Monumental Louverture: French/Haitian Sites of Memory and the Commemoration of Abolition

This post is a part of our “Race and Revolution” series.

By Nathan H. Dize

In May 2017, France celebrated its eleventh day commemorating the Abolition of Slavery. Throughout the Republic, mayors gave speeches and placed wreaths of flowers   before statues and plaques in homage of key figures in the history of abolition.[1] In many cities, this meant honoring Toussaint Louverture, the leader who led his compatriots in the Haitian Revolution until he was arrested, deported, and imprisoned in France from August 1802 until his death in April 1803.  However, the French Republic has done little to recognize the circumstances that led to Louverture’s death on French soil as part of these commemorative celebrations.

Monuments to Louverture often only include mention of the oft-cited “tree of liberty,” his abolitionism, or that he “died in France.” Statues and plaques of Toussaint Louverture in Bordeaux, Grenoble, and in the Château de Joux near Pontarlier participate in what Christine Chivallon refers to as “mémoire oublieuse” (forgetful memory) to elide details of Louverture’s imprisonment.  French commemorations of Toussaint Louverture   celebrate his abolitionism rather than provide restorative or symbolic justice for Haitians or former colonies impacted by French slavery and the slave trade. 

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Image 1: General Leclerc’s account of Toussaint Louverture’s arrest (credit: Internet Archive)

On June 11, 1802 General Charles Victoire Emmanuel Leclerc, Napoléon Bonaparte’s brother in-law tasked with reinstating slavery in Saint-Domingue, arrested Louverture along with his family and servant Mars Plaisir and deported them to France. After 28 days at sea, the Louvertures arrived in the French port of Brest. Toussaint was separated from his family and sent along with Mars Plaisir to the Château de Joux prison in the glacial Jura mountains of Franche-Comté. When the two arrived at the medieval fort on August 23 the prison’s commander, Louis Philibert Baille de Beauregard, escorted Louverture and Plaisir to their cell.[2] From the end of August until his death on April 7, 1803 Louverture was subjected to constant surveillance, room searches, and harsh conditions during his imprisonment.

Louverture’s food supplies fluctuated, his firewood allotment was adjusted out of his control, and he suffered frequent fevers and lost a number of teeth. As Dannelle Gutarra’s study of Louverture’s captivity shows, Carl Linnaeus’s racial taxonomies and craniology played a distinct role in calculating how to keep Louverture alive and how to process his body after death. For instance, the Napoleonic regime had calculated the amount of wood Louverture would need to merely sustain life one cord of wood in the fall months (August and September) and then two in the winter. However, when winter began in October, commander Baille only received 26 francs for Louverture’s heating while a cord of wood cost 36 francs.[3] After momentary declines in Louverture’s health, Baille appealed for the minimum heating budget to keep the Haitian revolutionary alive.[4] After the months carried on, Louverture lost numerous teeth, and was subjected to room searches in the middle of the night, interrupting any recuperative rest his body needed to withstand the physical toll of the Château de Joux and the frigid Jura mountains. Louverture’s treatment therefore amounts to what Gutarra calls an “institutional assassination,” which is a crystallization of how the slaveholding Empire of France treated black subjects, especially those attempting to topple the colonial order.[5] The fact that Louverture was even held in prison shows that the Napoleonic regime needed information from him because people of African descent were often publically maimed or executed due to the costs of imprisonment.[6]

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Image 2: A commemorative plaque to Toussaint Louverture at the city hall in Grenoble, France (photo credit: Nathan H Dize)

In April 2003, the Haitian government donated a bust and plaque to the prison-turned museum commemorating the life of Toussaint Louverture for the bicentennial of his passing (shown above) with the “tree of liberty” inscription. Similar to many engravings and paintings of Toussaint Louverture (the bust at the Château de Joux presents the Haitian general in his French military regalia, complete with a tricorn hat. This visual motif, coupled with the inscription of his famous response to Leclerc during his arrest, links Louverture to a broader history of French abolitionist commemoration.

While Louverture’s words can be, and have been, interpreted as a final battle cry in the fight for Haitian independence, the French government has embraced these words as a leitmoif for the history of abolition in the official public memory of the Republic. Indeed, Toussaint Louverture’s 1801 constitution of Saint-Domingue eliminated the institution of slavery and that anyone born in Saint-Domingue would be free and considered a citizen of France. However, Louverture’s constitution also installed a system of labor that conscripted workers to particular plantations. As CLR James writes “Toussaint could see no road for the Haitian economy but the sugar plantation.”[7] Images 2 and 3 show plaques and statues in Bordeaux and Grenoble that reproduce the same quotation, engraining even further the association between Louverture and an opaque history of abolition in France. In order to complete the circuit, the French state offers flowers to statues and plaques of Toussaint Louverture each year on May 10.

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Image 3: Bust of Toussaint Louverture on the banks of the Garonne in Bordeaux, France (photo credit: Nathan H Dize)

In claiming Toussaint Louverture as a French abolitionist figure, commemorative statues and plaques often mention the Haitian revolutionary’s life span (1743-1803) or that he “died in Fort de Joux 1803.” Certainly, there are spatial considerations and logistical issues surrounding the construction of monuments; they can only tell so much “history.” However, as the plaque placed in Louverture’s cell by then Haitian president Michel Martelly shows, it is possible to revisit memorial spaces to further contextualize historical spaces. Introduced in 2014, the plaque further situates Louverture within the Haitian context mentioning that he was born enslaved on the Bréda plantation and that he died “in this prison cell.” The plaque also mentions Louverture’s adherence to the values and ideologies of the French Revolution, but it does not mention the history of abolition directly.

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Image 4: Plaque in Toussaint Louverture’s cell at the Château de Joux donated by Haiti in 2014 (photo credit: Nathan H Dize)

The Haitian plaque is the latest attempt to symbolically wrest the remains of Toussaint Louverture from the French state, which consistently elides Haitian narratives of the Age of Revolutions in service of the French Republic.[8] In fact, even the plinth in the French Panthéon reserved for Louverture says he “died in exile at the Fort de Joux.”[9] To place Louverture’s remains in the Panthéon, if they are even to be found, would tie the Haitian Revolutionary’s legacy to France and French republican abolitionism.[10] For the reasons stated above, this would only further perpetuate a false, “forgetful memory” of Louverture’s life and legacy. Abolitionist memories in France, revolve around the statecraft of the Republic and for Louverture to be remembered as solely as an abolitionist belies his insurgent beginnings as one of the most important leaders of the Haitian Revolution.


Nathan H. Dize is a PhD student in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University where he specializes in Haitian theater, poetry, and performance from the colonial era to the present. He is a content curator, translator, and editor of A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789.  He is also the co-editor of the H-Haiti series “Haiti in Translation,” which interviews translators of Haitian writing.  Nathan has published articles, reviews, and translations in journals such as sx archipelagos, the Journal of Haitian Studies, Contemporary French Civilization, and sx salon.

Further Reading:

Bell, Madison Smartt. Toussaint Louverture: A Biography. New York: Pantheon, 2007.

Chivallon, Christine. “L’émergence Récente de La Mémoire de l’esclavage Dans l’espace Publique: Enjeux et Significations.” Revue d’histoire Moderne et Contemporaine 52, no. 4 (2005): 64–81.

Curtius, Anny Dominique. “À Fort-de-France Les Statues Ne Meurent Pas.” International Journal of Francophone Studies 11, no. 1 and 2 (2008): 87–106.

Dieudé, Aude. “Defending Freedom and Human Rights: Teaching Toussaint Louverture and Haiti’s History.” In Reimagining the Caribbean: Conversations among the Creole, English, French, and Spanish Caribbean, edited by Valérie Orlando and Sandra Cypess, 141–66. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014.

Frith, Nicola, and Kate Hodgson, eds. At the Limits of Memory: Legacies of Slavery in the Francophone World. 1 edition. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015.

Foix, Alain. Toussaint Louverture. Paris: Gallimard, 2007.

Forsdick, Charles. “Monuments, Memorials, Museums.” Francosphères 3, no. 1 (2014): 81–98.

———. “The Panthéon’s Empty Plinth: Commemorating Slavery in Contemporary France.” Atlantic Studies Atlantic Studies 9, no. 3 (2012): 279–97.

Forsdick, Charles, and Christian Høgsbjerg. Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions. Pluto Press, 2017.

Glissant, Édouard, and J. Michael. Dash. Monsieur Toussaint: A Play. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005.

James, C. L. R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. 2d ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1963.

Nesbitt, Nick. Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment. Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 2008.

Saint-Aubin, Arthur F. The Memoirs of Toussaint and Isaac Louverture:  Representing the Black Masculine in Narratives of Mourning and Loss. New Directions in Africana Studies. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2015.

Walsh, John Patrick. Free and French in the Caribbean Toussaint Louverture, Aimé Césaire, and Narratives of Loyal Opposition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.

Endnotes:

[1] In March 2006, under the presidency of Jacques Chirac, France declared May 10 the official date for the commemoration of abolition. The laws stipulate that ceremonies are to be held in Paris as well as in each metropolitan department as well as at all sites of memory dedicated to the slave trade. Curtius, Anny Dominique. “À Fort-de-France les statues ne meurent pas.” International Journal of Francophone Studies 11, no. 1 and 2 (2008): 88.

[2] Charles Forsdick, and Christian Høgsbjerg. Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions. (Pluto Press, 2017) 117-118.

[3] Louverture’s allowance for August and September was 40 francs and was reduced to 26 for October.

[4] Dannalle Gutarra, “Toussaint Louverture’s Captivity at Fort de Joux – ProQuest.” Journal of Caribbean History 49, no. 2 (2015): 138.

[5] Ibid, 153.

[6] The interrogation of Toussaint Louverture by General Caffarelli demonstrates that the only reason why he was detained was because Napoléon Bonaparte thought that he had buried treasure, which would allow the French to redouble their genocidal war campaign in Saint-Domingue and re-install slavery. See, Phillipe Artières, ed. Général Toussaint Louverture; Mémoires, Suivi Du Journal Du Géneral Caffarelli. Paris: Mercure de France, 2016.

[7] CLR James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. (2d ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1963), 393.

[8] There have been multiple attempts by the Haitian government to recover the physical remains of Louverture, see: Charles Forsdick, “The Panthéon’s Empty Plinth: Commemorating Slavery in Contemporary France.” Atlantic Studies 9, no. 3 (2012): 279–97.

[9] Charles Forsdick, “The Panthéon’s Empty Plinth: Commemorating Slavery in Contemporary France.” Atlantic Studies 9, no. 3 (2012): 285.

[10] After having been supposedly buried at the Château de Joux and disinterred to conduct craniological experiments, it is uncertain where Louverture’s remains lie. See: Charles Forsdick, and Christian Høgsbjerg. Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions. (Pluto Press, 2017) 124.

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