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In 1791, Saint Domingue was both the richest and cruelest colony in the Western Hemisphere; more than a third of African slaves died within a few years of their arrival there. Thirteen years later, Haitian rebels declared independence from France after the first—and only—successful slave revolution in history. Much of the success of this uprising can be credited to one man, Toussaint Louverture—a figure about whom surprisingly little is known.
In this fascinating biography, the first about Toussaint to appear in English in more than fifty years, Madison Smartt Bell combines a novelist's passion for his subject with a deep knowledge of the historical milieu that produced the man. Toussaint has been known either as a martyr of the revolution or as the instigator of one of history’s most savagely violent events. Bell shatters this binary perception, producing a clear-eyed picture of a complicated figure.
Toussaint, born a slave, became a slaveholder himself, with associates among the white planter class. Bell demonstrates how his privileged position served as both an asset and a liability, enabling him to gain the love of blacks and mulattoes as "Papa Toussaint" but also sowing mistrust in their minds.
Another of Bell's brilliant achievements is demonstrating how Toussaint’s often surprising actions, such as his support for the king of France even as the French Revolution promised an end to slavery and his betrayal of a planned slave revolt in Jamaica, can be explained by his desire to achieve liberation for the blacks of Saint Domingue.
This masterly biography is a revelation of one of the most fascinating and important figures in New World history.
“Few students of Haiti have pondered its history as seriously as Madison Bell. His study of Toussaint is an unexpected glimpse at a dawning modernity. Who could have known what Toussaint’s Revolution would entrain—not only for Haiti, but for the march of freedom on earth? One of history’s most secretive and solitary men, Toussaint walks these pages; he is still remote, half hidden—but we can hear him breathe.” —Sidney Mintz, author of Sweetness and Power
“Madison Smartt Bell offers us another magnificent insight into Haitian society. His biography of Toussaint Louverture combines the magic of fiction with impeccable erudition.”
–Maryse Conde, author of Segu