Reportage / 7 May 2020

Returns and Overtures, Part 2

Toussaint on the way to the future

Close-Up: Inheritance

Born a slave around 1743, Toussaint was first employed as a coachman at the Bréda Plantation managed by Bayon de Libertat, who granted him “Savanah freedom” — freedom of movement — without officially freeing him. He is likely to have been freed towards the end of the 1760s or during the 1770s. Toussaint Bréda — he would soon be called, using as a patronymic the name of the plantation where he was a “grande case” slave, enjoying privileges that field slaves did not have — navigated very early on across categories. He rode horses, he knew the art of plants, and later, he would learn to read and write, feeding the legend that he was the heir to a royal African line. For absolutely nothing about him matched the image of the Black Man created in the plantation imagination. As a free man, he possessed in the 1780s his own property as well as slaves, including a man named Jean-Jacques — none other than Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the one who would succeed him in the revolutionary struggle. The Bréda Plantation was then the symbol of a Creole Black elite who would have to deal with the great white owners as well as with the freed Mulattos — Metis freedmen. While, at the start of the revolution, he skillfully set up Maroon armies and proved to be a ferocious military strategist, he did not fail, once in power, to call upon former settlers in order to revive the economy, and he re-established Black labour on plantations. Toussaint Louverture is therefore a shaky hero, tragically trapped between two irreconcilable options: too ambitious for Napoléon, who refused to see his precious colony emancipate itself from Metropolitan France under the leadership of the man he had, himself, named Captain-General of Saint-Domingue; and a traitor to the spirit of the revolution according to small plantation owners and the revolted slave people who regarded him as the way too caring servant of Creole elites and of the French Republic, where the profits of slavery had not entirely been forgotten. 

Still from the film Ouvertures by The Living and The Dead Ensemble, 2019, 140 min.

Thus, after a dazzling rise, former slave Toussaint Bréda, who had become Louverture, was deported to France on June 7, 1802, following orders from Paris. His departure therefore freed up a space, a new revolutionary opening, whose imminence he would have sensed. Did he willingly give way to those who were to lead the ultimate fight? Anyhow, he died of cold and hunger, in exile in the far East of France, in his Fort de Joux cell on April 7, 1803, without witnessing the proclamation of the independent Republic of Haiti on January 1, 1804 — following a struggle led by one of his former lieutenants, Jean-Jacques Dessalines. 

Still from the film Ouvertures by The Living and The Dead Ensemble, 2019, 140 min.

The latter, scarred by his past hardships as a slave, was less inclined than Louverture to a strategic dialogue with former settlers. He left a racial mark on the very first hours of the young State. Once the independence was proclaimed, a large part of Whites and Mulatto elites was thereby hunted down and killed. The island was intentionally “blackened”. Dessalines confiscated the lands and prohibited private property for Whites, except for those who had been granted citizenship by the government. That same year, he declared himself Emperor but did not survive a new period of instability as he urged farmers to forced labour in order to revive the economy whilst simultaneously undertaking an agrarian reform in favour of landless slaves. He was murdered in Pont-Rouge, North of Port-au-Prince, on October 17, 1806, by some of his allies, including Pétion and Christophe. 

An elite, consisting mainly of former freedmen — Blacks and Mulattos — recovered a central position, and began to compete for power, over the century, at the expense of slave descendants. The revolutionary expansion stiffened into a widely westernised, urban republic, which made its margins — its Maroon part — disappear and broke away from its rural origins. The Bois Caïman ceremony which, fifteen years earlier, had sealed — at night in the forest through a Vodou ritual — the first alliance between rebels from all sides, then seemed very far away. 

Still from the film Ouvertures by The Living and The Dead Ensemble, 2019, 140 min.

While the Republic of Haiti was bled white at the start of the 21st century, this situation was not solely due to the series of natural disasters, to infighting, to the bad habits of the dictatorial episodes of the Duvallier family, whose sole domestic and foreign policy was the spectre of the expansion of Cuban communism to the whole region. For the record, France only recognised the independence of Haiti in 1825, upon the 150-million-franc compensation allowance to “compensate former settlers”, which was re-negotiated in 1838 to 90 million francs, amounting to 17 billion euros in 2012. While this “debt” was fully refunded in 1883, the interest payments on loans ran until the middle of the 20th century. To a certain extent, this drain has, until today, maintained Haiti at the mercy of the various western colonial powers in the region. The mercantilist legacy of the past, which was opposed to the development of the colony’s local industry, was also involved in new forms of dependence upon foreign imports as in all the “French West Indies”. 

The influence of the Haitian revolution nevertheless remained key in Black studies and afro-descendants’ political imagination. In particular, it contributed to undoing the most widespread abolitionist narrative by putting slave struggles at the very heart of a process of emancipation that did not wait until 1848 to assert itself. Like the importance of Maroon activity throughout the plantation period and the uprisings taking place ever since the first slave ships crossed the Atlantic Ocean, the narrative of this revolutionary moment contributed to making the figure of the slave break away from its passive and sadly apathetic image, whilst complicating the picture of the colony’s social and political landscape, introducing the pivotal role of Black elites and freed Mulattos. After the military defeat of Napoléon’s army, France thus carried out a merciless economic fight in Haiti in order to progressively restore its position, while simultaneously deploying counter-attack narratives, which have helped maintain, up to the present day, its undeniable cultural influence in the country. 

So when Napoléon deported Toussaint Louverture from his Caribbean island to the most Eastern region of Metropolitan France, to the heart of a freezing cell in Jura, “it is not just a matter of locking him up for fear that he might escape, but of turning him into a kind of dull existence that must disappear from collective imagination[1]. And the undertaking was close to completion since France thereafter strove to break any relationship between the General who had died in exile and the independent Republic of Haiti. For among all the paradoxes accompanying the fate of Louverture, he disappeared in 1803 as a French citizen from the West Indies, while Saint-Domingue was still a colony; leading French President Charles de Gaulle to say much later — and not without a hint of irony and contempt —, as the Haitian State’ request for the restitution of Louverture’s remains was getting pressing, under the presidency of François Duvallier (1957-1971): “…what’s the point of these people demanding the remains of a former French General?” 

But rather than accepting him as a prisoner of his French fate, Louverture was soon to be imagined, on the Haitian side, as the first of a new diaspora heading towards the West. For the storytelling and position of Louverture in Haitian historiography has kept changing. Without questioning the central role played by Dessalines, Christophe and Pétion in the struggle for the island’s true independence and the end of slavery, Louverture will be given a pioneering role, that of a visionary leader. In any case, he became a great Black hero and his remains, consequently, became relics that are claimed back from France, not without a hidden political agenda. And yet, there are no remains. Louverture’s corpse was thrown in a common grave, and the site near Fort de Joux has since undergone a number of ground movements, preventing the search for these precious bones. The Haitian State had to settle for an urn filled with soil from Jura, collected from the alleged common grave area. But the son of Duvallier, who in turn became President, did not fail to lavishly celebrate, on April 7, 1983, the return of these symbolic spoils, during the inauguration of the Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien in Port-au-Prince. The State’s grand narrative was thereby deployed. As often, it fixes the meaning and provides no other perspective than that of a new fossilisation, a heroic catch that re-shapes history with no rough edges — a narcissistic mirror handed over to the Haitian people, embarking on a nationalist narrative with no blind spot. 

Still from the film Ouvertures by The Living and The Dead Ensemble, 2019, 140 min.

The approach of the film Ouvertures can therefore be contemplated in the light of another form of restitution — if one is willing to consider the act of restitution not as the soothed return of property, the handing over of spoils of war that would restore the commercial balance of the national narratives, but as the incontrollable re-appearance of a blurred presence. Any kind of restitution alters the state of the object, which shifts from one shape to another, calling for new translations and uses, a new language, and a new space. The looted object always has this hybrid nature — it is the same yet different, it comes from here and elsewhere. Stating that it forms a creolised bridge between two societies, as implied by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy in their famous report, is to speculate on what the return does to the arranging of reality and to only see it as a form of happy resolution. But the restitution needs to confront the impossible return and to invent fruitful transitions. 

The film Ouvertures frees itself, so to speak, from the narrative imposed by institutional devices and the negotiations on remains. It invents another myth. The spectre of Louverture suddenly re-appears on the island of Haiti, without a ceremony or a period costume, following an organic process: through the melting of his Jura archive, sentenced to oblivion, the hero becomes liquid, he switches from a state of petrification to a fluid life form, from one mode of narration to another. He leaves the heroic narrative regime and the statuary form, instead coming to life as fertile, growing, and decaying matter. This restitution is rooted in what the Martinican poet and thinker Edouard Glissant names “a prophetic vision of the past”[2]. This vision invents an Haitian Louverture as a form of necessity to act in the present. The return produces a new artefact, it does not bring things back where they were, it is a detour as the only way to return from a form of death. Toussaint is now walking in the busy streets of Port-au-Prince, but nobody recognises him. He is this familiar stranger. He soon bursts into the assembly of bodies of a young theatre company in Port-au-Prince which, performing the play M.Toussaint by Edouard Glissant in a Haitian Creole translation, creates a call for a revolutionary updating. But restoring live memory, building up a future, requires to re-engage in Maroon activity in order assemble the revolution’s components and forsaken places. 

Of course, Toussaint is not a Maroon. As a house slave and then a freed Black, everything keeps him away from this fugitive destiny. Yet, returning off-beat from the national narrative, he presents himself as a naked Black man, stripped of the privileges of the hero. No one recognises him, nor welcomes him. He is scowled at like all those who don’t fit in, who don’t know where they come from, all those who have forgotten their names. He wanders about, like the roaming Bossale, and can only offer this gap, which is specific to Maroons — this distancing that is his response to the call of the youth struggling against a corrupt State[3]. Toussaint’s return therefore embodies the possibility of a new historical spiral, of a new revolutionary cycle, whose assembly space he would produce. He then leaves the city and takes the young performers to re-enact History in the forest hills, in the caves and at night, to find the spirit of Maroons and “the language of storms”, so dear the great Haitian poet Frankétienne. He takes us on a journey and displays, once again, the space of controversy, that of an assembly that keeps looking for its form. 

Translated from French by Callisto Mc Nulty

You can watch the film here:

[1] Louis-George Tin quoting, in an article of the newspaper Le Monde from December 22, 2011, the historian Daniel Desormeaux, author of Mémoires du général Toussaint Louverture, Paris, Garnier, 2011. (Quotation translated by Callisto Mc Nulty)

[2] The phrase appeared in the first preface written by Edouard Glissant in his play M. Toussaint. (The theatrical version was published by Éditions du Seuil in 1986)

[3] The PetroCaribe affair, which was exposed in 2018, is the greatest case of corruption and embezzlement of public funds in the entire history of the Republic of Haiti. This economic and political scandal involved four Haitian Presidents and six governments. The plaintiffs condemned the embezzlement of 3.8 billion American dollars from the PetroCaribe development Fund. Faced with the current President Jovenel Moïse’s refusal to account for these matters, Haiti has gone through a deep political crisis until the peyi lock (blocked country) in February 2019 as popular protests turned into riots.


Olivier Marboeuf

Olivier Marboeuf is a writer, storyteller and curator. He founded the independent art centre Espace Khiasma (, which he has been running from 2004 to 2018 in Les Lilas, on the outskirts of Paris. At Khiasma, he has developed a programme addressing minority representations through exhibitions, screenings, debates, performances and collaborative projects across the North-East of Paris. Interested in the different modalities of transmission of knowledge, Olivier Marboeuf’s proposals, at Khiasma and elsewhere, broadly inscribe themselves in practices of conversation and speculative narratives. He currently produces films within Spectre productions (, based in Rennes, and contributes to the cinematic distribution and research unit, Phantom. Khiasma closed in october 2018 but a new collective project is now developed at the same place in Les Lilas : Un lieu pour respirer. Read the recent Olivier Marboeuf’s texts on his blog : Toujours Debout (