John Newsinger looks at Madison Smartt Bell's trilogy on the Haitian Revolution.
The Revolution that began in the French colony of Saint Domingue in August 1791 and culminated in the declaration of Haitian independence on 31 December 1803 is one of the great historic revolts.
Black slaves rose up in the richest colony in the world and after a protracted struggle overthrew their oppressors and brought down a system that many whites believed ordained by nature. It is the only successful slave revolt in history, and this success was achieved through war with both the might of the British Empire and with Napoleonic France. More than that, the revolt signalled the eventual end of black slavery throughout the Caribbean.
Inevitably, the Haitian Revolution is associated with the great historic figure of Toussaint L'Ouverture. His call to arms still resonates:
'Brothers and friends, I am Toussaint L'Ouverture. My name is perhaps not unknown to you. I have undertaken to avenge you. I want liberty and equality to reign throughout Saint Domingue. I am working toward that end. Come and join me brothers, and fight by my side for the same cause.'
Men and women who could neither read nor write learned this by heart.
Now, at last, there is a work of fiction that does justice to this revolution - Madison Smartt Bell's great trilogy All Souls' Rising, Master Of The Crossroads and The Stone That The Builder Refused. This is the most outstanding work of historical fiction written in years, and Bell, appropriately enough, dedicates it to 'All who walk with the spirit of Toussaint L'Ouverture in the fight for Haiti's freedom then and now'. But who is Madison Smartt Bell?
It is an indictment of the provincialism of the British literary establishment that Bell, a US writer of uncompromising honesty, is virtually unknown in this country and that his Haitian trilogy has gone completely unnoticed. He was already the author of a number of accomplished novels and short story collections, among them: The Washington Square Ensemble, Ten Indians, Save Me, Joe Louis and my personal favourite, Soldier's Joy, a novel of banjo playing, Vietnam veterans and anti-racism. Soldier's Joy is very much a novel about the real enemy being at home.
None of this could have prepared us for the Haitian Revolution trilogy, however. Here he combines a first-class understanding of the politics and history of the revolution with literary skills of the highest order. He creates a cast of convincing characters, men and women, black, mulatto (mixed race) and white, and shows the impact of the revolutionary events on their lives, attitudes and relationships. The result is one of the finest fictional recreations of a revolution ever written, a work of exceptional power that deserves the widest readership.
The first volume, All Souls' Rising, introduces the reader to Doctor Hébert, newly arrived from France. He is a man of advanced liberal views, a Jacobin as far as the planters are concerned, and one of the trilogy's main protagonists. While riding through the countryside, Hébert encounters the reality of slavery in the person of a slave woman crucified and left to die. The planter Arnaud tells him she was breeding stock and had been crucified for infanticide. Hébert finds himself witness to a regime of incredible cruelty:
'It was nothing to lop an ear or gouge an eye, even cut off a hand, thrust a burning stake up the rectum, roast a slave in an oven alive, or roll one down a hill in a barrel studded with nails.'
Indeed, 'it was a sporting pastime to pack the anus of a wayward slave with gunpowder and blow it by a fuse, faire sauter un nègre [to blow up a negro], they called it, to make him jump'.
While slave unrest was endemic, and those brave and desperate enough escaped to the hills to join the maroon bands that survived in a precarious independence, it took the outbreak of the French Revolution in Paris to create the conditions for a successful slave revolt in Saint Domingue. The French Revolution divided the whites and led the mulattoes to demand equality, and these divisions provided the opportunity for the great Haitian Revolution.
Bell does not shy away from the horrors of the slave revolt. When the slaves rose, they fell upon the planters and their families with a terrible ferocity, raping, torturing and killing in a grim retribution. One of the rebels, Riau, provides the viewpoint from which the reader sees revenge taken for all the suffering that had been inflicted on generations of slaves. When the slave army is on the march, burning the plantations and firing the cane fields, they are approached by some young white men, armed only with whips, 'that they waved and snapped'. The whites order them to return to the plantations. They were, Riau observes, 'very stupid young men':
'They were pulled from their horses and Jeannot commanded them to be skinned, meaning to send their skins back where they'd come from as a sign. But whiteman skin is so flimsy we could not get a whole pelt off any of them. At the end they lay flayed on the coals of the cane field screaming and begging for death.
This was, as Marx puts it, 'only the reflex in concentrated form' of the oppressors' own conduct. 'There is something in human history like retribution,' he wrote, 'and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself.' The planters were paid back in moments for what they had inflicted on generations.
Out of the great revolt emerged Toussaint L'Ouverture, the man whose genius, both military and political, was to guide it to victory. While many of the slave leaders merely wanted to create petty African kingdoms for themselves, L'Ouverture was different. When the French delegates arrived from Paris and made clear that they would abolish slavery, he rallied to the Republican cause.
The trilogy explores these historic events through the experiences of a cast of marvellously realised characters: H�bert and his good friend Captain Maillart, both of whom throw in their lot with L'Ouverture; Riau and his horribly scarred friend Guiao, who tells L'Ouverture he has come to fight 'for freedom. With black soldiers. And for vengeance'; Claudine Arnaud, sent mad in her quest for redemption; Nanon, the mulatto prostitute who becomes H�bert's wife; and Isabelle Cligny, who carries the black general Joseph Flavelle's child. Indeed, one of the most impressive aspects of the trilogy is its exploration of the impact of revolution on the attitudes and relationships of this cast. All the accepted ideas about race and gender are thrown into turmoil. And, of course, there is the enigmatic figure of L'Ouverture himself.
Toussaint L'Ouverture defeats a British attempt to seize the colony and restore slavery. Inevitably, General Yellow Fever came to the aid of the slave army, weakening the British until they could be struck down. By now however, Napoleon has come to power in France and is determined to destroy the power of the blacks. The French sent thousands of crack troops under General Leclerc to crush L'Ouverture, all the time insisting that there would be no return to slavery. Meanwhile, they waged a war of extermination.
Bell provides a magnificent account of the siege of La Crête à Pierrot, one of the great revolutionary epic fights, where some 1,200 blacks held off over 12,000 French troops, inflicting heavy losses. Dessalines, the mulatto, Lamartiniere and his black sharp-shooting wife, Marie-Jeanne, inspire a heroic resistance. In one episode the French troops hear their black enemy singing the French revolutionary song La Marseillaise. One of them turns to an officer: 'I sang that song across Italy and Austria and in the streets of Paris... Wherever we sang it we came to set the people free... Can you tell me, Major, what have we come here for?' This episode is all the more poignant for being true.
Divisions within the rebel ranks, cleverly exploited by Leclerc, eventually force Toussaint L'Ouverture to surrender, although his intention is really to buy time. He is deported to France, where that great traitor to the revolutionary cause, Napoleon, to all intents and purposes murders him. Once the French reveal their true intentions, however, and attempt the restoration of slavery, they are swept away. The victory, in the end, lies with Toussaint L'Ouverture.
Bell does full justice to this great struggle. He achieves this by having written a work of real literary value that successfully conveys the nature of revolution and leaves the reader inspired.
All Souls' Rising (£16.99), Master Of The Crossroads (£10) and The Stone That The Builder Refused (£10) are all published by Random US, and are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop.