Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History; A Play in Three Acts
CLR James, edited by Christian Hogsbjerg
Duke University Press 2013
222 pp., $47.99
Hegel, Haiti & Universal History
University of Pittsburgh Press 2009
176 pp., $89.99
“I was born a slave, but nature gave me the soul of a free man,” said Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the successful Haitian slave revolt of 1791 to 1804.
The Haitain revolution reverberated throughout Europe, interacting with the French Revolution, inspired Georg Hegel’s philosophy, changed the shape of the world and echoes down the years to us — still demanding a response.
Under Louverture’s political and military leadership, the Haitian slaves defeated a series of enemies. It was an international revolution, interacting with events around the globe, redrawing maps and effecting great empires.
When France experienced its 1789 revolution, the victorious capitalists had no thought of freeing slaves in what was then the richest colony in the world. However the slaves got wind of “liberty, fraternity and equality” and began their fight.
As the French Revolution went through waves of radicalisation and conservatism, and as the British, Spanish and US governments tried to take advantage of France’s tumult, the Haitians were faced with a series of harsh choices in liberating themselves.
None of the Great Powers cared for the slaves, but they were prepared to talk sweetly to them to attack France. On the other hand, the slave revolt fed the radicalism in France, which then fed back to the colony, allowing greater space for the revolution.
When Louverture joined the slave rebellion, he took the rebels through a series of alliances. First, he allied the rebels with the Spanish against the local French elite and then, after the increasingly radical French government declared slavery abolished, with the French against the Spanish and the British.
For a few years, starting in 1796, he controlled the colony on behalf of the French government, but was constantly beset with problems caused by the shifting sands of French politics. By 1798, France was undermining Louverture’s authority and he was cutting trade deals with both Britain and the United States, effectively establishing Haitian autonomy.
As long as France maintained the abolition of slavery Louverture was willing to be loyal to France. However, he gave every freed slave a gun and ammunition and told them to fight to the death against any bid to re-enslave them.
When Napoleon came to power in 1799, hints of the reinstitution of slavery began. In response, Louverture invaded the Spanish half of the island, cementing his defensive position and devising a constitution that came within a whisker of declaring independence.
Napoleon’s answer was to dispatch an army to reimpose slavery, which sparked the final, titanic phase of the struggle. Incidentally, it was Napoleon’s loss in Haiti that convinced him of the need to sell France’s Louisiana territories to the US government, without which the US would never have expanded into the nation it became.
Tricked into attending negotiations with the French, Louverture was captured and dispatched to a freezing prison in the mountains near Switzerland. Sadly, he died before the final Haitian national victory.
The independent Haitian government provided sanctuary and troops for Simon Bolivar in his final campaign for the liberation of Latin America from the Spanish, thus passing on the torch of freedom.
However, Haiti continued to be preyed upon by European and US capitalists. The Haitian tragedy is a tale of brutal neo-colonialism, capped today by the vulture capitalism that has descended following the 2010 earthquake.
Living in a section of Germany occupied by Napoleon, Hegel read magazines that closely reported on Haiti, according to Susan Buck-Moss. It was during this period, she says, that he wrote the famous master–slave dialectic section of Phenomenology of the Mind.
This dialectic shows the evolution of human consciousness through various stages as a master enslaves another person, using terror. The point is that only through overcoming that fear can slaves free themselves by entering into a life and death struggle with the master.
Buck-Moss says that Hegel ended his dialectic right at the point where the slave could logically be expected to kill the master. She thinks that it would have been impolitic to explain that while living under Napoleonic rule.
In short, Hegel demonstrated his own dialectic in the negative, via his own cowardice!
In the early 1930s, the Afro-Trinidadian CLR James was an emerging journalist and radical organiser in Britain. He was active in defence of Ethiopia against the fascist Italian invasion and conceived of writing a fundraising play about Louverture illustrating Black freedom-fighting traditions.
He recruited to his cast singer Paul Robeson, the son of a US slave, who was at that time beginning his meteoric rise to stardom on the English stage. Robeson leapt at the chance to play his personal hero.
The play was only performed on a handful of occasions, but met with critical applause. James manages to tell the whole story of the struggle in all its twists and turns as Louverture steps his way through all the imperial trip wires until the fatal error where he trusts too much in French civilisation.
It focuses on dialogue between a small number of people on stage. As a play, the offstage revolutionary upheaval has to be described, not witnessed. Reading the script, the possibility of it being the bedrock of a screen adaptation is enticing.
Louverture’s story on the big screen, showing the heroism of the Haitian masses, would be a brilliant corrective to the Barack Obama-driven, post-racism narrative.
After the performances, James went on to write the definitive history of the Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins, which is a wonderful, passionate read in itself. He became a Trotskyist when that was a perilous choice and remained a revolutionary until his death in 1989.
The script of the play was lost until Christian Hogsbjerg stumbled across it in the papers of a long-dead British Trotskyist as part of his doctoral research. He has published it together with some of James’ essays, newspaper notices about the play and an explanatory introduction.
Robeson became a communist and continued his world-famous acting and singing career until McCarthy-era black-listing destroyed his ability to appear in public.
Robeson was illegally stripped of his US passport and so prevented from travelling to countries where millions revered him.
However, he was able to beat back the witch hunters and travelled to Australia in 1960. Robeson was the first person to perform in the half-finished Sydney Opera House, inspiring the building workers by raising his fist as he sang “Ol’ Man River” — “I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’”.
Thus it is, as revolutionary movements thrust individuals forward as their personifications, that the dialectic of freedom unfolds and is passed along to each generation, renewing the struggle of the Haitian slaves until their total emancipation -- as part of global liberation. And so, Toussaint Louverture lives on!