À la recherche: Monsieur Toussaint by Edouard Glissant

In his play Monsieur Toussaint, Edouard Glissant poignantly captures the complex character and historical dilemma of Haiti’s revolutionary hero

Illustration by Christopher Cozier

High in the picturesque mountains of the Jura, not far from France’s border with Switzerland, stands the Fort de Joux. Perched on a vertical crag, with its thick walls and solid keeps, it looks impregnable, and was considered redoubtable enough to be included in France’s ill-fated Maginot Line defence system. In spring, the fortress looks over meadows of Alpine flowers and the fast-running River Doubs; in winter the scenery is stark and freezing.

The fort has long served as a prison. Inside is a network of cells and dungeons that have held prisoners of all types over the centuries. Even in summer, the small, low-ceilinged cells feel dank and chilly, no heat penetrating the massive masonry. The atmosphere is sombre, even sinister.

It was in this unwelcoming place that one of the great figures of Caribbean history, Toussaint L’Ouverture, died on 7 April, 1803. The man revered as the leader of the only successful slave revolution in history succumbed to pneumonia at the approximate age of 57 (his date of birth is uncertain). It is said that his gaolers had refused to give him wood for the little fire in his cell.

Two centuries later, Toussaint L’Ouverture remains an ambivalent figure. For some, he is the man who overthrew slavery and colonialism in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue, ushering in the birth of independent Haiti in 1804. A more nuanced view suggests that he was also a ruthless operator, removing his leadership rivals and forcing the ex-slaves back to the plantations at the point of a bayonet. By this time, the man who was reputedly the grandson of an African prince had risen to be undisputed ruler of the colony (while still pledging allegiance to France).

Such pledges were to mean little, as Toussaint’s very existence was a challenge to the authority of Napoleon Bonaparte, who wished to restore slavery in the colony after the years of turmoil and revolution. Napoleon viewed him as a dangerous rival and a “gilded African”. For that reason, Toussaint was tricked, captured, and sent to his cold and lonely death in the Fort de Joux.

Toussaint’s enormous historical significance, as well as his complex character, are the subjects of Edouard Glissant’s play Monsieur Toussaint, recently re-translated into English by the Martiniquan author and Jamaican Michael Dash. The work first appeared, in French, in 1961, but was revived in 2003 to coincide with the bicentenary of Toussaint’s death. Indeed, it was performed in the courtyard of the Fort de Joux on an unusually cold June evening.

Yet how to capture the extraordinary nature of Toussaint’s life in a short play? Here, after all, was a figure who was centre-stage in literally epoch-making events, shaping the future of European colonialism in the Americas and the course of Napoleon’s imperial dream. Such was Toussaint’s repute in an age that had yet to invent mass media that his death was reported across the world and commemorated by no less an admirer than William Wordsworth, in a poem of 2 February, 1803, “To Toussaint L’Ouverture”.

Glissant’s response to this dilemma is to use a minimalist dramatic structure, to concentrate on the man himself rather than the epic events, and to deploy a sophisticated mixture of past and present in the recreation of a life.

The play is physically set in the fortress cell, a cheerless and claustrophobic place where the former governor of Saint-Domingue is mocked by his guards and awaits his death. At the same time, characters from the past and from the distant Caribbean island appear in the dungeon as Toussaint relives his dramatic trajectory from slave to “black Napoleon”.

The contrast between past and present is poignant in itself, but as Glissant makes clear in the stage instructions, the aim is also to merge the immediate and the relived into an ambiguous whole: “There is no clearly defined frontier between the world of the prison in France and the lands of the Caribbean island.” This means that Toussaint seems to inhabit a strange dream world, a dramatic nether region where the real and the remembered are confusingly mixed.

This twilit space is filled by characters, some of whom Toussaint knew, some representative of social and political forces in the Saint-Domingue revolution, and, most strikingly, by the dead. The captured leader talks with his wife, his fellow general and successor Dessalines, but also with Mackandal, the voodoo priest and revolutionary, who was executed in 1759 after an abortive slave uprising.

From these snatches of dialogue emerges a picture of Toussaint torn between competing pressures and instincts. We see, for instance, how Mackandal symbolises the implacable thirst for revenge that spurred the slave revolution and the wholesale destruction of the plantations. Yet in the figure of Bayon de Libertas, Toussaint’s former master, whom he sheltered and enabled to escape, we also see the bond of loyalty and sympathy that existed between some slaves and the most enlightened colonists.

Likewise, Toussaint appears caught in the irreconcilable contradiction between wanting to remain faithful to the reforming and abolitionist principles of the French Republic and the ferocious revolutionary vision of Dessalines, who saw no future for the island without the annihilation of the French.

A series of scenes traces Toussaint’s military successes, his alliance with the French revolutionary envoys, the scheming of the white planters and the beginnings of tensions between the freed black slaves and the more privileged coloured middle class. As the play progresses, it becomes clear that he occupies an impossible position between the revolutionary majority and those who are attempting to maintain French power in Saint-Domingue. With the arrival of Napoleon’s expeditionary force, Toussaint’s days are numbered. He goes almost meekly to a meeting with the French General Brunet, where he is arrested and bundled onto a ship bound for France.

There is something classically tragic about Toussaint’s fall from power. If he had a fatal flaw, according to Glissant’s version of his life, it was in losing touch with the revolutionary masses in Saint-Domingue, in believing that he could rule the colony on behalf of the French. As his treacherous secretary Granville says: “He has only one weakness, gentlemen, through which we can get the better of him. He believes in order and prosperity.” The belief that he could seek a compromise with Napoleon was his undoing.

Classical, too, is Glissant’s  reliance on language, rather than action, to evoke the grandeur and pathos of Toussaint’s life. But mixed into the classical French is the unmistakable flavour of the Caribbean, as when Moyse, Toussaint’s nephew and an uncompromising military leader, accuses Toussaint of adopting French attitudes:

You say, “the people,” I say, “the disadvantaged.” You say, “the people” with your republican highmindedness; I see only those who weed, cut, and bundle sugarcane. In sackcloth, sweating, their heads turning giddy under the sun.  

It is in this fusion of French classical constraint and Caribbean imagery that the undoubted power of Glissant’s drama lies. To read it may be less satisfactory than watching a performance, but the text amply succeeds in drawing us into the life — and death — of a great and flawed individual.