Philippe Girard’s exhaustively researched book, Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life, is a reminder that even the greatest among us reflect the constraints of our own times.

Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life
Philippe Girard. New York: Basic Books, 2017. $29.99. 352 pp.

The revolt of African slaves that erupted in Saint-Domingue in late August 1791 occurred in France’s most lucrative New World colony. Encompassing the western third of Hispaniola Island since 1659 and representing the most ‘profitable stretch of real estate on the planet’ according to historian Edward Baptist, the colony’s sugar, coffee, indigo and cotton served as the fuel for France’s ‘imperial engine’.1 Now, its sugar plantations were ablaze as slaves torched cane fields and killed their masters. With France’s own revolution having begun in 1789, free people of colour in Saint-Domingue also took up arms after French landowners refused to extend citizenship to them as laid out in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. An independent Republic of Haiti was eventually established on 1 January 1804; by then, upwards of 350,000 Haitians and 50,000 French troops had been killed (the troops mostly from yellow fever), and the island nation’s economy lay in tatters.2

The Haitian Revolution – said to be the biggest slave rebellion since Spartacus’s uprising against the Roman Empire almost two millennia prior3 – resulted in a slew of firsts. Haiti was the first nation in Latin America to gain independence, and remains the only country to have gained independence through a slave revolt. It was also the first country to outlaw slavery and to be ruled by former slaves and people of mixed race. The example it set was of great interest to a variety of people, including abolitionists, who sought a case study of a stable and prosperous freed-slave republic to challenge entrenched beliefs about black inferiority; and slave holders in the American South, who feared just this.

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Russell Crandall is a Professor of American foreign policy at Davidson College in North Carolina, and a contributing editor to Survival.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

August–September 2017

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