Thursday, January 21, 2010

Glorious Louverture

When girlhood's fire was in my blood I read of ancient freemen
Of Sancho, Equiano, Cugoano and Coffay,
Three hundred men and three men.

I read of Sam Sharpe whose oratorical powers were said to be so marvellous that he could reduce grown men to tears when he spoke of the horrors of slavery, I read of Bussa and Tacky and of Cudjoe and Queen Nanny, leaders of those Caribbean cossaks, the Maroons. The Maroons were bands of runaway slaves who formed their own autonomous communities. In later years, some Jamaican Maroons turned Judas and betrayed Paul Bogle (whose surname delightfully came to be that of a sinuous Jamaican dance in the 1990s). And most of all,  I read about Toussaint.

Toussaint Louverture, the Caribbean Spartacus. As a student of course I read C.L.R James' classic account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins. Toussaint - the name means All Saints - probably adopted a nickname as his surname; Caribbeans are apt to give their fellows nicknames describing their physical attributes, such as "bigga" for a large woman. Louverture translates as opening, or gap, possibly because Toussaint had a gap in his front teeth. Another theory is that his name was a reference to his uncanny ability to discern and exploit openings in the battlefield.

His lifetime's achievements were literally awe-inspiring, as this extract from the wikipedia article on him explains:

Born in Saint Domingue, in a long struggle for independence Toussaint led enslaved Africans to victory over Europeans, abolished slavery, and secured native control over the colony, Haiti, in 1797 while nominally governor of the colony. He expelled the French commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, as well as the British armies; invaded Santo Domingo to free the slaves there; and wrote a constitution naming himself governor-for-life that established a new polity for the colony.


Louverture was unquestionably an extraordinary man but he was far from saintly. Successful revolutionaries never are. In 1800 he ordered enforced labour and executed his adopted nephew who opposed the policy and had backed workers demands for land reform. But still. Louverture's Constitution promulgated on July 8th 1801 remains a stunning document blazing with idealism.

Article. 3. - There cannot exist slaves on this territory, servitude is therein forever abolished. All men are born, live and die free and French.
Article. 4. – All men, regardless of colour, are eligible to all employment.
Art. 5. – There shall exist no distinction other than those based on virtue and talent, and other superiority afforded by law in the exercise of a public function.
The law is the same for all whether in punishment or in protection.

The revered Toussainst Louverture, who didn't quite get the point of religious liberty also made Roman Catholicism Haiti's state religion.

Art. 6. - The catholic, apostolic, roman faith shall be the only publicly professed faith.
Art. 7. – Each parish shall provide to the maintaining of religious cult and of its ministers. The wealth of the factories shall be especially allocated to this expense, and the presbyteries to the housing of ministers.
Art. 8. – The governor of the colony shall assign to each minister of the religion the extent of his spiritual administration, and said ministers can never, under any circumstance, form a corps in the colony.

And he steered well clear of abolishing private property:  The Paris Commune was decades away in the future, after all.

Art. 13. – Property is sacred and inviolable. All people, either by himself, or by his representatives, has the free right to dispose and to administer property that is recognized as belonging to him. Anyone who attempts to deny this right shall become guilty of crime towards society and responsible towards the person troubled in his property.

But the constitution was of enormous significance, nonetheless. No wonder Louverture addressed Napoleon as his equal: "From the First of the Blacks to the First of the Whites."

In the end he was defeated, of course. Bonaparte, that betrayer of the Revolution, sent his brother-in-law, General Leclerc with an expedition force of 20,000 men to retake Haiti and reinstitute slavery.

Just before the two sides met at the Battle of Ravine-à-Couleuvres, or Batay Ravin Koulèv in Haitian Kreyol, Louverture addressed his soldiers:

"You are going to fight against enemies who have neither faith, law, nor religion. They promise you liberty, they intend your servitude. Why have so many ships traversed the ocean, if not to throw you again into chains? They disdain to recognise in you submissive children, and if you are not their slaves, you are rebels. The mother country, misled by the Consul, is no longer anything for you but a step-mother. Was there ever a defence more just than yours? Uncover your breasts, you will see them branded by the iron of slavery. During ten years, what did you not undertake for liberty? Your masters slain or put to flight; the English humiliated by defeat; discord extinguished; a land of slavery purified by fire, and reviving more beautiful than ever under liberty; these are your labours, and these the fruits of your labours; and the foe wishes to snatch both out of your hands."

Louverture would be crippled by defections and betrayals. He surrendered, was captured and thown into a French jail where he was interrogated repeatedly before dying of pneumonia in 1803. But he had left his indelible stamp on history. Thanks in significant part to him, the institution of slavery would never be safe again. By the end of the nineteenth century it would be abolished everywhere in the Americas.


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