Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian revolution

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Haitian re­volu­tion­ary lead­er and states­man Tous­saint Louver­ture was born 274 years ago today. You can read a num­ber of books, es­says, and art­icles by click­ing on the links be­low.

  1. CLR James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution (1938)
  2. CLR James, Lectures on The Black Jacobins (1974)
  3. Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (2004)
  4. Jeremy D. Popkin, Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Insurrection (2008)
  5. Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (2009)
  6. Jeremy D. Popkin, A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution (2011)

Fore­most among these, of course, is CLR James’ clas­sic The Black Jac­obins: Tous­saint Louver­ture and the Haitian Re­volu­tion (1938). Against the naïve im­per­at­ive that says “we must not cen­sor works hailed by the sub­al­tern as mas­ter­ful pieces of our his­tory, but in­stead cel­eb­rate them if the sub­al­tern says we should” — which al­most reads like a re­duc­tio ad ab­surdum of stand­point epi­stem­o­logy — we ought rather to up­hold those works which pass crit­ic­al and schol­arly muster. James’ book, though not writ­ten by an aca­dem­ic, stands up bril­liantly to this test.

Some of the oth­ers are also worth check­ing out. In par­tic­u­lar, Susan Buck-Morss’ in­flu­en­tial study of Hegel, Haiti, and Uni­ver­sal His­tory (2009), which caused something of a stir when the first half was pub­lished as an es­say back in 2001. “De­co­lo­ni­al dia­lec­tician” George Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er cri­ti­cized her for fo­cus­ing too much on Tous­saint, at the ex­pense of his com­pat­ri­ot Jean-Jacques Des­salines. Nev­er­the­less, out of these two, I greatly prefer Tous­saint.

James re­peatedly com­pared Tous­saint to Robe­s­pi­erre, and in this ana­logy Des­salines could only be com­pared to Na­po­leon. After selling Tous­saint out to Le­clerc, and dis­pos­ing of rivals such as Charles and Sanité Bélair, Des­salines crowned him­self em­per­or and ruled with an iron fist over the ex-co­lo­ni­al is­land. Marx, as we know, had little pa­tience for would-be New World Na­po­leons like Si­mon Bolivar, so it’s not hard to ima­gine what he would have thought of Des­salines.

But even bey­ond these mono­graphs and his­tor­ies, Tous­saint’s life has in­spired works by great lit­er­ary fig­ures as well. To hon­or and com­mem­or­ate his birth­day, then, I’m also in­clud­ing a poem ded­ic­ated to Tous­saint by the poet Wil­li­am Wordsworth and a short story by the nov­el­ist Ral­ph El­lis­on. En­joy!

To Tous­saint L’Ouver­ture

Wil­liam Wordsworth
The Morning Post
February 4, 1802
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Tous­saint, the most un­happy man of men!
Wheth­er the whist­ling Rus­tic tend his plough
With­in thy hear­ing, or thy head be now
Pil­lowed in some deep dun­geon’s ear­less den; —
O miser­able Chief­tain! where and when
Wilt thou find pa­tience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheer­ful brow:
Though fallen thy­self, nev­er to rise again,
Live, and take com­fort. Thou hast left be­hind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breath­ing of the com­mon wind
That will for­get thee; thou hast great al­lies;
Thy friends are ex­ulta­tions, ag­on­ies,
And love, and man’s un­con­quer­able mind.

Mister Toussan

Ralph Ellison
New Masses
Nov. 4, 1941
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Once upon a time
The goose drink wine
Mon­key chew to­bacco
And he spit white lime

— Rhyme used as a pro­logue
to Negro slave stor­ies

“I hope they all gits rot­ten and the worms git in ’em,” the first boy said. “I hopes a big wind storm comes and blows down all the trees,” said the second boy.
……“Me too,” the first boy said. “And when ole Rogan comes out to see what happened I hope a tree falls on his head and kills him.”
……“Now jus look a-yon­der at them birds,” the second boy said. “They eat­ing all they want and when we asked him to let us git some off the ground he had to come call­ing us little nig­guhs and chas­ing us home!”
……“Dog­gon­it,” said the second boy. “I hope them birds got pois­on in they feet!”
……The two small boys, Ri­ley and Buster, sat on the floor of the porch, their bare feet rest­ing upon the cool earth as they stared past the line on the pav­ing where the sun con­sumed the shade, to a yard dir­ectly across the street. The grass in the yard was very green, and a house stood against it, neat and white in the morn­ing sun. A double row of trees stood along­side the house, heavy with cher­ries that showed deep red against the dark green of the leaves and dull dark brown of the branches. The two boys were watch­ing an old man who rocked him­self in a chair as he stared back at them across the street.
……“Just look at him,” said Buster. “Ole Rogan’s so scared we gonna git some a his ole cher­ries he ain’t even got sense enough to go in outa the sun!”
……“Well, them birds is git­ting their’n,” said Ri­ley.
……“They mock­ing­birds.”
……“I don’t care what kinda birds they is, they sho in them trees.”
……“Yeah, ole Rogan don’t see them. Man, I tell you white folks ain’t got no sense.”
……They were si­lent now, watch­ing the dart­ing flight of the birds in­to the trees. Be­hind them they could hear the clat­ter of a sew­ing ma­chine: Ri­ley’s moth­er was sew­ing for the white folks. It was quiet, and as the wo­man worked, her voice rose above the whirr­ing ma­chine in song.
……“Your mama sho can sing, man,” said Buster.
……“She sings in the choir,” said Ri­ley, “and she sings all the leads in church.”
……“Shucks, I know it,” said Buster. “You try­in’ to brag?”
……As they listened they heard the voice rise clear and li­quid to float upon the morn­ing air:

I got wings, you got wings,
All God’s chil­lun got a wings
When I git to heav­en gonna put on my wings
Gonna shout all ovah God’s heab’n.
Heab’n, heab’n
Ever­body talkin’ ’bout heab’n ain’t go­ing there
Heab’n, heab’n, Ah’m gonna fly all ovah God’s heab’n…

She sang as though the words pos­sessed a deep and throb­bing mean­ing for her, and the boys stared blankly at the earth, feel­ing the somber, mys­ter­i­ous calm of church. The street was quiet, and even old Rogan had stopped rock­ing to listen. Fi­nally the voice trailed off to a hum and be­came lost in the clat­ter of the busy ma­chine.
……“Wish I could sing like that,” said Buster.
……Ri­ley was si­lent, look­ing down to the end of the porch where the sun had eaten a bright square in­to the shade, fix­ing a flit­ting but­ter­fly in its bril­liance.
……“What would you do if you had wings?” he said.
……“Shucks, I’d out­fly an eagle. I wouldn’t stop fly­ing till I was a mil­lion, bil­lion, tril­lion, zil­lion miles away from this ole town.”
……“Where’d you go, man?”
……“Up north, maybe to Chica­go.”
……“Man, if I had wings I wouldn’t nev­er settle down.”
……“Me neither. Hecks, with wings you could go any­where, even up to the sun if it wasn’t too hot…”
……“…I’d go to New York…”
……“Even around the stars…”
……“Or Dee-troit, Michigan…”
……“Hell, you could git some cheese off the moon and some milk from the Milky Way…”
……“Or any­where else colored is free…”
……“I bet I’d loop-the-loop…”
……“And para­chute…”
……“I’d land in Africa and git me some dia­monds…”
……“Yeah, and them can­ni­bals would eat the hell outa you, too,” said Ri­ley.
……“The heck they would, not as fast as I’d fly away…”
……“Man, they’d catch you and stick some them long spears in your be­hin’!” said Ri­ley.
……Buster laughed as Ri­ley shook his head gravely: “Boy, you’d look like a black pin­cush­ion when they got through with you,” said Ri­ley.
……“Shucks, man, they couldn’t catch me, them suck­ers is too lazy. The geo­graphy book says they ’bout the most lazy folks in the whole world,” said Buster with dis­gust, “just black and lazy!”
……“Aw naw, they ain’t neither,” ex­ploded Ri­ley.
……“They is too! The geo­graphy book says they is!”
……“Well, my old man says they ain’t!”
……“How come they ain’t then?”
……“…’Cause my old man says that over there they got kings and dia­monds and gold and ivory, and if they got all them things, all of ’em caint be lazy,” said Ri­ley.
……“Ain’t many colored folks over here got them things.”
……“Sho ain’t, man. The white folks won’t let ’em,” said Buster.
……It was good to think that all the Afric­ans were not lazy. He tried to re­mem­ber all he had heard of Africa as he watched a purple pi­geon sail down in­to the street and scratch where a horse had passed. Then, as he re­membered a story his teach­er had told him, he saw a car rolling swiftly up the street and the pi­geon stretch­ing its wings and lift­ing eas­ily in­to the air, skim­ming the top of the car in its slow, rock­ing flight. He watched it rise and dis­ap­pear where the taut tele­phone wires cut the sky above the curb. Buster felt good. Ri­ley scratched his ini­tials in the soft earth with his big toe.
……“Ri­ley, you know all them Africa guys ain’t really that lazy,” he said.
……“I know they ain’t,” said Ri­ley. “I just tole you so.”
……“Yeah, but my teach­er tole me, too. She tole us ’bout one of the Afric­an guys named Tous­san what she said whipped Na­po­leon!”
……Ri­ley stopped scratch­ing in the earth and looked up, his eye rolling in dis­gust:
……“Now how come you have to start ly­ing?”
……“Thass what she said.”
……“Boy, you oughta quit telling them things.”
……“I hope God may kill me.”
……“She said he was a Afric­an?”
……“Cross my heart, man…”
……“Really?”
……“Really, man. She said he come from a place named Hayti.”
……Ri­ley looked hard at Buster and, see­ing the ser­i­ous­ness of the face, felt the ex­cite­ment of a story rise up with­in him.
……“Buster, I’ll bet a fat man you ly­in’. What’d that teach­er say?”
……“Really, man, she said that Tous­san and his men got up on one of them Afric­an moun­tains and shot down them peck­er­wood sol­diers fass as they’d try to come up…”
……“Why good-God-a-mighty!” yelled Ri­ley.
……“Oh boy, they shot ’em down!” chanted Buster.
……“Tell me about it, man!”
……“And they throwed ’em off the moun­tain…”
……“…Goool-leee!…”
……“…And Tous­san drove ’em cross the sand…”
……“…Yeah! And what was they wear­ing, Buster?…”
……“Man, they had on red uni­forms and blue hats all trimmed with gold and they had some swords all shin­ing, what they called sweet blades of Dam­as­cus…”
……“Sweet blades of Dam­as­cus!…”
……“…They really had ’em,” chanted Buster.
……“And what kinda guns?”
……“Big, black can­non!”
……“And where did ole what you call ’im run them guys?…”
……“His name was Tous­san.”
……“Tooz­an! Just like Tar­z­an…”
……“Not Taar-zan, dummy, Toou-zan!”
……“Tous­san! And where’d ole Tous­san run ’em?”
……“Down to the wa­ter, man…”
……“…To the river wa­ter…”
……“…Where some great big ole boats was wait­ing for ’em…”
……“…Go on, Buster!”
……“An’ Tous­san shot in­to them boats…”
……“…He shot in­to ’em…”
……“…shot in­to them boats…”
……“Je­sus!…”
……“…with his great big can­nons…”
……“…Yeah!…”
……“…made a-brass…”
……“…Brass…”
……“…an’ his big black can­non­balls star­ted kil­lin’ them peck­er­woods…”
……“…Lawd, Lawd…”
……“…Boy, till them peck­er­woods hol­lowed, Please, Please, Mis­ter Tous­san, we’ll be good!
……“An’ what’d Tous­san tell ’em, Buster?”
……“Boy, he said in his deep voice, I oughta drown all a you bas­tards.
……“An’ what’d the peck­er­woods say?”
……“They said, Please, Please, Please, Mis­ter Tous­san…”
……“…We’ll be good,” broke in Ri­ley.
……“Thass right, man,” said Buster ex­citedly. He clapped his hands and kicked his heels against the earth, his black face glow­ing in a burst of rhythmic joy.
……“Boy!”
……“And what’d ole Tous­san say then?”
……“He said in his big deep voice: You all peck­er­woods bet­ter be good, ’cause this is sweet Papa Tous­san talk­ing and my nig­guhs is crazy ’bout white meat!
……“Ho, ho, ho!” Ri­ley bent double with laughter. The rhythm still throbbed with­in him and he wanted the story to go on and on…
……“Buster, you know didn’t no teach­er tell you that lie,” he said.
……“Yes, she did, man.”
……“She said there was really a guy like that what called his­self Sweet Papa Tous­san?”
……Ri­ley’s voice was un­be­liev­ing, and there was a wist­ful ex­pres­sion in his eyes that Buster could not un­der­stand. Fi­nally, he dropped his head and grinned.
……“Well,” he said, “I bet thass what ole Tous­san said. You know how grown folks is, they caint tell a story right ’cept­ing real old folks like Granma.”
……“They sho caint,” said Ri­ley. “They don’t know how to put the right stuff to it.”
……Ri­ley stood, his legs spread wide, and stuck his thumbs in the top of his trousers, swag­ger­ing sin­isterly.
……“Come on, watch me do it now, Buster. Now I bet ole Tous­san looked down at them white folks stand­ing just about like this and said in a soft easy voice: Ain’t I done begged you white folks to quit messin’ with me?…”
……“Thass right, quit mess­ing with ’im,” chanted Buster.
……“But naw, you all had to come on any­way…”
……“…Just ’cause they was black…”
……“Thass right,” said Ri­ley. “Then ole Tous­san felt so damn bad and mad the tears came a-trick­ling down…”
……“…He was really mad.”
……“And then, man, he said in his big, bad voice: God­damn you white folks, how come you all caint let us colored alone?”
……“…An’ he was cry­ing…”
……“…An’ Tous­san tole them peck­er­woods: I been beg­gin’ you all to quit both­er­ing us…”
……“…Beg­gin’ on his bended knees! …”
……“Then, man, Tous­san got real mad and snatched off his hat and star­ted stomp­in’ up and down on it and the tears was trick­lin’ down and he said: You all come tel­lin’ me about Na­po­leon…”
……“They was try­in’ to scare ’im, man…”
……“Said: I don’t give a damn about Na­po­leon…”
……“…Wasn’t study­in’ ’bout him…”
……“…Tous­san said: Na­po­leon ain’t noth­ing but a man! Then Tous­san pulled back his shin­ing sword like this, and twirled it at them peck­er­woods’ throats so hard it z-z-z-zinged in the air!”
……“Now keep on, fin­ish it, man,” said Buster. “What’d Tous­san do then?”
……“Then you know what he did, he said: I oughta beat the hell outa you peck­er­woods!
……“Thass right, and he did it too,” said Buster.
……He jumped to his feet and fenced vi­ol­ently with five des­per­ate ima­gin­ary sol­diers, run­ning each through with his ima­gin­ary sword. Buster watched him from the porch, grin­ning.
……“Tous­san musta scared them white folks al­most to death!”
……“Yeah, thass ’bout the way it was,” said Buster. The rhythm was dy­ing now and he sat back upon the porch, breath­ing tiredly.
……“It sho is a good story,” said Ri­ley.
……“Hecks, man, all the stor­ies my teach­er tells us is good. She’s a good ole teach­er — but you know one thing?”
……“Naw, what?”
……“Ain’t none of them stor­ies in the books. Won­der why?”
……“Hell, you know why. Ole Tous­san was too hard on them white folks, thass why.”
……“Oh, he was a hard man!”
……“He was mean…”
……“But a good mean!”
……“Tous­san was clean…”
……“… He was a good, clean mean,” said Ri­ley.
……“Aw, man, he was sooo-preme,” said Buster.
……“Riii­ley!!”
……The boys stopped short in their word play, their mouths wide.
……“Ri­ley, I say!” It was Ri­ley’s moth­er’s voice.
……“Ma’m?”
……“She musta heard us cussin’,” whispered Buster.
……“Shut up, man… What you want, Ma?”
……“I says I want you all to go round the back­yard and play. You keep­ing up too much fuss out there. White folks says we tear up a neigh­bor­hood when we move in it and you all out there jus prov­in’ them out true. Now git on round in the back.”
……“Aw, Ma, we was jus play­ing, Ma…”
……“Boy, I said for you all to go on.”
……“But, Ma…”
……“You hear me, boy!”
……“Yes­sum, we go­ing,” said Ri­ley. “Come on, Buster.”
……Buster fol­lowed slowly be­hind, feel­ing the dew upon his feet as he walked up on the shaded grass.
……“What else did he do, man?” Buster said.—
……“Huh? Rogan?”
……“Hecks, naw! I’m talkin’ ’bout Tous­san.”
……“Dog­gone if I know, man — but I’m gonna ask that teach­er.”
……“He was a fight­in’ son-of-a-gun, wasn’t he, man?”
……“He didn’t stand for no fool­ish­ness,” said Ri­ley re­servedly.
……He thought of oth­er things now, and as he moved along, he slid his feet eas­ily over the short-cut grass, dan­cing as he chanted:

Iron is iron,
And tin is tin,
And that’s the way
The story

“Aw come on, man,” in­ter­rup­ted Buster. “Let’s go play in the al­ley…”
……And that’s the way
……“Maybe we can slip around and get some cher­ries,” Buster went on.
……… the story ends, chanted Ri­ley

 

5 thoughts on “Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian revolution

  1. Thanks, this is a good little collection of texts. If you can find a pdf, it might be good to include CLR James’ play about ‘Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History’.

  2. Ross “No guys, I’m totally not a racist” Wolfe, ladies and gentlemen!

    Didn’t I tell you to go outside and stop writing? The sun isn’t so bad, you know, and you may encounter new experiences and perspectives that you’ve lacked because you were too busy doing whatever you want to call this self-indulgent internet and academic tripe.

    It certainly isn’t Marxist or Communist, it likely meets today’s popular definition of “left” in the United States. I cannot picture what the permanent revolution you imagine yourself to be part of looks like, but it probably involves plenty of apologia for empire. Well not probably, it does.

    Good luck! Wear sunscreen!

    • Failing to find activities to do outside and to ward off boredom, maybe you could find a shovel, lift it, dig a hole, then fill it back up, and then imagine what those of us who actually perform labor using our bodies for a living might go through.

      I think this is called empathy but I am just a stupid moron who didn’t complete college and is incapable of understanding things nearly as well as you do, so just imagine what sort of Mr. Big Dick you’d be if you could conceivably do more than just write your very important and fancy academic words for an even more niche audience than Red Kahina.

      Love,
      A trade unionist

    • I’m not sure what you’re getting at. You’ll find plenty of stuff about the Haitian Revolution on this blog going back over the years, so this is not just something I’ve recently become interested in.

      What do you mean by “empire”? Have Marxists really fallen so far that they now use this stupid Hardt/Negri idiom?

  3. What am I getting at? I didn’t think I was being obtuse. Surely someone as brilliant as yourself can figure it out. I eagerly await your contribution to, well, anything at this point, Ross.

    (DON’T CALL ME SHIRLEY)

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