The Genius of Saint Domingue

Image courtesy
Image courtesy

By Christopher Zoukis

Fort de Joux. It’s also known as Chateau de Joux.  What it is – is a castle that was transfigured into a fort.  A kind of reinvention in today’s jargon, albeit a slow one.

Its first incarnation was one of wood, in the 11th century.  It was a large building whose existence was purely strategic.  In other words, someone thought this would be a good place to make a defensive stand against attacking forces. So a ramshackle, wooden structure was erected.

Then, in the following century, the dreary 1200s, the Lords of Joux, deciding they required something more permanent, more resilient, rebuilt it of stone, calling it a castle.  Four hundred and ninety years later (1690), Marshall Vauban, military engineer par excellence, shocked by the sheer vulnerability and monolithic ugliness of the structure, undertook a remodeling effort, turning it into a fortification, but still not a fort.

Because of its desolate location, de Joux toiled at times as a prison. The place still shimmers with a pattern of tension, the tight echoes of cruelty. 

Fast forward to 1879, when Captain Joffre, another French engineering officer, modernized the fortification, upgrading it to official fort status.  Today, Fort de Joux functions as a museum of arms and was listed by the French Ministry of Culture as a monument historique. 

Despite the fact that it is now an historical monument, a sense of tarnish lies across the panorama – because of what happened there in 1803.


Sullenly crouched over a mountain pass called the Cluse de Pontarlier, in the Jura Mountains of France, Fort de Joux, making no pretense of stoic resignation, ruminates on forgotten glories and better days than these.  For now it functions as a prison, listening to the moans and cries of creatures which once were men.

Nearby is a chapel, and next to the chapel is a potter’s field, a rocky piece of ground set aside for the burial of criminals, paupers, and nonentities.  A reluctancy hovers over the field of dark brown dirt and gray rocks, like an inarticulate cry of utter desolation. 

A body is dropped unceremoniously into an unmarked grave.  An anonymous priest stands by the grave, holding his Bible.  The soldiers who tossed the dead man into the hole have left, eager to get out of the cold.  No one else is there, just the priest.  He utters a few Latin words over the hole.  His breath hangs like a small cloud in front of his face.  It is much too cold for such a farce.  No one cares about another dead criminal.  Certainly not the priest.  Even God avoids this place.

Snowflakes begin to twirl down.  A few land on the black face of the dead man in the grave.

The dead man was a nuisance who ultimately had to be abated.  Some called him the Black Napoleon. This nickname did not endear him to the real Napoleon. 

The white Napoleon, surnamed Bonaparte, ordered the upstart, the Black Napoleon, incarcerated at Fort de Joux.  They put him there to die.  He died of cold and starvation and infection.  The examining physician discovered “a large amount of foul fluids” in the dead man’s head.  The physician opined, “It is his anguish that has collected there.”

When the already-mentioned Captain Joffre modernized de Joux in 1879, the chapel was razed and the residue from the unmarked graves was utilized as building material for a new wall – a kind of human mortar.  A wall of flesh.  Part of the wall is made of the dead black man.

I wonder what the Black Napoleon saw in his frigid cell.  He felt the numbing bite of the cold.  Cold that was intractable, a brooding cold that swallowed everything it touched.  Cold enough to kill.  Along with the cold, the smell of freezer-burned meat, which was his own flesh, the ammonia stink of stale urine, and the lingering reek of icy fecal matter pummeled his nostrils.  And no color save that of gray.  Shackles dragging over smooth gray stone, sounded like rocks down a metal chute.

But what did he see?  I don’t know, but probably failure and betrayal, and the dove pale wings of too many memories:  memories of Saint Domingue, steaming jungles, verdant plains set between indigo mountains, white clouds floating above like castles in the air.  Memories of a dream, an idea that, like cigar smoke, vanished on the currents of history.

I’d like to believe he wasn’t afraid to die, because it seems essential to what I want to believe about him, namely, that he was special in the supreme sense of the word.

I’d like to believe the only reason he would falter in the presence of death was because he could look into the future and see what would happen to Saint Domingue, to his ‘people,’ if he wasn’t there.

Francois-Dominique Toussaint Louverture was his name. Admirers called him the Black Napoleon, a true political genius and a statesman.  Unless you live in Haiti and have studied its history, you’ve probably never heard of him.  As the current of remembrance rushes by like a river, memory of Toussaint stagnates in a small pool of brackish water which, although technically a part of the river, remains motionless.

A smallish man, who looked like a baby bird, scrawny and bald with sharp features, he was not considered handsome.  Indeed, he deemed himself quite ugly.  But, as in the old adage, never judge a book by its cover, so too was Toussaint.  For residing in his skull was a sagacious brain and a grand soul, and in his chest a heart as big as the world.    

About Toussaint, T. Lothrop Stoddard wrote:  “Judged by white standards Toussaint is in many ways a sinister and repulsive figure; yet he should be measured not with Europeans, but with the great men of his own race – with Zulu Chaka and with Macandal.”

Stoddard, of course, was a white supremacist, which explains the above quote.  But even he, a racist, recognized Toussaint’s great genius.

Toussaint’s story began beneath the azure blue skies above Saint Domingue:

Toussaint’s father, Gaou-Guinou, came from the Arrada people.  Taken captive by slavers on the African coast, Gaou-Guinou was sold to Count de Breda, a Frenchman, who owned a large plantation on the French colony of Saint Domingue. 

Toussaint was born a slave on Count de Breda’s plantation.

Luck clung to Toussaint, for de Breda by colonial standards was humane, almost kind.  He only beat his slaves when necessary, and rarely raped the slave women.  Toussaint learned to read and write and speak not only French, but Spanish, Latin and Creole, though he spoke the former three rudely, he read them all with ease. 

He became legally free in 1777, having purchased himself from his owner.  He was 33 years old and leased property, becoming a coffee grower.  He married Suzanne Simone, also a former slave. 

After the French Revolution of 1789, the National Assembly of France declared all men free and equal.  That is, all whites were free and equal.  The declaration did not include blacks.  The coloured population of Saint Domingue assumed that it did. They therefore asked for and were denied the right to vote. The slaves revolted. The French responded with force and brutally crushed the revolt.

Toussaint did not participate in the revolt, at first.  Soon, though, the revolt devolved into chaos and anarchy.  Gangs of slaves roamed the island, murdering any whites they discovered, engaging in combat with gangs not of their colour.  The word colour is appropriate, because the blacks of Saint Domingue used a system which divided blacks into 36 distinct classifications, ranging the spectrum from black to mulatto.  Mulattoes were better than blacks because they were closer to white.  It was the purest form of racism:  exclusive separatism.  If they’re not the same as us, then they should die.

So the thunderstorms of violence came, let drop torrents of blood, and passed on. 

Due to the raw violence churning around them, De Breda and his family wished to escape from Saint Domingue.  Toussaint, the ex-slave, helped his former master leave for France.  And Toussaint sent his wife and sons to Spanish Santo Domingo for safety. 

After his family was safe, Toussaint found himself sucked into the maelstrom.  Detachment was impossible.  Circumstances demanded a choice:  leave or remain.  If he remained, he must pick a side. Joining the black revolutionaries, Toussaint noted the lack of discipline, organization, leadership, and objective.  In essence, the revolt was nothing more than angry blacks blindly lashing out at their tormentors.  The lack of order made Toussaint sweat as if ill, because he saw that in this direction no remedy existed.   

Scorning such chaos, Toussaint set about establishing an army of slaves who he trained in guerilla tactics. 

Meanwhile, back in Europe France and Spain went to war.  This conflict naturally carried over to combat between French Saint Domingue and Spanish Santo Domingo, one half of the island fighting the other half of the island.  Which meant not only were blacks killing other blacks and French whites, but also now the French whites were killing Spanish whites and their white British allies.  The black warlords, of whom Toussaint was numbered, joined the Spanish in an effort to get rid of the French. 

France, terrified that she would lose her rich colonies, offered freedom to any slave who would join them in fighting Spain.

And it must have been here, at this moment, that Toussaint had a great silent vision – full of possibilities – displayed everywhere and expanding visibly.  A vision of what might be – a San Domingue without slavery.  It would be called Haiti.  

Toussaint accepted the offer, switching sides.  He went over to the French.  The French made Toussaint General de Brigade.  Under Toussaint’s leadership the Spaniards were expelled and the British forces retreated.

Toussaint commanded the island. 

Toussaint permitted the French plantation owners to return, freed the slaves, and instituted a system of profit-sharing on the vastly profitable plantations.  Eventually, Toussaint expelled the French Commissioner from Saint Domingue.  For the Commissioner refused to take orders from any black man and insisted that he, being white and French, was the only person qualified to govern the island. 

In an effort to grab the wealth of Saint Domingue, the British said they would recognize Toussaint as King of Haiti.  Toussint didn’t believe them, and refused their offer. 

Toussaint seized control of both Saint Domingue and Santo Domingo.  He formed a committee to draw up a constitution for the new, independent nation of Haiti.  The constitution declared Toussaint Governor General for life and provided him with dictatorial power.

Napoleon, smarting at the loss of staggering wealth provided by the French colony of Saint Domingue, and insulted by the comparisons of the Black Napoleon with himself, wanted his colony back.  He wanted his money back.  He wanted his honor back.  So he sent his brother-in-law, Captain-General Charles Leclerc to regain it.  Leclerc thought so little of blacks and Toussanit that when he sailed he took his wife, Napoleon’s sister, her entourage, and her personal furniture with him.  Arriving, Leclerc landed with his 21,000 troops and attacked Toussaint’s armies.

For a while, Toussaint proved invincible.  But his officers, including some of his generals, defected to the French, who promised titles, money and plantations to all who did.  Infected by greed, Toussaint’s army fell apart.  Defection was rampant.  In the end, because he had no other choice, Toussaint signed a treaty with the French.  According to the treaty slavery would not be re-instituted and Toussaint would be allowed to retire to his home. 

Leclerc broke the treaty, arrested Toussaint, and shipped him in chains to Fort de Joux in France.

Yellow Fever did what Toussaint could not do.  It wiped out most of Leclerc’s army, forcing the French to abandon the colony.  That sounds bad, but the numbers tell a more horrific tale:  of the 55,000 French troops on Saint Domingue, only 1200 sailed away on the towering black French ships of the line.

A religious man, Toussaint was an ardent Catholic.  Being a genius, he was also a very practical man.  Along with these traits, he wanted freedom.  Being practical, he, too, adopted the Jesuit philosophy that the end justifies the means.  This explains his switching sides from Spain to France early on. 

In his genius, he concluded that it would be easier to expel first the Spanish, then the French.  So he did what was necessary to gain freedom.  Only as a free man, in a free country, could Toussaint find room for his capacity for life.

Pragmatism also provides reasonable motivation for his sufferance of Jean Jacques Dessalines, who was one of his primary Generals.  Dessalines was a monomaniac, the most zealous of the zealots, whose motto was kill, burn, destroy.  He hated whites with a fervent enthusiasm, massacring them without a second thought and even less remorse.  Toussaint allowed this, not because he was evil, but because it was necessary to gain freedom.  And in the surges of history, the wave of necessity follows right behind the curl of the practical.

Practicality also explains Toussaint’s many mistresses.  Although he espoused morality and marriage, even chastity, Toussaint believed it was not reasonable to expect any man to avoid temptations of the flesh.  So he balanced his moral convictions with judicious concessions to his fleshly desires.

And being a pragmatic, he knew that he and he alone, had the talent, skills, vision and force of will to rule the blacks of Saint Domingue, later called Haiti.  His vision, his revelation, turned the whole of Saint Domingue upside down, and opened up before it a realm which only Toussaint could perceive. That is, the possibility of independence and freedom, of sovereignty.

When Toussaint succumbed to the harsh cold and infection in Fort de Joux, the great possibility gave way with him.  Without his vision and genius it all fell apart.  Like a baby denied milk, it shriveled, cried and died.  In fact, in hindsight, continued French hegemony of Saint Domingue and its attendant colonial status was preferable to what exists today.  For the accumulation and employment of power and freedom is a self-sustaining process if, and only if, the first person wielding it has charisma and can see beyond the primordial.

Only Toussaint could have made Haiti a flourishing oasis of freedom, prosperity and racial integration.

The pity of it is this:  Saint Domingue in Toussaint’s day was a money-making machine.  With over 4,000 gigantic plantations, Saint Domingue supplied half of Europe with cotton, sugar and coffee.  And the production forecasts were incredible, portending more and greater wealth for France and more opportunities for investors, especially as the planters had doubled their production over the past three years.

And what is astounding is this:  the sugar plantations had attained an industrial level, going way beyond a simple agricultural operation.  The French had done this.

My pregnant point being this one:  that once Saint Domingue gained sovereignty, it provided fertile ground for, and nurture of, despot after despot.  All of whom were lousy leaders, with no regard for their people.  As a result, the only viable Haitian product today is tourism. 

And corruption, if you consider that a product rather than a debilitating disease.  I consider it a monument to pusillanimity and Haiti a complex of titanic ruins.  Ruins that the tourists come to see and pay $5 per person to do so.  

Toussaint could have and would have maintained prosperity.  But he didn’t have a chance.  For he supposed that other men, including the French, were honest.

Like the tree in Shel Silverstein’s story, The Giving Tree, Toussaint gave all he possessed, even unto his trunk, for what he loved:  his people, his freedom, his vision.  And now, his people – the Haitians – are impotent old men, sitting on the stump of Toussaint with nothing but a vague memory of what they once might have been. 

Oh, they remember Toussaint and Henri Christophe and Jean Jacques Dessalines.  Every year they have a festival, kind of a giant street fair, in their honor.  But they’ve forgotten, really.  Unreal people pretending to be Real.  Today’s Haitians are docile cattle recalling the deeds of men who lived with a singleness of intention, men who had extravagant ambitions.

Vain regrets, lost causes – they hang in the air like smoke.