© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Toussaint L’Ouverture was an former slave who helped fight colonial forces in the French colony of St Domingue (now known as Haiti). The uprising of slaves in 1791 led ultimately to the ending of slavery there and the creation of an independent country (Haiti) in 1804. By 1802 he had successfully led black resistance to several European invasions of St Domingue.
This is a very powerful picture of Toussaint L’Ouverture, he is seated on a horse wearing the full dress uniform of an officer, and carrying a sabre. He looks in total control, as if he was leading his troops into battle.
The image would have fed the fears of white planters because it shows an armed black man, leading other black men against their white oppressors. It highlighted to the planters that the enslaved could overthrow the system of slavery if they organised together and fought their masters.
The image was printed in Paris in 1802 and the inscription (in French) under the image reads ‘Toussaint Louverture, Chief of the Black Rebels of Saint Domingue’. Whether or not planters in the Caribbean saw this actual image is not known, but this, and other descriptions of Toussaint L’Ouverture, tell us that he was thought to be a formidable leader in the minds of planters.
The Trinidadian socialist, historian and journalist C L R James first tackled the subject of the Haitian Revolution on stage. In 1934 he wrote a play, The Black Jacobins, about the life of the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture – subtitled The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History. It was performed at the Westminster Theatre in London in 1936, the production starring Paul Robeson, the civil rights campaigner and one of the most famous actors of his day, as the former slave who embraced the French Revolution's ideals of liberty and equality and united the Haitian people against French colonial power.