Wordsworth's "To Toussaint L'Ouverture" apostrophises the eponymous freedom fighter as "O miserable Chieftain!" (line 5). In "Black Heroes/White Writers: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Literary Imagination", Cora Kaplan writes:

the speaker is careful to invoke neither Toussaint's race nor his previously enslaved status; the generic positioning of Toussaint depends on these elements of his identity remaining unstated, although known to the poem's readers. Colour, for example, is significantly absent from Toussaint's description—in fact, only the word Chieftain gestures at an "indigenous" or African origin. (p. 40)

Kaplan, Cora. "Black Heroes/White Writers: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Literary Imagination". History Workshop Journal Issue 46 (1998), pp. 33–62. Retrieved September 18, 2023, from http://www.l-adam-mekler.com/kaplan_touissant.pdf.

The point about the absence of any racially specific identifiers is well taken, but I do not understand the qualification. What about the word "Chieftain" suggests Toussaint's race? Wordsworth's contemporary Thomas Campbell uses the word to describe a Scotsman in "Lord Ullin's Daughter" :

A Chieftan to the Highlands bound,
Cries, ‘Boatman, do not tarry;
And I’ll give thee a silver pound
To row us o’er the ferry.’

‘Now who be ye would cross Lochgyle,
This dark and stormy water?’
‘Oh! I’m the chief of Ulva’s isle,
And this Lord Ullin’s daughter.

If "Chieftain" could describe a Scot as well as it described a St Dominguan, what about the word "gestures at an 'indigenous' or African origin" as Kaplan claims?

  • Is Cora Kaplan a particularly well-known or authoritative source on Wordsworth? The simplest explanation seems to be simply that she's mistaken about the implications of the word "Chieftain" and didn't think of the fact that that word could also describe a Scot?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 19, 2023 at 6:56

1 Answer 1


Toussaint was born as an enslaved person on Saint-Domingue, but rose to become its Governor General.

My reading is that Kaplan thinks it unlikely that Wordsworth would have referred to a white Governor General as a ‘chieftain’.

As regards the Thomas Campbell use of ‘Chieftan’, in Lord Ullin’s Daughter he is writing in a highly romanticised tradition in which the Scottish Highlands are barely seen as part of the civilised world and it, and it’s denizens, are almost equal in their ‘otherness’ to places like Haiti.

  • A case-insensitive search in the Wordsworth Concordance for "chieftain" shows several other instances of his using the word, and they all seem pretty colorblind to me. Are you interpreting Kaplan's meaning to be that "chieftain" is exoticising (culturally, historically, or geographically) and so by applying it to Toussaint, the poet suggests his racial difference? If so, the argument would be more convincing by including a couple of other examples from Wordsworth. Thanks!
    – verbose
    Sep 19, 2023 at 23:58

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