Reviewed by Bob CorbettNov. 1995
One of the great historical controversies of The Haitian Revolution is the question of who really won the revolution -- the Haitian revolutionaries and their generals, Toussaint, Dessalines, Christophe and Petion, or yellow fever? Historians not only disagree, but both historical and ad hominem arguments are used, with those who side with the Haitians soldier theory often labeling the yellow fever school as racists on the basis of their view of this controversy alone.
Well, one hasn't seen controversy until one considers the central hypothesis that frames Madison Smartt Bell's novel. The story begins in August of 1791. In Bell's version three members of the white elite, the "grand blancs," conceive the concept of a slave rebellion to support their current political needs. And, indeed, in Bell's story, even the esteemed Bayon de Libertat, owner of the Breda plantation, owner and master of Toussaint, is one of the conspirators. Toussaint is selected by these white power brokers to be their instrument in beginning a slave rebellion.
There is no doubt this is a phenomenally clever novelistic strategy. Consider the actual historical situation and the problem of the grand blancs: the French Revolution is in full swing by 1791, but the King is still on the throne. However, the petit blancs, the white craftsmen, day laborers and propertyless ne'er-do-wells have adopted the red cockade of revolution. They have risen in colonial Saint-Domingue, taken Port-au-Prince and threaten the power and authority of the grand blancs. On the other hand the Estates General's decree of May 15, 1791 has given full citizenship to the free property owning mulattos of Saint-Domingue. The red cockaded petit blancs are outraged. So are the white cockaded loyalist grand blancs, but they don't believe they can win a battle on two fronts, fighting at the same time, both the revolutionary sentiment of the petit blancs and the free mulatto call for equal citizenship. Thus the stratagem of a slave rebellion is born, at least in Bell's head.
The belief is that when the slaves rebel the petit blancs will not only be neutralized, but will for the time unite with their white "betters" to defeat the black slaves and, in the bargain, take on the mulattos. This will give the grand blancs time to build political and military power, so that they can then deal with the petit blancs when the time comes. Of course they are totally confident that they can put the lid on the slave rebellion whenever they decide, as they have in the past.
At the critical meeting where the plan is finalized, the key figure Maltrot says:
"'It's a marriage of convenience. Temporarily, so long as our interests coincide, however long it takes to dispose of that mob of petit blancs at Port-au-Prince. Afterward,' he waved his sticky fingers airily, 'everything will return to the way it was before.'"
Since this is not a totally fictional novel, but one constrained by the main lines of historical reality, we know the essential outcome -- the slave rebellion, like a genie once let out of the bottle, cannot be contained, and, as the title suggests, it is an all souls' rising that ultimately defeats the colonial French as well as the opportunistic British and Spanish, each of whom thought they might pick up a cheap colony in the bargain.
However, Bell's novel is no history of the revolution. The action is limited to August of 1791 to June 22, 1793, the burning of The Cap (Cape Haitien) by the slave armies. The story is of the uncorking and earliest development of the slave rebellion and the rise of Toussaint Louverture as leader.
Bell's treatment of the rest of the revolution, outside his central white plot theory beginning, is quite standard. But, he seems unsure of exactly what he is about. There is clear evidence that he in some important ways thinks this is a novel about Toussaint Louverture. There are several chapters interspersed with the action of 1791-1793 which take place in 1803 after Toussaint has already been taken prisoner by the French and is on his way to and later, ensconced in, Fort de Joux. It's clear that Bell thinks these chapters are relevant, but they simply don't come off this way and stick out like unrelated diversions.
Ironically, the character of Toussaint is one of the most wooden and limited characterizations of the novel. He made many other characters live for us. Toussaint is more like an historical report than a fictional recreation.
Bell's story is riveting. He tells it through a series of characters who, while representing various factions of the revolution, still come across as believable real people, revealing to us some two hundred years later, what it was like to be in their shoes.
The central white figure is Antoine Herbert, recently arrived French physician, whose sympathies are either non-existent of carefully hidden. His concerns are more personal, to find his sister and help her with her plantation. He lives in both camps, having been, alternatively, a prisoner in Toussaint's camp, and a refugee in Le Cap, living on the largesse of the grand blancs. Herbert is a useful character, learning a great deal of herbal medicine from Toussaint, and revealing to us many grounds for great respect both for Toussaint as a leader of the revolution, and for his traditional African healing methods.
Then there is Captain Maillart, royalist, grand blanc and close friend of Dr. Herbert. He is horrified by the uprising of the slaves, but eventually is more horrified by Commissioner Sonthonax's Jacobin sympathies, and goes over to fight for the Spanish, serving under Toussaint himself, an act of obedience toward a black man, which he thought himself incapable of fulfilling.
Bell trots forward a long cast of fascinating people -- the cruel slave owner, Arnaud, the sexy and cunning Madame Cigny, wife of a leading grand blanc, Madame Arnaud, spiritualist exotic who rises in the revolution to achieve her full potential, the cunning and evil mulatto, Choufleur, and the utterly delightful, but sad portrait of the renegade Catholic priest, Pere Bonne-chance, among others.
Then there are the portraits of historical figures. Toussaint himself is such an uneven character for Bell. We never know who he is. In some scenes he prophetically knows his destiny and is writing letters which will be looked back on in almost hagiographic astonishment, and at other times he's a humble herb doctor, a "dokte feuilles" who is reluctantly caught up in something bigger than himself. There is a chilling portrait of the psychopathic killer, Jeannot and fairly historically straight forward portraits of both Jean-Francois and Biassou, early Maroon leaders of the uprising.
Bell presents a most unflattering characterization of Leger-Felicite Sonthonax, underscoring his self-aggrandizing activities and allowing nothing to the argument that Sonthonax was indeed trying to preserve Saint-Domingue as a colony of revolutionary France.
For me the most successful and exciting character of all was Riau. (Whose name I could never decide how to pronounce to myself. Silent reading has its advantages.) Riau was, as a boy, a slave with Toussaint on the Breda Plantation. However at about the age of 14 he ran away and became a Maroon. Riau was never much touched by western ways, hated the whites and dreamed of killing "whitemen" at every turn. He wasn't keen on undistilled reality and preferred to have Ogun in his head whenever possible and often spoke of himself in the third person. Bell's treatment of Riau is exclusively in the first person narrative, the only such use of first person in the novel, and it was odd at first to hear him talk about "Riau". The first few times I thought I had drifted off and someone else was speaking about him. Soon this became even more complicated when at times the narrator is Ogun talking about Riau, whom he is at that moment riding.
Riau was a totally believable portrait for me. Bell's superior characterization and a marvelous fictional insight into the mind of a Maroon, wanting simply to live his life in the freedom of Saint-Domingue's mountains, with virtually no political consciousness, but a keen sense of his own culture and personhood rang true to my imagination. He is the most reflective and philosophical character in the book. I simply loved him!
In a decisive passage after Captain Maillert has come over to Toussaint, and is training Riau, who is also a captain, Riau reflects on what's happening to him:
"Now it was Captain Riau in the hills by Habitation Thibodet, drilling and marching and learning how to be a whiteman officer. There was this other whiteman captain Toussaint gave to me, wanting us each to be a parrain to the other, so that Riau would turn into a whiteman officer, and this other would learn the ways of the men of Guinee. Captain Maillert. He was not so bad a whiteman, and he taught to Captain Riau many new things about drilling and marching and all the special ways that whitemen know for fighting and killing each other. But at the end of the day when Captain Riau took off his uniform, I had to look at myself all over very carefully to be sure that my skin was not fading into white."
Riau finally gives up on the revolution, seeing it as too much like pursuing the white man's dream. He flees Toussaint's camp and returns to the life of a Maroon, surviving in the depths of the Haitian mountains, ignoring even the revolution for a freedom he already has.
Ultimately, however, Bell misses the point of the period he covers. He sets the revolt in motion, albeit via a strange plot of the grand blancs, recounts the unstoppable force of the all souls' rising, and ends it all on June 22, 1793. The rest of the revolution is, for Bell, a footnote. June 22 was the day that the slaves first seriously invaded Le Cap (at the invitation of Sonthonax), and burned the city for days while they raped and plundered. It was the ultimate symbol that there was no putting the genie of the revolution back into the bottle. Many whites fled Saint-Domingue at that time, and speaking of them Bell says:
"They (white grand blanc escapees) were gone, and with their going came if not the absolute end of white power in Haiti, at least the beginning of that end..."
The words allow a reading that says, well, see, he was aware of the next ten years of fighting. Yet the spirit of it all indicates that for all intents and purposes Bell thinks it's all over. That view can only be maintained with the force of hindsight. Huge battles and obstacles were yet to be fought. The Spanish and British had to be defeated. The forces of Toussaint had to defeat Rigaud in the War of the Knives, Napoleon's forces of 1802-1803 had to be defeated. Things were never quite so sure, things might always have gone otherwise. I think that Bell misreads the power of those heady early days and excessively downplays the struggles of the last ten years of revolution.
Bell's story comes full round after 504 extremely interesting pages. Early on he had hinted that Toussaint would, in the end, double cross the grand blancs who suggested and funded the August, 1791 uprising. Yet Toussaint's behavior is ambiguous. Did he double cross the grand blancs, or was Toussaint all the time serving two masters as best he could -- the royalist support of traditional France and justice for his people. Had the two remained compatible, it is conceivable that Toussaint would have remained loyal to France and "saved" the colony for Napoleon. He seems to have tried that, but Napoleon rejected his contribution. But when forced to choose, rather than betray France (and in Bell's story, the interests of the grand blancs), he chose not betrayal but the higher good -- justice for his people, the road to independent Haiti.
Madison Smartt Bell has written a monumental work. It is historical fiction, not history, and must be judged on those grounds. As a novelist he creates characters who bring attitudes and experiences to us in the concrete. They mesh well with the more abstract tales we know from history, and, in the main, present us with believable lived experiences of those violent and confusing days of 1791-1793.
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