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The Black Liberator

I’ve been skipping around to different books in my collection lately. Recently, I spent some time with Black Liberator, The Life of Toussaint Louverture, by Stephen Alexis (translated and abridged by William Stirling from Alexis’ Toussaint Louverture, Lib�rataur d’Haiti)

The book lists Alexis as “Formerly Haitian Minister at the Court of St. James.” The jacket bio also says he was permanent Haitian delegate to the United Nations, and that he organized the First National Museum in Haiti.

It seems quite plausible that Mr. Alexis knows what he’s talking about, and much of what he writes jibes with what I already understand about Toussaint’s history. Unfortunately, though, the book lists no sources except occasionally within the text itself. I have not been able to turn up any biographical information for Alexis yet online, either. I am forced to exclude this as a credible source for the moment; I hope to find the original French text to see if there is a bibliography or footnotes which would let me verify this version of the facts.

Nevertheless, there is some interesting material to be read herein concerning the period leading up to Toussaint’s capture.

“Another reason which led Toussaint to favour negotiations was the fact that Leclerc and other French Generals were achieving no small measure of success in undermining the loyalty of some of Toussaint’s lieutenants.” (pp. 196-7)

This is a compelling argument for Toussaint’s eventual capture – he may have believed himself out of options and was betting that Brunet would be honorable. His own generals were committing acts of perfidy, betrayal, and desertion at every turn. He must not have felt in control. (I wonder, is there any evidence that he was sick or depressed? Is there any evidence that he was ever depressed? Was he exhausted? As I read in Parkinson, he had been in a similar position of imminent defeat very early in the revolution, and had attempted to negotiate a respite by promising to return the blacks under his command to slavery. Was he trying to repeat that gambit?)

On Toussaint leaving his army:

“It was a bright May morning when Toussaint took leave of his comrades in arms in the little town of La Marmelade. Summoning his troops to the Place D’Armes, he announced that he had just made his peace with Leclerc. With controlled emotion, he extolled his men’s valour and their loyalty to himself; ‘Never forget that you are the guardians of the honour of your race.” (p. 203)

Alexis describes Toussaint keeping a stiff upper lip, while his “five thousand soldiers wept unrestrainedly.”

On page 204, Alexis paints the picture of a defeated Toussaint, a man who retires to Desachaux no longer to wear the military uniform, but rather the “costume of a landowner – long white tunic and white trousers and a broad-brimmed straw hat.”

Alexis maintains that Toussaint’s nephew, Bernard Chancy, followed him into a church one day:

“Chancy saw his uncle walk slowly up to the altar where there stood a beautiful marble crucifix, which he himself had presented to the church. With an angry countenance Toussaint stared at the image, and then, in the bitterness of his defeat, he proceeded to apostrophize it: ‘You! You are the God of the white men, not the God of the Negroes! You have betrayed men, and deserted me! You have no pity for my race!’ And with a violent movement of his hand, this man, who feared only God, hurled the crucifix to the ground, where it lay shattered in a thousand pieces.”

On pages 206-207, Alexis points to evidence that Toussaint was directing the resistance from behind the scenes, though I can’t quite understand how that jibes with his description of Toussaint as defeated and in despair. Not that it doesn’t add up, but I would really love to find a more detailed description of Toussaint’s behavior and actions at this time. (Another reason I want to find Alexis’ sources.)

Starting on page 208, Alexis describes Toussaint’s betrayal by Leclerc and Brunet. Brunet lured Toussaint to his residence with a promise of friendship and hospitality. It took him a matter of minutes to turn traitor. Good dialog here:

“Drawing his sword, Tousssaint leaped to his feet, his eyes flashing angrily. ‘Useless, General,’ said Ferrari, the officer in charge, and one of Leclerc’s personal aides. ‘Your men are already in chains, our troops command the entire countryside, and you are surrounded. The Captain-General has ordered me to arrest you. You no longer count for anything in Saint Domingue: surrender your sword.”

Later, “He was then taken on board the Creole, which had been lying off Gonaives for more than a week, and was greeted with a crude remark from the master of the ship: ‘Ha! So we’ve got you at last, eh, Toussaint?’ The Negro leader, who had not uttered a word since his arrest, retorted with cold fury: ‘Yes, you have my head, but not my tail.’

”[On board the Heros he was received by General Savary, who told him, to add to his humiliation: ‘You won’t be able to play the Negro Napoleon any more now, will you?’ Toussaint gave the French officer a scornful glance, and then said, speaking slowly, as though he were reading the future: ‘By overthrowing me, you have merely succeeded in cutting the trunk of Saint Domingue’s Tree of Liberty: but it will grow again, for the roots are deep, and many.’”

“Tears filled his eyes when his fourteen-year-old son, Saint Jean, ran to him weeping, and clasped his legs. Gently he stroked the boy’s head, and then pushed him away, saying, as he looked steadily into his eyes: ‘My son must not cry. He must learn to be brave in misfortune, and dream of the future.’” (pp. 209 – 210)

This Sonthonax fellow sounds like an intriguing character. There is a recent biography of him which is on my list to acquire. It sounds like he was an abolitionist ahead of his time.

“The Negroes had never forgotten how Leger Felicite Sonthonax had told them that if the white men sought to take away the guns he had given them, then the white men meant to enslave them.” (p. 211)

On page 212, Alexis describes Leclerc’s spiral downward into desperation He is constantly writing letters asking for more troops and more money.

“At the landing of the splendid troops of the French expeditionary force Toussaint had cried out: ‘What criminal folly to expose this army on the brink of a volcano!’ And Leclerc was now learing the bitter truth of this.”

Leclerc died ”’groaning about the folly of man.’ He was thirty years old.”