Professor Charles Forsdick introduces the history of the Haitian Revolution, and discusses visual images of its leader, Toussaint Louverture, including the centrepiece of a new free display.
Visualising Toussaint Louverture
In the second half of the 18th century, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) was France’s richest colony. Sugar, coffee, cotton and indigo produced by the enslaved population made a significant contribution to the wealth of France. Although resistance to slavery – through poisoning, infanticide and everyday acts of disruption – had long been widespread, challenges to the plantation system were violently repressed.
The French Revolution provided the context, however, for more systematic and sustained emancipation struggle. Led initially by the free people of colour of Saint-Domingue, whose aim was equality with the colony’s white inhabitants, this spread from August 1791 to a wider revolt among the enslaved black population.
A key figure in the events that would become the Haitian Revolution was Toussaint Louverture, a formerly enslaved man who would rise to the rank of Governor-General of the colony. Louverture led his armies against the British, French and Spanish, and eventually sided with France to abolish slavery – including in the neighbouring Spanish colony of Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic), which he occupied to unite the island of Hispaniola.
Louverture’s success riled Napoleon Bonaparte, who sent an expeditionary force in 1801 to reestablish French rule and restore slavery. Louverture was arrested in May 1802, and exiled in France where he died in prison the following year. Meanwhile, Louverture’s general Jean-Jacques Dessalines reignited the revolutionary struggle, defeated the French at the Battle of Vertières in November 1803, and declared Haitian independence on 1 January 1804.
Haiti became the first independent black republic in the world, and the second nation in the western hemisphere (following the USA) to gain its independence in an anti-colonial war. Unlike the American and French Revolutions, however, the struggle in Haiti was motivated by a quest for universal as opposed to selective emancipation. This aim was rooted in an inclusive understanding of human rights that extended to all, and depended on the ending of both colonial rule and enslavement.
Known in Haiti as the ‘Precursor’, Toussaint Louverture is celebrated widely as the military genius, political strategist and diplomatic tactician who transformed a revolt into a revolution, and laid the foundation for Haitian independence. His achievement served as an inspiration and warning across the Americas, and continues to motivate radical and anti-racist movements throughout the world. He has been widely represented since his death in literature, historiography and the visual arts.
Lubaina Himid’s mixed-media Toussaint L’Ouverture (1987) uses a collage of words from contemporary newspaper headlines – ‘RACIST’, ‘TORTURE’, ‘ABUSE’ – to underline the contrast between the promise of universal emancipation won by the Haitian Revolution and the persistence of racial inequalities in the modern world. ‘The news wouldn’t be news,’ the piece declares, ‘if you had heard of Toussaint L’Ouverture.’ Inspired by her reading of C L R James’s Black Jacobins, Himid also produced a series of watercolours on the Haitian revolutionary leader. Playfully domesticating her subject’s life by bringing Louverture’s wife into the frame, Himid asks: ‘but who does the laundry?’ In another piece, Himid subverts conventional city guidebooks by raising a statue of Louverture in Trafalgar Square, using his imagined presence to foreground alternative Black histories of European capitals. Himid’s work challenges the silencing of Haiti in British historiography (an amnesia all the more surprising given the key role played by British troops in the struggle against Louverture between 1793 and 1798 in revolutionary Saint-Domingue). It also stresses the continued relevance, for parallel struggles today, of the historic Haitian fight against slavery and colonialism.
The award of the 2017 Turner Prize to Himid has brought her work to a wider audience, and has increased general awareness of the stories of the Haitian Revolution. In fact, Himid’s representations of Louverture are part of a wider catalogue of visualisations that began during his lifetime, and then proliferated after 1803 as his reputation continued to grow. There are no surviving formal portraits of Louverture, so therefore much of the commentary on these images focuses on questions of the true likeness of their subject. For instance, illustrations in an account of the Revolution by a British army officer present at the time, are often thought to have been drawn from life, but it is the distinctive profile of a lithograph by Nicolas Maurin (above), produced 30 years after Louverture’s death and rejected as a likeness by its subject’s surviving son Isaac, that has achieved iconic status. Stories of newly discovered contemporary portraits are not uncommon, but equally important for understanding Louverture’s afterlives are the many subsequent visual representations. These range from Cham’s caricatures in Le Punch à Paris in 1850 to much more recent works by Kimathi Donkor, Edouard Duval-Carrié and Ulrick Jean-Pierre.
One of the most striking contributions is Jacob Lawrence’s pivotal The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, produced in 1938 in the final years of the Harlem Renaissance and in the wake of the US occupation of Haiti. The series of 41 images illustrates the continued transnational impact of Haiti in debates about African-American identity. Lawrence’s series is in dialogue with earlier representations of the Haitian Revolutionary leader, a number of which the artist consulted in the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomberg Center).
The striking profile in image 20 (above) is drawn from Maurin’s lithograph, while image 26 is reminiscent of the earlier work of Edinburgh artist John Kay from 1802 (earlier in this post). Lawrence’s use of a comic-book aesthetic anticipates subsequent accounts of the Haitian Revolution and the lives of its leaders in comics like Corpse Talk by Adam Murphy, Drums of Freedom by the Guyanese creator Barrington Braithwaite, or the new graphic history by Rocky Cotard and Laurent Dubois.
Louverture’s increasing visibility as global revolutionary figure suggests that he is achieving a transcultural iconic status rivalled only by Che Guevara. Yet this presents clear challenges: does it imply the final stage in what some see as Louverture’s conscription to forms of neo-colonial modernity; or does it contain the residual potential for reignition, in the present, of the Haitian revolutionary’s struggle for universal emancipation, not least in Haiti itself?
The Asahi Shimbun Display A revolutionary legacy: Haiti and Toussaint Louverture, supported by The Asahi Shimbun, was in Room 3 until 22 April 2018.
Charles Forsdick is co-author, with Christian Hogsbjerg, of Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in an Age of Revolution (Pluto, 2017). The biography contains a dossier of recent representations of Louverture, including works by a number of the artists mentioned in this post.