The Stone That the Builder Refused

Written by Madison Smartt Bell
Review by Marcia K. Matthews

This tome answers the question of how a former slave defeated Napoleon. The title is from scripture, “The stone that the builder refused shall be the cornerstone.” In this third volume of his fictionalized biography of Toussaint Louverture, the liberator of Haiti, Madison Smartt Bell achieves a masterpiece. Its scope and research details the history of Haiti’s revolution against imperial France: “a rebellion of African slaves against their white masters in the French colony of Saint Domingue.”

In October, 1802, suffering from the cold in Fort de Joux prison in France, Toussaint pens a final plea to Napoleon to meet with him. Then we flash back to the outbreak of war. We pick up the story with Doctor Hébert in Cap François, nursing a yellow fever patient. At a reception, he meets Governor-General Toussaint. A ship approaches carrying Placide and Isaac Louverture. Placide has forebodings that Napoleon’s fleet sails not to help his father, but to capture him. The French assume Toussaint is in rebellion. Moored off the coast, the ship receives a cannonball near the bow. The fleet bombards the fort, and the French execute its black commander. Riau takes over as first person narrator, carrying Toussaint’s message to Dessalines, which confirms that their welcome to the French will be “scorched earth.”

What defines an epic is not only its sweep, but detail like the scene where Isabelle defies the black army trying to burn her house. She takes a pail of water from a horse trough. A soldier flips it away with his bayonet.

Battle scenes are detailed minute by minute. Toussaint is the strategist, and Dessalines is the enforcer who massacres scores of white prisoners. The black cross of Baron Cimetière hangs over Toussaint. “We are masters of a graveyard,” Toussaint tells his son. “No one wins at war.”