Toussaint Louverture

The Chateau de Joux, high in the mountainous region of Franche-Comté close to the Swiss border, was one of the great state prisons of France, along with the Bastille and the Chateau d’If (described by Dumas in The Count of Monte-Cristo). The huge fortress dates back nearly 1,000 years, its medieval walls augmented by Charles V, Vauban and finally by the young Joffre as engineer officer. It was in this icy castle that, in 1802, Napoleon ordered that another French general, Toussaint Louverture, recently snatched from the heat of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, where he had lived all his life, should be incarcerated. Locked in his cell (which he never again left) on August 24th, 1802, he died alone on April 7th, 1803. Now, 200 years after, his death is to be marked in France by ‘a great national commemoration, supported by the ministry of culture, sponsored by UNESCO, supported by many Caribbean and African countries and personalities’, much of which will be centred on the château. Some 18 million euros will be spent to position the château as a ‘site-symbol of the fight for liberty’.

Toussaint Louverture is central to this project, though other notable figures were also imprisoned at Joux – Protestants after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Mirabeau (for personal rather than political reasons), chouans after the Vendée, the German patriot-poet von Kleist, as well as mulatto generals, contemporaries of Toussaint. Toussaint is celebrated as ‘the first black general of the French army’, having been made general de brigade in 1794, the year in which the National Convention abolished slavery. In that year too the black father of Alexandre Dumas was raised to the same rank, commanding troops in Flanders. Later, Toussaint was general de division. He was ‘the first black governor of a colony’ – Saint-Domingue, the western third of Hispaniola, today’s Haiti; and also the ‘first leader of a victorious slave revolution, father of the independence of the “first black colony to achieve this, going on to become the world’s first black republic”‘.

Born a black slave, he can be seen as a precursor of the abolition of slavery, of colonial freedom, and (as those in charge of the château today suggest) of such men as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Patrice Lumumba or Nelson Mandela. He was in fact something more than any of these. He was, as Lamartine said, the black Napoleon. Lamartine wrote a tragedy, Toussaint-Louverture, in 1850, two years after an Act of the 1848 French provisional government of which he had been a member finally abolished slavery. Another member of that government had been Victor Schoelcher, ‘the French Wilberforce’, whose life was devoted to the black cause, and whose biography of Toussaint brings out all his greatness. But Toussaint had something even greater than Napoleon: magnanimity. Not for him the pettiness of soul of the then First Consul, who put a sixty-year-old man from the tropics into a glacial prison, stripped him of his uniform, his rank and his attendant, allowing him to see no one. This was in character with the racism of Napoleon, who re-established black slavery in the remaining French sugar colonies, and spoke of blacks with contempt.

Toussaint was born, probably in 1743 as François-Dominique Toussaint, on the plantation of Breda in the north of today’s Haiti. His father, a chief’s son from present-day Benin, had been taken in a local battle and sold to the plantation’s owner, a French count who, it is said, recognising a fellow aristocrat, granted him privileged status. Toussaint, very unusually for a slave, was taught to read French. Of the language he eventually became a master – though when he himself put pen to paper it was in phonetic creole. As commander, general and head of government, he, like Napoleon, would have a team of secretaries, each of whom he exhausted in turn with his dispatches, letters and state documents, all bearing a consistent stamp of authorship and authority.

On the plantation he became the coachman of the cousin of the count, who now ran the estate, was in charge of the stables and the stock. In 1791, as the tide of the revolution in France rose, the first slave rebellion broke out. Many of the rebels were fresh from Africa, had been warriors, with fighting in the blood. Toussaint protected his owners, getting them away to the United States. He then joined the insurrection, and soon, in August 1793, he was proclaiming: ‘I am Toussaint Louverture. My name has perhaps become known to you. I am bent on vengeance. I desire the establishment of Liberty and Equality in St-Domingue. I strive to bring them into being. Unite with us, brothers… in the common cause.’

As a commander he had genius (he earned the name ‘L’ouverture’ because he always found an opening in the enemy’s defences). By 1798 he had defeated his opponents (including a British army), had been appointed by Paris as the C-in-C of the army, ran the government, and began to restore prosperity, inviting back the former plantation proprietors to run the plantations on a contractual basis, enforced by his government on their former slaves. After the Peace of Amiens in 1802, the French navy could again sail the seas. Napoleon wanted the riches and the absolute control of the sugar colonies. An expedition was fitted out for St-Domingue with assurances that liberty would remain intact, though secret instructions to Charles Leclerc, Napoleon’s captain-general and brother-in-law, indicated the contrary.

Charles Leclerc by François-Joseph Kinson

The struggle broke out again, to end with the temporary integration of the black army with that sent from France. Leclerc kidnapped Toussaint and pushed him and his family on a warship to France. As he stepped on board, Toussaint declared: ‘In overthrowing me, you have cut down only the trunk of the tree of black liberty: it will spring up again by the roots, they are deep and many.’ Wordsworth, learning of his plight, wrote a sonnet, published in The Morning Post in February 1803: …Thy head be now Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den; …There’s not a breathing of the common wind That will forget thee. After Toussaint’s death, his homeland’s struggle with France resumed: the French were expelled and independence was proclaimed on January 1st, 1804.

The present initiative centred on the Château de Joux will help to re-establish the greatness of Toussaint in the wider world, francophone and anglophone, in Europe, the Americas and Africa. Victor Schoelcher should have the last word. Pouring scorn on Napoleon (who, on St Helena, said that the expedition to St Domingue was a great mistake, and he should have left Toussaint in place), he ended his chapter on Toussaint’s death by approvingly quoting a letter from Liberia giving an African’s view on the recent killing of the Prince Imperial in South Africa in 1879: ‘We here look upon it as a singular coincidence, that the dynasty founded by him who treated so basely and so cruelly that great man of Africa, Toussaint-Louverture, has now found its end, on black soil, and at the hand of brave Zulus.’

Graham Gendall Norton