The slave rebellions in San Domingo colony in the aftermath of the French Revolution would have exhausted themselves without concrete gains if it were not for the presence of a charismatic leader. The German sociologist Max Weber defined a charismatic person as one who is set apart from others by virtue of exceptional powers or qualities (1947:358-59). Such charismatic leaders have been present in all revolutionary processes that have been able to take power and to govern in accordance with the interests of the popular classes.
At the time of the outbreak of the slave rebellion, Toussaint L’Ouverture was a 45-year-old slave with administrative experience and authority provided by his position as steward of livestock on the plantation of Bayou de Libertas. More educated than the great mass of slaves, he had an understanding of local and international political affairs as a result of reading and conversations in the town of Le Cap, two miles from the plantation. When the rebellion broke out, he waited to see how it would develop. As a result of the respect with which he was held by fellow slaves, he was able to prevent the rebellious slaves from attacking the Bayou de Libertas plantation. But after a month, determining that the rebellion was of lasting significance, he made his way toward their camps (James 1989:90-93).
Toussaint quickly emerged as one of the leaders of the rebellious gangs, but the rebellion had reached a dead-end after four months. He participated with the slave leaders in negotiations for the return to the plantations of the majority of the rebellious slaves in exchange for the liberty of 400 of them. When the proposal was rejected by the colonial authorities, Toussaint arrived at the conviction of “complete liberty for all, to be attained and held by their own strength” (James 1989:107). To this end, he began in July 1792 to train an army capable of fighting European troops. During 1793, his revolutionary army grew in size and quality, such that by January 1794 he was in command of 4000 men, and his army controlled a cordon that ran from east to west across the colony. In May 1794, the Jacobin French government abolished slavery in the colonies and appointed Toussaint Brigadier-General, enlisting his support in the war against Spain and England, which were seeking to take control of the colony. In May 1796, he was named Assistant to the Governor, and early in 1797, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief and Governor. By 1797, he was in undisputed command of the colony, and by 1798, he had the confidence of whites, blacks, and mulattoes (James 1989).
Toussaint took seriously the idea of equality for all proclaimed by the French Revolution. He believed that the best hope for the blacks of San Domingo was to seek protection of fundamental rights as citizens of the French Republic. Toussaint envisioned a revolutionary government in France that, guided by Jacobin values, would provide San Domingo with the capital and administrators necessary for the economic development of the country and the education of the people. For this reason, he did not want to sever ties with France, even after the Jacobins had lost control of the French government, and the government was secretly pursuing a plan for the restoration of slavery in the colony. In a world in which Britain, Spain, and the United States openly sought to subdue the colony for their own imperial interests, he could see no hope for the future other than the Jacobin values of the French Revolution. He rightly saw that a people that had become impoverished and uneducated by colonialism and slavery, and further devastated by twelve years of civil and foreign wars, could not proceed alone. The colony needed the support of international actors committed to fundamental human values, and there were none with any hope of political power in that historic moment other than the Jacobins of the French petit bourgeoisie (James 1989).
In addition to his military genius and exceptional political insight, he possessed exceptional personal qualities. “It was his prodigious activity which so astonished men. . . . The inspection of agriculture, commerce, fortifications, Municipalities, schools, even the distribution of prizes to exceptional scholars—he was tireless in performing these duties all over the country, and none knew when and where the Governor would appear. . . . And after these lightning dashes across the country he was able to dictate hundreds of letters until far into the early morning. He dictated to five secretaries at once. . . . He slept but two hours every night, and for days would be satisfied with two bananas and a glass of water. . . . From the beginning of his career to the end he charged at the head of his men whenever a supreme effort was required. . . . In ten years he was wounded 17 times. . . . He could make soldiers accomplish the seemingly impossible. . . No wonder he came in the end to believe in himself as the black Spartacus . . . , as predestined to achieve the emancipation of the blacks. The labourers in their turn worshipped him as a direct servant of God. . . . Simple in his private life, he wore splendid uniforms on state occasions. . . . He was absolutely at home with the masses of the people and yet, at the same time . . . , the local whites were astonished at the singular courtesy and charm of his manners. . . . He remained a man of simple and kindly feelings. . . . He was incapable of meanness, pettiness or vindictiveness of any kind. . . . He had his advisors, but his proclamations, laws and addresses have his own personal quality and all accounts of him and tradition agree that he left nothing to anybody, working at everything himself, consulting fiends and well-wishers, but evolving his schemes in his own secretive manner and then checking every small detail himself. . . . For himself he expected the usual end of revolutionaries. . . . ‘I know I shall perish a victim of calumny.’ In this Roman stoicism he was, despite his Catholicism, a typical representative of the French Revolution” (James 1989:249-56)
But he confronted dilemmas that were beyond the capacity of his powerful personality to resolve, as we will explore in subsequent posts.
James, C.L.R. 1989. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, Second Edition, Revised. New York: Vintage Books, Random House.
Weber, Max. 1947. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Translated by A.M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons. Edited with an Introduction by Talcott Parsons. New York: The Free Press, Macmillan Publishing Co.
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