Thursday, December 1, 2016

Philippe Girard's "Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life"

Philippe Girard is a professor of history at McNeese State in Louisiana and the author of four books on Haitian history. A native of the Caribbean, he studied in France and the United States. In 2014, he was a research fellow at the DuBois Institute at Harvard University.

Girard applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life, and reported the following:
Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life retraces the life of the leader of the Haitian Revolution, the only successful slave revolt in world history. He was possibly the most significant person of African descent ever, yet there has been no modern scholarly biography of him in English until now. The reason is simple: he was an incredibly complicated figure who obscured his innermost thoughts.

When opening the book at page 99, I was taken aback at first: this happens to be one of a handful of pages in the book that doesn’t mention Toussaint Louverture by name! The chapter covers the early months of the French Revolution in 1789, when some white planters toyed with the idea of declaring Haiti’s independence from France. Louverture was still unknown at the time: he had obtained his freedom but he remained on the plantation of his former master, where he worked as a muleteer and a coachman. None of the leading white colonists of Haiti mentioned him in the debates raging in 1789, and so he is barely mentioned in the chapter.

On second thought, however, page 99 does say a lot about Toussaint Louverture, a man who often hid his agenda and preferred to act behind the scenes. Though he did not take part in the political disputes described in the chapter, he must have followed them closely since he lived a couple miles outside Haiti’s main city and often traveled there for work. Louverture was doing what the reader does: he was following the course of events while wondering how long it would take for Haiti’s slaves to revolt. He was in the shadows, taking note of the growing political instability and educating himself on the ideals of the French Revolution, while plotting his next move. This was a key moment in his life, when he had to decide whether to put behind his past as an obedient plantation worker and start a new life as a revolutionary leader.

We learn of his decision ten pages later, when Louverture reappears in the narrative as the mastermind of the great Haitian slave revolt of August 1791. This carefully organized revolt eventually involved 500,000 slaves, one thousand times more than the largest slave revolt in US history. On page 99, Toussaint Louverture was on the cusp of altering the course of history.
Learn more about Toussaint Louverture at the Basic Books website.

My Book, The Movie: Toussaint Louverture.

--Marshal Zeringue