Magazine article Humanities

The Soul of a Free Man

Magazine article Humanities

The Soul of a Free Man

Article excerpt


A slave narrative tells the story of France s defeat in Haiti 200 years ago.

TOUSSAINT-LOUVERTURE HAD BEEN A GENERAL for two years when he experienced a vision. On a hill in Haiti in 1793, a black Madonna appeared before him on a cloud, scattering roses. There was the sound of trumpets and then the voice of the Madonna saying, "You are the Spartacus of the Negroes. . . . You shall revenge the evil that has been done unto the people of your race."

The man who led the first successful slave revolt and created the first Haitian Constitution was, for most of his life, a slave. Toussaint was the eldest son of Gaou-Guinou, a slave who was said to be the descendant of a West African king. Converted to Catholicism by the Jesuits, he instilled a lifelong devotion to the Church in his son. They lived on the sugar plantation of Count de Breda, a humane man, and Toussaint was allowed to receive a little education-an acquaintance with French, a smattering of Latin and geometry. As a boy, he indulged his love of reading while tending the herd. He read Caesar's Commentaries, Epicetus, Herodotus, Des Claison's History of Alexander and Caesar, Guishard's Military Memoirs of the Greeks and Romans. He also read Abbot Raynal, who wrote with horror about the practice of slavery and predicted the coming of a savior among the slaves: "He will appear, doubt it not; he will come forth, and raise the sacred standard of liberty."

Toussaint thought himself to be that savior.

Between 1791 and 1802 in Haiti, he defeated the powerful European forces of Spain, England, and France. As governor general, he united the island. Originally named Francois Dominque Toussaint, he took on the name l'ouverture-the opening-announcing to his people that he would open the door to a better future. "I was born a slave," he wrote, "but received from nature the soul of a free man."

A biography and autobiography of this remarkable man was published by John Relly Beard in 1853, and can be found in its entirety on the website "North American Slave Narratives, Beginnings to 1920," an electronic text project created by the Academic Affairs Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with support from the NEH. According to project director Patricia Dominguez, slave narratives-some of which are out of print and in fragile condition-have a high circulation. "One of the things that all of us have been concerned about is that a lot of materials are being digitized, but by commercial firms," says Dominguez. "They're available to people who are rich enough to pay for them but that often leaves out inner city and rural schools."

With the help of William Andrews, an English professor at Chapel Hill who had already begun a bibliography of North American slave narratives, the goal of the project became to create a complete library of all slave narratives in English. To date, there are more than two hundred on the site.

Originally written to support the anti-slavery cause, the narratives represent "the only perspective on slavery from the point of view of the slave," according to Dominguez. "Everything else is from the plantation owners' perspective, the white majority's perspective."

The history of Haiti has been a history of slaves. When Columbus landed on the island he named Hispaniola, it was populated by Arawak Indians. "They are lovable, tractable, peaceful, gentle, decorous," wrote Columbus. "They bear no arms, and are very cowardly, so that a thousand would not face three; and so they are fit to be ordered about and made to work."

Many Indians perished in the search for gold under brutal Spanish hands. The rest were killed by smallpox. A Spanish census in 1508 counted 60,000 Indians; in 1550, there were only a hundred and fifty.

Sugar cultivation began on the island in the sixteenth century. A new slave force was required. African slaves, noirs, arrived on Hispaniola as early as 1500. …

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