Paul Foot

Man’s unconquerable mind

(July 1991)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 144, July/August 1991, pp. 16–19.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Two hundred years ago this August, a slave revolt broke out in the French owned island of St. Domingue, now known as Haiti. Its successes and repercussions challenged the whole system of colonial slavery. Here Paul Foot tells the story of the revolt and the leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture.

WHO ABOLISHED slavery? That is a simple question which anyone with an O Level history can answer. William Wilberforce did it, almost on his own. This grand christian gentleman, Tory MP and factory owner who had a reputation among his factory workers for treating them, well, like slaves, goes down in history as the man who was responsible, more than any other, of ridding the world of slavery. His chief accomplice, so runs standard history, was the youngest ever prime minister of Britain – William Pitt. Pitt and Wilberforce drafted the Abolitiohn Bill which was first voted on – and defeated – by the House of Commons almost exactly 200 years ago.

Do Wilberforce and Pitt deserve all this credit? To find out we can start with another simple historical question: who discovered America? Surely everyone knows the answer. Christopher Columbus, an adventurer from Spain ‘discovered’ America, though there were, apparently, several hundred thousand people living there at the time who may have discovered it before him.

Columbus also ‘discovered’ Hispaniola, the largest island in what later became known as the West Indies. There were about a million people living there when Columbus arrived. So friendly were they that they saved one of Columbus’s shipwrecked galleys and mended it for him. Columbus remarked on the ‘paradise’ which he bequeathed to the Spanish empire. In return, the imperialists went about their business with such ferocity that in 250 years the entire native population was exterminated.

The exterminators, to continue their trade, came to rely increasingly on the slave trade from Africa. Between 1500 and 1800, 30 million slaves were taken by force from Africa to work the plantations of the West Indies and of North America. They were captured by violence or trickery, forced to row their death ships across the Atlantic, starved and beaten into submission by white Christian gentlemen, most of whom were British.

By 1789 Hispaniola had been divided and renamed. The eastern half, Santo Domingo, destitute and desolate, was still governed from Spain. The population was 125,000 of whom 15,000 were slaves. The western half, St Domingue, was run by France. It was heavily populated. In 1789 there were 30,000 whites in St Domingue, 40,000 mulattoes of mixed race, and half a million black African slaves.

This island is now known as Haiti, and is one of the poorest places on earth. In 1789 St Domingue was the richest place on earth. It produced sugar, coffee, cotton, indigo and tobacco in huge quantities. The value of its exports made up two thirds of the gross national product of all France. The French cities of Nantes and Bordeaux were entirely dependent on trade with St Domingue, and, at the beginning of the 1790s, it looked to those Frenchmen who benefited from it that the golden goose would go on laying eggs for ever and ever.

THE WHOLE of this vast surplus was entirely dependent on slave labour. The lucky slaves were the ones who died in the boats. In the fields they worked an 18 hour day from 7am until 2am. The rules that they should be fed by their owners were almost everywhere ignored or flouted. Most slaves got no food at all, and had to spend their few precious hours of ‘free time’ cultivating vegetables.

Childbirth was not encouraged among the slaves. It wasted time which was better spent in the field. Religion was banned, except only for baptism which was allowed as long as it was done collectively and quickly. The Roman Catholic church happily accepted this fleeting chance to make new converts. In exchange the church agreed to shut up about slavery.

The slaves were allowed no education, no independent thought, no rights of any kind. This was a savage, bru-talised society, held together by fear and sadism. When the liberal French writer, Baron de Wimpffen, went to St Domingue in 1790, he marvelled at the beauty of his hostess at one of the interminable banquets. He was less impressed when she ordered her cook, who had annoyed her with some message about the food, to be thrown into the oven alongside the next dish. Such atrocities were not the exception. They were the rule.

Between 1783 and 1789 production in St Domingue doubled. There seemed no end to the fabulous riches which could be wrung from this beautiful island and its brutalised slaves. No one worried very much about revolts. It was not just that discipline and order were enforced with such savagery. It was more that the slaves seemed to be exploited beyond the possibility of revolt. Eleven percent of them died every year – a higher percentage, for instance, than in Britain during the First World War – but that did not matter. There was an apparently inexhaustible supply of new labour in Africa.

The French Revolution started to change all this – but not too drastically. Many of the writers of the Enlightenment, whose ideas spawned the revolution, were opposed to slavery. But many of the people who took office immediately after the revolution were themselves beneficiaries of the wealth of St Domingue: not directly as slavers or planters, but indirectly as merchants and tradespeople. They hated slavery in principle but benefited from it in practice.

So the French Assembly, confronted with a demand from the idealists to abolish slavery, sought refuge in a compromise. It decreed that 500,000 black slaves must stay slaves. French citizenship was extended to any mulattoes who could show that their father and mother were born in France. There were about 400 of these, about 1 percent of the mulatto population of St Domingue.

No one was satisfied with this tiny concession. It infuriated the planters, patronised the mulattoes and ignored the slaves. But the concession opened a chink of light. Some people in France, it was now obvious, cared enough about slavery in St Domingue to do something about it. The decree for the 400 mulattoes broke the logjam of slavery and paved the way to the great revolt.

IT BROKE out on 14 August 1791 in a plantation in the north. In a great wave of savagery, slaves slaughtered their masters and burnt their mansions – and were slaughtered in return. By the end of the year a huge leaderless slave army had established itself in the mountains of the north.

It was joined there by a coachman from the small plantation of Breda. Unlike almost all his fellow slaves the coachman, called Toussaint because he was born on All Saints Day, could read and write. He was 46 years old. He joined the army as a medical auxiliary because (again unlike almost everyone else) he knew some first aid. Very quickly he became the acknowledged leader of the slave army, and remained in charge for 12 years of war.

His first enemies were the planters, whose governor was appointed in Paris. As soon as he took control, Toussaint signed treaties with Spain, which enthusiastically gave him arms in the hope that he might defeat the French and hand the whole island and its riches to Madrid on a platter. Within months Toussaint’s army had captured and fortified all the ports on the north of the island.

Very quickly he realised that negotiations with the planters were useless. There would be no concessions. Messengers sent to negotiate with planters were executed before they could speak. The result was the slogan which dominated the entire slave campaign: Liberty or death.

The slave revolt, which lasted more than 12 years, was inextricably intertwined with the French Revolution. In September 1792, as the revolution shifted to the left, the new convention sent three commissioners and a new general, Laveaux, to St Domingue. The commissioners declared before they left that they had ‘no intention of freeing the slaves’ – so they remained Toussaint’s enemies.

Yet all through 1793 as the French Revolution built up to its climax, the argument between Laveaux and Toussaint continued. The French general, a Jacobin who hated the royalist planters, tried to persuade the slave leader to throw in his lot with revolutionary France against its enemies – the reactionary empires of Spain and Britain. Toussaint was suspicious. In every Frenchman he saw a slave owner. Even when, in August 1793, the commissioners, on their own initiative, issued a decree abolishing slavery, Toussaint held his army at a distance from the French and his ports for the Spaniards.

In the first six months of 1794, for two reasons, he changed sides. First came the news of a further shift in the French Revolution: proof positive that for the first time in history the common people were playing a part in government. On 3 February 1794 three delegates from St Domingue took their place in the French Convention, controlled now not by traders, but by the working people of the cities, especially Paris. The delegates were a freed black slave, a mulatto and a white man. The very sight of the black and ‘yellow’ man sent the Convention into prolonged applause. It was moved, seconded and carried without discussion that the ‘aristocracy of the skin’ should be tolerated no longer and that slavery should be abolished.

THIS HISTORIC news reached Toussaint (who had taken a second name: L’Ouverture, the opening to liberty) in the mountains of St Domingue some time in the spring of 1794. Now he knew that not all Frenchmen were slave owners, planters or racialists. There were many in France too who wanted to break the bonds which lashed them to their exploiters, and he made common cause with them.

At the same time a British expedition of 6,000 men, which was to grow into the greatest expedition ever to have left British shores, arrived, spoiling for a fight, in St Domingue. The British Prime Minister Pitt was on the record, as we have seen, against slavery. One reason was that the most profitable fruits of slavery – in St Domingue – were flowing only to France. Now Pitt and his class were looking at a different picture. There was a chance that the French might be dislodged from the island by a slave revolt; and that the British might seize St Domingue, restore slavery there and make good British profits from it.

The British war against Toussaint’s armies in St Domingue lasted four years – from 1794 to 1798. During this period the Abolition of Slavery Movement in Britain almost petered out. There were two more desultory attempts to get a bill through the Commons – in 1795 and 1796. In the three years after 1795 the Abolition Society met twice. From 1797 to 1804 it did not meet at all. During the eight years after 1792, moreover, a million slaves were carried from Africa to the ‘new world’ in British ships.

Toussaint saw at once that the French (at the high tide of revolution) had abolished slavery, while the British intended to restore it. In June 1794 he made up his mind, threw in his lot with Laveaux, joined the French, seized from the Spaniards in seven days the same ports he had conquered on their behalf, and directed all his military skill and all his army’s speed, strength and courage to the war against the British.

The British lost 80,000 men in St Domingue: more than in all the Peninsular Wars. It was one of the greatest military disasters in all British history, so official history conveniently forgets it. In April 1798 Toussaint led his victorious army into the capital, Port-au-Prince, and the British never returned.

But by now the revolutionary tide had rolled back in France, and the new rulers, The Directory, were weighing up the prospects of restoring slavery in St Domingue. A new commissioner, Hedouville, bribed the mulatto generals who had fought valiantly for the slaves against the British, against Toussaint. A bloody civil war ended in 1801, when Toussaint marked his triumph over the mulat-toes by marching into the Spanish half of the island and conquering it.

The slave army had beaten off the first counter-attack against the slaves by the new French Republic; had beaten the full might of the British army; had beaten the mulattoes, beaten the Spanish and in the process abolished slavery. But now, after a short peace, it was faced with a new threat: from yet another, different ruler in France, the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon was told (rightly) by his scout General Vincent that St Domingue was ‘the happiest place in your dominion.’ The whip had been abolished. Hours were regulated and the new society was struggling to restore the ravaged plantations and the lost production. But Napoleon determined to undermine this short peace.

The British, united with their enemy Napoleon in their determination to put down the slave revolt, obliged with a short peace so that Napoleon could devote his full attention to Toussaint L’Ouverture. In charge of his huge expedition Napoleon appointed his son in law, Le Clerc, who predicted, ‘all the niggers when they see an army will lay down their arms.’ He had at his side all the great generals of Napoleonic France. Yet in the first six months of 1802 the French lost 10,000 men – half to disease, half to the enemy. The French soldiers were confused. As they attacked the black army, they were greeted with familiar songs: the Marseillaise, the Ça Ira, the very revolutionary hymns to whose strains they had conquered most of Europe.

On 7 June 1802 the beleaguered French generals offered Toussaint a treaty if he would appear in person to discuss it. Against the advice of his generals, he did so, was swiftly captured, taken to France and banged up in a freezing prison in the Jura. To French astonishment however the slave army in St Domingue fought with even greater ferocity without their leader. In a matter of months the French were driven out of the island, never to return. Imperialist government in St Domingue was over – for ever.

THIS IS PERHAPS one of the most remarkable stories in all human history, but because it turns history upside down it is not told in history books. The story of Toussaint L’Ouverture is almost entirely obliterated from British (and even French) culture. There is a film about Spartacus – he lost, after all – but none about Toussaint. There is a wonderful book by C.L.R. James – The Black Jacobins – which is reinforced now by Robin Blackburn’s comprehensive history: The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery. In general, though, important people everywhere have been reluctant to disclose too much about Toussaint L’Ouverture and his army lest some rather obvious lessons might by learnt – and acted on.

What happens in real life is not determined by what great men or gods think is right or wrong. It is determined by the greed of ruling classes and the resistance to it. Slavery could have gone on for countless decades (as it did in North America) if the slaves had not fought for their freedom with the most implacable violence.

White people are not always racialist. Napoleon, Le Clerc, Hedouville were racialists. Laveaux was not – nor were the Jacobins in the Convention who abolished slavery. For them the aristocracy of the skin was yet another horrific manifestation of the aristocracy of class and religion.

William Wilberforce did not abolish slavery. The slave army of Toussaint L’Ouverture started the process – which was not finished until the slaves of America had to join white people in the North and fight a civil war to abolish slavery. The emancipation of the slaves was fought for and won by the slaves themselves.

The lowest, most debased and exploited people are capable of resisting their oppressors – and beating them. Toussaint was himself a most humane and peace loving man. He refused for instance to execute prisoners. But he knew the alternative was Liberty or death and fought accordingly. His message comes down loud and clear over these 200 years in spite of all the attempts to silence it.

When in 1803 William Wordsworth, his own revolutionary enthusiasms already in decline, heard that Toussaint had died of pneumonia in his prison he dedicated to the dead slave leader perhaps his finest sonnet – and one that will certainly not be taught by rote at school since it is not about daffodils:

Live and take comfort, thou has left behind
Powers that will work for thee – air, earth and skies –
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee. Thou hast great allies.
Thy friends are exultations, agonies and love
And man’s unconquerable mind.

Last updated on 5.7.2013