Is This the Authentic Face of Toussaint L’Ouverture?

toussaintwebIn the 2011 article “Is This the Authentic Face of Toussaint L’Ouverture?” Patrick Sylvain, instructor of Haitian Language and Culture at Brown University and contributing editor to the Boston Haitian Reporter, addresses the misinterpretation of Toussaint L’Ouverture throughout the years.

If there is one important historical figure from the early nineteenth century who has been consistently misrepresented through imagery, it would have to be Toussaint L’Ouverture. One would think that as a minimum, someone of his ilk and significance to Haitian history and the overall contribution to humanity’s fight for equality, freedom and dignity, a proper physical representation of his figure would be easily accessible. However, that has not been the case. As we know, images are powerful tools. Unfortunately, they are often conjured and perpetuated by the victors of history, and are thus prone to reimaging and propaganda. Predictably, the essence of Toussaint over the years has suffered a vast distortion and vilification that has been seared into our minds as we remember him as a figure that was either homely and diminutive, or at times ostentatious and imposing – perhaps misrepresentative of his legacy.

In March of last year, after Haiti’s tragic earthquake, a friend of mine, researcher, Mario Valdes, whom I had the opportunity to work with at PBS Frontline, emailed me a photograph of what may be the only historically accurate painting of Toussaint, shattering any and all previous notions I held about his physical appearance and affect. In his email, he wrote: “This portrait by the son of Rene Louis de Girardin [Alexandre François Girardin], the patron of the great French philosophe, Jean Jacques Rousseau, represents Toussaint as the ideal revolutionary. It is not the figure of the ferocious dictator he later became and which has dominated the political ethos in Haiti for the last two centuries. It is, therefore, this image and all that it philosophically stands for that has to prevail if Haiti is billed as the world’s first black republic.”

The remarkable details of Giradin’s painting are lucidly captured in the photograph: the intensity of light emitted by the tropical sun, the mountains that are ever present in the Haitian landscape, the razor bumps on his chin, his famous silver hoop earring, and the exacting details of his uniform, from the brass buttons to cordons epaulettes, and fluffy, colorful plumes. Toussaint looked like someone who was in his late forties or early fifties, neither youthful nor aged, and his features were neither grotesque nor idealized. [. . .]

Soon after the revolution started in 1791 to this day, but particularly after 1804, the slave-owning world despised Haiti and its radical black leaders. News of what were considered terrifying events of the revolution took on vile racialized tones and created a discourse that inevitably placed Haiti on the wrong side of history. Toussaint, the premier, the architect of that glorious revolution, became the first victim of misrepresentation. As Charles Forsdick aptly articulated, Toussaint’s memory was “a contested territory.” It was Maurin’s 1832 grotesque lithograph that served as the commonly accepted visual representation of Toussaint. [. . .]

The caricatures of Toussaint became the caricature of Haiti, and Haitians unfortunately replicated the racial stereotypes that their former slave masters fed them in their contempt for Toussaint.  The real image of Toussaint L’Ouverture has remained for too long in obscurity and it is time that we restore his dignity, (the proper narrative and not a romanticized one), that he rightly deserves. [. . .]

For full article, see

Also see previous post on the influence of Toussaint L’Ouverture on the American Civil War, Freedom Rising: Danny Glover, Edwidge Danticat will shine spotlight on Haiti’s role in America’s emancipation

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