Pierre Toussaint: A Biography

Pierre Toussaint: A Biography

by Arthur Jones

Pierre Toussaint was born in Saint Domingue (now known as Haiti) in 1781. The child of a slave on a plantation owned by the Berards, a prosperous French family, he was raised as a devout Catholic. When a slave uprising forced the Berards to flee the island in 1797, Toussaint came to New York City as the family's servant. As a black man and as a Catholic, Toussaint…  See more details below


Pierre Toussaint was born in Saint Domingue (now known as Haiti) in 1781. The child of a slave on a plantation owned by the Berards, a prosperous French family, he was raised as a devout Catholic. When a slave uprising forced the Berards to flee the island in 1797, Toussaint came to New York City as the family's servant. As a black man and as a Catholic, Toussaint found that his new home held dangers of its own: Slaves were brutalized by their owners, free blacks were beaten in the streets, and anti-Catholic sentiment was rampant. But New York also offered him new opportunities. When Toussaint's talents as a hairstylist -- along with his charming, refined manners -- made him a favorite of the women in New York's upper-class families, he began earning a substantial income. He was given his freedom in 1807, married in 1811, and devoted his life to helping former slaves, supporting the Church, and taking care of the poor and oppressed, all while helping to raise funds for the city's first cathedral.

In the first biography of Toussaint written for a mainstream audience, Arthur Jones charts a life buffeted and scarred by poverty, prejudice, and political upheaval, and shows how Toussaint's faith, independence of mind, and sense of personal dignity served as lifelong sources of strength. Drawing on letters from Toussaint's friends and admirers, black and white alike, as well as on a wealth of historical sources, Jones brings to life a man who, by defying the strictures of a racist society, became an example not only for other black people but for oppressed and maligned immigrants of all backgrounds.

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The rags-to-respect story of a Haitian-born slave whose emigration to NYC unfolded a lifetime of good works in the name of faith that now prompt proposals to make him the first black American Catholic saint. Not all Haitian slaves were even baptized, National Catholic Reporter editor Jones reports, since France sent only four priests to minister to tens of thousands in the colony then called Saint Domingue. Fleeing British invaders, a slave revolt, and yellow fever, the Bérard family left their plantation and moved to New York in 1797, bringing with them a contingent of slaves that included the teenaged Pierre Toussaint. Practicing Catholics had been banned from New York until the mid-18th century, and Protestant bias was still rampant, the author reminds us, so Toussaint had a "fourth strike" to overcome in addition to his race, slave status, and inability to speak English. (Jones does not, however, gloss over the fact that Mother Church turned a blind eye to slavery.) Pierre was apprenticed to a hairdresser and in short order became known among some of the city’s best families as an expert coiffeur who was also well mannered and discreet. Income flowed; Toussaint bought his sister’s freedom and helped liberate other blacks, although he remained a slave himself until manumitted by his owner’s widow on her deathbed in 1807. He married, adopted an orphaned niece, and became active in raising funds for New York City’s first orphanage and first cathedral. The Great Fire of 1835 wiped out a small fortune that personal industry and judicious investments had garnered, ending Toussaint’s plan to retire in Paris, Jones surmises. But he remained active in charities and black causes for the rest ofhis life. Focusing on his subject’s activities, the author gives only peripheral mention to the ongoing process of Toussaint’s canonization. An engaging picture of a life that was, in itself, a miracle.

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The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group
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6.21(w) x 9.47(h) x 1.07(d)

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The dozen or so huts, each with its small plot of land for cultivation, were placed within sight of the plantation house without much regard for organization or appearance. Typically, these huts would be close to the chateau, close enough so that someone with a loud voice could call from the rear of the huge tree-shaded mansion and attract the attention of servant-slaves who lived in them.

Yet the distance between the two forms of accommodation--the French chateau built in a tropical near-wilderness, and the huts on its northwest perimeter--was the widest humanity can measure. It was the distance between master and slave. It was the distance between the plantation-owning French aristocrats in Saint Domingue--today's Haiti--and the West Africans who toiled for them.

These Africans were a captive people torn from family, fields, and traditions; a people kidnapped, landed, branded, and worked to death in the fields before they reached midlife.

The slaves in these nearby huts were not field hands. They were the second-tier household servants. First-tier household servants had rooms in the chateau's internal slave quarters. Inside quarters were reserved for the "body servants," the intimate personal servants of the family: the ladies' maids and the valets.

These plantation chateaus, abutted by little hamlets of huts, were commonplace enough around the French colony of Saint Domingue, the crab claw-shaped western third of the island of Santo Domingo. At almost eleven thousand square miles, Saint Domingue was slightly smaller than the state of Maryland.

The mansions' styles were those of the French city and countryside, and few changes had taken place in their architecture to make them suitable for the Caribbean. The exception, in some, was that the corridors and windows tended to be wider to allow any cooling breeze to waft through.

That breeze was perennially laden with tropical scents: the heavy perfume of lush flowers and blooms, the after-rain aromas laden with dewy, moisture-soaked soils, blossoms, and leaves. Without thinking about it the inhabitants could tell what the weather was like, or recently had been, simply by sniffing the air. One variety of scents lingered after squalls and storms, another came with the tang from strong offshore winds. Cloying, perhaps, but always comforting and familiar for those born to it.

Smells linger long in the memory; one's nose rarely forgets the scents of childhood. Particularly the delightful smells from the kitchen, or those carried in on a breeze.

What breezes blew this day in 1781?

In the French part of the island of Santo Domingo--the eastern two-thirds were Spanish--there were rarely sufficient breezes to combat the unrelenting, stifling April-to-September heat and humidity. Rainfall ranged from twenty to one hundred inches a year, depending on the location. Temperatures rarely dropped below eighty-seven degrees Fahrenheit in winter and usually remained at or above ninety-five degrees throughout the summer. Not until October did the weather break, and in November the rainy season set in for most of the island.

Saint Domingue's (Haiti's) three provinces were the cultured, more closely settled North Province; the isolated, underpopulated South Province; and, located between them, the West Province where this chateau, L'Artibonite, was located. L'Artibonite commanded thousands of acres of the West Province's Artibonite Valley, irrigated by the 174-mile-long river of that name. L'Artibonite plantation owned hundreds of slaves to make it profitable. And made its owners as comfortable as French people could be when their real goal was to make enough money to live out their lives in Paris.

The West Province was bordered at its western edge by the sea, yet hemmed in by mountain chains that kept the rainy season at bay. The eighteenth-century plantations depended on irrigation from the Artibonite River for their abundant harvests. What precipitation came was borne in with the unpredictable but violent thunderstorms that could batter and howl with property-wrecking violence. Floods were common, and with that trick of fate that cruelly afflicts flood regions, droughts were not unknown.

Either temporarily in the L'Artibonite mansion's slave quarters, or more likely in one of the huts, was Ursule Julien Toussaint. She was in labor. The young woman, she'd be about seventeen or eighteen, was a chambermaid to the lady of the house, Madame Berard du Pithon. This was her third child. In time and with seniority, Ursule would graduate to a room inside the house, just like her impressive and redoubtable mother, Zenobie Julien. Normally, Zenobie, who ran the chateau as a combination housekeeper and manager, would have been on hand to assist at the childbirth.

But this year, the slave Zenobie was in France. She went periodically, charged with transporting the Berard children to Paris for their education.

Instead, Ursule's grandmother, the slave Tonette, was likely with her. Tonette had probably sent someone to the chateau for additional help with the imminent delivery. Perhaps Ursule's sister, Marie Bouquement, came. Bouquement often visited L'Artibonite with her mistress, Marie Elisabeth Bossard, from the Bossard plantation up north at Dondon in Marmalade. Ursule's two other young children would have been temporarily farmed out to play elsewhere. Her husband would have been at work.

Ursule's baby was a boy, christened Pierre Toussaint. ("Pierre" was for Pierre Berard du Pithon, L'Artibonite plantation's owner.) Legend has it Pierre was born on All Saints' Day, November 2; hence his last name, Toussaint, French for All Saints. While possible, it is not likely. It would be too curious a coincidence. "Toussaint" was the paternal family name. Pierre's father is known to history as "Old Toussaint," and Pierre's sister, Marie-Louise, refers to their older brother (whose first name may have been Antoine) as "Toussaint."

In many Catholic cultures, people customarily celebrated their "saint's name day" rather than their birthday. That seems to be the case with Pierre Toussaint. (Forty years hence, Toussaint's adopted daughter, his niece Euphemie, in letters to her uncle Pierre, honors his birthday on November 2.)

Pierre's father, "Old Toussaint," was not one of the brutalized field hands, nor was he particularly old. Among the slave population, "old" was a relative term frequently used as an honorific once a man's hair turned gray. Few male slaves lived that long--at least half of Saint Domingue's male slave population was dead before the age of forty.

Five-year-old De Pointe (Aurore) Berard, the white household's youngest child, was godmother to this newborn Toussaint. Child godparents were not unusual among French plantation families. In Pierre's case, the newborn would start out as a real-live baby doll for his five-year-old godmother, and grow into a playmate--simultaneously her constant companion and servant. There were other playmates, his siblings, Aurore's siblings, cousins (children of his aunt Marie), and the scores of other plantation families.

For slave children of household servants it was possible to form outside friendships on other plantations visited by the owners, or after church on Sundays, or in the streets around the town houses most plantation owners had in a nearby city. In the Berards' case, the town house was either in St. Marc, the port city where they attended church, or more likely in Port-au-Prince, the colonial capital. L'Artibonite, the Berard plantation, was in St. Marc parish, about fifty miles inland from Port-au-Prince and thirteen miles from St. Marc port.

Aurore Berard, his little godmother, was one of the three people who most influenced Toussaint's early life. Of those three, she was the only one in the colony the day Pierre was born. Grandmother Zenobie was in Paris delivering the two older Berard girls to their convent boarding school. Jean Jacques Berard, L'Artibonite plantation's oldest son and heir, who would later be master and mentor to Toussaint, was already at school in Paris.

To return home, Zenobie would soon undertake yet again the seemingly endless seven- to ten-week voyage from Le Havre to Le Cap Francois, Saint Domingue's cultural and commercial capital on the North Province's coast. There she would board a small barque to travel west around the top point of the crab claw, then east-southeast into the small port of St. Marc.

Zenobie's transatlantic traveling would not go on forever, and as the returned grandmother held her newborn grandson for the first time, she was aware that within five years, once Jean Jacques was done with school, the end of the her ocean journeying would be near.

Once Jean Jacques completed his education and returned, the young Berard would take over L'Artibonite from his father and run the fortune-creating family enterprise. Then his parents and the remaining brothers and sisters would move permanently to Paris, the ideal of every planter family in Saint Domingue.

Saint Domingue was a troubled land. The whites were there to exploit it; the blacks were there to be exploited and to create unimaginable wealth for the plantation owners. The mulattoes, those with mixed blood, were hated by the whites with an intensity greater than their disdain for the slaves. By far the majority of mulattoes were gens de couleur, free people of color. Ostensibly, gens de couleur had the same rights as whites. In fact, the white planters (known, along with the white colonial officials who ran the government and the military establishment, as grands blancs) worked extremely hard to deprive the mulattoes of any vestige of rights or independence.

The social pecking order was this: The colony was dominated by opportunists--in the top rank, the wealthy planters, who were in Saint Domingue solely to make money. Next in financial importance, but dominant in administration and tax gathering, were the royal governor--the absolute ruler, usually a retired military officer and an aristocrat close to the French court--and his chief bureaucrat, the intendant. They were there to pick the public purse--corruption was a normal perquisite of the job. Next in the pecking order came the petit blancs, the lower-class white workers, a category that included all the "lower orders," from plantation foremen and skilled artisans right down to the white riffraff. Fourth came the gens de couleur, a few of them freed slaves but generally mulattoes. There wasn't a fifth category--the enslaved were discounted. A grave mistake.

As an admixture, these groups constituted a volatile social chemistry. Like the king of France and his advisers, the grands blancs in Saint Domingue had no concerns about the colony as a dormant volcano. Yet Pierre Toussaint was born into a highly unstable racial-political-social tension that appeared quiescent solely because it had not received the final ingredient needed to cause combustion: the slaves tasting freedom.

The colony was deceptive. From the sea, a traveler on a vessel creeping slowly west on either the island's leeward or windward side approached Port-au-Prince or Le Cap Francois viewing misted high mountains, tropical forest, and plains. Throughout the colony, these mountains, productive with coffee shrubs, provided half of Europe with its favorite beverage. From Saint Domingue's lowland, plantations of sugarcane offered a manufactured vista where eighteenth-century Europe garnered a significant portion of its sugar to sweeten its coffee and cakes. Where there was no man-made crop, the island vista was of palms, tropical green foliage, flowers, and creepers.

The traveler saw a flowering, fertile abundance, a scene of wonderment for the first-time visitor. The view at night from the sea, if the vessel steadily turned into the port of Le Cap, was of the plantation houses illuminated across miles and miles of foothill and plain. The sugarcane factories sent flames roaring skyward from their boiling rooms into the darkness--sugar was more a manufacturing process than agriculture. For slaves, whether in fields or factories, it was a brutal harvest. Pierre Toussaint's birth coincided with that of the Industrial Revolution. And the Saint Domingue's sugar factories were as harsh a working environment as newly industrializing Britain's "dark satanic mills."

The seagoing traveler, gazing landward by day or night, would find in the nearing colony much to fascinate him. (Most visitors were males. This, though a place of some curiosity, was not a vacation spot.) On land the traveler would discover much to detest. One likable quality, however, was the colonial planters' open hospitality to their own kind. In an era when there were no hotels or comfortable lodging in the modern sense, the grand blancs' openhandedness to any visitor was legendary. Visitors were entertainment.

In Le Cap, as the cultural capital and financial center was known, squalor and culture lived side by side. If St. Marc, with about eight hundred full-time residents, and Port-au-Prince, population about eight thousand, could boast a few amenities--both towns, for example, had theaters--Le Cap, "the Paris of the Antilles," had almost everything Paris had except location. Of Le Cap's fifty thousand people, forty thousand were slaves. There were some eight thousand fashionable and stone-built houses. The finest of which, for those owners who chose to adequately furnish them, offered exquisite settings in which to wear the finest French fashions and imports, available in the city's commercial outlets.

For their entertainments, the wealthy colonial family and the professional governmental and commercial class could buy in Le Cap the same wines and many of the foods available in France itself. And there was more. From Paris to Le Cap's fifteen-hundred-seat segregated theater (mulattos sat in the third tier) came the latest theatrical and musical productions from Paris. Forty years before New York had its first serious opera, indeed its first decent theater, France's premier artists were appearing in Le Cap's excellent theater.

But this was a seaport. Le Cap's commerce-filled streets were also home to wandering swine, open sewage, foraging dogs, and never less than three thousand sailors from the cargo-carrying French mercantile sailing ships. Those vessels lined up for three-quarters of a mile along Le Cap's harbor front, their pointed prows sticking into the city like so many hatpins.

Seaport Le Cap was a city of booze, brothels, and brawls. There were moneylenders and gamblers, lawyers and forwarding agents, opportunists and the scum of all seaports: the drunks, losers, petty thieves, brigands, and ne'er-do-wells who'd washed up there and found no reason, or no way, to leave. They were men of all colors, though mainly white Europeans. Much later, they'd also be trouble.

The West Province (where Toussaint would grow to his early teenage years) was dominated by the political capital, Port-au-Prince, an unremarkable city prone to earthquakes. The huge West Province's estates were the largest in the colony; they had to be huge to justify the enormous investment needed to make them profitable and productive. This was not easy agriculture but irrigation-dependent and with unpredictable weather.

On the plantations of the Artibonite Valley, anywhere from three hundred to a thousand slaves was not unusual. Those field-hand slaves were housed nowhere near the main chateaus. Their slave camps would be on the outlying fringes farthest from the family mansion, so far away on these great acreages that their sundown singing, drumming, and dancing might only barely carry through the insect-noisy night to the chateau.

The third Province, the thinly populated South Province below the West Province, had little direct effect on Pierre's life, though it had a short yet important political role to play toward the colony's end.

As for newborn Pierre, who marked All Saints' as his feast day, which saints hovered over him--one more slave child in a colony that already had half a million? There was nothing saintly about being born a slave--freed from the womb straight into captivity.

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