Toussaint’s conception of race was also a landmark in the emergence of modern senses of black identity. Blackness for him was about honour, duty, and pride, and was integral to his sense of self, all the more so that he lived in a world which was rife with prejudice against men and women of African descent. The anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass, the most eminent 19th century African-American, was a Toussaint devotee who helped disseminate his legend across the United States, using his example to celebrate black civilisation while affirming the fundamental equality between blacks and other racial groups. Likewise, the French poet Aimé Césaire’s conception of négritude, one of the seminal developments in 20th century conceptions of black cultural identity, owed a great deal to his historical explorations of Toussaint Louverture’s struggle for emancipation.
Toussaint’s original philosophy of republicanism is illuminating, too, for historians of political thought. He was a disciple of the Radical Enlightenment, who was familiar with the works of Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Raynal, but also an excitingly polyphonic thinker, who drew upon a wide range of African and Caribbean values. This shines through in the book’s organising concept, the ideal of fraternity. Toussaint and his black revolutionaries invented an original version of brotherhood: it wove together, in a magnificent tapestry, European rationalism, Saint-Domingue’s syncretic Catholicism, elements of runaway marron slave culture, as well as African royalism and Caribbean spirituality (notably the emerging vodou religion).
Toussaint Louverture also speaks to the contemporary post-colonial predicament. In 1998, a plaque in his honour was inaugurated in the Panthéon, the Parisian monument to French national heroes, and statues of Toussaint have subsequently appeared in several French cities, as well as in Canada, the United States, Cuba, and Benin – and of course in his native Haiti. In this sense, Louverture’s memory remains an active site of intellectual engagement, symbolising the more robust ways in which the ongoing impacts of slavery, colonialism and imperialism are being discussed across the Atlantic world.
Sudhir Hazareesingh is CUF Lecturer in Politics and Tutorial Fellow in Politics, Balliol College