In This Review

Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life
Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life
By Philippe Girard
Basic Books, 2016, 352 pp

Toussaint Louverture was born a slave in 1743, but at the zenith of his power, he ruled all of Hispaniola, the Caribbean island that consists of present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In this deeply researched and highly sophisticated biography, Girard walks the reader through the bewildering series of maneuvers through which the wily Louverture rose to power during history’s only major successful slave rebellion. But his legacy is contested: to resurrect the sugar plantations, which he considered the island’s only viable source of wealth, Louverture deployed his professionalized military to impose labor conditions that were almost as bad as slavery. Eventually, Louverture overreached, when he challenged the authority of the early nineteenth century’s most powerful autocrat, France’s Napoleon Bonaparte. Imperial and spiteful, Napoleon sent an overwhelming expeditionary force to capture Louverture, a move that backfired by empowering Louverture’s far more radical and violent deputy, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who formally declared Haitian independence and consolidated his power by ordering the slaughter of the remaining white population. The roots of modern-day Haiti’s maladies—strongman rule, violent racial strife, economic disorgan-ization, and oppressive poverty—can be traced to these apocalyptic events.