When Paul Robeson Played Toussaint Louverture

Socialist actor, musician, and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson viewed the Haitian Revolution as a guiding light in the struggle for freedom and dignity. In 1936, he played the revolutionary leader in C. L. R. James’s play Toussaint Louverture.

Paul Robeson, singer, performer, and civil rights activist, is welcomed in Moscow, Russia, January 19, 1935. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado via Getty Images)

On June 24, 1937, during a mass rally held at London’s Royal Albert Hall in support of Basque children made refugees by the Spanish Civil War, the black American singer and star of stage and screen Paul Robeson powerfully warned of the rising danger of fascism across Europe:

Every artist, every scientist, every writer must decide NOW where he stands. He has no alternative. There is no standing above the conflict on Olympian heights. There are no impartial observers. Through the destruction — in certain countries — of the greatest of man’s literary heritages, through the propagation of false ideas of racial and national superiority, the artist, the scientist, the writer is challenged. The battlefront is everywhere. There is no sheltered rear. . . . The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery.

Robeson’s long career is itself a testament to this injunction for artists to choose a side. The son of William Drew Robeson, who in 1860 — when only fifteen years old — escaped via the Underground Railroad from enslavement in Martin Country, North Carolina, Robeson would time and again give eloquent words to the struggle for freedom against slavery.

Perhaps Robeson’s most famous role was that of Joe in the 1936 film Show Boat, in which he sang “Ol’ Man River,” a haunting song of lament. As Robeson’s first biographer Marie Seton put it, the song evoked “the flowing Mississippi, and the pain of the black man whose life is like the eternal river rolling towards the open vastness of the ocean . . . the pathos of Robeson’s voice called up images of slaves and overseers with whips.” Yet when Robeson sang “Ol’ Man River” in December 1937 at Royal Albert Hall for another Spanish Civil War rally, he for the first time changed the lyrics from “I’m tired of livin’ and scared of dyin’” to “I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’” — a defiant message of resistance that electrified the audience.

Voicing Toussaint

This shift toward fighting rather than fear rested, in no small part, on one key inspiration for Robeson. The Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804, led by Toussaint Louverture, carried the slogan “Liberty or Death.” The revolution stands as the outstanding historical example of resistance to enslavement by the enslaved themselves. As socialist Paul Foot once described it, it was “perhaps the most glorious victory of the oppressed over their oppressors in all history.”

The collective memory of the Haitian Revolution took on new significance when US marines occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, officially to restore “order” but in reality to ensure foreign-owned plantations were no longer outlawed. In the memorable words of Major General Smedley Butler, the ambition was to make Haiti “a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in.” The memory of the Haitian Revolution also resurfaced with Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s war on the people of Ethiopia in 1935. Robeson consistently drew courage from the story of “the only successful slave revolt in history.

In his 1958 autobiography, Here I Stand, Robeson described his first encounter with the history of the Haitian Revolution: aged only seventeen in April 1915, he gave an impassioned oration of the revolutionary American abolitionist Wendell Phillips’s 1861 speech on “Toussaint Louverture, the Hero of St Domingo.” The Haitian Revolution had been a key inspiration during the American Civil War — itself in many senses a slave revolt — to many abolitionists black and white. The “Toussaint Guards,” for example, was the nickname of the 54th Massachusetts regiment, one of the first official US military units of African Americans. About a quarter of the regiment had been formerly enslaved.

Yet none of this, of course, was on the school curriculum. Robeson recalled it was thanks to his older brother Bill — Robeson’s “principal source of learning how to study” — that he ended up reading Phillips’s homage to Louverture in a 1915 statewide oratorical contest of high school students held at Rutgers College. “I had no real appreciation of its meaning . . . but there I was, voicing, with all the fervor and forensic skill I could muster, Wendell Phillips’ searing attack on the concept of white supremacy!”

Robeson recalled reading Phillips’s account of “the fiery Toussaint” speaking against the French counterrevolutionary forces being sent to restore slavery by Napoleon:

My children, France comes to make us slaves. God gave us liberty; France has no right to take it away. Burn the cities, destroy the harvests, tear up the roads with cannon, poison the wells, show the white man the hell he comes to make!

Robeson recounted how Phillips had “relentlessly . . . hammered away” at his theme:

the Negro, still enslaved in the South and despised in the North, was in every respect the equal of the white man; and that Toussaint, “a pure blooded African” was not only the First of the Blacks, as he was known, but peerless among all men. And so I went through it all, to the great soaring climax — giving it all I had in voice and gesture.

His oration reduced Robeson’s formerly enslaved seventy-year-old father to tears.

Haitian Manuscripts

In July 1915, the United States invaded and occupied Haiti. This would form a key backdrop to one of the earliest stage productions that Robeson became involved with, first in America and then in Britain. The play was Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 The Emperor Jones, about a black American who, more by accident than by design, ends up ruling an unnamed Caribbean island not unlike Haiti.

Criticisms of a residual primitivism in the play’s main character persist, making direct connections with the Haitian Revolution problematic. And, Robeson’s frustration with the theater and the portrayal of black people on stage (and in film) meant that he increasingly yearned for a play that would do justice to the Haitian Revolution. He dreamed, as he put it in an October 1926 interview with the Wilmington Evening News, “of a great play about Haiti, a play about Negroes, written by a Negro, and acted by Negroes . . . of a moving drama that will have none of the themes that offer targets for race supremacy advocates.”

Over a decade later, Robeson’s wife and business manager, Eslanda Goode Robeson, claimed that the couple had read fifty books and some hundred plays and scenarios about the Haitian revolutionary leaders Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe. It is worth pausing here for a moment, for even if Eslanda was exaggerating somewhat, this astonishing statement gives some sense of what the Haitian Revolution meant to them both, and how they had a thirst to learn more about it.

During the 1930s, Robeson was close to Herbert Marshall, a British student of the great Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein. In 1938, Robeson starred in the play Plant in the Sun at the Unity Theatre in London, directed by Marshall; in 1940, he starred in the film The Proud Valley, written by Marshall. The Herbert Marshall Collection of Paul Robeson at the Morris Library of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale contains two scripts obviously relating to Haiti. One of them, by the Scottish playwright James Forsyth, was entitled Defiant Island, or, Citadel Henry, and was about the life of Henri Christophe. This play was performed on BBC Radio as “Christophe” in 1958 and later published in the 1970s, though it remains obscure and overlooked. The other script is currently even less known, and indeed almost completely forgotten. Called simply The Black Prophet, this historical screenplay about Haiti was written by Rufus E. Fennell, a black American amateur actor who had starred alongside Robeson in a number of plays in Britain as well as the 1937 film Jericho.

Fennell envisaged The Black Prophet to be a vehicle for Robeson. Set in early twentieth-century Haiti, and apparently based on Fennell’s own experiences of visiting the country, it provides a tragic narrative of the mysterious Black Prophet himself. Furthermore, the play is also a political meditation on themes of race and empire, relating to Haiti’s ongoing revolutionary struggles for self-determination amid a rising threat of neocolonial intervention.

As Eslanda Robeson wrote in 1937 of the Haiti manuscripts, “All have been strangely disappointing save one, which we actually did produce here in London at a special experimental theatre. . . . We feel that the history, and the characters are too good to spoil in a poor play, and so we are continuing to read manuscripts.” The one script that did not disappoint, and which was performed in March 1936 at the Westminster Theatre in London by the Stage Society, was Toussaint Louverture, written in 1934 by the Trinidadian revolutionary Marxist C. L. R. James.

C. L. R. James the Playwright

That Robeson agreed to star in Toussaint Louverture stands as a testament to James’s impressive understanding of the Haitian Revolution, based on archival research in Paris. It was also a testament to Robeson’s respect for James as a political activist; James was chair of the newly formed International African Friends of Abyssinia, which was rallying solidarity with the people of Ethiopia in the face of Mussolini’s empire-building. Lastly, it was the quality of James’s playscript itself that attracted Robeson to the role. James’s Toussaint Louverture was an outstanding anti-imperialist play, written in large part to inform a British audience about how colonial slavery was abolished, and the central role the enslaved themselves played in their emancipation.

Robeson’s performance in Toussaint Louverture was the first time in British history that a black professional actor had starred in a play by a black playwright. It was ultimately performed only twice, however, because it was a private production by the Stage Society — the only way such a revolutionary play could get put on given the draconian censorship of the British stage at the time.

Robeson stole the show, giving his all in his chance to play Louverture at long last. As James, interviewed in November 1983, recalled, “The moment he came onto the stage, the whole damn thing changed. It’s not a question of acting . . . the physique and the voice, the spirit behind him — you could see it when he was on stage.”

Remarkably, as Colin Chambers has noted, Toussaint Louverture would be “the only play in which Robeson appeared that was written by a writer of African heritage.” It also remains remarkable that Robeson, an iconic figure of the Harlem Renaissance, should star in a play about the Haitian Revolution not in Harlem but in Britain, where the Haitian Revolution had only ever been directly staged once before — almost a hundred years before, during the 1840s.

James and Robeson always dreamed of the Haitian Revolution making it to the big screen in a form that did justice to the men, women, and children who made it. It’s a dream that was never realized in their lifetime or since. At the height of this fame, Robeson did attempt to get this project off the ground, speaking with various Hollywood directors as well as Sergei Eisenstein in an effort to adapt John W. Vandercook’s 1928 novel Black Majesty: The Life of Christophe, King of Haiti and the Soviet novelist Anatoli Vinogradov’s 1935 The Black Consul. These efforts failed to come to fruition.

The late Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot described the Haitian Revolution as an “unthinkable” event, doomed to suffer from a “general silence.” The precise reasons for this “silencing” were perhaps different in each case: neocolonialism in the case of America, revolutionary degeneration in the case of the Soviet Union. Yet for all the apparent differences between the capitalist West and the “new civilization” of Stalin’s Russia, between the rich owners of the film studios in Hollywood and the bureaucratic controllers of the Soviet film industry, there were clearly some films that those in power have always thought were best left unmade. In 1959, Robeson told Jan Carew that “one of his greatest regrets in life was not being able to act the part of Toussaint Louverture in a film.”

Despite such disappointments, Robeson’s work and reading on the Haitian Revolution is a crucial part of the picture of his life. It is essential to understanding how during the Cold War period, Robeson maintained his anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist political activism under pressures of McCarthyism.

Indeed, he would often make this explicit, as in June 1950 in New York, when Robeson referred to Louverture and Haiti in a speech denouncing US intervention in the Korean War. This was the speech that opened the way to his political persecution at the hands of Joseph McCarthy. A few years later, in March 1954, Robeson wrote about Vietnam at the start of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, in which anti-imperial forces defeated French colonial troops. He now declared Ho Chi Minh “the modern-day Toussaint Louverture leading his people to freedom.” He wrote that “like the blacks of Haiti, the plantation workers of Indo-China have proved unconquerable.”

James noted of Robeson that “hidden behind his friendly kindliness there was a relentless fighter who could not be moved from what he believed.” Robeson’s courage in the face of horrendous racist violence — such as during the riots in response to his 1949 concert at Peekskill, New York — in part surely came from knowing revolutionary fighters such as Louverture had not given in amid far greater pressures.

In James’s words, “never did he give the impression that he was merely developing an instinct, or a political attitude that he thought was useful in the struggle against white domination. Artist as he was, he subjected his strong feelings to a rigid historical analysis.” When James’s classic account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, was published in 1938, Robeson himself told the author directly, “James, I always knew the history was there, that we had it.”