General Toussaint L'Ouverture, by Jacob Lawrence, screenprint 1986

General Toussaint Louverture, screenprint by Jacob Lawrence, 1986

“… we are all descendants of the Haitian Revolution, and responsible to these ancestors” –  thus historian Laurent Dubois in his book, Avengers of the New World. A new display at the British Museum touches on why this is so.

Haiti’s image today is of a broken nation at the mercy of earthquakes, colonial powers and dictators.

But there is another Haiti, underlying the present. In the span of a dozen years, its people were at the forefront of human emancipation, defeating not only their masters but the imperial might of Britain and France.

Defying almost impossible odds, enslaved Africans on the island of Saint-Domingue (later known as Haiti) rose up in the summer of 1791. At that time, the island’s roughly 452,000 enslaved workers produced some 60% of the world’s coffee and 40% of the sugar imported by Britain and France.

By the end of that year, Toussaint Louverture had transformed himself from a freed slave into a distinguished military and political strategist. He commanded exceptional loyalty and discipline amongst his followers.

Even though Saint-Domingue was a French colony, Louverture convoked a constitutional assembly in  February 1801 and signed off the first constitution in July. After the revolutionary government in Paris voted to end slavery Louverture switched allegiance from the Spanish king to the first French Republic.

But in 1802 Napoleon revoked the abolition of slavery and sent some 30,000 troops to Haiti. Louverture was betrayed and deported to a prison in France, where he died of pneumonia in 1803. Despite the loss of their most capable leader, forces under Louverture’s lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, defeated the French at Vertières in November 1803. Haiti gained its independence a year later.

Away from the hustle and bustle of the crowds streaming through its front entrance, a dramatic display in the British Museum offers a space for contemplation and understanding this complex turning point in world history – viewed through the prism of what happened on the island known as the jewel of the Antilles.

Haitian boula Vodou drum made of wood and skin early 1900s. Trustees of the British Museum

Haitian boula Vodou drum made of wood and skin early 1900s. Trustees of the British Museum

The tribute to the Haitian revolution in Room 3 is an altar-like arrangement of images, artworks and artefacts. Quotes from outstanding writers and a timeline of historic events adorn the walls.

A large boula drum has a commanding presence, a symbol of the Vodou religion which helped to unite the diverse African ethnicities on the island. A Vodou ceremony formally initiated the insurrection of 1791. Although Louverture was a Roman Catholic and outlawed Vodou, his choice of name may reference Papa Legba, a popular deity in the Vodou pantheon who opens the Gate of Destiny.

A colourful screen print of Louverture in his feathered tricorn and flamboyant uniform takes centre stage. It is based on a work made by African American artist Jacob Lawrence in 1938 and translated into silkscreen prints by Lou Stovall in the 1980s, the first by the artist to enter the British Museum’s collection.

Projected painting by Jacob Lawrence

Projected painting by Jacob Lawrence

Projections of Lawrence’s paintings evoke the cut and thrust of military charges and battles: a woman in a yellow bandana totes a gun as she strides through a field; black commanders plan military strategies. A 21st century Haitian banknote depicts Sanité Belair who became a female lieutenant in the liberation army.

Widely different images show that no one in Britain knew what Louverture looked like. He inspired writers and poets from William Wordsworth to British Ghanaian John Agard.  In 1938, the Trinidadian revolutionary and cricket writer, C.L.R. James wrote a pioneering history, The Black Jacobins, a copy of which is shown.

Banknote for 10 gourdes with portrait of Sanité Bélair. Issued by Haiti

Banknote for 10 gourdes with portrait of Sanité Bélair. Issued by Haiti

Taking up BM director Hartwig Fischer’s desire to use the Room 3 space to highlight pressing political issues, curator Esther Chadwick explained that she wanted to focus on the Haitian revolution as a particular historic event and motivate people to go away and read more.

There is a small bench in Room 3 which is great for watching the moving projections of Lawrence’s paintings and listening to Haitian-born anthropologist Gina Athena Ulysse invoke the spirit of defiance in a chanted narrative.

As Dubois concludes, the Haitian revolution “was a central part of the destruction of slavery in the Americas, and therefore a crucial moment in the history of democracy, one that laid the foundation for the continuing struggles for human rights everywhere”.


Gina Athena Ulysse

Gina Athena Ulysse

A revolutionary legacy: Haiti and Toussaint Louverture. Room 3 at the British Museum until 22 April. Free admission.

Gina Athena Ulysse will perform meditations on Haiti and Toussaint Louverture on Friday 16 March in the Stevenson Lecture Theatre, and there is a gallery talk by Esther Chadwick on 21 March. Supported by the Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun.

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