This post is brought to you by Elliott Reid, founder of blackhistory.school who brings Black Heroes to life through school curriculums and comic books
Toussaint Louverture is, without a doubt, the most impressive man in recorded history. A man born into slavery in St Domingue (Haiti) who purchased his freedom by 30. He was a successful businessman by 50 years of age at which point he fueled the Haitian Revolution. The Haitian Revolution was a bloody ten year guerilla war. After ten years, Toussaint Louverture had led a majoritively black army, a significant proportion of which were women and mixed raced peoples, to overthrow the French, Spanish, British and Napoleon Bonaparte himself.
A genius beyond measure and a visionary beyond belief, Toussaint Louverture eventually met his downfall as he was fatally tricked and transported to eastern France for imprisonment where he died of pneumonia, alone in the tower of Chateu de Jeux.
In his life and death Toussaint Louverture has provided us with captivating lessons. How to: live a virtuous life, take a stand, lead, defeat evil, stand against injustice. Toussaint is a diamond in our rich, black history.
My name is Elliott Reid. I teach Black History through lectures and comic books. I present to you, Toussaint Louverture and his Three Life Changing Lessons. This blog post is based on the following publications
Black Spartacus by Sudhir Hazareesingh
The Black Jacobins by CLR James
When We Ruled by Robin Walker
Art by Francois Cauvin
Introduction – The Black Messiah
Putting greatness on a world stage is the best opposition to oppression, in my opinion. Going head to head with ignorance, evil and the status quo. The ancient Egyptians told the story of god of sight, Horus, fighting his evil uncle Seth and triumphing over him. Horus’ virtue was that he could stare evil in the eye and strike it down. Toussaint Louverture in this regard is very Horus like.
I must admit, I am uncertain of today’s tactics of kicking and screaming until someone gives in. Perhaps those fighting for change could learn something from our history. Specifically the lesson in today’s blog post that, “the best revenge is to be unlike those who offend you”. Toussaint Louverture lived by this virtue.
He is the hero we need to know, especially in Black History. So many of our heroes have been disregarded and some have even been replaced (William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln for example have in many people’s minds replaced an entire black revolutionary force throughout the Caribbean, Americas and West Africa.
Just like Winston Churchill is a modern deified Briton, Toussaint Louverture is owed deification. He deserves to be absorbed into our collective understanding of Black History so that we can internalise his lessons and virtues.
So without further adieu, Three Life Changing Lessons from Toussaint Louverture
Keep your band of brothers tight
After Cecile Fatiman and the enslaved Islamic scholar, Dutty Boukman prophesied the coming of the Black Messiah at a Vodoo ceremony called the Bois Caiman, a disorderly rebellion cascaded throughout Haiti. Many enslaved africans were killed, as were French slavers and little ground was made.
Toussaint Louverture watched at a distance and noticed the disunity and chaos amongst the African revolutionaries. We know, throughout history, that disunity does not bode in one’s favour. Disunity arguably led to the fall of west africa to colonialism in the first place. However, there were some key west African tribes who unified throughout early colonialism and prospered when their neighbouring tribes fell into slave wars and were plunged into chaos. Throughout black history, one of the most resistant tribes to slavery were the Yoruba of modern day Nigeria. The Yoruba believe that they are the original people of the earth and therefore are all related in brotherhood, centred around the Obas (kings). Read Stephen Adebanji Akintoye’s book, A History of the Yoruba People for more insight.
Because the Yourba view eachother as distant relatives, they daren’t not sell eachother into slavery. It must be noted that slavery in west Africa didn’t display anyway near the brutality of the transatlantic slave trade; we have the biography of Equianao Olaudah to thank for that insight, amongst many others. However slavery did grow to become a signficant contributor to the west African economy outside of Yorubaland and the Oyo Empire.
Louverture descended from African chiefs and may have inherited some traditional values of brotherhood.
Amongst the chaos of the early revolution, Toussaint Louverture put together a band of brothers. This consisted of his closest and most conscientious friends. They included Jean Francois, Biassou, Jeannot, Bayon De Liberat and Dutty Boukman, the Islamic Scholar from Gambia.
As Toussaint Louverture gained momentum as a general in the Haitian Revolution, these close companions became his generals who exuded extreme loyalty to the cause. The organisation, centred around brotherhood filtered throughout the revolutionary army. Stories of men fighting valiantly under volleys of gunfire and canon until overwhelming the enemy by cunning and might were rife.
In 1798, when Toussaint stormed the British position of Fort Churchill with his elite troops, his men realized that their ladders were too short, and so they stood on one another’s shoulders for half an hour, taking heavy casualties but eventually succeeding in creating a breach in the enemy position.Hazareesingh, Sudhir. Black Spartacus (p. 84). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Unity and brotherhood. Where many others were divided and conquered, Toussaint Louverture’s brotherhood stood fast. Lesson number one, choose your companions carefully and defend them to the end.
Take meaning in suffrage
Many today are looking for a utopia. This utopia may be one of equality, happiness, peace etc. I think philosopher, Slavoj Zizek summarises this perfectly
Many of us feel the most exhilarated when we are suffering. Whether that’s building a business, running a race etc. Why? Because we find meaning in our suffrage. Toussaint Louverture loved his people and found meaning for his suffrage in their liberation.
Toussaint… “was seriously wounded in battle seventeen times; the most visible (and permanent) trace of these injuries was the loss of most of his front teeth”Hazareesingh, Sudhir. Black Spartacus (p. 75). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Toussaint Louverture also had his hand crushed under a canon, rode over 100 miles a day ahead of his army to scout for danger, slept less than 5 hours and often scavaged fruit along the way. He was spoken of as having a relentless fire within him; a burning passion to bring the world he envisioned into fruition. A nation of free Africans with thriving international trade, a democratic political system and well disciplined, highly trained army.
Meaning is a funny thing. When our work has an undeniable and universal meaning, we can become so engrossed in our work that we barely become distracted from it. However when we do, we often find that others have been completely captivated by its meaning, just as we have.
For example, word of Toussaint Louverture spread far and wide. Ships were crossing the Atlantic and Caribbean sea at a phenomenal rate. This infographic below will demonstrate:
CLR James and Robin Walker both document how the word of the Haitian Revolution inspired enslaved Africans to jump overboard into the Caribbean sea, to swim to neighbouring islands and tell the captives there of the news that a black messiah was coming to save them. And there was some truth in this. Sudhir Hazareesingh tells us in his book, Black Spartacus of how Toussaint planned to liberate Jamaica after he successfully liberated what is now known as the Dominican Republic.
The story of Toussaint inspired later revolutionaries such as Nat Turner, Frederick Douglas and Sam Sharpe. Sam Sharpe led 60,000 enslaved Africans against the British less than 26 years after the Haitian Revolution. Slavery was abolished in Jamaica the following year.
Toussaint was a man of action. And his action had very specific goals and demands. He suffered endlessly throughout the revolution, but its meaning gave him strength. Lesson number two, find meaning in your suffrage; who knows who you might inspire.
The best revenge is to be unlike those who offend you
This quote is originally taken from the Stoic Philosopher, Marcus Aurelius. In his meditations, Aurelius wrote “the best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury”
There is something very Christian in this. As Jesus said, “turn the other cheek”. However, Toussaint Louverture takes this statement to an entirely new level. First we need to lay the context of the times.
Phrases such as “put a little powder in powder in the arse of a nigger” were common place
The blowing up of a slave even had its own name. “To burn a little powder in the arse of a nigger”: Obviously this was no freak but a recognised practice.CLR James, The Black Jacobin, page 13, Kindle Edition
The cruelty that these men and women experienced was so abhorrent that despite reading of their experiences multiple times, I consistently fail to remember their punishments. As though my brain cannot bear to store them. The images they summon are unbearable for me.
Lashings with cat’o’ninetail whips were commonplace. Rape of men, women and children as punishment or to increase stock were encouraged. Africans were lynched, barbequed alive and hung for days to send messages to any potentially unruly fellows. What kind of man could forget this brutality?
There is an unbelievable collection of witness statements taken from white, French plantation owners at the time of the revolution. Sudhir Hazareesingh writes of how Toussaint’s soldiers would often find white plantation owners escaping warzones, on their way to the coast for extraction to France. Toussaint’s soldiers would escort them to the nearest general, to which Toussaint would ask the plantation owners if they had been harmed or robbed. Toussaint’s and his men’s honour was so great that they ensured the safe extraction of non-military personnel from the warzones. They were so determined to be unlike the evil which held them captive for hundreds of years that they exuded virtue.
In doing so, they won the admiration of those outside their race, religion and nationality. They exacted their revenge by being completely unlike those who performed the injury. And in doing so, will be remembered forever as the more powerful force both militarily and ethically. Their souls were as triumphant as their swords. Final lesson number three, the best revenge is to be unlike those who performed the injury.
I hope his isn’t the first time you have heard of the Black Messiah, Toussaint Louverture. If it is, I implore you to learn about him and his black jacobins. As many of our heroes do, Toussaint Louverture represents so many virtuous traits to me. These are only three which come to mind. I have narrowed Toussaint’s most impressive traits down to 10, of which I chose three.
Toussaint Louverture also represents the complete opposite archetype to the passive, imbecilic depiction of the enslaved African we are so often presented with. And he wasn’t alone. In fact I would say that Toussaint Louverture is in every one of our souls; burning away with that fierce intelligence and energy that enabled him to captivate a nation of enslaved Africans. Who knows what we can do if we harness it?
Thank you so much for reading my blog post. Remember to subscribe to my news letter / channel / social media feed and let me know what you think.
Go to www.blackhistory.school for more information