cover image Toussaint Louverture: A Biography

Toussaint Louverture: A Biography

Madison Smartt Bell, . . Pantheon, $27 (333pp) ISBN 978-0-375-42337-6

Author of an acclaimed trilogy of novels charting the Haitian revolution of 1791–1803 (All Soul's Rising , Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That the Builder Refused ), Bell is eminently qualified to write a biography of that struggle's central figure, Toussaint-Louverture. Beginning with a pithy overview of 18th-century colonial Haiti, taking in its harsh Spanish- and French-controlled slave plantations and its complex systems of race and class, Bell trawls documentary sources to trace Toussaint's stealthy emergence as a revolutionary leader. The author emphasizes Toussaint's unusual status as a free black man of property who commanded trust and authority among both blacks and whites. Sifting hard evidence out of the heaps of conjecture that surround his subject, Bell examines Toussaint's royal African origins, questions of his literacy, and the relationship between his outward Catholicism and the Vodou beliefs in which he was immersed. With scholarly conscientiousness, Bell examines differing historical accounts of Toussaint's military and diplomatic campaigns, comparing Toussaint's "meteoric trajectory" to that of Napoleon Bonaparte before describing Toussaint's demise in a Napoleonic prison. Since then, Bell comments, writers and politicians "have constructed whatever Toussaint Louverture they require"—usually, he adds, a vicious one. Bell's own contribution avoids mythology without detracting from the achievements of Toussaint-Louverture's dramatic career. (Jan. 16)