Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Toussaint Louverture at a Crossroads: The Mémoire of the "First Soldier of the Republic of Saint-Domingue"

Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Toussaint Louverture at a Crossroads: The Mémoire of the "First Soldier of the Republic of Saint-Domingue"

Article excerpt

8 October 1802, 'Au nom de l'humanité"

"Vous me per me trai, premiere Consul, de vous dire avec tout le respec et la soumition queje vous doit. L· gouvernement a été trompé entièrement sur le conte de Toussaint Louverture, sur un de ce plus zéllé et courage serviteur à St. Domingue."

[Allow me, First Consul, to speak to you with all due respect and submission. The government is utterly mistaken concerning the account of Toussaint Louverture, one of die most zealous and courageous servants of Saint-Domingue.]1

In the summer of 1801, Toussaint Louverture reached the zenith of his power on Saint-Domingue, the French colony that would become independent Haiti. InJuIy, he publicly proclaimed the Constitution de la colonie française de Saint-Domingue, a document that made him Governor General for life and, at the same time, led Napoleon Bonaparte to cast him as a traitor of France. Less than a year later, Louverture was Bonaparte's prisoner. The transition from the Constitution to the writings in the Fort de Joux (the French dungeon in the Jura mountains, where Louverture died), marked the final stage of his life, one that quickly passed from glory to misery. Louverture implored the First Consul for mercy, while he also justified his conduct. From the moment he is shipped on board Le Héros Louverture penned a series of letters in the attempt to seek rehabilitation. "Je suis malheureux, misérable et victime" he wrote on 8 October; nevertheless, he continued, "je suis de même consécutivement au service de ma patrie."2 The juxtaposition of victimization with a dogged nobility of spirit animated the letters to Bonaparte. Some have read the resignation in these writings as a sign of political failure (Fick, Pluchon), while still others, pointing out that Haiti will be an independent republic a short nine months after Louverture's death, argued that he made the ultimate sacrifice for the future of his country (Césaire, James). The disparate interpretations find common ground, however, in their focus on Louverture at a crossroads. In this article, I analyze the Mémoire du Général Toussaint Louverture as a critical text that demonstrates what Deborah Jenson has termed the "multimodal genius" of Louverture, or the mastery of the multiple discourses that defined the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the Caribbean.3

Scholars have minimized Louverture's Mémoire and its importance within his larger body of work.4 In his study of eyewitness accounts of the Haitian Revolution, Jeremy Popkin relegates the Mémoire to a note: "These memoirs, however, are a classic example of a politician's apology, and they are largely limited to an account of Toussaint Louverture's political and military actions in the four months following the landing of the French military expedition in 1802."5 As I will argue, by writing "memoirs" in the plural Popkin makes a subtle generic distinction that is at odds with his assessment of the text as an "apology." On the contrary, the Mémoire is important for its summary of key moments of Louverture's leadership, including his prioritization of the Constitution. Concluding with an appeal to justice, Louverture offered a spirited defense, one that recognized setbacks and failures but also lashed out at the French, especially Ledere, Bonaparte's brother-in-law and leader of the 1802 French expedition to Saint-Domingue.

The production of the Mémoire was a complicated process that resulted in multiple copies. Following the archival trail cleared by H. Pauléus Sannon and Paul Roussier, Jacques de Cauna confirms the existence of two copies in Paris at the Archives Nationales, and a third in Aix-en-Provence at the Archives Nationales d'Outre-Mer.6 Of the two copies in Paris, a shorter version is written "entirely in Toussaint's hand," in his phonetic French. This text was found posthumously, folded and sewn into a handkerchief that Louverture wore on his head. It has been integrated into the recent Girandole edition of the Mémoire. …

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