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The first black superhero of the modern age Black Spartacus: This biography of revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture could not be more timely

Illustration depicting Toussaint Louverture participating in the successful revolt. Photo: Getty

Illustration depicting Toussaint Louverture participating in the successful revolt. Photo: Getty


December 29, 2020   6 mins

In the summer of 1791, a slave owner named Leclerc returned to his plantation in Northern Saint Domingue (modern-day Haiti), not long after an uprising by his slaves. His property was destroyed, but only one building was left standing. And upon entering and investigating the scene, he was surprised to discover that only one book from his torched library survived: the 4th edition of the Histoire Philosophique des Deux Indes by Abbe Raynal and Denis Diderot, a radical, anti-slavery pamphlet by two Enlightenment thinkers examining the history of European colonisation in the “New World”. The book was left open on a page that warned of “terrible reprisals” that would dished out onto the colonists if they did not free their slaves.

This poetic episode from Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture, Sudhir Hazareesingh’s voluminous yet gripping biography, is a small demonstration of the historical magnificence of that revolution. The slaves not only appropriated the Historie philosophique, but as Hazareesingh writes: “brought the text to life in a glorious display of erudition, swagger and wit”. The life of the Haitian slave leader, published in September this year, could not been more timely, as the historical legacy of slavery and racism came to dominate debate in the United States and beyond.

Most Westerners will be familiar with the importance of the years 1776 and 1789. The American and French revolutions were the two defining moments of modern history, events that overthrew monarchy and feudal absolutism with new Enlightenment ideas of liberty, equality and republicanism, thus sparking “The Age of Revolution”.

The Haitian Revolution of 1791 might be included into this same bracket. A revolution as monumental as events in the United States and France, it erupted just two years after the fall of the Bastille on a small Caribbean island, organised and executed by African slaves fighting for their liberation against French slave masters.

It should be regarded as one of the great events of world history, being the first rebellion in which slaves overthrew their masters, abolished slavery, beat off multiple imperial powers and managed to set up their own nation and constitution. It was, in Aime Cesaire’s words, when “black men stood up in order to affirm, for the first time, their determination to create a new world, a free world.”

It is mainly because of CLR James’ indispensable masterpiece, Black Jacobins, which artfully retells its triumphs and tragedies, that the Haitian revolution has attracted any awareness, let alone esteem in our culture at all. Otherwise it has been a revolution largely relegated to obscurity.

Thankfully, Black Spartacus is a valuable gem for readers eager to enlighten themselves about the revolution and especially for the man who lead it. Toussaint Louverture’s life can rightfully be described as “epic”; born a slave in the 1740s on the Breda plantation in Saint Domingue, France’s most valuable colony, his existence was defined by oppression and cruelty.

After helping to organise the most successful slave rebellion in history, and later becoming its leader and general, he turned his fellow emancipated slaves into a formidable fighting force, outsmarting his enemies, and authoring a constitution in 1801. This abolished slavery once and for all, included a non-racial definition of citizenship — and brought Haiti on the brink of independence. In response Napoleon sent an expedition to crush the revolution and re-install slavery. It failed as Haiti became independent in 1804 — though by then Louverture had been captured and had died in the grim, snowy Fort de Joux in France the previous year.

While Louverture’s life is extraordinary, much of it has been the subject of mystery and legend. We don’t know precisely what year he was born, what year he was legally emancipated, or when he learned how to read. No official portraits of him exist, so we don’t even have an accurate depiction of what he looked like. Moreover, there are certain aspects of Louverture’s life we simple will never know. For example, the letters he wrote to his various mistresses (many of them white) were torched by Napoleon’s army in 1802. Moreover, Toussaint had as much interest as anyone else in creating the mysterious aura around his name.

However, Black Spartacus is rooted in an impressive depth of research. Hazareesingh dived straight into the various, and often untouched archives in France, Spain, Britain and America (unfortunately not Haiti itself as not much material has survived) to “find our way back to Toussaint: to return as far as possible to the primary sources, to try to see the world through his eyes, and to recapture the boldness of his thinking and the individuality of his voice.”

According to his own claim, Hazareesingh has succeeded in arguably painting the richest portrait of Louverture’s life to date in biographical form, one that captures the “boldness of his thinking” and “his voice”, as well as the complexities and nuances of his political life.

One way he does this is torpedoing a common misconception about Louverture, that he had little affinity or attachment to his Caribbean and African heritage. Loverture wasn’t ashamed of his African origins, or sought to distance himself from it — he embraced it. He was raised in the Allada culture by his parents, where he learned their native Fon language, which he was known to frequently use when conversing with his soldiers (often to their delight). He was knowledgeable in African herbal medicine. While he didn’t personally adhere to Vodou, he was intimate with it and used it as a repository to inspire his people. And his military prowess was in some sense influenced by the martial cultures of the various African peoples on Saint Domingue, as much as studying the writings of Julius Caesar.

Louverture’s genius also comes from how he was able to appropriate the ideals of the Enlightenment and use them against the European powers enslaving his people. Hazareesingh points out, as other have before him, that Louverture eventually became familiar with the writings of Raynal, Diderot and Rousseau, and saw that the French revolution had betrayed its own stated ideals when it “manifestly sided with the slave-owners” in Saint Domingue. If LibertĂ©, Ă©galitĂ© and fraternité are universal and have any concrete meaning, then surely they apply to enslaved blacks as much as to white bourgeois men? Louverture’s vision, in contrast, was more faithful to republican ideals, especially in his non-racial idea of fraternitĂ©, in which liberated black slaves, white colonists and mixed-race peoples would live together as “a single family of friends and brothers”.

In Louverture one finds a distinction between the evil of European colonialism and the good that flowed out of many of the ideas of the European Enlightenment. As Hazareesingh writes: “The Haitian revolution generated its own set of emancipatory principles, making it the most masterful political improvisation of the Radical Enlightenment.”

What the author does marvellously is show the multiple streams that formed Louverture’s political views; not just African mysticism and Enlightenment philosophy, but also his visceral Catholic humanism, which taught that all of God’s children are equal no matter their colour. This last idea Louverture probably got from radical Jesuit priests he knew on the Breda Plantation, and who likely taught him how to read. This syncretic ideology formed what Hazareesingh describes as “creole republicanism”, inspiring a ferocious opposition to slavery and inspired social solidarity among the former enslaved.

But Louverture was no simple-minded idealist. He describes Louverture as a foxy, “revolutionary political operator” who knew the importance of Machiavellian strategy. The Haitian leader could be very cynical and cunning if it meant protecting the revolution, which is why he made alliances and counter-alliances at different times with the Spanish, French and British Empires against each other, all of whom ultimately had predatory ambitions for Haiti and had nothing but racial hostility towards the Haitian revolution. At one point, while officially still allied with France, he betrayed a French agent he had helped send to Jamaica to start another slave revolt, by revealing the plans of the expedition to a British agent.

On principle Louverture was “sincerely committed to the liberation of black people in Jamaica from British rule”, but suspected the French were using him and his army as cannon fodder for a risky foreign intervention, which he and his advisors feared would “imperil all the achievements of the revolution in Saint Domingue” and whose ultimate purpose was to get rid of him. Louverture’s raison d’etre was to defend and consolidate the Haitian revolution by any means necessary, which is why Hazareesingh clearly writes with admiration, although without descending into hagiography. Because Louverture, like almost every revolutionary leader since Oliver Cromwell, had an authoritarian streak too.

Hazareesingh recognises that he “became increasingly trapped in an authoritarian spiral” in his desperate attempts to restore the pre-revolutionary plantation economy, in order to kickstart the economic development of Haiti and protect it from external attack. He withheld civic roles from women, and in the infamous 1801 constitution named himself leader for life.

Nevertheless, perhaps the most enjoyable chapters come towards the end when Louverture’s cultural and political legacy are discussed, in death transformed into a symbol of liberation across the world.

Both William Wordsworth and Bob Marley paid tribute to him in song and verse. Jamaican slaves and Irish republicans were inspired by his opposition to racism, in the case of the former singing in 1799 that “black, white and brown, we’re all de same”. Louverture proved inspirational to 19th-century abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and John Brown, and 20th century anti-imperialists like CLR James and Aime Cesaire. Louverture and the Haitian revolution were a “precursor for modern emancipatory politics” — and few people can claim to have a legacy as enduring as this.

The concept of the “Great Man of History” may no longer be fashionable, but if it has any validity then Toussaint Louverture is surely one of them. To rise from slavery to become the great emancipator of the 18th century, and in CLR James’ words the “finest product” of the Enlightenment, is a mark of greatness.

Louverture’s life shows how individuals can have a decisive role in changing, even in the midst of larger social and economic forces. His will and determination, his fierce struggle for man’s “natural liberty” is a testament to what Wordsworth called “man’s unconquerable mind”. So we should be thankful that Sudhir Hazareesingh has written the outstanding biography of “the first black superhero of the modern age”.

 


Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.

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Theo Hopkins
Theo Hopkins
3 years ago

I note, on slavery, that Kemi Badenoch (Google) the Minister for Women and Equalities in the UK government, pointed out during a debate on Black History Month, that slavery existed in Africa before the White people came sailing by and continued after the last colonial flag was lowered. Now, Louverture is clearly a man well worth celebrating, but in a wider historical perspective, it must be noted slavery was an African institution (and common globally) and the English were unusual in ending it voluntarily.

Imran Khan
Imran Khan
3 years ago
Reply to  Theo Hopkins

I think you will find that the whole of the BLM movement is in denial about African slavery. I can recommend ” Islam’s Black Slaves” by Ronald Segal a white member of the ANC and ” Black Cargoes” by Mannix and Crowley which deals with the West African trade in detail.

David Foot
David Foot
3 years ago

This is inspiring Tussaint and this hero deserves credit with all those who
came together to end slavery like the British Empire, the first ever in the
history of man to spend shed loads of money to free slaves and not to make
them.

Accounts must be put straight where slavery is concerned and must not be left
in the hands of the Black Lives Marxists nor in the hands of African
Nationalists, nor in the hands of Islam, these ideologies only have all got
only hell holes to show for their efforts and are confusing the young today.

Though this article paints a part of the picture it is confusing in the sense
that Tussaint was very likely supplied by a black or a Moslem king for whom
slavery had been a business for ages, even capturing slaves by emptying English
coastal villages of white slaves. We must not let black lives Marxists use lies
to claim jobs, money and wealth which they don’t deserve (they have no Merit
for such a consideration) because slavery has a big long history not as they
describe.

Slavery was coming to an end, the industrial revolution was on, and no
political structure took that more seriously than the world super power at the
time the British Empire which in the end stopped slavery in a big way, at a big
cost, fighting battles against black and Moslem kings who wanted to keep the
business of slavery going and which were slavery’s most powerful advocates and
perhaps the most powerful objectors to abolition at the hands of the Empire
which had the power to turn its internal law in to an international law. The
Royal Navy was the main instrument which did that and which allowed to put an
end to most of the slave trade. The slave trade started with the history of man
and more or less ended here at this time thanks to enlightened people like
Toussaint and the British Empire.

Slavery was not an invention of the British Empire as BLM may suggest and
the history of England is different to the history of its renegade child Empire
of the Americas the USA which murdered the free, massacred the brave and
replaced them with Europeans, but us today didn’t do that and we must not allow
all the good we have to be destroyed for the sake of nothing but Marxist
genocide and economic failure.

The British Empire was the first super power to spend shed loads of money to
free slaves and not to make them. That debt was only paid off in full in 2015
so most of us working in the UK at the centre of the Old Empire have also paid
for the end of slavery with our taxes.

We must credit the Empire and the states which now derive from it. Many of
these nations are paradises and people are prepared to die with their children
to get in to them, what the Empire made with its ideology is different to what
has been achieved by any other ideology. Marxism, African nationalism Islam all
attackers of the British Empire and unlike the British Empire only have hell
holes to show for their ideology and their efforts. For example enlightened
Canada abolished slavery in 1825 and made even impossible for a slave to “want
to be a slave”! So enlightened and so advanced! And in the Empire itself abolition
started in 1807 and was concluded in 1833.

Let us look at a world map and let us read a world map and be truthful to
ourselves we must not allow those terrible ideologies to penetrate and ruin the
jewels left to us by the British Empire.

The Marxists are inside these fantastic places and are out to destroy them and
replace good governance with that what has only yielded failure.

An example of where we are going:
All the food and resources produced by the “breadbasket of Africa”
Rhodesia are now gone, wasted and parasitic Zimbabwe consumes 3.5 billion
dollars of aid, mostly food aid which mankind needs elsewhere, part of it
English foreign aid which English Marxists insist in taking from English
children and giving to the corrupt is being thrown away in this manner.

That is what Marxism and African nationalism of the BLM will give us. There is
a case for saying that if the future of all that potential is wasted by the
Marxist African nationalists then, it follows that they don’t have the MERIT to
administer those resources and should lose them again, instead of poor English
kids loosing what they need sacrificed to a parasitic state. Certainly there
would be less dead Africans and better off Africans if the “bread basket of
Africa” was reinstated.

We are being carried away by lies, read a map, put what is true in perspective
and let us not judge the past with the laws of today totally out of context and
“in bits” like here, that is the only way the Marxists can win an
argument by cheating, they have nothing to show but hell holes..

Theo Hopkins
Theo Hopkins
3 years ago

Wikipedia is not always a fount of wisdom, but it suggests that Louverture massacred between 3,000 and 5,000 white people in Haiti. They didn’t tell me about this when I did Louverture at school in Ireland sixty-five years ago. But they did teach me that all heroes (including Irish heroes) had feet of clay.

Imran Khan
Imran Khan
3 years ago
Reply to  Theo Hopkins

All Irish heroes? Are you a revisionist?

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Imran Khan

What?
Even Erskine Childers, surely not?

Imran Khan
Imran Khan
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

There is a revisionist school about Irish history. I’ll dig out some authors.

Pierre Whalon
Pierre Whalon
3 years ago
Reply to  Theo Hopkins

In fact, Louverture was dead when that happened. It was his successor Jean-Jacques Dessalines who ordered the killing of all whites.

Imran Khan
Imran Khan
3 years ago

Yes of course there were differences between France which was able to reassert control and the Spanish who couldn’t but in hindsight it would have been better in the long run for the Haitians to have gone back under French control as slavery was being phased out after Parliament abolished it and the Royal Navy enforced that abolition. Imagine if Haiti had become a French Overseas Territory and a Department of France. Education, welfare, law and order and a European passport plus free health care. It’s a no brainer. I read CLR James thirty years ago and wasn’t impressed, but then he was a Marxist. I also had the misfortune to meet his nephew Darcus Howe and was even less impressed.

samuelw5040
samuelw5040
3 years ago

Sounds like a decent guy

Paul Blakemore
Paul Blakemore
3 years ago

I had intended to re-read the CLR James book a couple of years ago but couldn’t get on with it: it’s more panegyric than history. I believe it was first published around 1938, so a new history of this fascinating man and this chapter in history is long overdue.

billwald123
billwald123
3 years ago

Haiti went from being a French colony to a dictatorship. Have they recovered?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wi

Imran Khan
Imran Khan
3 years ago
Reply to  billwald123

Apparently not.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
3 years ago

Thankyou for this piece on this remarkable man. There now seems to be a plethora of books on Louverture and the Haitian revolution.
I agree with your leaning toward the Great Men of History theory. I think Louverture is a good example of a charismatic,visionary, courageous and decisive leader harnessing current movements for change toward a goal, and using his particular talents, be they strategic, oratorical,managerial etc. to achieve that goal. The question can be asked would the original rising of slaves in August 1791 have eventually led to Haiti becoming an independent nation in 1804 without the military and political genius of Toussaint Louverture. I think the answer has to be no. His colleagues in leadership including Moise, his nephew, and Jean-Jacque Dessalines and Henri Christophe were not made of the same stuff.
Of course that does not mean that great men do not make mistakes and sometimes end their lives in apparent failure. In 1802 Louverture was arrested and taken to France where he died in prison in the Jura. But he had started a ball rolling to which he had given enough motivation and direction for it to come to its appointed end two years later.
Perhaps the biggest problem he faced, which all leaders of revolutions face and very few find a wholly positive answer, was how to protect the political gains and organise the economy of the new state. Soon Louverture was insisting that those who had recently been freed from slavery return to their work on the sugar plantations for the good of the economy. This was not popular especially when many of them were working for their old French masters. John Henry Gonzales in his book “Maroon Nation: A History of Revolutionary Haiti” traces these developments and shows how the farsightedness of one the original leaders, Alexandre Petion, led to land reform which finally secured the people’s freedom.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago

I agree, Michael. Ralph can criticize Toussaint for making himself leader for life, but he really wasn’t in George Washington’s position. Toussaint couldn’t look around and see someone like Adams, Jefferson or Hamilton to take his place if he stepped down from office.

V Stone
V Stone
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Baldwin

He also didn’t fight his own people, for 9 years.

Andrew Russell
Andrew Russell
3 years ago

This must be why Haiti is the great success story it is today.
https://www.youtube.com/wat

Andrew Russell
Andrew Russell
3 years ago
Pierre Whalon
Pierre Whalon
3 years ago

The article overlooks the role of the First Republic, which outlawed slavery in February 1794. In Haiti (Saint-Domingue) the commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax decreed it months before. Louverture became a general in the French Army. Napoleon reinstated slavery in 1802 and wanted “his” colony back. He lost, but did capture Louverture. The story is much richer than told here.
Nevertheless, it is clear that Toussaint Louverture deserves the title “great man.”
Later, France demanded and received reparations over the next hundred years, totaling in today’s money some ñ‚¬19,000,000,000. The United States took up the role of tormentor from France, and has continued to meddle disastrously in Haitian affairs.

Peter KE
Peter KE
3 years ago

Poor article. The writer seems to know nothing of the sweep of history and slavery was applied thousands of years before the period he writes about. This is just another irrelevant BLM poster. Rubbish.

Lyn Griffiths
Lyn Griffiths
3 years ago

Why does there need to be, “The first”, in articles, I have begun to run for the hills if seeing it.