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Toussaint Louverture: A Biography Hardcover – January 16, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Author of an acclaimed trilogy of novels charting the Haitian revolution of 1791–1803 (All Soul's Rising, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That the Builder Refused), Bell is eminently qualified to write a biography of that struggle's central figure, Toussaint-Louverture. Beginning with a pithy overview of 18th-century colonial Haiti, taking in its harsh Spanish- and French-controlled slave plantations and its complex systems of race and class, Bell trawls documentary sources to trace Toussaint's stealthy emergence as a revolutionary leader. The author emphasizes Toussaint's unusual status as a free black man of property who commanded trust and authority among both blacks and whites. Sifting hard evidence out of the heaps of conjecture that surround his subject, Bell examines Toussaint's royal African origins, questions of his literacy, and the relationship between his outward Catholicism and the Vodou beliefs in which he was immersed. With scholarly conscientiousness, Bell examines differing historical accounts of Toussaint's military and diplomatic campaigns, comparing Toussaint's "meteoric trajectory" to that of Napoleon Bonaparte before describing Toussaint's demise in a Napoleonic prison. Since then, Bell comments, writers and politicians "have constructed whatever Toussaint Louverture they require"—usually, he adds, a vicious one. Bell's own contribution avoids mythology without detracting from the achievements of Toussaint-Louverture's dramatic career. (Jan. 16)
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From Bookmarks Magazine

Madison Smartt Bell's extensive work on Haitian history makes him the right man to tackle Louverture, an elusive but significant figure. Critics felt, however, that since so little is known about him prior to age 50 (something even Bell himself concedes), Bell might have better served his subject with historical fiction. Instead, he devotes much of the book to dry, academic information instead of dramatic storytelling. Bell's forthright presentation of Louverture's multifaceted personality and contradictions, however, intrigued critics the most. While reviewers debated the quality of previous biographies, all felt the necessity for something new on Louverture, especially considering his legacy in Haitian and African American cultures and his effect on Napoleonic expansion.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon (January 16, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375423370
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375423376
  • Product Dimensions: 6.8 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,019,819 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Madison Smartt Bell is a critically acclaimed writer of more than a dozen novels and story collections, as well as numerous essays and reviews for publications such as Harper's and the New York Times Book Review. His books have been finalists for both the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, among other honors.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Bert Korn on February 25, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Bell brings a writer's touch and deep empathy to the life of this towering but long-neglected 18th-Century black revolutionary. The biography is straight-foward, detailed, judicious and as well-researched as could be, considering the paucity of available primary sources on its subject's life. Particularly helpful are the careful placement of the Haitian revolution against the background of the French revolution, without loss of focus on the strategic brilliance (and weaknesses) of the book's central character.

Bell's is a much-needed corrective to the standard but outdated treatment of Toussaint L'Overture by the Caribbean Marxist writer C.L.R. James, whose work on L'Overture in now more than 60 years old. Bell treats the island's complicated race relations and the interaction of the Roman Catholic and Voudo religions with a remarkable depth and sensitivity, which he had already demonstrated in much greater depth in his acclaimed trilogy of novels on the Haitian revolution. He has done us a favor by taking up the biographer's pen, in place of the novelist's.

The book would have benefitted from a list of characters and a few better maps. And one aches to have more on the effect of the Haitian revolt on the early American republic, diplomacy, slave relations, abolitionism, the Louisiana Purchase, subsequent Haitian history, and so on, those these have been treated at least to some extent in other English-language sources.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Caesar Warrington on November 19, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Well known for his trilogy of historical novels chronicling Haiti's struggle for independence from France (ALL SOUL'S RISING, MASTER Of The CROSSROADS, and THE STONE THAT The BUILDER REFUSED), author Madison Smartt Bell is familiar with the primary and academic sources on the people and events that led that country through its chaotic and bloody triumph to becoming the first black state in the Western Hemisphere. Of those men, the most important of all was Toussaint Louverture.

Madison Smartt Bell's TOUSSAINT LOUVERTURE: A BIOGRAPHY is a necessary addition to a subject only few have dared to take on. As a biography it provides a sober and ubiased account of the former slave and self-taught veterinarian who, at age 50, would also prove himself a brilliant leader and military genius.

Unlike most others who've written about the man, Bell provides much detail on Louverture's early life and ambitions. He presents a Louverture who was shrewd (the man ably manipulated the interests of both the British and the Spaniards) and level-headed, but who was also just and often disgusted by the bloody excesses of the slaves' rebellion.

What makes this such an excellent work is in the way Madison Smartt Bell fleshes out Louverture's world with an indepth look into the various social classes and ethnic groups of Saint Domingue, the role religion and spiritualism played in the daily lives of the slaves and the strong influence of Voudoun on the rebellion--something that, depending on the situation, Louverture would either persecute or encourage.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Seth J. Frantzman HALL OF FAME on March 24, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Toussaint Louverture who lived from roughly 1744 to 1803 was the preeminent leader of Haitian independence, a model of a rebel, and a paradox of a person. He was a self educated slave who was freed shortly before his uprising in 1791. In 1793 he allied himself with the Spanish against the French but later changed sides and fought alongside revolutionary France, whose Jacobins had freed the slaves in 1793, to help expel the English who Toussaint noted had not freed the slaves of their colonies. By 1799 he was master of the island and was forced to put down a rebellion by mixed-blood freedmen (known variously as `mullatto' or `coloured'). By 1801 he was in charge of the whole island but the next year Napoleon sent an army to wrest it back to France. Toussaint was kidnapped and whisked away to die in France while his former slaves fought on and eventually gained independence in 1804, only the second independent country in the New World and one of only a few independent black countries in the world.

This book is a very readable masterpiece of writing drawing mostly on secondary sources to flesh out the fascinating life of the former slave and rebel leader. The story pays close attention to the class and ethnic destinctions on the island, showing the great degree of animosity between the French, the creoles, the free Gens De Colouer (coloreds) and runaway slaves. This is a fascinating portrait of the New World, the Carribean, a French colony and slave life and rebellion. Toussaint was an ardent Catholic and persecuted Voodou. The last chapter is a lively discussion of the problems Haiti has faced since the time of Toussaint, a story that can also be found in `Why the Cocks fight'.

A riveting and important book.

Seth J. Frantzman
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Alfred Johnson on June 19, 2007
Format: Hardcover
The French Revolution, as all great revolutions, had effects on world politics and the struggle of other peoples whom awoken to political life in the afterglow of that event. The fight for freedom in French Santo Domingo (now Haiti, the name that I will use to avoid confusion hereafter) led by Toussaint to a point just short of independence is a prime example of that effect. Without the revolution in the metropolis it is very unlikely that at that time the struggle in Haiti could have been successful. The history of the times was replete with unsuccessful slave rebellions. Why it was successful in Haiti and how that success was accomplished, mainly under the leadership of Toussaint in its decisive phases, is the subject of Mr. Bell's book. Mr. Bell's scholarship and necessary updating of Toussaint's story compares very favorably with that of the eccentric Marxist, later Pan-Africanist, historian C.L.R. James.

The freedom struggle in Haiti, a tropical island well suited to intensive agricultural development for the new international market in those goods necessary for the embryonic industrial system, was above all the struggle for the abolition of slavery. The fight against that servile condition that even many revolutionaries, white and black, and former revolutionaries of the time broke their teeth on. Today that freedom struggle, successful in its way in the Haiti of the early 19th century, remains a shining example of the only really successful fight against slavery by the slaves. So it pays to pay particular attention to the fight.

The forces which pushed the French Revolution forward in the metropolis had their its own set of priorities, among them the fight to move the population from a condition of subjugation to a monarch to citizens of a democracy.
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