Black History Month – those that influenced us – Toussaint Louverture
Date posted: 22 October 2020
During Black History Month our lawyers will be reflecting on the cases and the black lawyers and activists who have most influenced them in their legal career.
Our Rebecca Morris pays tribute to Toussaint Louverture.
During university, I decided to sit in on some first-year International Development lectures. Up until then I knew nothing about Haiti, except ironically, that it was mentioned in passing in the film Clueless.
One week we were asked to read an essay by Dr Paul Farmer “On Suffering and Structural Violence: A View from Below.” Reading about the lives of two individual Haitians, whose stories Dr Farmer hoped would “illustrate some of the mechanisms through which large-scale social forces crystallize into the sharp, hard surfaces of individual suffering” broke my heart. I wanted to know more about Haiti’s history, and that broke my heart all over again: the world’s first post-colonial and black-led nation had been crippled from the start, forced to pay reparations to France in return for its freedom. 150 million francs in 1825. The equivalent of around $21 billion today. And if that wasn’t bad enough, that debt wasn’t historic: it was finally paid off in 1947.
Shortly after, I went to live in France and not far away from where I happened to be was the Fortress de Joux. Which leads me to the inspirational individual at the heart of this piece: the Haitian leader, Toussaint Louverture, who died there in 1803.
“I was born a slave, but nature gave me the soul of a free man.”
Toussaint Louverture was born on a plantation in the French colony of Saint-Domingue in the 1740s. Born into slavery, he rose to become the “Father of Haiti” and to be known by his contemporaries as “Black Spartacus.” He was self-taught but he is widely recognised for his intellect, leadership, and military and political acumen that transformed what began as a slave rebellion in 1791 into an organised, successful, armed struggle. He achieved more than the original Spartacus: the Haitian rebellion was so effective that it lead to the abolition of slavery in the French colonies in 1793. Then in 1801, with the entire island of Hispaniola under the rebels’ control and rid of slavery, Louverture unveiled a new constitution calling for black autonomy and a sovereign black state.
Whilst Napoleon confirmed Louverture as the Governor-General, he also sent troops to reassert French control across the island in 1802. Louverture had no doubts that Napoleon, in fact, intended to reinstate slavery as well as his authority. He and his deputies led the Haitian army in a strong defence, outsmarting and surprising the French at almost every turn. However, after months of fighting and guerrilla warfare, different parts of the Haitian army sided with the French. Eventually, Louverture also agreed to lay down arms in return for a promise that slavery would not be reinstated. Whilst the French had won the war, the Haitians had secured their freedoms.
Louverture, unfortunately, did not live to see the founding of the sovereign, independent state of Haiti. Not long after he retired, in June 1802 Napoleon ordered his arrest and he and his family were captured and sent to France where he was imprisoned in the Fortress de Joux in a cell with no roof. He was deprived of food and water, interrogated relentlessly, and died in 1803.
Perhaps as testament to his importance and a foreshadowing of things to come, his arrest was only achieved through betrayal and trickery. His parting words to his captors in Haiti were:
“In overthrowing me you have cut down in Saint Domingue only the trunk of the tree of liberty; it will spring up again from the roots, for they are numerous and they are deep.”
And indeed, Louverture was not wrong and his fight was not in vain. When the French did try to reinstate slavery later in 1802, the people again rose up. Under the leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who had been one Louverture’s lieutenants, the Haitian forces achieved a series of spectacular victories against the French army, including a resounding defeat at the Battle of Vertières in November 1803. Shortly afterwards, on 1 January 1804, Dessalines declared the independent nation of Haiti, for the Haitian people. The first black republic and the second republic in the Western Hemisphere.
The Haitian revolution and Toussaint Louverture turned contemporary norms on their heads and their legacy endures: the revolution is considered a defining moment in Atlantic history, in the abolitionist movement, and some would argue it is the most important revolution in history. Louverture became an internationally recognised symbol of freedom, emancipation, and hope.
So, how is it that Haiti, being formed from such an inspiring and resounding victory is now the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and one the poorest nations in the world? Well, it can’t be denied that years of war decimated much of the agricultural land and continued violence and political upheavals in the years after independence further sapped the country’s resources. But the real reasons are the very reason why we need Black History Month, Black Lives Matter, and to continue the fight against structural racism: Haiti and its people continue to experience systemic, structural violence, visited upon them by predominantly white nations and institutions.
Firstly, Haiti was internationally ostracised for most of the 19th century (after all, recognition of the Haitian Revolution’s success might give other slaves the wrong idea); placed under trade embargoes; ridiculed and underestimated by those it had ousted; and, of course, forced to pay crippling debts.
Then, in the 20th century it was occupied by the United States from 1915 to 1934; ruled and mismanaged by a series of dictatorships, including that of the Duvaliers who were brutal but largely supported by the US because of their anti-Communist credentials and the island’s strategic importance; and had projects like the Peligré Dam foisted upon it, lining the pockets of its American constructors whilst destroying local communities.
More recently, in the aftermath of the 2010 devastating earthquake the country experienced a cholera outbreak which became epidemic, infecting more than 800,000 persons to date and killing more than 9,000. This is important because cholera had, in fact, been largely eradicated from Haiti for almost a century and the outbreak was traced back to poor sanitation at a UN peacekeeper base. It took the UN 6 years to accept any responsibility and to date, having pledged to raise $400 million for the clean-up mission, a meagre $21 million has been raised and $3 million spent.
Writing from his cell in the Fortress de Joux, Toussaint Louverture’s words tragically echo his nation’s ongoing suffering:
“Doubtless, I owe this treatment to my color; but my color,–my color,–has it hindered me from serving my country with zeal and fidelity? Does the color of my skin impair my honor and my bravery?”
217 years ago Toussaint Louverture exposed the evil that is racism with eloquence and righteous indignation. And this is why both he and Haiti are an inspiration to me: their treatment deeply angers me and represents on a global scale the lived realities of black communities and individuals, reminding me of the work to be done and my part in it.