuba as if it were the worst place on earth, with the most horrible leaders, something literally right out of 1984 (the book we were discussing). I don't remember if he mentioned Castro specifically, but I would be surprised to find this guy a fan, you know? I mean, how much is the "enormously popular" statistics coming out of the Cuban government? Is it possible that they're just as biased as the ones we give here? Again, I don't know anything about it, just curious. I'm not sure I trust anything a government says about itself and its people. Maybe I'm just too cynical.

hamilcar barca said...

was your friend a Cuban exile? Miami is full of Cuban Castro-haters. if you hate a dictator-for-life, the best thing you can probably do is move to another country.

my thinking is this - when we tried to invade (Bay of Pigs), the Cuban people didn't rise up to join us. and we've never been able to assassinate Castro, despite many attempts. finally, you never hear of any popular uprisings in Cuba, not even unsuccessful ones.

after almost 50 years of trying to destabilize him (via embargos and isolation), the guy still rules. could he really last that long if everybody in Cuba hated him?

Amanda said...

I don't know. If that guy was powerful enough to keep everyone downtrodden, perhaps he COULD stay in power without revolt. Maybe he has the power to quash warfare? Again, I don't know.

The guy who came to discuss 1984 with us - I don't know him personally. I don't know much about him at all, don't even remember his name. Miami's quite far from SA though ;)

jasminedearborn said...

Of interest -- You can see a clip of Toussaint's last moments in prison from the award-winning new short film "The Last Days of Toussaint L'Ouverture" at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2468184/ This film is the basis for a new feature (not with Danny Glover) that is in development.