By Charles Forsdick, Jacobin, March 10, 2022
Toussaint Louverture led the greatest slave revolt in history and struck a hammer blow against racist oppression. His extraordinary life and legacy continue to inspire the freedom struggles of today.
Review of Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture by Sudhir Hazareesingh (Penguin, 2021)
Sudhir Hazareesingh’s account of what he dubs the “epic life” of Toussaint Louverture provides a meticulous biography of his subject and, at the same time, a comprehensive new introduction to the Haitian Revolution in general. Black Spartacus represents a substantial intervention in the field of Haitian revolutionary historiography and the wider historiography of revolution.
Hazareesingh’s biography has rightly attracted numerous accolades, not least the Wolfson History Prize, the UK’s most prestigious award for a work of historical nonfiction. There is also reported to be a TV adaptation in the offing by Mammoth Screen, the British production company known for such series as The Serpent and Poldark.
Black Spartacus is compellingly written and presents its rich source material, both historiographic and archival, with a welcome lightness of touch. The resulting work will cement Louverture’s standing in the Anglophone world as a key figure of the age of revolutions whose contemporary resonance is more apparent than ever.
An Energy With No Borders
“The ideal of black empowerment,” notes Hazareesingh, “was at the heart of Toussaint’s legend.” First published in September 2020, during the autumn following the murder of George Floyd and the global protests associated with Black Lives Matter, the new biography proved timely. Many people cited the Haitian leader as a historical precedent and inspiration for the contemporary movement.
Here is a man who transformed revolt into organized revolution, a leader characterized by an uncompromising commitment to universal emancipation.
It may not be a “progressive handbook for revolution across the globe,” as the author describes C. L. R. James’s work The Black Jacobins. Yet Black Spartacus nevertheless offers an account of a revolutionary icon who led a struggle for black emancipation combating the key forms of oppression of his age: “slavery, settler colonialism, imperial domination, racial hierarchy and European cultural supremacy.” Here is a man who transformed revolt into organized revolution, a leader characterized by an uncompromising commitment to universal emancipation, who exposed the blind spots and illogicality of European thinking.
Hazareesingh’s aim is to show how Louverture was above all “inspired by the Makandalist ambition to create a common consciousness among black slaves, by the movement’s appeal to their aspirations for liberty, and by its goal to forge an efficient revolutionary organization.” The term “Makandalist” refers to François Makandal, who organized a secret society of Haitian slaves a generation before Louverture, preparing a revolt before he was captured and brutally executed. His example helped inspire the revolution that Louverture went on to lead.
The original hardback’s cover image is drawn from François Cauvin’s 2009 portrait of Louverture with a pintade (guinea fowl) forming his hat. In Haiti, people see these birds as a symbol of liberty and resistance. On their introduction to the colony, they are reported to have resisted domestication and fled their would-be captors in the style of Maroons.
The conclusion of Black Spartacus moves from the archive to the varied corpus of cultural representations that feature Louverture. Having cited Wyclef Jean and Akala, Hazareesingh closes with Haitian voices, specifically with those of the band Chouk Bwa (“Tree Stump”). Its name was inspired by the revolutionary leader’s speech on the “tree of liberty,” one that he is said to have delivered when Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops kidnapped him and deported him from Haiti to France, where he would die in captivity in April 1803. Hazareesingh quotes the group’s singer, Edele Joseph, who summarizes his band’s Louverturian spirit: “The mission is to bring positive energy to people. . . . The energy has no borders.”
The Precursor and the Liberator
Outside Haiti, Louverture has tended to attract more hagiographic approaches that often downplay his personal and strategic flaws. These complexities are more visible in Haiti itself, where the specters of the Revolution are never far from the surface.
Outside Haiti, Louverture has tended to attract more hagiographic approaches that often downplay his personal and strategic flaws.
In his 2005 essay, La Cohée du Lamentin, Édouard Glissant described the ghost of Toussaint Louverture haunting the ramparts of the Château de Joux, the fort in the Jura region of France where, progressively starved by Napoleon of food, heat, and light, he died in April 1803. The French had sought to remove Louverture from the country and neutralize his influence over the formerly enslaved inhabitants of the colony of Saint-Domingue. Instead, the man now known as the “Precursor” inspired his former generals — notably Jean-Jacques Dessalines (the “Liberator”) and Henri Christophe — to rise up again against Charles Leclerc’s occupying forces. They transformed a revolution driven by a desire for emancipation from enslavement into an anti-colonial war of independence.
Writers often attribute very different views of Haiti’s future to the Precursor and the Liberator, with the former supposedly committed to the country’s autonomy in a French commonwealth of nations, while the latter was naturally suspicious of former colonizers and insisted on self-sufficiency at all costs. In reality, the differences between the two men were not as polarized as these depictions suggest. Yet Haitian politics remains split between Louverturians and Dessalineans, as the legacies of the revolution continue to resonate in the present.
In the context of Jovenel Moïse’s recent presidency, for instance, it was Dessalines who came to the fore. With the people increasingly frustrated by corruption, food shortages, and the failure of basic constitutional procedures, stenciled images of Haiti’s founding leader began to appear on the walls of the capital. Protesters dressed as Dessalines took to the streets, and there were large demonstrations on October 17, the anniversary of his death in 1806.
After Moïse’s assassination in July 2021, observers drew other parallels, as he joined the list of Haitian heads of state killed while in office. However, the deployment of Dessalines’s example shows the vital importance of context. The consumption of the revolution’s leaders differs greatly both within and beyond Haiti.
Black Spartacus belongs to a long tradition of English-language biographies that concentrate on Toussaint Louverture. This lineage extends back to the 1802 English translation of Jean-François Dubroca’s racist, scurrilous, and pro-Napoleonic account of his life but also includes more approving texts that followed in the nineteenth century, such as The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Negro Patriot of Hayti, published by the Unitarian minister John Relly Beard in 1853.
The main text with which Hazareesingh inevitably engages, however, is The Black Jacobins. This is a work that the author clearly admires, but it does not escape his criticism. In emphasizing his subject’s Jacobin credentials, Hazareesingh argues, C. L. R. James ignored his monarchist tendencies as well as the “breathtaking originality” of his revolutionary endeavors.
Other English-language biographies followed in the wake of James, most notably Ralph Korngold’s Citizen Toussaint, published by the Left Book Club in 1944, and Wenda Parkinson’s “This Gilded African,” which appeared in 1978. More recently, there has been a cluster of biographical studies, notably those of Madison Smartt Bell and Philippe Girard.
Smartt Bell’s life of Louverture is a companion piece to his trilogy of novels on the Haitian Revolution. It presents his subject as a vaudouisant, a shape-shifting practitioner of traditional religion who at the same time mastered and deployed Enlightenment knowledge. Girard draws on an impressive body of archival material, particularly when it comes to his subject’s early life. Yet his analysis reverts to a new conservative revisionism that claims one of Louverture’s principal aims was to acquire wealth and social status for himself.
Hazareesingh’s biography stands out for the freshness of his approach and the new perspectives it brings.
Hazareesingh’s biography stands out in this company for the freshness of his approach and the new perspectives it brings. The author is an astute student of French political and cultural history since 1789: his previous books have demystified representations of Charles de Gaulle and provided (a largely affectionate) insight into How the French Think. For Hazareesingh to engage with French colonial history in the Caribbean was in that sense a new departure.
Black Spartacus nevertheless develops the themes of his previous work in various ways, by addressing the intellectual contortions implicit in the abstractions of French republican universalism and the ideological instrumentalization of mythologized figures from the past. At the same time, an exploration of Louverture’s life has allowed Hazareesingh to reflect on a broader geographical frame, creating connections between the language and history of Haiti and those of the author’s native Mauritius, which has its own long tradition of resistance by the enslaved, represented by figures such as Daimamouve, Tatamaka, and Madame Françoise.
Cutting Through the Thickets
Haitian historiography can often be a fraught field. There are fault lines running between Haitian and non-Haitian scholars, neo-Marxist radicals and conservatives, Louverturians and Dessalinians. Hazareesingh subtly positions himself within this landscape: while he often allows his source material to speak for itself, he challenges those who have sought to portray Louverture and his peers as bourgeois revolutionaries whose goal was to further their own interests rather than those of the people they purported to emancipate.
Hazareesingh actively rejects the ‘conservative and neo-imperialist’ tendencies apparent in some recent colonial historiography.
He acknowledges fully the flaws or paradoxes that earlier biographers and more recent critics have detected in Louverture: his prerevolutionary status as an owner of enslaved people; the apparent exclusion of women from his visions of statehood; the degeneration of his emancipatory rule into a seemingly authoritarian approach. Yet Hazareesingh actively rejects the “conservative and neo-imperialist” tendencies apparent in some recent colonial historiography. His stated aim is
to cut through these thickets and 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.
The navigation of ambiguity is central to this approach. At one point, Hazareesingh notes that “locating Toussaint was not easy as he was constantly on the move, and rode so fast that he frequently left his own guards trailing a long way behind him.” A similar challenge confronts his biographers. Faced with an accumulation of myth and legend, obliged to fill gaps with speculation, cautious or otherwise, they also often appear to trail behind. The Louverture who emerges, often with a marked theatricality, from Black Spartacus is rooted firmly in the evidence its author deploys.
Most notably, he associates the revolutionary leader with a creative adaptation of Makandalism, both in his philosophy and in his military tactics. Hazareesingh finds evidence of this debt to techniques developed by Maroons in Louverture’s efforts to forge a shared consciousness, rooted in common experiences of oppression and an aspiration to a better future, among the once-enslaved Africans who would form his armies. A commitment to black emancipation converged with a broader fraternity rooted in Creole, republican, and Christian values. The author sums up the spirit of Louverturianism as “unstinting collective effort, rigorous discipline and service to the common good.”
Hazareesingh subtly tracks the emergence of these Louverturian values in the early years of the revolution, when the soon-to-be revolutionary leader maintained a relatively low profile. He explores in detail Louverture’s evolving relationship to French republicanism, which was symbiotic rather than derivative. This relationship found reflection in an often-misunderstood commitment to restore Saint-Domingue to its prerevolutionary economic strength.
The author presents Louverture’s objective of securing the colony’s health as the motivation for various developments that other biographers have criticized: Louverture’s treaty with the British, for instance, or his imposition of a new form of engagement on the formerly enslaved. Hazareesingh describes his subject as being torn between his charismatic, almost magical power over the population on the one hand and the hubristic failure to articulate his project to the people on the other. This is an aspect of his career that C. L. R. James in particular identified.
One of the real strengths of Black Spartacus is the book’s capacity to hold such polar opposites in tension. A striking example is Hazareesingh’s discussion of the 1801 constitution, which has long been a source of controversy. It named Louverture as Haiti’s governor for the rest of his life and gave him the right to choose his successor in secret.
As the author notes, other writers have posed a conservative account of this text as the “epitome of treacherousness” on Louverture’s part against its more radical interpretation as the “apotheosis of his struggle against slavery.” Hazareesingh is more measured, discerning instead a more subtle commitment on Louverture’s part to create a clear distance between France and Saint-Domingue. He understood this as a way of strengthening internal governance while avoiding the risks of French political instability: “Toussaint’s thinking was driven neither by hubris nor by whimsy, but — as always — by rational political calculations.”
Nevertheless, Hazareesingh converges with commentators such as James who saw Louverture as being “increasingly trapped in an authoritarian spiral,” a self-made leader whose retreat into self-reliance fostered a growing reluctance to share power or divulge the strategies that he was deploying to retain it. Louverture’s conservative interpreters have allowed the circumstances of his decline to eclipse a more rounded understanding of his achievements, and sometimes the same could be said of more radical writers as well. Hazareesingh does not fall into that trap.
Hazareesingh detects traces of Louverture in a series of twentieth-century leaders and presents his subject as the ‘first black superhero of the modern age.’
In a brilliant final chapter on his subject’s afterlives, Hazareesingh tracks the emergence and durability of a “spontaneous Louverturian cult.” From the United Irishmen to Cuba’s Aponte Rebellion, from the US anti-slavery movement to the Maori struggle to reclaim their rights from European settlers in New Zealand, Louverture appeared as the personification of the Haitian Revolution and its historical inspiration. Hazareesingh detects traces of Louverture in a series of twentieth-century leaders — Frantz Fanon, Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, Nelson Mandela — and presents his subject as the “first black superhero of the modern age.”
Hazareesingh explains that his book’s title, which elevates him to this superhero status, has a long historical lineage behind it. It begins with the republican governor of French colonial Saint-Domingue, Étienne Laveaux, who admiringly depicted Louverture as the “Black Spartacus,” a name he associated with “the leader announced by the philosopher Raynal to avenge the crimes perpetrated against his race.” Black and progressive newspapers in the nineteenth-century United States also described the Haitian leader as the “Black Spartacus.” From his prison cell in 1954, Fidel Castro claimed that the soul of Spartacus had been “reborn in Toussaint Louverture.”
In turn, Louverture himself became a point of comparison for others. During the Cuban War of Independence, admirers of Antonio Maceo referred to him as the “Cuban Toussaint Louverture.” After the humiliation of the French army at Dien Bien Phu, Paul Robeson claimed that Ho Chi Minh was the “Toussaint of Vietnam.”
The Haitian historian Gaetan Mentor has disputed the association of Louverture with the original Spartacus, who may not have sought the abolition of slavery in the Roman world at all. He insisted that Haiti’s leader deserves to stand in his own right:
Our Toussaint was no Black Spartacus. We refuse this Black juxtaposed to the name of the famous gladiator from Thrace. . . . Toussaint cannot be classified as or reduced to a Black version, with all the reductive connotations this implies in Western thought.
Hazareesingh is no hagiographer, but his depiction of Louverture as the “Black Spartacus” nevertheless reveals certain assumptions that shape his account. First, the focus on an individual deflects attention from the growing tendency to write the history of the revolution from below. C. L. R James explored this perspective in his 1971 lectures at the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, and it is evident in the subsequent work of Carolyn Fick.
Modern Haitian historians such as Jean Casimir have also taken this approach — Casimir’s book The Haitians: A Decolonial History has recently appeared in an English translation. There have been more inclusive histories, including Nicole Wilson’s Fanm Rebèl project, which uncovered the contributions of women, and a growing commitment to recognize Haitian perspectives on the country’s historiography. The new translation of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Haitian Creole account of the revolution, Stirring the Pot of Haitian History, has encouraged this trend.
Second, while Dessalines does play a role in Hazareesingh’s account, he is still eclipsed by Louverture, often seen as the more translatable, domesticable, and ultimately acceptable leader of the revolution for Western audiences. This neglect of the other revolutionary figureheads may soon be corrected, however. A biography of Dessalines by Julia Gaffield and two biographies of Henri Christophe by Paul Clammer and Marlene Daut are due to appear in the near future.
An Exercise in Recovery
Black Spartacus draws together an exceptional range of material to offer what will be for some time the definitive English-language life of Louverture. Arguably light on its subject’s early years — a period well covered by Girard in his own biography — Hazareesingh’s study nevertheless shows a real sensitivity to language and to the power of Creole as a vehicle for resistance. Black Spartacus also focuses carefully on Louverture’s religiosity and the value he attached to family bonds, exploring their implications for his later life.
The Haitian Revolution, despite its systematic disavowal in our national history, is an important element of the British past.
In many ways, Hazareesingh’s approach is an exercise in recovery. He draws on rich French archival sources, from Paris and the regions, and on previously underexplored Spanish material. There is new material as well from the UK’s National Archives in Kew, a reminder that the Haitian Revolution, despite its systematic disavowal in our national history, is an important element of the British past. The book also draws intelligently on Louverture’s correspondence, not only as historiographic source material but also as a way of understanding the psyche of its author and the various contradictions he grappled with throughout his life.
Another original dimension is the focus on locality. Black Spartacus contains a striking microhistory, drawing on sources in the French overseas archives, that considers how Louverture’s ideas were received and translated into practice on the ground in Haiti. Hazareesingh takes the municipality of Môle Saint-Nicolas as a case study, demonstrating how a power system combining republican, Catholic, and Creole principles was firmly grounded in local communities, creating an infrastructure designed to rebuild postrevolutionary Saint-Domingue.
Such analysis provides evidence of what is seen as Louverture’s core quality, “the audacity to envision a world organized around radically different principles.” The sustained focus in Black Spartacus on the crucial middle years of Louverture’s leadership shows that he did not seek, as Girard suggests, to consolidate his personal wealth and power, but rather to protect the gains of the revolution against those who would have overturned them.
Hazaraeesingh’s principal achievement is to have rendered from this history a narrative that speaks directly to the challenges of the twenty-first century. As the author himself puts it:
The Louverturian struggle remains a vital source of intellectual inspiration and progressive renewal — especially in the current age of populism — and serves as a reminder that the global injustices of today, within and across societies, have deep historical roots.
Charles Forsdick is professor of French at the University of Liverpool and the coauthor of Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions (Pluto Press, 2017).
Posted March 17, 2022