This year marks the 130th anniversary of the Haitian Revolution. In 1791, Toussaint L’Ouverture, a former slave, took on mighty France and led a successful slave revolt, establishing the first independent black state. He became its leader, the commander of its republican army and finally its governor. He died in a French fortress after being taken prisoner by Napoleon’s invading army in 1802.
Toussaint L’Ouverture was probably the most famous black man for over a century, until Marcus Garvey unseated him in the 1920s. It was Dr Martin Luther King Jnr. in the 1960s and Nelson Mandela in the 1980s and ‘90s who upstaged Garvey in the world of politics. Muhammad Ali or Cassius Clay rose in the 1960s, Bob Marley dominated the 70s and Michael Jackson the 1980s, Barack Obama and Tiger Woods became household names in the 2000s and George Floyd in the 2020s.
By "famous" I mean that particularly during their lifetime and also beyond almost anyone in the world would know of them. Wherever I lived and traveled in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, the Far East and Africa in the last four decades, Bob Marley was more widely known than any other international person, putting him amongst the most influential figures of the last century.
These men were and are all exemplars who brought about change. Some worked just to do that and others did so just by the effect of their work; only Floyd did so by the manner of his death. The change they wrought usually attempted to be quiet and strategic, but by their sheer skill, intelligence, audacity and ambition it never was, and sometimes violence was a natural concomitant. All of them were game changers, worthy of different detailed studies.
In Hamilton, the wonderful musical that persistently sold out theatres in New York, London and Sydney over the last six years, George Washington explains to Alexander Hamilton – his Nevis-born aide-de-camp who is convinced he should die in war as a martyr and a hero – that he should be careful with his actions because whatever he does will be known for ages to come. "History Has Its Eyes on You" is a recurring riff in the play. Another recurring line of wisdom is in the song Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.
The musical closes with a reflection on historical memory, with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison reflecting upon Hamilton's legacy, while Hamilton’s widow Eliza tells how she keeps his legacy alive through interviewing war veterans, raising funds for the Washington Monument, speaking out against slavery, and establishing the first private orphanage in New York City. Hamilton understood owning your own story, and had already written himself into history by penning, in 1797, the notorious Reynolds Pamphlet, in which he revealed an extra-marital intimate entanglement.
The chronicling of the lives, deeds and achievements of significant individuals of our time is totally necessary work. It may take the form of official biography, fictionalisation, dramatisation or simply storytelling. The Caribbean has produced quite a few highly notable figures who have achieved status by the documenting of their impact, but Toussaint’s life is perhaps the most researched and written about of all the names mentioned in this column, and his fame will endure simply because he has become a legend, as did Haiti, for all that ensued. It has made Toussaint possibly the single most influential figure in Caribbean history.
In The Black Jacobins, CLR James’s seminal 1930s political biography of the Haitian revolutionary, which followed his play by the same name, Toussaint is central to the debate of the time about black liberation and anti-colonialism and in a way it foretells Toussaint’s enormous appeal to those seeking the end of Empire in the Caribbean and those struggling for civil rights for African Americans.
According to a new, impressive and differently framed study of Toussaint, Black Spartacus by Sudhir Hazareesingh, many post-WWII revolutionary leaders pay homage to Toussaint as an inspiration, including Castro in Cuba, who dubbed Toussaint a modern Spartacus.
The author catalogues the many writers, globally, who have written about the Haitian hero. It is a sign of Toussaint’s epic standing, derived not only from his achievements but the study of them, that in 1998 France admitted him into the sacred Pantheon, the resting place of the country’s foremost leaders. The citation says he was “a freedom fighter, the architect of the abolition of slavery and Haitian hero.” For sure, in his time he would not have been afforded any such largesse.
To mark the anniversary of the Haitian revolution, on April 24 at 1.30 pm, TT’s annual literary festival, the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, in its online programming (April 23-25), will consider to what extent our image of Toussaint has been shaped by historians, biographers, and creative writers and what his career, ideals, and ultimate fate mean for Caribbean civilisation. Sudhir Hazareesingh will join literary scholar Marlene Daut (editor of Fiction of the Haitian Revolution) in a deep and wide-ranging conversation.