Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Chapter 11: Slaves Supplicant and Slaves Triumphant: The Middle Passage of an Abolitionist Icon

Toussaint L’Ouverture

In the eleventh chapter of Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade:Interactions, Identities, and Images, Jeffrey R. Kerr-Richie examines a transition in the visual representation of the slave from the beseeching captive to the grateful ex-slave and argues that the popular visual image of slave supplication was crucial in constructing the metaphorical image of ex-slaves’ gratitude for their freedom. Even though visual depictions of heroic and triumphant slaves also exist—challenging the more troubling images of supplicant and grateful slaves—representations of enslaved men and women as passive victims are still disseminated via websites, textbooks, scholarly book covers, academic journal covers, conference posters, and public monuments. 

Although the transformation of the supplicant slave into the grateful ex-slave was influential in the French Atlantic, it was by no means hegemonic. The Haitian Revolution, together with its successful overthrow of colonial slavery, provided a constant reminder of the role slaves might play in their own emancipation. The ex-slave, general, and diplomat Toussaint L’Ouverture—one of whose earliest biographers was Schoelcher—was a particularly pronounced example of the triumphant slave.

In nineteenth-century Haitian historiography, intellectuals and politicians frequently argued over the role of Toussaint as the nation’s founding father, but few held that freedom had been bestowed upon grateful Haitians by a benevolent French state. Moreover, this particular image of a triumphant slave transcended French Atlantic boundaries. Toussaint was heralded as the great liberator by American abolitionists in speeches delivered at West India Emancipation Day commemorations; independent black militias in northern states were named after him during the 1850s, and black abolitionists also named their sons after the famous Haitian.

Even some opponents of abolition could not resist the figure of Toussaint as a triumphant slave. In an article critiquing the Haitian Revolution for retrogressive “Negro Agrarianism,” the author lauded Toussaint as “their black Washington.”

Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Interactions, Identities, and Images edited by Ana Lucia Araujo is available in hardcover. It is also available in different ebook formats, which start at $19.99 to purchase and $9.99 to rent. Professors who wish to use this book along with others in the slavery studies collection for their classes should use the Cambria Book Cloud, which allows for the bundling of ebooks at only $9.99 per title for each student.