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This Gilded African to page 65

I’m finding Parkinson’s book a good source of stimulation for thinking about character traits, interactions, and motivations. However, I get the occasional feeling that she’s got the facts wrong, and some of her conclusions, in my opinion, reach rather far afield, as in a paragraph on page 52 where she ascribes to Toussaint a rather 20th century view of Voodoo and its place in the building of nations.

Take also, for example, the story of Toussaint’s lineage. Parkinson repeats the story that Toussaint was the son of the African chief Gaougainou, an oft-repeated point I’ve been inclined to reject based on Korngold’s reasoning. However, Parkinson also says that Toussaint’s wife Suzanne was the daughter of Pierre Baptiste (p. 36), the man widely regarded as Toussaint’s godfather, and who Korngold argues is Toussaint’s natural father. Would Toussaint have married his own sister? Korngold only says that Suzanne was related to Pierre Baptiste.

Moreover, Toussaint seems to be thoroughly Christian, rejects Vodun, and professes to love France – not the characteristics one would expect of the son of an African king. Korngold says that Toussaint acknowledged only one father, Pierre Baptiste.

If Parkinson is correct, I can imagine a set of circumstances that would tie the stories together:

What if: Gaougainou was in fact an African king who was given his liberty by the kind-hearted manager of the Breda plantation. However, although he had his freedom, Gaougainou, seeing what was happening to his people and powerless to end it, became bitter and angry, striking out and physically abusing his wife and children. Toussaint spent more time in Pierre Baptiste’s comforting presence, eventually coming to see Baptiste as his father. After a time, Toussaint completely split with his natural father.

Or perhaps Toussaint’s father was crazy, and the child sought solace in the presence of Baptiste. There are many variations on this premise that might drive Toussaint to reject his African-born father. However, I still tend to think that Pierre Baptiste really was Toussaint’s father. It’s the simplest explanation for Toussaint’s beliefs and actions.

Placide, Suzanne’s first child, was the son of a mulatto named Seraphim Le Clerc. How ironic is that? (p. 36)

Toussaint wrote “the revolution found me with about 648,000 francs.” Would it have been possible for a slave to accumulate that much money by savings alone or, as Korngold suggests, does this suggest a large payoff to Toussaint for his role in the Boukman Rebellion? How could slaves accumulate wealth?

Toussaint grew up on a kindly plantation with a certain amount of freedom and responsibility. His small stature contributed to his determination not to be taken advantage of, and he trained himself every day until he was in peak physical condition. Toussaint was put in charge of the garden and later the animals.

Toussaint was not racist or vengeful. He was hopeful, balanced, only wanting to use war as a means to an end. (p. 37)

p. 38 begins Chapter 3: 1791: The Slave Rebellion

Toussaint was probably at Bois Caiman, though if he was he never said so. Jeannot, Jean Francois, and Biassou were there.

When the revolt started, the rebel slaves were unleashed and unhinged, wreaking destruction everywhere. Of the attack on Le Cap, Parkinson writes, “piles of unburied bodies lay on the neat pav�... A pall of smoke choked the town; everything was covered with a layer of sticky sugary ash which floated down day and night like black snow.”

Toussaint had stayed on Breda plantation, protecting his master’s property and family. The turning point came for Toussaint when the rebellion and the mood of the slaves on the Breda plantation became too much for him to contain. He packed up Madame de Libertas and the children and sent them on their way. Deliriously free of responsibility, master of his own fate for the first time in his life, he rode to the rebel camp. (p. 45)

What he saw there must have disturbed him greatly. The camp was sloppy and disorganized. There was no one to tend to the wounded. The soldiers were sick, poorly dressed, and disorganized.

The leaders, especially Jeannet, were reveling in their newfound power. They were dressed in “the most theatrical flamboyance, copying the officers they had seen in Le Cap but adding carnival touches of their own.” Jean Francois and the others kept discipline by deceit and by brutality. If Toussaint had had some hope of joining the fight as a general, he must have seen instantly that it wasn’t going to happen. His best bet was to patiently tend to the men and work the situation from the bottom up.

Note that “there were four priests attached to the camp … a few mulattoes, many black freed men and, later, many whites. There is one incongruous fact that is hard to comprehend: the rebel army had mustered under the standard of the House of Bourbon, the Royal Standard of the King of France. They called their army the “King’s Army.” “Vive le Roi” and “Ancien Regime” were their mottoes.” (p. 47) Of the priests, Parkinson suggests that they had quite a racket going, collecting revenue for each baptism, birth or death among the slaves. (p. 56) For their part, the slaves saw no contradiction in practicing two religions. “To the slave Christianity and Vodun were simply a double insurance against the ‘mals yeux’ and a double passport to a world of freedom after death.” (p. 56)

Important passage on p. 47 that talks of the blacks’ dreams of liberty. Many in camp knew that Louis the XIV had instituted the Code Noir. They knew of the goings on in Paris, but their knowledge was incomplete. “They believed with naive romanticism that the king had been imprisoned by the whites in Paris because he had endeavoured to liberate the slaves of St. Domingue.” The slaves believed the king had intended to free them, and so were fighting for their liberty in his name.

Parkinson suggests Toussaint’s role in working out the difficulties in camp. Respecting the chain of command, TL nevertheless helped to get rid of the rogue Jeannot, which brought some sense and stability back to the camp. Toussaint exhorted his soldiers to plant food for survival and for trade, and he enforced rules of hygiene.

Parkinson dismisses the idea that Toussaint was a Royalist spy who was in on the revolt from the beginning, but provides an account of the story nevertheless: ”[Toussaint] is supposed to have overheard a conversation between Bayon de Libertas and a Royalist concerning a plan for relieving the slave gangs. ‘He had the boldness to interrupt and approve the plan, adding that there should be a promise of three days’ freedom and an end to flogging. Later he said it would be only right to guarantee liberty to those slaves who might stir up the others, which was tantamount to offering himself for the job!’ (Sannon)” (p. 48) Parkinson dismisses this as too drastic a miscalculation on the part of the whites, but of course, as Trouillot points out, it would have been incomprehensible that blacks would actually revolt, so why not accept that some whites thought they could easily dupe the slaves into submission after they had fomented a revolt for their purposes. Carolyn Fick also offers several sources for this version of the story, so we might also see from this how crafty Toussaint was in never coming out and stating his purpose, but working carefully toward his own ends.

Toussaint’s army attacks “were becoming more cohesive and were also becoming alarmingly unpredictable.” (p. 51)

Toussaint was also instilling discipline in his troops, though this did not make him instantly popular among them. “Pamphile Lacroix who was a chief of staff of Napoleon wrote, ‘No European army was subjected to severer discipline than Toussaint’s … officers have the power of life and death over those under their command with pistol in hand.’ he noted that control over looting was particularly severe and was punishable by death.” (p. 52-53) His growing power was becoming a threat to Biassou.

De Blanchelande was writing desperate letters to France and to Jamaica, but no help was forthcoming. He even asked for help from General Washington, unaware “that the rebels were also negotiating with private factions in the southern part of the United States and had agreed to exchange sugar, rum and molasses for shipments of supplies.” (p. 54)

“De Blanchelande’s appeals to France brought slow reaction. William Pitt in England was so unconcerned that he merely remarked with ironic wit that ‘it seems that the French prefer burnt sugar with their coffee.’” (p. 54)

In the meantime, the rebels had been solicited by Spain, who promised support for the cause and a held out a vague offer of emancipation. Bolstered by this The rebels steadfastly refused to negotiate surrender. (p. 55) Meanwhile, de Blanchelande had to put up with steady rebel raids and increasing division among the rest of St. Domingue society. “The ‘grands blancs’, the proprietors, the pro-royalist counter-revolutionaries (that is, counter-revolutionaries to the Jacobins of France), sported the ‘white cockade’ on their hats. The ‘petits blancs’, the followers of the revolution in France, wore the ‘red cockade’, and street fighting broke out for the most trivial cause. The Red Cockades also made any excuse to attack their old enemies, the mulattoes. To add to the confusion, in the west the mulattoes made their throw and rose against the ‘petits blancs’, who now had control of the municipalities and local governments. Wearied of the constant persecution which even led to lynchings of mulattoes by the ignorant whites, they turned. Under their flag the mulattoes saw a real hope of gaining predominance over both ‘petits blancs’ and the more reactionary ‘grands blancs’, although at this time many White Cockades were joining their cause in opposition to the Red Cockades, the followers of the Republic in France” (pp. 56-57)

Aided by 300 former slaves known as “The Swiss,” the mulattoes scored an easy, quick victory in the West, and the Red Cockades and the petits blancs agreed to peace terms. The mulatto victory was diminished by the affair of the Swiss. The 300 slaves couldn’t be returned to their former colonies, so it was decided to ship them to Honduras. The captain of the ship, though, tried to foist his cargo off on Jamaica, but was refused and returned to St. Domingue. The Swiss were murdered while they slept, their bodies tossed to the sharks. The incident created a furor, and split the mulattoes and blacks further apart.

(I’ve got some problems with this account, though. Why would the captain return to St. Domingue instead of going on to Honduras? And who snuck into the boat to kill the Swiss, then? The whole thing sounds like a setup.)

In Le Cap, violence erupted full force. The city was set ablaze, and indiscriminate massacre and destruction were the order of the day. Into this conflagration sailed three new Commissioners from France, on November 29, 1791. Perhaps to ensure their enthusiastic welcome, the Commissioners gave the LeCap Assembly false hope of troops from France.

Meanwhile, the rebel slaves were facing the growing threat of famine. Though they had had success with guerilla attacks, the army’s growing hunger was a serious danger to morale and personal safety. Jean Francois, Biassou and Toussaint decided to negotiate. In exchange for freedom 400 of the leaders, “they would lead the slaves back to the plantation, with the proviso that an extra free day a week would be granted, and the use of the whip as a punishment be banned.” (p. 60)

In considering this, Parkinson criticizes the leaders, including Toussaint, for treachery. They must have known the conditions wouldn’t be accepted, nor would the slaves, who had risked their lives for revolution, take these terms kindly. Yet I’m not sure what Parkinson would have Toussaint and the others do. Without food, they faced the mortal loss of their troops; negotiating with de Blanchelande may have been a desperation gambit, but it seems to me a less treacherous solution than watching their army starve to death.

After the LeCap Assembly scornfully refused the first rebel emissaries, the new Commissioners proposed a meeting at St. Michel plantation. Jean Francois himself led the delegation there. An unfortunate incident with his former master almost turned the meeting into a disaster, but Commissioner St. Leger was able to defuse the situation so skillfully that, on leaving, Jean Francois acknowledged him as “the only white man whom he had ever met who showed humanity.” (p. 63)

On hearing his story, though, Biassou and Toussaint were unconvinced. Though he moved forward with preparations to exchange prisoners, Toussaint was having serious doubts, and his meeting with the Assembly crystalized his thinking on the matter. On leading 200 prisoners into Le Cap, he presented himself to the Assembly, which greeted him coldly. “The President would not even deign to speak to him or to the delegation but merely handed them a note demanding 400 more prisoners and ‘further proof of your repentance’. ” Toussaint refused, and the Assembly made it clear that the negotiations were over, despite what the Commissioners may have promised. (p. 64)

On riding out of the ruins of Le Cap, Toussaint realized that there could now be no turning back. “He now had only one goal: the complete abolition of slavery and the freedom of his people for ever.” (p. 65)