Sudhir Hazareesingh is the winner of the 2021 Wolfson History Prize for his book, Black Spartacus, the Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture. This article is taken from the first issue of Aspects of History.
The Haitian revolution was one of the defining episodes in modern global history. It began in 1791 with a mass uprising of the enslaved people of Saint-Domingue, France’s richest and most profitable colony. Drawing upon local traditions of resistance, and the rights proclaimed by the 1789 French Declaration, but denied to the colonies’ enslaved populations, this revolution ignited the Caribbean firmament and challenged the dominant forces of the time: white settlers, colonial administrators, imperial lobbies, and slavers. Under its fierce and irresistible pressure, local French authorities in Saint-Domingue were forced to issue a decree abolishing slavery in 1793, a move followed by the French legislature (the Convention) a year later. Throughout the decade, events in Saint-Domingue inspired upsurges in revolutionary activity among the enslaved across the Greater Caribbean region, as well as in the United States of America. The Saint-Domingue revolution culminated in the proclamation of the independent black State of Haiti in 1804, after a war of independence fought against the French.
The conflict between Saint-Domingue and France bore witness to the opposing directions in which their respective politics were moving from the mid-1790s onwards: a path of increasing self-confidence and autonomy for the first, and one of authoritarian and militarist conservatism for the second. We can see this opposition playing out in the relationship between the conflict’s two key protagonists: Toussaint Louverture, the former coachman from the Bréda plantation who became a general in Saint-Domingue’s army and leader of its republican revolution, and Napoleon Bonaparte, the Corsican warrior who seized power in France in 1799, and sent 40 000 troops across the Atlantic to destroy the black revolution and restore slavery in the Caribbean. This operation failed disastrously in the end, but the French did manage to capture Louverture and imprison him in a fortress in the Jura mountains, where he died in 1803.
Both Louverture and Bonaparte were uncommonly gifted leaders. They were remarkable warriors, whose martial exploits on the battlefield in the 1790s turned them into national heroes. They resembled each other, too, in their impatience and their unceasing activity, dictating letters to several secretaries at the same time, and above all, in their capacity for transgression, breaking with existing convention and seeking to transform existing political forms to their own ends – by 1801, both men had created original constitutions which consolidated power in their own hands. Before their conflict erupted into the open, these similarities in character and style were widely noted in France and in Saint-Domingue, and some of Toussaint Louverture’s own supporters hailed him as the “Bonaparte of the Caribbean”; the French painter Denis Volozan produced an equestrian drawing of Louverture which was inspired by David’s painting of Bonaparte crossing the Alps.
Toussaint’s power rested on his leadership of Saint-Domingue’s black citizens and his military prowess, which enabled his army of “brave republican warriors” to defeat and expel the Spanish and British occupying forces from the colony. He became a key ally of the French and was promoted by the republican governor Etienne Laveaux to the position of deputy governor in 1796 (Toussaint loved Laveaux and used to call him “Papa”). Over the next four years, Louverture then consolidated his power by asserting his control over the colonial administration, building a broad coalition of support at local level, reviving the plantation economy, and signing trade and military agreements with the British and the Americans. His basic objectives were to preserve the unity of his people, to prevent any single foreign power from dominating Saint-Domingue, and to follow policies which were primarily guided by the interests of the colony (which he used to refer to as “mon pays”). Contrary to widely-held beliefs at the time, he did not seek independence. His 1801 Constitution, which appointed him as governor of the colony, affirmed that its citizens were “free and French”. Toussaint was a revolutionary, who believed that the Saint-Domingue could forge its autonomous republican path towards freedom and brotherhood. But he was also a pragmatist, who did not believe independence was desirable or even possible at the time, and wanted instead to build a robust community under the protection of the French. He sought, moreover, to insulate the colony from the vicissitudes of French politics, and in particular from the menace of a vocal colonial lobby which became more assertive in the later 1790s, and demanded the reimposition of white domination in Saint-Domingue. Toussaint warned the French government that his people would rather “bury themselves in the ruins of their country rather than face the prospect of the restoration of slavery”.
Even though his relations with successive French envoys after Laveaux became increasingly fraught, Toussaint set out initially to reassure Bonaparte after he seized power in his 18th Brumaire coup (November 1799), offering repeatedly to work closely with him in a number of letters. Moreover, Josephine’s Martinique-based Beauharnais family had considerable financial interests in Saint-Domingue, notably several lucrative sugar plantations. Production had ground to a halt during the early revolutionary years, but hearing about Toussaint’s restoration of order in the colony, Josephine wrote directly to him in 1798 pleading for help; Bonaparte was away on his Egyptian campaign at the time. Toussaint immediately intervened to restore the plantations to working order, and soon Josephine was again receiving a healthy income from her Saint-Domingue estates. She was so grateful that she invited Toussaint’s two sons Isaac and Placide (who were studying in France) to lunch and dinner at her Parisian residences, and praised the black general effusively. Upon his return Bonaparte was no doubt informed of Toussaint’s gracious intervention. When he met Toussaint’s children, he told them that their father was a “great man”, who had rendered “eminent services to France”.
In the early months of 1801, Bonaparte seemed to have decided to throw his weight behind Toussaint. He drafted a letter appointing him as “capitaine-général” of the colony, assuring him that he enjoyed the “greatest trust” of his government, and saluting him as the “principal representative of the Republic”. But this letter to Toussaint was never sent, and by the end of March 1801, the black general was secretly struck off the register of French military officials. What had brought about such a dramatic reversal? Critics attributed the First Consul’s change of heart to specific actions by Toussaint, notably the promulgation of the Saint-Domingue Constitution. But the timeline does not support this. The constitution was proclaimed only in July, and the news did not reach Paris until several months later. If there was a single event which probably provoked Bonaparte’s ire, it was Toussaint’s take-over of the Spanish territory of Santo Domingo, of which he informed the French government in mid-February 1801. The French government had expressly asked for Toussaint not to carry out this intervention, and Bonaparte viewed this move as an act of insubordination.
But it is implausible that this event alone decided the French ruler to launch such a massive expedition against Toussaint. Bonaparte’s aggressive turn on Saint-Domingue was in fact part of a wider counter-revolutionary shift in French colonial policy, and it began in the months immediately following the 18th Brumaire, with a systematic removal of colonial officials believed to be too sympathetic to the black cause. Bonaparte thus countermanded the appointment of Etienne Laveaux, Toussaint’s former ally, as the French agent in Guadeloupe, because of his excessively pro-black affinities: when he arrived in the colony to take up his position in March 1800, Laveaux was arrested by local officials, on Bonaparte’s instructions, and sent back to France. During a discussion of colonial affairs in the Council of State in August 1800, Bonaparte expressed his commitment to “re-establishing order and introducing discipline” in places like Saint-Domingue, where slavery had been abolished. What this meant precisely was not yet spelled out, but the threat of force was obvious. His negative dispositions towards Saint-Domingue were further fuelled by the steady flow of misinformation which the French government received from anti-Toussaint officials and private citizens in the colony, who falsely claimed that whites were being mistreated, expropriated and even murdered by Toussaint’s regime.
A key agent of this misinformation, aimed at polarising the relationship between Saint-Domingue and France along racial lines, was the reinvigorated French colonial lobby, which gained greater prominence in Bonaparte’s entourage in the course of the year 1801. Pro-invasion and pro-slavery sentiments were now back in fashion among French merchants and capitalist classes, and Bonaparte did not shy away from them. His new recruits into the Council of State included figures such as former navy minister Fleurieu; the colonial lawyer and planter advocate Moreau de Saint-Méry; the last intendant of the ancien régime in Saint-Domingue, Barbé de Marbois and Pierre Victor Malouet, who remained vigorous defenders of the slave trade. In October 1801, Bonaparte appointed Denis Decrès as his Navy Minister, and he too believed the Convention’s 1794 abolition decree to have been a mistake.
By early October 1801, Bonaparte fully turned against Toussaint, ordering Decrès to prepare a major invading force to Saint-Domingue, and issuing the commander-in-chief of the expedition (his brother-in-law Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc) with secret instructions to destroy the black revolution in the colony, and restore white supremacy. Toussaint’s envoy, Charles Vincent, arrived in Paris at this moment with a copy of the Saint-Domingue constitution, just as Bonaparte was finalising his orders for the invasion. The engineer met with the First Consul twice, and Vincent cautioned Bonaparte and his Navy Minister against the expedition and refused to take part in it. In fact, Toussaint’s envoy predicted the sequence of events which would follow: the resistance of the majority of the black citizens; the strategic and logistical disadvantages the French army would face through lack of familiarity with the terrain, and the problems of resupply; the ravaging effects of the climate, and the onset of disease – all culminating in the loss of the colony itself.
Confident in the power of his army and hoping to use a reconquered Saint-Domingue as the lynchpin of a French economic empire in the western hemisphere, which would include the Caribbean colonies, Guyana, Louisiana, and Florida, the First Consul blithely ignored these warnings. His view of Saint-Domingue was by now fully inflected by the racism of the colonial lobby: he told Vincent that he would “not tolerate a single épaulette on the shoulders of these negroes” and ordered that blacks and mixed-race people from the colonies should be banned from entering France. In May 1802, when France restored the slave trade and slavery in Martinique, Tobago, and Saint-Lucia (soon followed by Guadeloupe and Guyana), Bonaparte was even more blunt in a conversation with one of his subordinates: “I am for the whites, because I am white; I have no other reason, and this one is good enough”. Referring to the abolition of slavery by the Convention in 1794, he continued: “how can we have given liberty to Africans, to men without any civilisation, who had not the slightest idea as to what a colony, or for that matter, France was? If the majority of the members of the Convention had understood what they were doing, and known about the colonies, would they have abolished slavery [in 1794]? I very much doubt it”.
Later, when he was exiled at Saint-Helena, Napoleon acknowledged his mistake in ordering the invasion, recognising that he should have come to an arrangement with Toussaint Louverture, and “made him viceroy”. With typical bad faith, he blamed the Council of State, Josephine, and the “shrieks of the colonial lobby” for poisoning his relations with Saint-Domingue. This was a classic piece of retrospective justification; in truth, the primary responsibility lay squarely with him, and he paid a heavy price for his incapacity to appreciate the remarkable qualities of the Haitian revolutionaries. Their heroic struggles against slavery and imperial oppression were fully appreciated, however, by progressive men and women across the Atlantic throughout the modern era, summed up in one of Toussaint’s most famous sayings: “I was born an enslaved person, but nature gave me the soul of a free man”.
Sudhir Hazareesingh’s Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture, nominated for the Wolfson History Prize 2021, is out now. He is interviewed, along with the other nominees, here.