Catholicism of Toussaint L’Ouverture
By Francis S. Moseley
reader will recall that the renowned Negro, Dominique
Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743-1803) rose from slavery to
become the leader of a successful insurrection on the
island of San Domingo, emancipator of his people,
founder of constitutional government, and the first
president of the Republic of Haiti. —Ed.
We do not think of
the Negro as a Catholic people — even though the majority of
Negro Christians are Catholics, even though the greatest Negro
leader of all time was a Catholic.
This is probably because we have heard about the Negro
mainly from non-Catholics.
Wendell Phillips left Harvard to become the leading orator of
the abolitionists, we have heard about Dominique Francois
Toussaint, the Haitian liberator.
We have heard of him from Phillips himself and from the
two Protestant ministers who were Toussaint’s American
biographers, Beard and Mossell.
And we heard him from Wordsworth, who celebrated him in a
sonnet. None of
them conspired to keep us in ignorance of Toussaint’s
Catholicism. On the
contrary, his Catholicism is one of their most perplexing
man was a Catholic,” they say, “and yet — ” Yet he was a
liberator, the leader of the only successful slave rebellion the
world has ever known.
aghast at Toussaint’s Catholicism: “This man was a Negro. You say that is a superstitious blood. He was uneducated. You
say that makes a man narrow-minded.
He was a Catholic. Many
say that is but another name for intolerance.
And yet —
Negro, Catholic, slave — he took his place by the side of
Roger Williams, and said to his Committee: ‘Make it the first
line of my Constitution that I know no difference between
religious belief.’ ” Dr.
Mossell is no whit less horrified: “Toussaint L’Ouverture
was a Roman Catholic [shocking
thought!] and we shall see, perhaps, more that is surprising
in his religious character than what is marvelous in his
tradition which has been built up would make it appear that
there was something indecorous, indelicate, about Toussaint’s
being a Catholic: surely such a man as this should have been
free from the spiritual shackles and the intellectual restraints
of Rome! The
tradition would have been us believe that Toussaint’s
Catholicism was a pure accident of birth, which we must not hold
against him, and which, if someone had but brought it to his
attention (in all its ludicrous inconsistency), he would have
been the first to disavow.
Like so many other traditions, it has one disconcerting
flaw: it is directly opposed to the facts.
are the facts? Briefly,
they are first, that
Toussaint, the son of an
African newly converted from paganism, was educated in his
Faith by a man of high purity and (for the time and place) high
learning — one Pierre Baptiste, to whom the Catholic of piety
and of scholarship; secondly, that he was directly inspired to take up his life’s work
through his reading of Catholic literature, literature which
denounced slavery on philosophical and theological grounds and
specifically called for a liberator who would abolish it; thirdly,
that the whole conduct of his life, his military campaigns, his
reading and writing, his constant and frequent attendance at
Mass and devotions, his high moral character (very unusual among
both the whites and the blacks in Santo Domingo during the slave
days), his married life — all were in perfect keeping with a
full consciousness of his own Catholicism and would be perfectly
unexplainable in anyone but a Catholic; and finally,
that he died a Catholic death, forgiving his many enemies and
charging his son to “forget that France murdered your
are the facts. That
they are not better known is explained partially by what Wendell
Phillips tells us and partially by what he leaves unsaid:
“All the materials for his biography are from the lips
of his enemies” is the classic phrase which American
schoolboys have been committing to memory ever since that famous
occasion in 1861 when Phillips first uttered it.
He might have added: “All his biographies are from the
pens of those who cannot understand the main motive-force of his
life.” Only a
Catholic could paint a really sympathetic portrait of this man
whom Wordsworth immortalizes as “the most unhappy man of
men.” That no
American Catholic has yet taken up the work is a minor disgrace
to American Catholic letters.
Until a Catholic pen equal to the task of delineating
this great figure finally sets to work, we shall have to be
content with the poet, who, if he does not give us an
appreciation of Toussaint, the Catholic, at least memorializes
his Catholic achievements.
In 1802, just after Toussaint, in a French
jail, had begun the last
year of his life, Wordsworth wrote the following lines:
the most unhappy man of men!
the whistling Rustic tend his plough
thy hearing, or thy head he now
in some deep dungeon’s earless den: —
Where and when
thou find patience!
Yet die not: do thou
rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
fallen thyself, never to rise again,
and take comfort. Thou
hast left behind
that will work for thee: air, earth and skies:
not a breathing of the common wind
will forget thee: thou hast great allies;
friends are exultations, agencies,
love, and man’s unconquerable mind.
allies” indeed, and none greater than the long line of
Catholic thinkers and men of action who prepared the assault on
slavery which it was Toussaint’s privilege to make effective.
Two men were responsible for the happy circumstance which
brought this influence into his life.
One was the humble Pierre Baptiste, who taught him to
read and gave him a love for books.
The other was almost equally unknown, a French Abbe by
the name of Raynal, whose book (Histoire Philosophique et Politique des Etablissements et du Commerce
des Europeens dans les Deux Indes) he chanced one day to
read. There is a
long passage in the book which refutes all the conceivable
justification of slavery both from a Scriptural basis and from
reason, a passage which finally ends in a prophecy.
the abolition of slavery, Raynal said, “a courageous chief
only is wanted. Where
is he — that great man whom Nature owes to her vexed,
oppressed and tormented children?
Where is he? He
will appear, doubt it not; he will come forth, and raise the
sacred standard of liberty.
This venerable signal will gather ‘round him the
companions of his misfortune.
More impetuous than the torrents, they will everywhere
leave the indelible traces of their just resentment.
Everywhere people will bless the name of the hero, who
shall have reestablished the rights of the human race;
everywhere will they raise trophies to his honor.”
need not imagine the effect of this book on Toussaint: we can
read its effects in the history of Santo Domingo.
An enumeration of a few of the incidents of his life will
make abundantly evident to us, what to Toussaint must have been
a matter of course—the practical Catholicism which inspired
his every action.
1791, when he was 18 years of age, he was catapulted into a
military career by an insurrection.
His first act was to protect the flight of his master and
mistress whom he always regarded with deep affection.
Coming into power, he declared a general amnesty,
protected the whites and selected a Council, only one member of
which was a Negro. No
Garveyism here. None
of your Communist “Black Republic” schemes.
He was a true partisan of interracial action.
day following his entrance into Port au Prince after the
evacuation of the English, he ordered a Te
Deum sung in the church.
The entire population joined in the religious celebration
the Negroes in Santo Domingo rarely bothered (or were not
encouraged) to contract formal marriages, preferring, because of
the expense, to enter into alliances merely by agreement,
Toussaint, while still a slave, insisted upon making one Suzanne
Simon his wife with full ceremony of the Church.
Later he wrote: “Sundays and holidays, we went to Mass
— Suzanne and I: after an agreeable repast we passed the day
at home and we terminated it by prayer in which we both took
part.” He had two
sons, whom he named Isaac and Placide.
Frenchmen who once attempted to assassinate him were arrested,
Phillips tells us. “They
expected to be shot. The
next day was some saint’s day.
He ordered them to be placed before the high altar, and
when the priest reached the prayer for forgiveness, Toussaint
came down from his high seat, repeated it with him and permitted
them to go unpunished.” Another
tale Phillips ran across, he relays as follows: “When people
came to him in great numbers for office, as it is reported they
do sometimes even in Washington, he learned the words of a
Catholic prayer in Latin, and repeating it, would say, ‘Do you
understand that?’ ‘No
want an office, and not know Latin?
Go home and learn it.’ ”
was given L’Ouverture as a surname.
One account of its origin is that someone, referring to
his ability to open gaps in an enemy’s line, said of him, Cet
homme fait l’ouverture partout.
(This man makes openings everywhere).
Whatever its origin, it has come to sum up his
achievements and his greatness.
without his Catholicism would still have been Toussaint, but he
would never had become L’Ouverture.
* * *
* * * * *
The New Jim Crow
Mass Incarceration in the Age of
By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the
rosy picture of race embodied in Barack
Obama's political success and Oprah
Winfrey's financial success, legal
scholar Alexander argues vigorously and
persuasively that [w]e have not ended
racial caste in America; we have merely
redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial
segregation has been replaced by mass
incarceration as a system of social
control (More African Americans are
under correctional control today... than
were enslaved in 1850). Alexander
reviews American racial history from the
colonies to the Clinton administration,
delineating its transformation into the
war on drugs. She offers an acute
analysis of the effect of this mass
incarceration upon former inmates who
will be discriminated against, legally,
for the rest of their lives, denied
employment, housing, education, and
public benefits. Most provocatively, she
reveals how both the move toward
colorblindness and affirmative action
may blur our vision of injustice: most
Americans know and don't know the truth
about mass incarceration—but her
carefully researched, deeply engaging,
and thoroughly readable book should
* * * *
Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays
Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a
collection of fourteen essays by scholars and
creative writers from Africa and the Americas.
Called one of two significant critical works on
Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late
1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of
Carter G. Woodson and
Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as
well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations
were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early
essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish
medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an
historical context for understanding 20th-century
creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone
writers, such as Cuban
Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist,
Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the
significance of Negritude in Latin America. This
collaborative text set the tone for later
conferences in which writers and scholars worked
together to promote, disseminate, and critique the
literature of Spanish-speaking people of African
descent. . . .
Cited by a
literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the
field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which
most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."
* * *
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