A Mystery in Miniature

An enigmatic button once decorated the uniform of Haitian liberator Toussaint Louverture

Toussaint Louverture
Toussaint Louverture Wikimedia Commons

The object at hand is a small, round, brass-rimmed image covered with glass. At an inch and a half in diameter, it is large as buttons go. But as a painting — painstakingly done with oils on canvas over bone — it is minuscule. In that small compass the artist has nevertheless managed to present an enigmatic encounter between a woman, perhaps white, two sumptuously dressed black women and a single black man. The man could be a chief. At least he is wearing a feathered headdress — though not much else — and he seems to be making an imperious hand gesture to the woman by the doorway.

Experts at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York, where the picture-button comes from, are not certain what the scene intends to convey. The button is one of a set of 18 painted by Agostino Brunias or perhaps by someone of his school. Brunias was an Italian who worked with the famous architect Robert Adam in England before heading off to the West Indies around 1770. In the 1790s the buttons likely adorned the dressy waistcoat of the ultra-dressy uniform of Toussaint Louverture, Haiti's greatest liberator, who astonished the world by his triumphant and complex role in the bloody international struggles over slavery and control of the island of Hispaniola during the period of the French Revolution.

Picture buttons were popular among men of fashion in the 18th century. "Two thirds of the buttons made before 1820," Carl Drepperd notes in The Complete Button Book, "were made for the use of that once proud peacock, the male of the species. Kidd, the pirate, wore silver and gold buttons. So did every pirate. It was a means of combining utility with value on one's own person. A man with a suit embellished with twenty gold and sixty silver buttons was never broke." It is possible, too, that the button scenes represented Haitian life as Toussaint hoped it would become, free of slavery and perhaps even of discrimination by shadings of skin color — from white to mulatto to black — which were responsible for so much of the discord in the colonial world of the West Indies.

In such a utopian, revolutionary view, the man in this picture could be the African chief from whom some believed Toussaint was descended, addressing a woman, conceivably the wife of a white planter. In any case, in the late 18th century, drawings and paintings of people of color decked out in fancy European costumes and state regalia may have offered ways of representing the formal acquisition of a new liberty and sophistication associated with the declaration of the Rights of Man in far-off Paris in 1789. As a leader Toussaint generally preached — and practiced — the puritan virtues of discipline and hard work, although he was well known for wearing an elegant, fashionably cut coat with decorative buttons and an elaborate feathered tricorn hat, the hat especially adding stature and allure to what one writer describes as "his homely, short, small-framed" appearance. But images of him exist without that particular coat and hat.

The man who became the 18th century's most successful enemy of slavery was born a slave in 1743. Briefly schooled by the Jesuits, he became a coachman and plantation steward, and then was freed at age 34 after teaching himself the rudiments of herbal medicine. Haiti was then St. Domingue, the French portion of the island of Hispaniola; Spain held the rest. After the French Revolution broke out in Paris, an ill-organized slave uprising exploded in St. Domingue. Soon both Spain and England were fighting to take over the French colony, rich in sugar, coffee, cotton, cocoa, tobacco and indigo. Toussaint joined the slave revolt in 1791, giving it leadership and organization during years of savage fighting and three-way racial war between whites, blacks and mulattoes. Eventually he joined his forces with the Spanish against the French; and as a general he defeated both English and Spanish forces. By then, he had switched back to the French side because, alone among the warring powers, the government of France had officially outlawed slavery.

By 1796 Toussaint was Haiti's lieutenant governor — soon to be governor general. Foreign countries dealt with him directly. Trying to rebuild a land ruined by war, he instituted forced labor but shared profits with the workers and did away with floggings. He negotiated better trade arrangements with the British and the newly freed American Colonies. Hated and feared by monarchies and slave owners, he was now widely known as the "Bonaparte of the Antilles." Yet the government of President John Adams recognized him, sent a diplomatic representative and dispatched American Navy ships, which helped him fend off various attacks. With a little advice from a surprising source, former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, he had a new constitution written for Haiti, reorganizing the country and giving himself as governor nearly absolute power. In 1801 he became master of the whole island of Hispaniola by attacking what is now the Dominican Republic, killing Spanish colonists but freeing the slaves.

Meanwhile, the real Napoleon Bonaparte, now in charge of the French government, had decided to retake Haiti, depose Toussaint and reinstate slave labor so Haiti could once again become a hugely profitable French colony. In 1802 he sent 30,000 soldiers under General Leclerc to do the job. After bloody fighting, Toussaint joined other black leaders in coming to terms with France. He laid down his arms only after extracting a promise from Leclerc that slavery would never be reinstated in Haiti. Shortly afterward he was tricked into a meeting with one of Leclerc's generals and made a prisoner. Many people wanted him out of circulation for good, most notable among them Thomas Jefferson, who after becoming President in 1801, reversed American policy toward Toussaint. Jefferson feared that a successful slave revolt in the Caribbean might be imported to the Southern United States, with bloody results. He did not want any successful slave leader free to stir up trouble. In addition, he had a great weakness for all things French. Toussaint was duly shipped off to prison in France.

Copies of letters on file at the Cooper-Hewitt suggest that a boy who befriended Toussaint in prison was given the fancy coat in exchange for his kindness. Another account simply says that the garment and buttons somehow found their way into the hands of a prison guard. At some point, the 18 buttons wound up in the possession of a college professor in the Ardennes in France, who sold them to a Frenchman named Jean Milare. Then, the trail of the buttons grows murkier still, until 1939 when they were bought in Paris by Pauline Riggs Noyes, the millionaire American wife of an adventurer named Robert Noyes. When war broke out in Europe, she apparently brought the buttons back to New York, where by coincidence they were seen by costume designer Miles White. He promptly put them to use as inspiration for costumes in The Pirate, a Broadway farce by S. N. Behrman set in the West Indies, and starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. After Pauline Noyes' death, in 1942, the buttons were given to the Cooper-Hewitt, where they are periodically on display.

Toussaint eventually ended up half-starved and shivering in a damp, cold fortress near Besançon in the French Alps. There, in April 1803, he obligingly died. As it happened, that same year many of Napoleon's soldiers in Haiti died of yellow fever. Those who didn't were defeated by what was left of Toussaint's army, commanded by Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henry Christophe (Smithsonian, October 1987). By 1804 Haiti had once and for all declared its independence. Its history has since been stormy. But from the time of Toussaint's power, there was never to be slavery in Haiti again.

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