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Black revolutionary is icon of modern times, say researchers

Researchers at the University of Liverpool are using archive material from around the world to show how an 18th Century slave became a world icon of the modern age.

University of Liverpool

Toussaint Louverture is famous for fighting for the freedom of black slaves in the Caribbean and defeating the armies of French conqueror, Napoleon Bonaparte. Dr Charles Forsdick at the University's School of Modern Languages is searching archives across the world to understand how Toussaint, a black slave from Haiti, has survived in modern popular culture.

More than 5, 000 slave voyages left Liverpool, transporting over a million Africans to the Americas. Next week sees the 214th anniversary of the slave uprising in 1791, in which Toussaint remains a celebrated figure in literature, theatre and art all over the world.

Dr Forsdick said: "What is so fascinating about Toussaint is that he became a mythic figure almost immediately after his death. He was tricked into a meeting with General Brunet in 1802 and as a result was captured and held in a medieval fortress on the French-Swiss border. Here he was left to starve to death and never saw Jean-Jacques Dessalines lead the Haitian slaves to victory over the French."

Archive material has been discovered in France, Florida, New Orleans and Trinidad depicting Toussaint's life through French reports, eyewitness accounts, newspapers and journals. The archives reveal the varied attitudes he instilled in political leaders and popular writers and artists all over the world.

Dr Forsdick continued: "Toussaint was vilified in the French press which sparked a strong anti-Napoleonic response in the London newspapers and in the work of Wordsworth and Coleridge. He became the catalyst for debates about the abolition of the slave trade in French and American literature, such as the writings of John Beard, Frederick Douglass and Wendall Phillips.

"Toussaint was very much a shape shifter; he fought as an ally of Spain against France and as an ally of France against England and Spain, playing the competing sides against each other to great effect. French historians often see him as a schemer, but he was more of a shrewd strategist willing to use meagre resources to overthrow slavery and alter radically the relationship between France and its Caribbean colonies. His ability to adapt to any situation and speak to any culture is one of the reasons he has remained a popular figure in literature, theatre and art worldwide."

Dr Forsdick's findings, part of a British Academy Senior Research Fellowship, will be published in 2008.

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1. Toussaint in popular culture...

  • Orson Welles contribution to the Federal Theatre Project, Voodoo Macbeth
  • Madison Smartt Bell's novels: All Soul's Rising, Master of the Crossroads, and The Stone That the Builder Refused
  • Danny Glover is currently working on a film of Toussaint's life, to be produced by his new production company Louverture Films

    2. Brief History of the Haitian Revolution...

  • Haiti, a small French colony in the Caribbean, was home to thousands of black slaves and in 1791 the slaves began a violent revolt against sugar plantation owners. The rebel army was a disorganised group that set fire to the plantations. Toussaint trained and organised the group into a strong army and fought off invading French authorities.
  • Despite the violent campaign by revolutionaries in France to eradicate slavery, when Napoleon came to power in 1799, he sympathised with the plantation owners and planned to reinstate slavery in French colonies.
  • Nine months after Toussaint's death, Haiti declared independence, forcing Napoleon to give up his possessions in the New World in favour of his ambitions in Europe.

    3. The University of Liverpool is one of the UK's leading research institutions. It attracts collaborative and contract research commissions from a wide range of national and international organisations valued at more than £90 million annually.

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