The Moses of Haiti

Before Madison Smartt Bell's current biography, the author focused much of his writing on Haiti in a series of historical novels about the country's revolution.
Before Madison Smartt Bell's current biography, the author focused much of his writing on Haiti in a series of historical novels about the country's revolution. (Jerome De Perlinghi/random House Via Bloomberg News)
Reviewed by Theola Labbé
Sunday, February 25, 2007


A Biography

By Madison Smartt Bell

Pantheon. 333 pp. $27

The framed sketch of François Dominique Toussaint Louverture that hangs in my Haitian father's study shows the 18th-century general stiff-backed and in uniform, with large eyes and his hair combed back. I've seen the portrait more times than I can count but have little more than a superficial sense of the man who has merited a place in the heart, and on the wall, of my naturalized Haitian-American parents.

Madison Smartt Bell seems to believe that most readers will bring a similarly blank slate to his latest work, a biography of the Haitian leader who led "the only successful slave revolution in recorded history." Louverture is "the highest-achieving African American hero of all time," Bell writes. "And yet, two hundred years after his death in prison and the declaration of independence of Haiti, the nation whose birth he made possible, he remains one of the least known and most poorly understood among those heroes."

Bell, a prolific novelist, has become so consumed with the history of Haiti that he brushed up on his French, learned to speak Creole and wrote a fictional trilogy about the Haitian revolution. But even if you missed All Souls' Rising (1995), a finalist for the National Book Award, or Master of the Crossroads (2000) and The Stone That the Builder Refused (2004), you'll know from Bell's confident new venture into biography that he has spent a great deal of his career immersed in Haiti -- not only in giving Louverture and the Haitian people their due but in praising their achievements and exploring their cultural intricacies.

A country now mired in poverty and instability had its beginnings in the late 17th century as a French slave colony called Saint Domingue. Louverture himself was born Toussaint Bréda, named for the Bréda plantation. The country's mix of classes and races -- the inevitable result of years of slaves intermingling with their white French owners -- and the resentment among groups that included gens de couleur (mulattoes) and black slaves made the sugar and coffee plantation colony a powder keg. But it took Louverture's sheer determination to unite the fractured country and lead it to the brink of freedom from its white overseers -- a task that, upon Louverture's death in 1803 at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte's forces, was carried out by Gen. Jean-Jacques Dessalines.

This biography largely achieves Bell's aim of shedding light on the personality of Louverture. Haiti's liberator comes across here as a skilled orator, a gifted writer and a leader who exuded the utmost confidence -- whether when writing to the French civil commissioner, Léger Félicité Sonthonax, to argue for freedom or when speaking to field hands on a plantation. The impending slave revolt, which began in 1791 and culminated in 1803, serves as a driving narrative force that propels the book, as it did Louverture's real life. But the overall arc of that life often gets lost behind a myriad of details, giving the book a slightly academic feel that may limit its audience to college students and the most ardent devotees of Haitian culture and history. Those who do read Toussaint Louverture, however, will find an important recounting of a little-known piece of history. ·

Theola Labbé is a Washington Post staff writer.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company