Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Lifeby Philippe Girard
Toussaint Louverture's life was one of hardship, triumph, and contradiction. Born into bondage in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), the richest colony in the Western Hemisphere, he witnessed first-hand the torture of the enslaved population. Yet he managed to secure his freedom and establish himself as a small-scale planter. He even purchased slaves of his
Toussaint Louverture's life was one of hardship, triumph, and contradiction. Born into bondage in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), the richest colony in the Western Hemisphere, he witnessed first-hand the torture of the enslaved population. Yet he managed to secure his freedom and establish himself as a small-scale planter. He even purchased slaves of his own.
In Toussaint Louverture, Philippe Girard reveals the dramatic story of how Louverture transformed himself from lowly freedman to revolutionary hero. In 1791, the unassuming Louverture masterminded the only successful slave revolt in history. By 1801, he was general and governor of Saint-Domingue, and an international statesman who forged treaties with Britain, France, Spain, and the United States-empires that feared the effect his example would have on their slave regimes. Louveture's ascendency was short-lived, however. In 1802, he was exiled to France, dying soon after as one of the most famous men in the world, variously feared and celebrated as the "Black Napoleon."
As Girard shows, in life Louverture was not an idealist, but an ambitious pragmatist. He strove not only for abolition and independence, but to build Saint-Domingue's economic might and elevate his own social standing. He helped free Saint-Domingue's slaves yet immediately restricted their rights in the interests of protecting the island's sugar production. He warded off French invasions but embraced the cultural model of the French gentility.
In death, Louverture quickly passed into legend, his memory inspiring abolitionist, black nationalist, and anti-colonialist movements well into the 20th century. Deeply researched and bracingly original, Toussaint Louverture is the definitive biography of one of the most influential people of his era, or any other.
Girard, professor of history at McNeese State University, lucidly reveals how Toussaint Louverture led a remarkable life even in comparison with the other leaders of the Age of Revolutions. Born into slavery in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, Louverture grew up speaking the Fon language of Benin and, most likely, practicing his parents’ Vodou traditions. Louverture was enslaved until he was almost 50, but in the final decade of his life he became a guerrilla fighter, general, diplomat, planter, and head of state before dying as Napoleon’s prisoner in France. As Saint-Domingue became the black republic of Haiti, Louverture presided over a revolution that was significantly more radical—in both ideals and practice—than the American and French uprisings that helped inspire it. Girard’s study, based on extensive research in European archives, succeeds in relating Louverture’s extraordinary life in its many and often contradictory aspects. It also conveys how he became an inspiration to abolitionists, civil rights activists, and anticolonial rebels worldwide without obscuring “the complexities of the Revolution he had to navigate and the skill he displayed in doing so.” Girard’s intelligent and graceful work offers a detailed account of Louverture’s experiences and achievements, as well as a laudable overview of the revolution he helped create and sustain. Agent: Paul Lucas, Janklow & Nesbit. (Dec.)
by Philippe Girard, is only the second in English to draw deeply on the original documents. The book is superb... the greatest of its virtues is to stand knowledgeably and disputatiously in the shadow of its predecessor, the first of the extensively researched books in English,
which was 'The Black Jacobins,' from 1938, by C.L.R. James, the West
Indian Marxist...[Toussaint gap." -New York Times Book Review
"Girard is an entertaining writer and a diligent scholar...[Toussaint Louverture] is a detailed and sympathetic account of a powerful historical figure." -Shelf Awareness
"Thoughtful and insightful... [Girard] knows the material better than any predecessor. His picture of Toussaint reflects the liberator's genuinely mercurial, contradictory self more realistically than any previous study." -Wall Street Journal
"An ode to the passionate commander of the Haitian revolution, arguably the most successful slave revolt in human history." -VanityFair.com
"For nearly 80 years no scholar has written an English-language biography of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture... [he] is a unique figure in the modern era, and yet he has had some trouble getting due credit. Philippe Girard, a professor of history at Louisiana's McNeese State University, steps into the gap." -New Republic
"Deeply researched and highly sophisticated." -Foreign Affairs
"Girard has certainly come to his task well prepared. He knows the scattered, difficult sources well, citing documents from several dozen archives across five countries. The book draws on the most recent scholarship, including fascinating new revelations about its protagonist's family life... a useful guide to the Haitian Revolution's fearsome complexities." -The Nation
"[A]n accessible, fascinating historical biography. Girard writes with an inviting, understated confidence that feels welcoming, especially to newcomers to Louverture and Haitian history...he retains a subtle touch that's unafraid of ambiguity. This approach honors his subject's complexity." -Bookforum
"Girard's intelligent and graceful work offers a detailed account of Louverture's experiences and achievements, as well as a laudable overview of the revolution he helped create and sustain."
"A compelling look at an extraordinary historical figure." -Library Journal
"A groundbreaking biography that underscores the difficulties of leading slaves to freedom and avoiding violent extremes." -Kirkus Reviews
"Philippe Girard's Toussaint Louverture is an unusually compelling combination of painstaking research using original archival sources, with a mastery of riveting storytelling. Girard's depiction of the life of perhaps the most famous revolutionary in the history of slavery is refreshingly original, and fearless, as it draws a portrait of the complex life of its subject without regard for conventional interpretations and political correctness. This book is destined to be debated, just as it is destined to be hailed as a major work of biography." -Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University
"Whereas most Louverture biographers have adopted extreme interpretations, Philippe Girard provides a balanced portrait, sympathetic but unsentimental. It draws astutely on the wealth of recent Haitian Revolution research, to which he has significantly contributed, and is set in a fluently written, highly accessible narrative." -David Geggus, Professor, University of Florida, and author of Haitian Revolutionary Studies
"At long last, the definitive biography of this complicated, mercurial revolutionary. Grounded in an impressive array of archival sources, Girard's remarkable portrait of Louverture is a delight to read. Fascinating and persuasive." -Douglas R. Egerton, author of Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America
Toussaint Louverture (1743–1803) is best known as the leader of the Haitian Revolution, a slave revolt in the French colony of Saint-Domingue that resulted in the establishment of the Republic of Haiti. Born a slave of African descent, Louverture saw himself as French; this dichotomy would define his life and shape his political policies. Girard (Haiti: The Tumultuous History—From Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation) attempts to reconcile the contradictions of Louverture's life. Sources documenting his subject's early days are scarce, and the author spends the first part of the biography exploring the unusual race relations of Saint-Domingue, which along with discussions of the area's economic, political, and social issues, provide much-needed context to explain Louverture's shifting loyalties and self-reinventions. While Louverture's role in the revolution comprises a large portion of this work, Girard also considers the hero's life after the conflict, when he became governor and rebuilt Saint-Domingue's agrarian economy by instituting a cultivator system. At the height of his power, Louverture was deposed by Napoleon and imprisoned in France, where he later died. The book ends with a brief discussion of Louverture's legacy. VERDICT A compelling look at an extraordinary historical figure. Recommended for anyone interested in revolutionary and/or Caribbean history.—Rebekah Kati, Durham, NC
A biography of the man who challenged the power of the leading empires of his day and led the only successful slave revolt in human history.Girard’s (History/McNeese State Univ.; Haiti: The Tumultuous History—From Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation, 2010, etc.) detailed research on both sides of the Atlantic underpins this fresh portrayal, in which the author successfully dismisses much mythology about who Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803) was, what he stood for, and what he achieved. Girard’s fine-grained approach enriches a picture that is often drawn in highly polarized shades. Louverture did indeed lead Haiti’s slaves in a revolt for freedom, was involved in their emancipation from France, rose to become general and governor-general of the island, and defeated an army of France’s battle-hardened troops sent against him by Napoleon, but at the cost of his own life. Girard develops these high points in his subject’s life in terms of the historical context. Louverture’s views and aims were not fixed. He was not always an opponent of slavery, nor was he averse to owning slaves himself. He was also an inconsistent opponent of the large plantation owners and the other elements of power in Haiti’s racial hierarchy. Girard argues that what Louverture wanted above all was to be recognized as French and treated with the honor and respect due a Frenchman. He fought to master the necessary skills of speech and writing, and he amassed significant landholdings out of the ruins of continuing warfare. He deftly navigated a course between local representatives of French political factions and the different strands of racial politics on the island. He also mastered the art of maneuvering between the great powers, but successes were often pyrrhic. A groundbreaking biography that underscores the difficulties of leading slaves to freedom and avoiding violent extremes.
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Meet the Author
Philippe Girard is a professor of history at McNeese State in Louisiana and the author of four books on Haitian history. A native of the Caribbean, he studied in France and the United States. In 2014, he was a research fellow at the DuBois Institute at Harvard University. He lives in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
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