The early biographies were generally oeuvres de combat closely linked to the political struggles of the day. They tend to pit a blood-drenched Toussaint who is devious, cruel, and ambitious against a Christian paragon who is modest, learned, and always keeps his word. “Judged according to the interests of the moment,” wrote Pamphile de Lacroix in 1819, “Toussaint Louverture  has been successively depicted as a ferocious beast or the best of men…as an execrable monster or a martyred saint.”(7)The loosely factual accounts by Dubroca and Cousin d’Avallon, and the novel by Périn, were colonialist character assassinations designed to underpin the Napoleonic attempt to reconquer Saint Domingue.  The anonymous Toussaint Louverture’s frühere Geschichte serves up a mirror image that is an assemblage of clichés from sentimental antislavery literature and is entirely fictional.(8)

James Stephen’s biography had a curiously dual purpose.  It made “Toussaint the African hero” a poster child for the British abolitionist movement that was then being relaunched after several years of quiescence. And, secondly, in an industrializing England under impending threat of French invasion, it sought to convince a working-class audience, in bluffly demotic prose, that Bonaparte was its enemy, not its friend.


“What! Are [Bonaparte] and his ruffians to stab and drown all the poor laborers of St. Domingo because they chuse to work as men for wages…? It will be seen who are the true friends of the common people…Those who hate, oppress and murder the labouring poor in one part of the world [cannot] really wish to make them free and happy in another.” (9)


An interestingly hybrid portrait came from a member of Saint Domingue’s mixed-race middle class who penned a Vie privée, politique et militaire de Toussaint Louverture, published in Paris and Milan in early 1802.(10) Such propertied men of color had fought against white colonists and foreign invaders as allies of Toussaint, but they had  sometimes opposed him, too, most recently in a bitter civil war to control Saint Domingue’s southern peninsula. (11) The anonymous author expressed admiration for Louverture’s abilities but called him a cruel tyrant, albeit noting he became cruel only when his power was threatened.  Toussaint’s ostentatious piety was genuine, he felt, not hypocritical, although the general certainly used it to buttress his power. The author attacked Dubroca’s book as a “tissue of lies” but, like him, he favored Toussaint’s overthrow and considered the former slaves unready for freedom. Toussaint had done more good than harm was his decidedly mixed assessment.(12)

One exception to the obviously instrumental use of Toussaint’s story, is the Memoir, of a short visit to Saint Domingue, written at this time by the British military officer Marcus Rainsford. Although not a biography, the pamphlet contains the first published physical description of Toussaint, whose personal qualities it praises, and its subtitle proclaims the intention of revealing “the real character of [the colony’s] black governor.” Since Rainsford was a defender of colonial slavery, who blamed the black revolution on the “imbecility” of well-meaning abolitionists, his sympathetic depiction of Toussaint’s regime cannot easily be attributed to ulterior motives. (13) Yet, although he seems a trustworthy observer, Rainsford had a very confused knowledge of previous events. His Memoir thus proves little more reliable than the panegyric of Stephen or the propaganda of the hostile Francophone writers.  All these works, however, were exceeded in factual inaccuracy and in prejudice by a somewhat longer and anonymous Life and Military Achievements of Tousant Loverture, published in Baltimore or Philadelphia in 1804. Apparently the work of an exceedingly pompous British merchant, it remains deservedly ignored. (14)

Through much of the nineteenth century, interest in the Haitian Revolution remained closely tied to the contemporary struggle over slavery. This is particularly clear in the United States, where black and white abolitionists (James McCune Smith, William Wells Brown, Wendell Phillips, and others) eulogized Toussaint Louverture in published lectures as a masculine man of action and moral probity, whose example invited emulation and subverted ideas of racial inferiority. (15) Southern slaveholders warned that abolitionism would lead to a second Haitian Revolution in the United States, but on occasion they also found it useful to point to Toussaint’s respectful behavior toward white planters and his imposition of a forced labor regime on the emancipated slaves, as if it justified their own slaveholding. (16)  Decrying Britain’s abolition of slavery in 1833 as a premature failure, French politician/historian Adolphe Thiers penned a virulently hostile account of the Haitian Revolution with a grudging portrait of Louverture as a vain and puerile imitator, capable of “wild oratory” but “not much of a general.” Exaggerating his economic success, Thiers presents his draconian labor regime as the black leader’s sole redeeming feature. (17)

Britain’s earlier ending of slavery and a growing sense that Haiti’s revolutionary origins made it a test case of questionable relevance for abolishing slavery elsewhere may explain the dearth of Toussaint-centered publications in England at this time.  (18) The first British biography to appear after James Stephens’ revised edition of 1814 was social critic Harriet Martineau’s The Hour and the Man. Published simultaneously in London and New York in 1841, it was a fictional adjunct to Martineau’s recent writings on slavery and abolitionism in the United States, which she had toured in the 1830s.  Although her Toussaint is the very model of Christian forbearance, one American reviewer called the work “dangerous” and “incendiary.” (19) J.R. Beard’s Life of Toussaint Louverture, published in London in 1853, was even more explicitly aimed at an American public. When the American activist James Redpath republished the book in Boston, early in the Civil War, it had acquired a new and vital relevance amidst the ongoing debate about the enlistment and martial abilities of blacks. Redpath hoped that the biography would help put an end to that debate and also that “some Sambo, Wash, or Jeff…toiling in [Southern] fields” would emulate its subject. (20)  Controversy about Haiti’s revolution, and the desirability of creating “American Toussaints,” reached a peak during the Civil War. (21)

J. R. Beard was able to write a solid and detailed narrative largely because of the numerous Haitian Revolution histories published by Francophone writers in the preceding thirty-five years. After the first wave of accounts written by angry colonists, Toussaint received a more favorable press in France, as antislavery and romanticism gained ground. The trend began in 1818 with a minor work by a Hispanic man of color, Augustin Régis, which defended Toussaint against the charge of seeking independence. (22) Far more consequential were the Mémoires of French general Pamphile de Lacroix. A former opponent of Louverture, he described him as despotic and devious, and his rule as harsh, but he accepted that he was a popular leader of prodigious talent who had genuinely defended the interests of the former slaves. Lacroix’s lengthy descriptions of the black leader would provide material for most later biographers. (23) The Histoire d’Haïti by littérateur Charles-Malo, and the works of abolitionist Antoine Métral,who published the reminiscences of Toussaint’s son Isaac, leaned more toward panegyric.(24) This trend peaked at mid-century with the publication and performance of Alphonse de Lamartine’s verse drama Toussaint-Louverture, and Toussaint’s inclusion in Auguste Comte’s exemplary Calendrier positiviste, ou système général de commémoration. The latter work, however, did not exactly rank him “with Washington, Buddha, Charlemagne and Plato,” as a later author claimed. (25)

One of the more obscure French publications of this period was a brief Toussaint biography by J.-Hippolyte-Daniel de Saint-Anthoine, secretary-general of the Institut d’Afrique. The book is a paean of praise evidently influenced by Isaac Louverture, who died in 1854. It is chiefly interesting as the first published statement that Toussaint had wanted to resign his post as commander in chief in 1799 and lead a small expedition to Africa “to abolish the slave trade and slavery.” (26) The story functions in Saint-Anthoine’s narrative as an oblique justification for one of the black statesman’s most controversial acts. The French Republic attempted that year to launch an invasion of Jamaica from Saint Domingue that would free its slave population, but Louverture subverted the scheme by secretly informing the British.(27) The author does not spell out the details of this maneuver and instead merely comments that Toussaint had a “bigger project,” thus preserving the illusion that his plans extended beyond a revolution in one country.

A much more important work was Joseph Saint-Rémy’s Vie de Toussaint Louverture, which appeared in 1850. Saint-Rémy was one of three Haitian historians who, in the space of a decade, produced classic studies of the revolution that remain unequaled today for their empirical heft. Like Thomas Madiou and Beaubrun Ardouin, Saint-Rémy was a member of Haiti’s mixed-race elite and, to differing degrees, their histories were defenses of their social class. They blamed Louverture rather than his mulâtre rival, André Rigaud, for the bitterly internecine War of the South, and they detailed the black leader’s suppression of his real or imagined opponents, many of whom were free men of color. As republicans, they condemned Toussaint’s authoritarianism, as had Chanlatte before them, and they decried his subjection of the emancipated slaves to forced labor as slavery masquerading as freedom. They explained this policy in terms of his hypocrisy and his manipulation by whites, traits that they thought characterized Louverture’s career. (28)

Of the three historians, Madiou was the least partisan; Ardouin, the best documented, and Saint-Rémy the most hostile. He described Toussaint as cruel and greedy, and phony in his religiosity. His war against Rigaud was “sacrilegious” and his suspicion of free men of color, both mulatto and black, was the cause of his downfall, along with his re-establishment of slavery in the guise of serfdom. (29)  Saint-Rémy was apparently the first writer, a half-century after the black general’s death, to refer to him as François Dominique Toussaint, names for which no earlier evidence has been found.

This name issue became still more confusing with the appearance, in 1877, of the next major biography of Louverture, which gave his name as Pierre Dominique Toussaint, again without explanation or proof. Its author was the Frenchman Thomas-Prosper Gragnon-Lacoste. (30) He merits some attention because he knew, in her old age, Toussaint’s niece and daughter-in-law, Louise Chancy, the wife of Toussaint’s son Isaac. But Gragnon was a somewhat flaky character. His book does not really bear out its claim to have benefited from Louverture family papers and secrets, and he failed to carry through his promise to publish those papers. A commemorative statue of Toussaint, for which he collected money, also failed to materialize.  And he patently falsified one of the documents he did publish, which is in the French national library.(31)

This forgery (concerning Toussaint’s commitment to slave emancipation) has misled generations of later historians, the first of whom was the veteran abolitionist Victor Schoelcher. His Vie de Toussaint Louverture, published in 1889, is the best and best known of the nineteenth-century biographies. Whereas Gragnon-Lacoste’s portrait was in the tradition of wooden encomia focused on character and learning established by Toussaint’s earlier defenders, Schoelcher provides the first well rounded and nuanced depiction of the black leader. He acknowledges his limited literacy and authoritarianism but incorporates them into a sympathetic and lifelike picture of an exceptional individual. As a republican atheist, Schoelcher wasn’t sure what to make of Toussaint’s ephemeral monarchism and apparent piety, but he made good use of documentary extracts, notably from the correspondence between Louverture and the French general Étienne Laveaux—whom the ex-slave called “papa,” although he was at least five years older than the Frenchman. Victor Schoelcher was the first to denounce as puerile propaganda the story of Toussaint’s writing to Napoleon “from the first of the blacks to the first of the whites,” although, from Pamphile de Lacroix onward, it had been endlessly repeated by admirers, including Gragnon-Lacoste, as well as detractors. Like Gragnon, however, Schoelcher also took some editorial liberties with primary sources that have misled later historians. (32)

By the time the octogenarian radical published this, his last book, slavery in the Americas had ended, and there was no longer a need to enlist hagiography in the service of abolitionism. Scientific racism, however, was reaching its height, reinforcing if anything, the black statesman’s exemplary value. The Haitian intellectual Anténor Firmin, who published at this time De l'égalité des races humaines, devoted a dozen pages of his text to the case of Toussaint, which, he argued, provided a single, sufficient answer to “all the European universities united in their support of the theory of racial inequality. (33) Most of Toussaint’s defenders had long made the same point, but Victor Schoelcher was unusual in making his biography a defence, not just of a singular hero, but of the enslaved masses in general, including their use of violence and dislike of plantation labor. (34) In this way, he foreshadowed a major trend in the Haitian Revolution scholarship of the twentieth century, as it moved away from the “Great Man” preoccupations of the nineteenth.

Three influences seem to have contributed to this decentering of the hero in modern studies of the revolution: noirisme or black nationalism, Marxism, and the new social history launched in the the sixties. By the time we get to Carolyn Fick’s Saint Domingue Revolution from Below in 1990, all the main leaders have been sidelined in favor of a focus on the black revolution’s grass roots. This tendency achieved its most complete expression in the celebrated novel by Alejo Carpentier, El reino de este mundo, in which Toussaint’s name appears only once, and he not at all. (35)

The Haitian noiriste ideology that became increasingly influential in the mid-twentieth century was rooted, as David Nicholls explained, in the nineteenth-century struggles between the country’s National and Liberal parties. (36) In historiographical matters, noiristes were particularly concerned to downplay the role of the free men of color, who had been championed by mixed-race historians like Saint-Rémy and Ardouin. Although this approach put Toussaint in a relatively more positive light, the other noiriste preoccupations tended to lower his pedestal a little bit. These were 1) the rehabilitation of Toussaint’s subordinate Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who was the bête-noire of the mulâtristes but the man who made Haiti independent; and 2) a novel emphasis on the role of the masses and the evolution of a culture of resistance. This viewpoint developed in the work of Pauléus Sannon, Jean Price Mars, François Duvalier, Gérard Laurent, and others. Sannon, wrote a three-volume biography of Louverture during the U.S. occupation of Haiti, which inspired a surge of black nationalism. The diplomat Price Mars, founder of the Ethnographic Movement, penned only occasional historical pieces but helped reshape attitudes to black culture, as did the notorious Duvalier, physician, anthropologist, and later president. (37) 

The leading Marxian interpreters of Louverture’s career have been the black West Indians C.L.R. James and Aimé Césaire. (38) In James’s classic, The Black Jacobins, the displacement of Toussaint Louverture to the book’s subtitle mirrors the modern re-ordering of priorities. Although he depicted the slave population with broad brush strokes, in the manner of a Michelet rather than with the analysis of a new social historian, James evinced a new feeling for the masses in history. Writing half way between the Russian Revolution and the Mau Mau uprising, he displayed a novel awareness of blacks as political agents and a prescient sense of the Haitian Revolution as an anticolonial struggle. For Césaire, too, the central issues were black agency and decolonization, because colonialism, as he put it, was the “great problem of the twentieth century.”

The great problem for framing a biography of Toussaint in this way, of course, is the black governor’s extremely ambiguous relationship to the question of independence, a cause that he never openly espoused. James resolves this problem, in the 1963 edition of the Black Jacobins, as David Scott points out, by elevating Toussaint’s struggle to preserve both slave emancipation and his ties to France to the status of an insoluble dilemma faced by a tragic hero—in other words by switching genres from history to literary studies. (39) This is James at his most Occidental, and just as Toussaint was accused of being in thrall to European influence, some have claimed that James fails to bring out the African dimension of the revolution.

As his choice of title shows, James was particularly concerned to draw a parallel between French and Haitian revolutionaries, and in his view, Toussaint developed a genuine commitment to revolutionary France. This identification of the black leader with the metropolitan Jacobins also suggests a more specific comparison, that between the relationship of the slave leadership and masses on the one hand, and that of middle-class Jacobins and sansculotte workers on the other. However, “between Toussaint and his people,” James wrote, “there was no fundamental difference of outlook or aim," unlike between the bourgeois Robespierre and his “communist” base. (40) Unaware of Toussaint’s true class identity, which was revealed only in the 1970s, James was forced to treat the widening rift between the black governor and the plantation workers as a character flaw, the hubris of a tragic hero moving toward his downfall.

The great majority of modern biographers have been admirers of Toussaint, even those who have chosen to call him a “black Napoleon,”--a term intended as an insult to Bonaparte by its originator, Chateaubriand, and which many nowadays would consider an insult to Toussaint. (41) Whether criticizing Toussaint for his forced labor policy, for not declaring independence, for being too friendly with white colonists, or even a tad ruthless, most modern writers still present him as a basically idealistic figure. Two exceptions to this pattern are the studies of Erwin Rüsch and Pierre Pluchon. (42) Rüsch wrote in Germany around 1930 and used only secondary sources. He was especially interested in the psychological dimensions of leadership, or Führerprinzip, and depicted Toussaint as a charismatic and ruthlessly calculating opportunist driven solely by ambition. Active some fifty years later, Pluchon was a defender of French colonialism from outside the academic mainstream, who did extensive archival research. His Toussaint Louverture is similar to that of Rüsch but more complicated: both a social and political conservative—a man “of the Ancien Régime”—and a black nationalist whose regime was raciste, the very opposite of James’s black Jacobin.  

Whereas most historians presume that Louverture envisaged a multi-racial Saint Domingue, because he valued the technical and managerial skills of the whites, Pluchon argues that he invited refugee planters to return, so they would serve as hostages to discourage a future French invasion. Few actually regained possession of their estates, and many were massacred when the French invaded in 1802. Like Bonaparte in France, Toussaint guaranteed a revolutionary land settlement, representing the interests of a new black landowning class of military officers. The army was not so much a people’s army, or a well-oiled machine, but a feudal institution that exploited the rural masses. Toussaint not only eliminated a long line of rivals (which is clear), but in Pluchon’s view, he set them up first, the better to bring them down, even his own nephew, Moïse, whom he had executed. Finally, it was not faith in republican France that prevented Toussaint from declaring independence, but his reliance on United States trade and his fear of a retaliatory embargo imposed by London and Washington.

At this point, rather than continuing with a chronological overview of Louverture biographies, I will switch to a topical approach, and look at the main controversies surrounding the key episodes in Toussaint’s career. The episodes I will touch on are Toussaint’s early life, the organizing of the 1791 slave revolt, Toussaint’s early stance on slave emancipation, his switch of loyalties from the Spanish to the French in 1794, and lastly his attitude to independence.

Arguably, the most significant discovery in Louverture scholarship in 200 years appeared only three decades ago in a brief article in an obscure Haitian journal. The French historian Gabriel Debien, and archivist Marie-Antoinette Ménier, revealed that Toussaint was not a slave at the time the revolution began, as some of his contemporaries believed, he himself in later years implied, and all historians had assumed. (43) He had been freed in 1776, Debien and Ménier stated, and he had owned and rented both land and slaves. In fact, these two leading authorities misread their key documentary find; Toussaint had actually lived even longer as a freedman and probably was free at least by the age of 25. (44)

Certain aspects of Toussaint Louverture’s career immediately became easier to understand. His literacy, Christianity, liking for European culture, and his support for forced labor and plantation agriculture are less surprising now we know he had spent most of his adult life beyond the confines of slavery. This was the basis for Pierre Pluchon’s interpretation of Toussaint as essentially a black planter, whose economic and social ideas were those of his white neighbors. His outlawing of Vodou, his limited revival of the slave trade, and use of corporal punishment--policies which cost him popular support--were rooted in his prerevolutionary past as a man of property, a slaveowner. Perhaps, too, Toussaint’s growing distance from the masses in his final years, which James had to treat as a character flaw, the hubris of a tragic hero moving toward his downfall, had the same, social, basis. 

However, the explanatory power of looking at Toussaint from this angle should not be exaggerated. Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henry Christophe, both slaves until the revolution, followed similar policies when head of state, whereas the free-born Alexandre Pétion did not. More important, the evidence that Debien and Ménier uncovered showed Toussaint owning merely one slave, whom he freed in 1776, and leasing another 13 on a very small coffee plantation that he briefly rented from his son-in-law. His only land purchase cataloged in Saint-Domingue’s voluminous notarial archives is for three undeveloped acres. This is hardly the basis for major revisionism.

All the more far-fetched, therefore, is the portrait of the pre-revolutionary Toussaint presented in the most recent of the biographies in English, Madison Smartt Bell’s Toussaint Louverture published to acclaim in 2007. (45) Bell’s politics and sympathy with his subject matter have nothing in common with the colonialist Pluchon’s, but he basically takes the latter’s revisionist portrait and embroiders it with unbelievable flights of fantasy. He imagines Toussaint to have been a slave-driver who was able to make shrewd investments in land before he was freed in 1776. Confusing the acquisitions Toussaint made during and before the revolution, he depicts him as not only a wealthy planter but also a high-ranking freemason who hob-nobbed with the governor and island elite. At some point along the way, he also helped out with surgical operations in a Jesuit hospital.

To Bell’s credit, he is one of very few to have noticed that, on the eve of the revolution, Toussaint’s wife and sons were still listed in the inventory of the plantation where he was born, (as were various other family members whom Bell overlooks). Yet he fails to draw the obvious conclusion. At the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint was a typical black freedman of very modest condition. He was manifestly not an agrarian capitalist, perhaps not even a slaveowner, and he still lived very close to the slave population. Neither he, nor any other person of color in the colony, was a freemason. And his wife Suzanne--who was almost certainly his common law wife--was not the educated woman of property some have claimed, but a plantation laundress, and she and their children were still owned by somebody else. (46) Hence, in future studies of the prerevolutionary Toussaint, the pendulum is due to swing back toward the traditional picture: that of a man-of-the-people with privileges.

A privileged start in life, for a sugar plantation slave, meant tending livestock rather than cutting cane. The historiography tells us that Toussaint owed his relatively favored beginnings to the fact that his African family was of royal descent and that his father’s owner, the aristocratic comte de Noé, chose to recognize this fact. The story goes back to the written recollections of Toussaint’s son Isaac that were published in 1825. (47) Isaac states that Toussaint was the grandson of Gaou Guinou, whose second son was sold into the slave trade. He does not give the name of this person, Toussaint’s father, which other sources show to have been Hyppolite. Starting with Saint-Rémy in 1850, a majority of historians and genealogists have misread Isaac’s account, or relied on others who did, and made Toussaint the son, not grandson, of a Gaou Guinou who was himself deported. (48)

The question has been complicated by Toussaint’s referring to his godfather, Pierre-Baptiste—who long out-lived Hyppolite and may also have become his father-in-law—as his father. The claim made in a 1940s biography that Pierre-Baptiste really was his father met with a severe rebuke from Haitian nationalists who valued the thesis of royal descent. (49)  We now know that the term gaou was not royal but designated the army commander of the kingdom of Dahomey. (50) “Guinou” is more problematic but a French historian, Jean-Louis Donnadieu, has recently offered a solution.  Despite continuing the confusion between son and grandson, he presents interesting evidence from African oral sources that Isaac’s “Guinou” should be rendered “Déguénon,” who was a gaou of the state of Allada that was conquered by Dahomey in the 1720s. (51)

Isaac Louverture’s “Notes diverses” are, in places, patently romanticized and often vague. Moreover, he scarcely saw his father after he turned twelve, when he was sent to school in France. (52) Yet, in constructing his story he was not solely dependent on childhood memories. As an adult he lived with his mother until her death in 1816, and his wife, Louise, was the daughter of Toussaint’s African-born half-sister, Geneviève. These women were undoubtedly also repositories of family lore. Isaac’s account of his ancestry therefore may well be reliable. Biographer Victor Schoelcher’s evident mistrust of him was thus not entirely justified. Although Toussaint was probably not of royal descent, he came from an important African lineage, and this doubtless helps explain some of the influence he achieved during the revolution.

The most recent revelation regarding Toussaint’s early years concerns his domestic life. Once in power, the public image he projected of his enslaved past was one of stable, conjugal union, although he acknowledged in private having several out-of-wedlock children. The contrast between his puritanical moralizing and rumors of his extra-marital and interracial affairs reinforced his reputation for hypocrisy among contemporaries and has been a popular theme with biographers. No one suspected, however, the existence of a parallel family derived from an early, legitimate marriage that historians have been uncovering in the last few years. (53) Toussaint’s marriage as a teenager, to a free black woman named Cécile, may in fact be the source of his manumission.     

What of Toussaint’s role in the great slave uprising of August 1791? Was he present, in other words, at the Big Bang of the Haitian Revolution? Already in the 1790s there existed two conflicting allegations on the topic that later passed into print. (54) One is that Toussaint had nothing to do with the slave insurrection at first, and joined in only after several months. This version we find in Dubroca’s 1802 biography, and it has always been the standard interpretation among French and Anglophone writers. For Toussaint’s critics, it shows his calculating duplicity, waiting to see which way the wind would blow. For his defenders, it demonstrates mature caution and separates him from the extreme violence of the insurrection’s earliest days.

The competing version is that Toussaint was the secret mastermind behind the uprising. White counter-revolutionaries supposedly recruited him as a go-between who was to select slave leaders to stage a short-lived rebellion that would put the royalists back in power. Toussaint chose physically imposing men and stayed in the background himself, as the revolt took on a life of its own. This version has been by far the most popular in Haiti, except with a few mulâtriste historians, like Saint-Rémy, Beaubrun Ardouin, and Beauvais Lespinasse, who credited free colored survivors from the 1790 Ogé rebellion with raising the slaves. Beaubrun Ardouin, however, was eventually won over to accepting Toussaint’s role by the oral history research of his brother Céligni. (55) Along with Ralph Korngold, author of Citizen Toussaint, Madison Bell is one of the few writers outside Haiti to have adopted this version, though Carolyn Fick also gave it support in passing. (56)

The idea that the slave insurrection was a counter-revolutionary maneuver was widely accepted among French radicals within a year of its outbreak; the story of Toussaint’s involvement was but a later, minor variant of a well established and broader theme. This royalist plot thesis implies that any blame for the violence of the uprising has to be shared between whites and blacks, which perhaps has enhanced its appeal among Haitians, just as it allowed French republicans, from the 1790s to the 1890s, to depict monarchist opponents as fanatics. (57)   The thesis is most likely groundless but it was promoted by the slave insurgents, including Toussaint, to divide their white opponents. (58)

The brilliantly cynical Pierre Pluchon denied that Toussaint was the secret organizer of the 1791 uprising and he came up with two different explanations for this story. (59) In his two biographies, he asserted that it was a rumor that Toussaint himself circulated late in his career, so as to write himself back into the key episode of the revolution. In a later publication, however, Pluchon synthesises the two versions of Toussaint’s role in a very original fashion. He suggests that the black freedman indeed joined the insurrection belatedly, after a few months, but that it was as the agent of white royalists who wanted him to lead the insurgents toward a negotiated settlement. Since this is precisely the role in which Toussaint first appears as a public figure, in December 1791, the suggestion is not entirely outrageous.

This raises the third controversial issue: Toussaint’s stance on slave emancipation. (60) Most of his serious biographers recount how, in the fourth month of the slave uprising, he attempted to terminate it in exchange for the liberation of only a handful of leaders, offering the whites to help drive the other insurgents back on to the plantations. This episode poses no problems for the cynics like Ardouin, Rüsch, and Pluchon who saw Toussaint as only an ambitious opportunist. James, Césaire, and the others who depict him as an idealist generally present the episode as a temporary aberration and then assert that, as soon as the negotiations failed, Toussaint committed himself unswervingly to slave emancipation and never looked back.

This is not true, because we find him and Jean-François (the main insurgent leader) making similar proposals some eight months later, when once again military reinforcements were arriving from France and it appeared that the insurrection might be suppressed. It is also untrue that Toussaint is known to have made an emancipation proposal to General Laveaux in 1793—this claim is based on Gragnon-Lacoste’s forgery mentioned above. The best that the idealists can do is point to Louverture’s letters of late August that year, in which he asserted he was the first to uphold the good cause. But these were not the proclamations or decrees that many have claimed (61)—that idea derives from Victor Schoelcher’s editing—and Toussaint was clearly reacting here to the imminent abolition proclamation of the radical French official Sonthonax.

The cynical conservatives have not handled the issue any better. If Toussaint’s August letters about emancipation were not quite the lapidary declarations the radicals claim, it is inexcusable that Pluchon and Rüsch did not even mention them. And their focus on the very royalist letters that Toussaint was writing at the same time is not especially convincing. In brief, the question of how the slave uprising of 1791 led to the ending of slavery in 1793 is still awaiting its historian.

The fourth controversial issue, also related to the question of slave emancipation, is Toussaint Louverture’s so called ‘volte-face’ of spring 1794. Having ignored Sonthonax’s abolition of slavery for at least eight months, and gone on fighting for the pro-slavery Spanish, why did Toussaint switch sides and rally to the godless republican French?  The historiography reveals a remarkable variety of versions as to the timing, location, and manner of the black general’s change of allegiance, as well as the motives behind it. Essentially, however, Toussaint’s detractors read it as a matter of ambition. In the most childish versions, it was to gain promotion from colonel to general. Since the opposite actually happened, this can be easily dismissed. More important, however, was the fact that, among the insurgent leaders whom the Spanish recruited when they went to war with France, Toussaint was stuck in the number 3 position behind Biassou and Jean-François, and the three men were engaged in violent rivalry with one another. This had already caused the deaths of Biassou’s nephew and of Toussaint’s brother Pierre, who was shot dead at his side.(62)

The idealist case, supported by most historians, is that Toussaint joined the French, when he learned that the French government, by the decree of February 4, 1794, had abolished slavery. The major problem with this explanation is that news of the decree almost certainly did not reach Saint Domingue for some two months after Toussaint ostensibly had changed sides. The solution to this conundrum is a little complicated but it comes down to Toussaint’s volte-face being, not a single publicly proclaimed event, but a subtly staggered affair, stretched out over several months during which he assured his allegiance to the Spanish and French simultaneously—and briefly to the British as well--while assuring himself “deniability” for his actions. This makes both versions partially correct, and Louverture’s reputation for deviousness entirely merited. (63)

Finally, the question of independence. Already in 1796, when he became lieutenant-governor of Saint Domingue, European commentators began to wonder if Toussaint would seek to overthrow French rule. (64) By 1799, it was a common speculation around the Atlantic world, from London to Jamaica to the United States, in Santo Domingo and Cap Français itself. (65) And yet Toussaint never took that step, and never mentioned the word “independence” except to deny any intention of seeking it—even when facing the invasion army of General Leclerc. Cyril James, we have seen, found no problem with this; he found praiseworthy the idea that the former slave had hit upon the idea of autonomous dominion status long before it occurred to British imperialists. Of course, Toussaint essentially enjoyed a de facto independence, and his constitution of 1801 was a major affront to French ideas of sovereignty.  Early French authors, therefore, tended to condemn him, whether they thought he was seeking outright independence, or merely pushing the boundaries of local autonomy.

The Haitian mulâtriste school, on the other hand, found Toussaint’s reticence in the matter yet more evidence that he remained lamentably under the influence of the Europeans. Ardouin and Saint-Rémy, although not Madiou, denied that he sought eventual independence, and thought that Bonaparte’s decision to invade took him by surprise. Saint-Rémy even claims it was his opponent André Rigaud who wanted independence, but few others have agreed with this assessment. (66)

Contrarily, Haitian writers of the noiriste persuasion, although not Pauléus Sannon, generally claim that Toussaint planned from an early date to make Saint Domingue an independent state. Anténor Firmin thought his constitution was a bold first step on the road to an inevitable secession. Antoine Michel argued that his rapprochement with Rigaud in 1797 was a still earlier sign. For François Duvalier, it was only Rigaud’s racial prejudice that prevented his joining Toussaint’s march toward independence. Gérard Laurent presented Toussaint and Dessalines as pursuing the same goal. And the Auguste brothers vehemently deny that Toussaint failed to prepare to resist the French invasion. (67)

The historiographical Toussaint Louverture has thus appeared in sharply contrasting guises, from the flawed radical hero of James’s Black Jacobins, to the self-aggrandising and racist “Ancien Regime revolutionary” of Pierre Pluchon; from Ralph Korngold’s altruistic Citizen Toussaint, to the ruthlessly calculating Führer of Erwin Rüsch. Condemned as an ambitious opportunist by white colonists, mulâtre ideologues, and modern conservatives; he has been hailed by opponents of slavery, racial discrimination, and colonialism as a martyr, Precursor, or Moses figure, whom fate or his own limited vision denied the final triumph of establishing, either an independent black state, or a multi-racial, transatlantic experiment in shared dominion.

Copyright by David Geggus.

7. [François] Pamphile de Lacroix, Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de la révolution de Saint-Domingue (Paris: Pillet, 1819), 2:204.

8. See above, note 1.  As well as presenting him as a chaste and hard working African house servant, a noble defender of the weak, and an avid reader of the Classics, the German work was the first to claim royal ancestry for Toussaint and is the only one ever to depict him as a maroon. 

9. Geggus, “British Opinion,” 141.

10. See above, note 1. Though dated 1801, the events it mentions places its publication after mid-March 1802. The author may be the insurgent leader and future Haitian statesman Juste Chanlatte (1766-1828) or, more probably, his uncle, General Antoine Chanlatte (1752-1815).

11. However, the work condemns the southern rebellion and its leader, André Rigaud. The book’s likely author was connected with the colony’s West Province. Antoine Chanlatte was at different times Toussaint’s opponent and subordinate. Juste Chanlatte briefly sided with the pro-slavery British invaders.

12. Vie privée, 10, 16-17, 42, 107.

13. Capt. Rainsford, A Memoir of Transactions that took place in St. Domingo in the Spring of 1799; affording an idea of…the real character of its black governor, Toussaint L’ouverture (London: Scott, 1802). A revised edition appeared two months later as Marcus Rainsford, St. Domingo, or an Historical, Political and Military Sketch of the Black Republic, with a View of the Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture (London: Scott, 1802).

14. An expanded edition was published in 1805.

15. James McCune Smith, Lecture on the Haytien Revolutions, with a Sketch of the Character of Toussaint L’Ouverture (New York: Colored Orphans Asylum, 1841); Charles Wyllys Elliott, Saint Domingo, its Revolution and its Hero, Toussaint L’Ouverture (New York: J. Dix, 1855); William Wells Brown, St Domingo, its Revolutions and its Patriots (Boston: Bela Marsh, 1855); William Wells Brown, The Black Man, his Antecedents, his Genius, and his Achievements (New York: T. Hamilton, 1863); Wendell Phillips, The St. Domingo Insurrection: Toussaint L'Ouverture, the John Brown of St.Domingo (New York, 1860); Wendell Phillips, Toussaint L’Ouverture: A Lecture (Boston, 1861); Jacqueline Bacon, Maurice Jackson, eds., African Americans and the Haitian Revolution (New York: Routledge, 2009); Matthew J. Clavin, Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War: The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 201.

16. Alfred Hunt, Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 84-106.

17. Adolphe Thiers, Histoire du Consulat et de l’Empire (Paris: Paulin, 1845), 173-185. 

18. David Geggus, “Haiti and the Abolitionists: Opinion, Propaganda and International Politics in Britain and France, 1804-1838,” in David Richardson, ed., Abolition and its Aftermath: The Historical Context, 1790-1916 (London: Frank Cass, 1985), 113-140.

19. Harriet Martineau, The Hour and The Man: A Historical Romance (New York: Harper Brothers, 1841); The Iris, or Literary Messenger, 1 (1841): 183-4.

20. John R. Beard, Life of Toussaint Louverture: The Negro Patriot of Hayti (London: Ingram, Cooke, 1853); John R. Beard, Life of Toussaint Louverture: A Biography and Autobiography (Boston: J. Redpath, 1863), vi.

21. Clavin, Toussaint Louverture.

22. Augustin Régis, Mémoire historique sur Toussaint-Louverture, ci-devant général en chef de l'armée de Saint-Domingue, justifié par ses actions des accusations dirigées contre lui (Paris: Scherff, 1818).

23. Pamphile de Lacroix, Mémoires, 1:300-305, 394-410, 2:45-46, 198-211.

24. Charles-Malo, Histoire d’Haïti (Ile de Saint-Domingue) (Paris: Marchand, 1825); Antoine Métral, Histoire de l'insurrection des esclaves dans le nord de Saint-Domingue (Paris: Scherff, 1818); Métral, Histoire de l’expédition des Français à Saint-Domingue sous le consulat de Napoléon Bonaparte (1802-1803) suivie des mémoires et notes d’Isaac Louverture (Paris: Fanjat, 1825).

25. Percy Waxman, The Black Napoleon (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1931), 6.  Comte actually classed Toussaint in his lowest rank of the luminaries of world history, along with Madison, Kosciuscko, Louis XIV, and Saladin.  This was three ranks below Charlemagne and Frederick II; two below the Buddha and Cromwell; and one below Washington, Bolívar, and Jefferson.

26. J.-Hippolyte-Daniel de Saint-Anthoine, Notice sur Toussaint Louverture (Paris: Lacour, 1842), 28-29. In Isaac Louverture’s papers, however, this plan of going to Africa is located in 1802, after Toussaint’s surrender to General Leclerc and is described less clearly as “to do...what he had done on the island.” A margin note (probably by Gragnon-Lacoste) glosses that phrase as “to civilize Africa through work and education”: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Manuscrits, NAF 6864, f. 88. Three decades later, Gragnon-Lacoste claimed to be the first to reveal this story, and used it deflect charges that Toussaint sought independence by claiming he wanted to raise the French flag over new African conquests: Thomas-Prosper Gragnon-Lacoste, Toussaint-Louverture, général en chef de l'armée de Saint-Domingue, surnommé le premier des noirs (Paris: Durand, 1877), 202-3.

27. Toussaint needed to cultivate British goodwill, because of the British navy’s ability to blockade Saint Domingue. Although documentary proof of Toussaint’s actions was published as early as 1910, historians of the revolution ignored this episode until the late 1970s. See "Letters of Toussaint Louverture and of Edward Stevens, 1798-1800," American Historical Review 16 (1910): 83.

28. Joseph Saint-Rémy, Vie de Toussaint-L'Ouverture (Paris: Moquet, 1850); Joseph Saint-Rémy, Pétion et Haïti, 5 vols. (Paris: Saint-Rémy, 1854-57); Thomas Madiou, Histoire d'Haïti, 3 vols. (Port-au-Prince: Courtois, 1847-1848); Beaubrun Ardouin, Études sur l'histoire d’Haïti, 11 vols. (Paris: Dézobry & Madeleine, 1853-60).

29. Joseph Saint-Rémy, Mémoires de général Toussaint-Louverture, écrits par lui-même (Paris: Pagnerre, 1853), 17, 19.

30. Gragnon-Lacoste, Toussaint-Louverture, 1.

31. David Geggus, Haitian Revolutionary Studies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 126.

32. Victor Schoelcher, Vie de Toussaint Louverture (Paris: Ollendorff, 1889), 303-4; Geggus, Haitian Revolutionary Studies, 127.

33. Anténor Firmin, De l'égalité des races humaines: anthropologie positive (Paris: Pichon, 1885), 546-559.

34. David Aliano, “Revisiting Saint Domingue: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution in the French Colonial Debates of the Late Nineteenth Century,” French Colonial History 9 (2008): 15-35.

35. Carolyn Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990); Alejo Carpentier, El reino de este mundo (Mexico City: Edición y Distribución Ibero Americana, 1949).

36. David Nicholls, From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour and National Independence in Haiti (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 85-107; David Nicholls, “A Work of Combat: Mulatto Historians and the Haitian Past,” Journal of Interamerican Studies 16:1 (1974), 15-38.

37. Horace Pauléus Sannon, Histoire de Toussaint-Louverture, 3 vols. (Port-au-Prince: Héraux, 1920-1933); Jean Price Mars, “Toussaint Louverture,” Revue de la Société Haïtienne d'Histoire, de Géographie et de Géologie 57 (1945): 7-17; François Duvalier, Lorimer Denis, Le problème des classes à travers l’histoire d’Haïti (Port-au-Prince: Au service de la Jeunesse, 1948).

38. C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Dial, 1938; 2nd ed., New York: Vintage, 1963); Aimé Césaire, Toussaint Louverture: La Révolution française et le problème colonial (Paris: Club français du livre, 1960).

39. David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), ch. 4.

40. James, Black Jacobins, 286.

41. Waxman, Black Napoleon; Karl Otten, Der schwarze Napoleon: Toussaint L'Ouverture und der Negeraufstand auf Saint Domingo (Berlin: Atlantis, 1931); Anatolii Vinogradov, The Black Consul (New York: Viking 1935); William Du Bois, "Haiti: A drama of the black Napoleon,” in Federal Theater Plays (New York: Random House, c1938); Raphael Tardon, Toussaint L'Ouverture, le Napoléon noir (Paris: Bellenand, 1951); Nicolas Saint-Cyr, Toussaint L'Ouverture; le Napoléon noir (Paris: Hachette 1985); James Hannon, The Black Napoleon: Toussaint L'Ouverture liberator of Haiti (Yucca Valley, CA: Pacific American, 1992); Martin Ros, Karin Ford, Night of Fire: The Black Napoleon and the Battle for Haiti (New York: Sarpedon, 1994).

42. Erwin Rüsch, Die Revolution von Saint Domingue (Hamburg: Friedrichsen, De Gruyter, 1930); Pierre Pluchon, Toussaint Louverture: De l'esclavage au pouvoir (Paris: L'École, 1979); Pierre Pluchon, Toussaint Louverture: Un révolutionnaire noir d'Ancien régime (Paris: Fayard, 1989).

43. Gabriel Debien, Jean Fouchard, Marie-Antoinette Ménier, "Toussaint Louverture avant 1789: Légendes et Réalités," Conjonction:Revue Franco-Haïtienne 134 (1977): 67-80. Debien and Ménier each discovered one of the key documents presented. Fouchard’s contribution to the article was its account of Toussaint’s descendants.

44. David Geggus, "Toussaint Louverture and the Slaves of the Bréda Plantations," Journal of Caribbean History 20 (1985-6): 33

45. Madison Smartt Bell, Toussaint Louverture: A Biography (New York: Pantheon, 2007).

46. David Geggus, “La Famille de Toussaint Louverture,” Généalogie et Histoire de la Caraïbe 174 (octobre 2004): 4319-4320; D. Geggus, “Les débuts de Toussaint Louverture,” Généalogie et Histoire de la Caraïbe 170 (mai 2004): 4173-4174.

47. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, Manuscrits, Nouv. acq. fr. 6864, “Notes diverses d’Isaac sur la vie de Toussaint-Louverture.” These notes were published in Métral, Histoire de l’expédition, 325-339.

48. Geggus, “Les débuts,” 4173-4174. James and Césaire were exceptions to this tendency. In his 1842 history, Saint-Anthoine correctly stated Toussaint’s relationship to Gaou Guinou, whom he called a “powerful king”: Notice, 1-6. He wrongly thought Toussaint was orphaned as a child but correctly noted that his parents died almost at the same time. This can be verified in the surviving papers of the Bréda plantation: AN, 18 AP 3, dossier 12. 

49. Geggus, “La famille,” 4320; Ralph Korngold, Citizen Toussaint (London: Gollancz, 1945), 258-9; Timoléon C. Brutus, Rançon du génie ou la leçon de Toussaint Louverture (Port-au-Prince: Théodore, 1946), 1:46.

50. Robin Law, The Slave Coast of West Africa, 1550-1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 271.

51. Jean-Louis Donnadieu, Un Grand seigneur et ses esclaves: Le comte de Noé entre Antilles et Gascogne, 1728-1816 (Toulouse: Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2009), 96-100.

52. On Isaac’s true age, see Geggus, “La famille,” 4320.

53. Different parts of the puzzle can be found in Dominique Rogers, “Les Libres de couleur dans les capitales de Saint-Domingue: fortune, mentalités et intégration à la fin de l’Ancien régime (1776-1789)” Thèse de doctorat de l’université (Université de Bordeaux III, 1999), 164; Jean-Louis Donnadieu, “La Famille ‘oubliée’ de Toussaint Louverture,” Bulletin de la Société Archéologique et Historique du Gers 401 (2011): 357-365; Jacques de Cauna, “Dessalines esclave de Toussaint?” Outre-Mers. Revue d'Histoire, 374-375 (2012): 319-322.

54. David Geggus, “Toussaint Louverture avant et après le soulèvement de 1791,” in Mémoire de révolution d'esclaves à Saint-Domingue, ed. Franklin Midy (Montréal: CIDHICA, 2006), 112-132.

55. Madiou, Histoire, 1:93, 100; Saint-Rémy, Vie, 18; Ardouin, Etudes (1958 ed.) 1:49-51, 4:57; C. N. Céligni Ardouin, Essais sur l’histoire d’Haïti (Port-au-Prince: Bouchereau, 1865), 16-17; Beauvais Lespinasse, Histoire des affranchis de Saint-Domingue (Paris: Kugelmann, 1882), 15, 343-344; Hannibal Price, De la réhabilitation de la race noire par la République d'Haïti (Port-au-Prince: Verrollot, 1900), 295; Sannon, Histoire, 1:88; Mentor Laurent, Erreurs et vérités dans l’histoire d’Haïti (Port-au-Prince: Telhomme, 1945),18-19; Gérard Laurent, Coup d’oeil sur la politique de Toussaint-Louverture (Port-au-Prince: Deschamps, 1949), 34-35; Saint-Victor Jean-Baptiste, Haïti, sa lutte pour l'indépendance (Paris: Nef, 1957), 185; Jean Fouchard, Toussaint Louverture (Port-au-Prince: Deschamps, nd), 32.

56. Korngold, Citizen Toussaint, 59-60, 65-67; Bell, Toussaint Louverture, 77-79; Carolyn Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990), 92. 

57. For example, Gros, Isle St.-Domingue, Province du Nord. Précis historique (Paris : Potier de Lille, 1793), 9-12; Contre-amiral Reveillère, Polverel et Sonthonax (Paris: Librairie Baudouin, 1891), 8-13.

58. David Geggus, “Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution,” in Profiles of Revolutionaries in Atlantic History, 1750-1850, ed. R. William Weisberger, Dennis P. Hupchick, David L. Anderson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007),  115-135.

59. Pluchon, Toussaint Louverture: un révolutionnaire noir, 76, 142; Pierre Pluchon, Toussaint Louverture d’après le général Kerverseau (Port au Prince: Le Natal, nd), p. 20

60. The next three paragraphs are based on David Geggus, “Toussaint Louverture et l’abolition de l’esclavage à Saint-Domingue,” in Liliane Chauleau, ed., Les Abolitions dans les Amériques, actes du colloque organisé par les Archives départementales de la Martinique (Fort de France: Société des Amis des Archives, 2001), 109-116.

61. 61. E.g. Nesbitt, Universal Emancipation, 146; Robin Blackburn,  The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights (London: Verso, 2011), 173.

62. Antonio del Monte y Tejada,  Historia de Santo Domingo (Santo Domingo: Amigos del País, 1892), 4:110;  Louverture, Notes diverses, 319.

63. Geggus, Haitian Revolutionary Studies, ch. 8.

64. [François Laplace], Reflexions sur la colonie de Saint-Domingue (Paris: Garnery, 1796), 1:33.

65. Archives Nationales, Paris, 195Mi1, doss. 8, item 10; National Archives, Kew, CO 245/1, ff. 68-75, Cathcart to Maitland, 26 November 1799;  Rayford Logan, The Diplomatic Relations of the United States with Haiti, 1776-1891 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1941), ch. 3; Christian Schneider, “Le Colonel Vincent, officier du génie à Saint-Domingue,” Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française 329 (2002): 101-102.

66. Ardouin, Etudes, 4:101-102; Madiou, Histoire, 1:442.

67. Firmin, De l'égalité des races, 553; Antoine Michel, La Mission du Général Hédouville (Port-au-Prince: np, 1929), 75; François Duvalier, Lorimer Denis, Problème des classes, 99; Laurent, Coup d’oeil, passim; Claude B. Auguste, Marcel B. Auguste, L’Expédition Leclerc, 1801-1803 (Port-au-Prince: Deschamps, 1986), 87-88.