Inspired by the French Revolution, the ruthlessly pragmatic former governor led a famous slave rebellion in the Caribbeanby Carrie Gibson / November 9, 2020 / Leave a comment
One of the many ironies of the life of Toussaint Louverture is that he was a governor of a French colony who never set foot in France, until he was imprisoned in the Jura mountains shortly before his death.
“There is no man,” wrote Charles Vincent, who served as an emissary for Louverture, “more attached to the ideal of French republicanism.” Louverture’s loyalty to—and his interpretation of—the French Revolution’s call for liberté, égalité, fraternité is clear throughout Sudhir Hazareesingh’s engaging biography of the former slave who became governor of Saint-Domingue, on what is now known as Haiti. Louverture did not accept the promise of the revolution at face value but, as Hazareesingh shows, “his ideas were shaped through his own reasoning, and combined Saint-Domingue’s revolutionary tradition with his own.”
The timing of this book is fortuitous. In a year of Black Lives Matter protests over police brutality, the story of Louverture’s rise and fall is a poignant reminder that the promise of true liberty, equality and brotherhood in the 18th century remains unfulfilled in the democracies of today.
Hazareesingh, whose other works examine the mythology around two towering French historical figures, Charles de Gaulle and Napoleon Bonaparte, starts Black Spartacus in a similar vein, by discussing how Louverture has been written about, both during his life and in the two centuries since his death. For some, he was the “black George Washington,” while others decried him as the “Robespierre of Saint-Domingue.” Within Haiti, it is Louverture’s successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who is considered the real father of the nation, after his routing of the French in 1803.
Hazareesingh’s aim is to “find our way back to Toussaint… to try to see the world through his eyes, and to recapture the boldness of his thinking and the individuality of his voice.” He is exhaustive in this mission, mining deep into French, Spanish and British archives. The result is a vivid portrait of a complex, captivating and sometimes contradictory leader.
While Louverture admired Enlightenment thinkers—he certainly knew of the prediction of a “Black Spartacus” in Guillaume-Thomas Raynal and Denis Diderot’s Histoire des deux Indes—he eschewed the anti-clericalism of the time, remaining a fervent Catholic his entire life, and also participating in vodou practices. It is this creole…