The Toussaint Timepiece: Trophy of War?

Toussaint Louverture Automaton Clock

Contributor: Deirdre Coleman

Location: The Johnston House Museum, East Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Description: The exquisite and costly workmanship of this early-nineteenth century French table clock makes it one of the most eye-catching items in the house museum of The Johnston Collection in East Melbourne, Victoria. Acquired by the Australian antiques dealer William Johnston (1911-1986), and attributed to the leading French-Swiss automata-maker Jean David Maillardet (1768-1834), the figure conforms to a once popular caricature, the Pendule au Nègre fumeur [The Smoking Negro Clock]. But as the controversy generated by the ‘blackamoor’ brooch worn in late 2017 by Princess Michael of Kent demonstrated, exoticized black figures are now considered offensive. What makes this table clock even more challenging and intriguing is the name it was given: ‘Toussaint Louverture’, in reference to the leader of a famous slave-uprising in 1802.

Toussaint Louverture was born into slavery in 1743 on French-owned Saint-Domingue, the richest of the eighteenth-century West Indian islands. A gifted soldier and strategist, Toussaint led what would become the only successful slave revolt in history, fighting and defeating the three empires of France, Britain and Spain. This was perceived and celebrated by some, including William Wordsworth, as a version of the revolutions sweeping Europe. In 1802 Napoleon sent a large force under his brother-in-law, General Leclerc, to crush the uprisings and reintroduce slavery, but the expedition failed. Although Toussaint himself died in a French jail in 1803, his army’s victorious declaration of Haiti as an independent black republic in 1804 humiliated the French. As the ex-slave Frederick Douglass put it in 1893, when the Haitians ‘struck for the freedom of every black . . . they taught the world the danger of slavery’. Consequently, the world had ‘not yet forgiven Hayti for being black’. France’s defeat might explain the naming of this elaborate and curious toy.

Unusually tall, at a height of sixty-four centimeters (twenty-five inches), ‘Toussaint’ stands on a rosewood music-box with one hand on his hip while the other holds an orientalized, hookah-style pipe. Splendidly sartorial, he wears a floor-length gilt-bronze (ormolu) coat with elaborate edgings, stylized floral insignia, and large epaulettes. He also wears a shirt, knee-length trousers, and red boots, trimmed at the top with gold. Clothed like a prince above, and a soldier below, his head is feminised, his mouth is wide with bright-red painted lips, and the ears are adorned with both hoop rings and dangling bell-shaped ornaments. To complete the feminized, orientalized impression, his upper arms are decorated with jewel-encrusted bracelets. When the mechanism is wound up the automaton’s head moves backwards and forwards while the eyes slide from side to side. The clock dial with Roman numerals, which forms a prominent Falstaffian belly, strikes the hour with bells, while the pendulum hangs down, like a swollen circular scrotum, between the automaton’s legs.

Online searching reveals many more of these exotically ‘blinged-up’ black automata, all named ‘Toussaint Louverture’, all made in France, and all similar to the one in the Johnston House Museum. What is the meaning of this proliferation of ‘Toussaint’ timepieces in France, figures that appear at once princely and buffoonish? Given Toussaint’s association with black emancipation, it is possible that these automata are designed to return him to his original enslaved condition. As the nineteenth-century abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison remarked of slavery, it was a system that treated blacks ‘as if they were not men, but automata or chattels’. If these gilded automata represent France’s desire to mitigate its defeat at the hands of the black Jacobins, they might also be seen as military trophies like Tipu Sultan’s ‘Man-Tiger Organ’, a large, almost life-size, wooden sculpture of a Bengal tiger busy ravaging an English soldier. (In an ironic reverse of fortune Tipu’s trophy of war is now held in Britain’s Victoria and Albert Museum.)

Nowadays the Republic of Haiti stands on the margins of the Western world where once it had stood at its centre. Ostracized for large stretches of the nineteenth century, it has endured (in the words of postcolonial critic, Srinivas Aravamudan) ‘decades of punitive European commercial blockades and subsequent cycles of US-enforced military intervention and occupation’. The Haitian revolution may have been a war of world-historical significance but its continuing reminder of failed imperialism means that, until recently, it has been silenced or banalized by Western historiography, a process of erasure attributed by Michel-Rolph Trouillot to the fact that the revolution was ‘unthinkable even as it happened’. In 2000, when Jacques Chirac publicly affirmed that ‘Haiti was not, properly speaking, a French colony’, the loss of France’s once prized possession morphed into outright disavowal. Perhaps the production of so many expensive and mocking automata in the early nineteenth century—so many exotically gilded/gelded Africans—marked the beginning of an historical process of containment and forgetting.

Date: circa 1804-1820.

Creator: attributed to Jean David Maillardet (1768-1834).

Subject: Toussaint Louverture

Media rights: Photograph by Christopher Groenhout, Melbourne. Courtesy of The Johnston Collection.

Object type: automaton table clock, 640 x 310 x 140 mm.

Format: bronze, rosewood, gilt-bronze (ormolu), glass, wood.

Publisher: The Johnston House Museum, Melbourne.

Digital collection record: The Johnston Collection, Foundation Collection.

Catalogue number: A0494-1989.


Aravamudan, Srinivas, ‘Trop(Icaliz)ing the Enlightenment’, Diacritics, 23 (1993), pp. 48-68.

Coleman, Deirdre, ‘The cultural afterlives of Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution’, in Tracing War in British Enlightenment and Romantic Culture eds. Neil Ramsey and Gillian Russell (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 77-95.

Douglass, Frederick, quoted Edlie Wong, ‘In the Shadow of Haiti’, The Haitian Revolution and the Early United States: Histories, Textualities, Geographies eds. Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Michael Drexler (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), p. 188.

Garrison, William Lloyd, ‘No Compromise with Slavery: An Address Delivered to the Broadway Tabernacle’, New York, 1854., date accessed 30 December 2017.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995, p. 27.