BBC History Magazine
New history books reviewed
JAMES WALVIN recommends a stirring biography of Toussaint Louverture, the revolutionary leader who overthrew French imperialists in Haiti and shook the foundations of the slave trade
Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture
by Sudhir Hazareesingh Allen Lane, 464 pages, £25
Toussaint Louverture has long been a heroic figure in the story of black freedom and the long battle against slavery. Taking its name from that given to Louverture by admirers in the 1790s, this new biography from Sudhir Hazareesingh delves into the life and legacy of the revolutionary who became the pre-eminent leader of the enslaved in their fight for freedom.
Born enslaved in the 1740s, Louverture was raised as a menial worker on a plantation in French-held Saint-Domingue (in what is now Haiti). The Caribbean colony was then the main source of French imperial wealth – affluence which can still be seen in the handsome architecture of Bordeaux – mainly via sugar and coffee.
Louverture evolved into a self-made man of great accomplishment; African in his background and sympathies, Christian to his fingertips, and steeped in French learning – he was very much a man of the Enlightenment. Characterised by great sophistication and guile, Louverture was known for his physical strength, bravery and industry, as well as his astute leadership, military abilities and charismatic presence. He was also a prodigiously busy man, commonly working 16 hours a day and sometimes drafting 200
letters a day. He rode furiously, always ahead of his aides, and was painstaking in his attention to detail.
These personal qualities helped steer insurgent slaves to ultimate freedom when Louverture emerged as the major challenge to French power in Saint-Dominigue as the figurehead of the Haitian Revolution.
In the process, Saint-Domingue was wracked by waves of recurring bloody and often fratricidal fighting: between France and her insurgent colonists, between enslaved people and the free, indeed between all the various social and political groups that made up that astonishing place. Colonial officials, planters, free people of colour and slaves all took up arms against one another.
Added to all this was the disruptive role of Spain, next door in Santo Domingo; the British, lurking offshore or in nearby Jamaica; and the US, anxiously watching close by. Yet from this nightmare of confusion, Louverture laid the foundations for an independent Haiti. This was finally granted in 1804, but Louverture did not live to see it happen. He was tricked by Napoleon, who was keen to restore slavery and French control over Saint-Domingue, into a grim imprisoned exile in the Jura mountains and died in 1803.
Yet even after his death, Louverture’s legacy had a significant impact. The people he had led into revolution – a diverse mix of Africans, local born and Europeans – had seen off slavery and had defeated invasions by Britain, Spain and France. The colony’s upheavals had sent émigrés fleeing to other Caribbean islands and throughout the Americas; their graves dot the Catholic cemeteries of New Orleans and Charleston.
Louverture’s revolution also served as a dire warning to slave owners everywhere. He came to personify the nightmare of all the slave-owning colonial powers, confirming everything that planters and their backers
Louverture came to personify the nightmare of all slave-owning colonial powers... Given a chance, slaves would bring down the house of bondage
predicted about the risks of dangling the prospect of abolition, and the Rights of Man, before the enslaved. Given a chance, slaves would bring down the house of bondage.
Tied to Louverture’s name and words, the prospect of freedom took root clean across the enslaved Americas. Time and again, there were reports of slaves praising his name, in the islands and South America.
For much the same reason, Louverture’s memory has been evoked by anti-slavery and anti-colonial campaigners from that day to this. His reputation as the man who destroyed slavery and in effect shattered French colonial policy in the region has weathered different criticisms over two centuries. It is a legend, according to Hazareesingh, which “played to a dizzyingly broad gallery, reverberating throughout the Atlantic world and beyond…” His name was even used as a rallying call in the Māori Wars in New Zealand. He was, in the author’s words, “the first black superhero of the modern age”.
Black Spartacus is a rich and utterly engrossing study of major significance, confirming the importance of Louverture both in his own time and beyond.