Black Spartacus Sudhir Hazareesingh

Toussaint Louverture was the spearhead of the Haitian revolution, which began in 1791 with a massive slave revolt in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, and culminated in the proclamation of the world’s first independent black state in 1804. Although Toussaint did not live to witness this climax, he decisively shaped the course of the revolution: he became the leader of the colony’s 500,000 blacks, the commander of its republican army, and eventually its governor. In 1801 he promulgated a Constitution in which slavery was abolished “forever”. Treacherously captured by Napoleon’s invading army a year later, and imprisoned in a French fort, he ended his days as the revolution’s most eminent martyr.

I have been writing a biography of Louverture (Black Spartacus, forthcoming next year), and it has been enormous fun, as it got me back to the archives. There are copious holdings on late 18th century Saint-Domingue in French, Spanish, American, and British archives. The bulk of these Toussaint papers were in France, and so I ended up spending many wonderful months in the Archives Nationales, the Bibliothèque Nationale, the Archives Diplomatiques, the military archives at Vincennes, the Archives d’Outre Mer in Aix-en-Provence, as well as regional depots such as Nantes and Bordeaux. The most unexpected treasure haul came from The National Archives in Kew, which coughed up some uniquely informative reports about the final years of Toussaint’s leadership, thanks to the observations of British consular officials based in Saint-Domingue between 1799 and 1801.

This close examination of Toussaint’s life also allowed me to explore larger political themes. The first was his unique style of revolutionary leadership. Toussaint confronted the mighty forces of his age – slavery, settler colonialism, imperial domination, racial hierarchy, and European cultural supremacy – and bent them to his implacable will. As the world’s first black superhero, he defied convention: as a slave who achieved emancipation, as a black man who ascended to supreme power, and as a great captain whose triumphs against French, Spanish and British troops subverted existing martial norms. At the same time, Louverture anticipated the modern anticolonial tradition’s struggle for justice and equality: he was idolised by slaves all over the Atlantic, and his legend was celebrated by Cuban rebels, Irish republicans, and Maori tribes, and Paul Robeson later called Ho Chi Minh the “Toussaint Louverture of Vietnam”.

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


Photo Credits: The New York Public Library; Attack and take of the Crête-à-Pierrot (4 - 24 March, 1802). Original illustration by Auguste Raffet, engraving by Hébert.

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