For all his achievements Toussaint Louverture, hero of the Haitian Revolution, has had a limited number of books written about him, and so it is fortunate that a new publication has arrived with Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture. Sudhir Hazareesingh, born in another former French colony, Mauritius, has written a timely biography that is both gripping and a masterpiece of research, and worthy of a man who could, or perhaps should, be considered ‘great’.
Like Spartacus, little is known of Louverture’s early life. Born as a slave in c.1740 to the Breda estate (Louverture had a good relationship with the estate manager who was responsible for his freedom), Louverture was into his 50s by the time he led the rebellion against his colonial masters. France was importing around 20,000 slaves p.a. into Saint-Domingue, and, whilst the death rate through disease within a year of arrival was as high as 50%, the slave population by the late 18th century had reached half a million. Amongst the many horrific murders committed against slaves there were routine accounts of vivisepulture, immolation and blowing up with gunpowder. Castration and genital mutilation were commonplace.
It is into this environment that Hazareesingh paints a fascinating picture of the man who would go on to be an icon in his own lifetime, as a brilliant general, a clever and ruthless politician, a committed republican, and a merciful and pragmatic ruler of Saint-Domingue. A number of adversaries were either beaten on the battlefield, such as British and Spanish generals, and internal rebels during the brutal War of Knives, or outmanoeuvred politically including successive French colonial administrators. Hazareesingh describes these events with a compelling style, with detailed references, so that the reader feels as though they understand, if not know, the very character of Louverture.
By the time France, or more accurately First Consul Bonaparte, had lost patience with Louverture, he was in the process of creating a new constitution, one which Hazareesingh hails as both preserving Saint-Domingue’s gains of the revolution, and protecting her from external attack. Unfortunately, external attack was to come in the form of an invading force sent by Napoleon to re-affirm French colonial rule, and with it the likely re-imposition of slavery. It was this that Hazareesingh successfully argues, rather than the creation of a constitution, or Louverture’s invasion of the adjacent Santo-Domingo, that was the motivation behind the invasion. Louverture’s life tragically ended in capture and imprisonment in France, at Fort de Joux – an imposing structure visible today from the main road through the Jura mountains from the Swiss border at Vallorbe, a sad contrast to his home in Saint-Domingue.
It is in his penultimate chapter that Hazareesingh gives Louverture a voice through the ages as the ripples from his revolution spread throughout the Caribbean and elsewhere. He was proclaimed as a modern-day Spartacus both in his lifetime and beyond, but more than the Thracian, Toussaint Louverture made a lasting impact that endures to this day.
Oliver Webb-Carter is the Editor of Aspects of History.
Sudhir Hazareesingh is a Fellow of the British Academy and has been a Fellow and Tutor in Politics at Balliol College, Oxford, since 1990. He has written extensively about French intellectual and cultural history.