My history hero: Toussaint Louverture (1743–1803)

Singer Heather Small chooses Toussaint Louverture as her history hero...

Statue of Toussaint Louverture, Palais National, Haiti. (Photo by Getty Images)

This article was first published in the December 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

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François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, born a slave but later freed, was the leader of the Haitian Revolution – a 13-year struggle starting in 1791 that transformed the French colony of Saint-Domingue into the independent country of Haiti. As ruler, he restored the plantation system using paid labour, and strengthened the island’s defences. In 1801 he appointed himself governor-general for life but was deported the following year when Napoleon’s forces restored French authority. He died in jail in France a year later.

When did you first hear about Toussaint Louverture?

A friend of mine brought him to my attention when I was in my thirties. I was immediately intrigued by this person of African descent and such humble origins who, despite being born into slavery, achieved such great things – he played such an important part in history and, indirectly, in ending slavery. Everyone has heard of Napoleon Bonaparte – but here was a man who outwitted him. Yet we know so little about him.

What kind of person was he?

Apparently when he was young he was quite weak in the body, though not in the mind. He was educated, had a good brain, was a fine orator and made some rousing speeches. He must also have been a brilliant military strategist to have led a successful revolt by people who had no rights whatsoever. I’m sure he had great personal charisma, too.

Why do you consider him a hero?

I grew up in a Britain in which I was in the minority. It was difficult in the 1970s – and I’ll never forget having to confront racism as a child. You grow up not quite knowing where you belong. But nowadays I’m proud to be an Afro-Caribbean woman, and proud of my roots. [Small’s parents are from Barbados.] For me, Toussaint is a hero because he led his people from slavery to freedom – and not just freedom for the few, but for the entire colony.

What was Toussaint Louverture’s finest hour?

His role in leading the Haitian Revolution – and the way that he achieved freedom for the people of Saint-Domingue against such overwhelming odds. Moreover, he thwarted a British attempt to capture the colony. Yet, a bit like Nelson Mandela, he wasn’t really a warmonger – he wanted to make peace after the revolt.

Why isn’t he better known?

I don’t think society as a whole has ever really wanted to promote events that didn’t make Europeans look good. Most people now accept that the European nations were guilty of exploitation – but the constant revolts against European conquest and colonialism are conveniently forgotten. I think the fact that he was black is another reason that he’s not better known.

Should there be a greater emphasis on black history?

Definitely. Yes, we have a black history month – but there’s a lot of black history! There’s African history, Caribbean history, and so on. So I think it’s wrong just to pigeonhole it all as ‘black history’. Black history encapsulates a lot of different histories.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about Toussaint Louverture?

Well, he may have fathered as many as 16 children, but his wife bore perhaps only two of them – so he put it about a bit! But a lot of men who achieve power like the ladies, and the ladies like them too. Can you see any parallels between his life and your own? We both had pretty humble origins – I grew up on a council estate – and we both went from A to B, and progressed on our own merit. People so often think they know who you are and what you’re capable of – but Toussaint is a prime example of someone coming from humble beginnings and exceeding everyone’s expectations.

If you could meet Louverture, what would you ask him?

I’d be a little in awe of him, but I’d love to ask him what inspired him. Was it seeing someone flogged? Or maybe something else? I’d love to know.

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Heather Small was talking to York Membery. Heather Small is a singer, formerly of dance act M People. For details of upcoming performances, visit heathersmall-mpeople.com