Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture by Sudhir Hazareesingh. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2020.
Author Sudhir Hazareesingh is a native of the Indian Ocean island and former French colony of Mauritius, once known as Ile de France. Drawing upon a lifetime of research in the French, British and U.S. archives, the Oxford scholar and expert on French history unearths until-recently untapped primary sources and correspondence, which provide a deeper look at the legendary anti-colonial Haitian figure Toussaint Louverture and his worldview.
Black Spartacus is a rigorous history of Louverture’s undying spirit and prodigious work for his people’s emancipation. A stranger to sleep and personal comfort, everyday the former slave-turned-general and leader of a burgeoning nation, dictated and wrote 200 letters to allies and enemies alike, covered 120 miles on horseback, and convened meetings with dozens of leaders and their communities (page 213). The first chapter examines his coming of age as a slave on the Breda plantation, from which he received his slave name, and the influence of Catholicism and Vodou. He later earned his name Louverture, meaning “The Opening,” on the battlefield inspired by “one of the most revered vodou deities, Papa Legba, the spirit of the crossroads”; a popular kreyol chant at the beginning of ritual ceremonies was “Papa Lega, open the gates for me” (43).
The middle chapters cover his time as a “general in the Spanish auxiliary army [where] he commanded a force of 4,000 men, as a French general who defeated the English invasion of San Domingue and his writing of the 1801 constitution, which outlawed slavery on the island for eternity” (58). A diplomat, he had to maneuver between warring empires with superior armies and navies hell-bent on re-enslaving “the pearl of the Antilles.” Hazareesingh evaluates Louverture’s role in the June 1799 “War of Knives” against André Rigaud and the Generals of Color (the “mulattos”). Supported by the British through their colonial administration in Jamaica, this intermediary class sought to wipe out the white planters and re-enslave Black people. Thoroughly opposed to “the relentless ethnic cleansing,” Louverture dreamed of and fought for a San Domingue for all classes. While protecting the lives of the white propertied class, he returned to rally his base on the plantations with his rallying cry: “I took up arms so that you may be free… and like you I was once a slave.” The battered, oppressed masses of former slaves were always his true source of power.
All books on the Haitian revolution must be held up to C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. The 1938 classic of the historical materialist method continues to be the magisterial account of how the masses of Haitian slaves mobilized themselves into a people’s army and blow by blow, setback after setback, treachery after treachery and massacre after massacre, defeated Napoleon’s sanguinary French empire.
Hazareesingh’s main critique is James gives too much credit to French Republicanism’s influence on Louverture. Yet, throughout the 427-page book the author himself constantly reminds the reader of Louverture’s loyalty to France. Both James and Hazareesingh agree on the essential components of Louverture’s personality: He never forgot his roots, he was a devout Catholic, a stickler for military and social etiquette and order, and was “incorruptible” (193).
An admirer of French culture, language and history, Louverture felt San Domingue—the former name of the island now inhabited by Haiti and the Dominican Republic—could never make it on his own. Louverture had a type of neocolonial view that the Mauritian author interrogates. Without returning the former slaves to a bondage they so violently feared, the reader may be surprised to know their very liberator bound them to the plantations in order to continue producing the enormous wealth of the past decades and centuries. The workers in return received one-fourth of their harvest. Aware of the brutal, dehumanizing effects of the slave system, he saw the plantation economy as a necessary evil until the formerly enslaved people could build up their own sense of economy and culture. He saw France as the indispensable mother country that would instill a “Republican” spirit in “her children.”
Surrounded by assasination plots and having been deceived from all sides, Louverture “was extremely reluctant to communicate his intentions even to his leading military officers, or to share power with them in any meaningful way” (291). Again, the Haitian general did not have the insights of future revolutionary cadre. Amilcar Cabral’s maxum, “Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories…” was all too relevant. The cultivateurs (former slaves) must have wondered why their shining prince disciplined them while giving free reign to the colons (the white planters and former slave owners). It was as if Louverture thought he could win over the antagonistic classes and wish away a class conflict based on the enslavement of millions of abducted Africans.
While in retrospect we can call Louverture idealistic it is important to remember he did not have the advantage of drawing on the lessons of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Chinese Revolution of 1949, the Vietnamese’s popular resistance to the French and later to U.S. imperialism, or the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Unlike Haitian revolutionaries François Makandal, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Kapwa Lamò, Moyse—an adopted nephew Louverture ultimately executed—as well as other Haitian generals of the people’s war, Louverture was not willing to go all the way. Hazareesingh contrasts the Makandalist vs Louverturian vision for Haiti. Ultimately, Dessaline was the man for the historical job carrying the Makandalist project to its ultimate “No Sellout, No Compromise” conclusion. The scorched earth strategy of “Koupe tèt Boule kay” (Cut off [the masters’] heads Burn down their mansions) was all the invading troops could understand. As 20,000 of French General Charles Leclerc’s soldiers occupied Cap Haïtien in the north, Dessalines and his generals burned down the entire city and retreated to the mountains, so the invaders would have no base to call home.
While “his capacity to straddle divides across the ideological spectrum” within the anti-colonial camp was a great asset, it was also his hamartia, or flaw fatale (357). Like James, Hazareesingh shows how Louverture, even as he died away in the infamous French dungeon at Fort de Joux in 1803, never lost hope that colonial France would live up to the 1789 creed of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” Louverture remained a true Jacobin as France devolved again into a slave-holding empire. While revolutionary leadership through the ages will continue to debate whether his “non-racialist” view of humanity and progress was correct, they surely agree that his faith in his class and colonial enemies was his downfall. (39)
In a polemic against apologists for colonialism, Guyanese revolutionary Walter Rodney states what Louverture’s humanism, non-racialism and unbounding faith in human nature never allowed him to reach:
They [defenders of colonialism] would then urge that another issue to be resolved is how much Europeans did for Africans, and that it is necessary to draw up a ‘balance sheet of colonialism’. On that balance sheet, they place both the ‘credits’ and the ‘debits’, and quite often conclude that the good outweighed the bad… It is our contention that this is completely false. Colonialism had only one hand—it was a one-armed bandit. (205)
Louverture’s tragic fate re-confirmed two classes, with entirely antagonistic class interests, could not co-exist. Napoleon’s deception, kidnapping, torture, imprisonment and murder of Louverture was a most undignified ending for the most upright of men.
Hazareesingh’s final chapter, “A Universal Hero,” examines the vast array of future revolutions’ tributes dedicated to the Haitian people’s general through art, film, literature and theater. Facing death in a prison cell in 1954, Fidel Castro wrote the Cuban revolutionaries were inspired to “revolutionize Cuba from top to bottom by the insurrection of Black slaves in Haiti, at a time when Napoleon was imitating Caesar, the France resembled Rome, the soul of Spatacus was reborn in Toussaint Louverture.”
Black Spartacus is a motivating read and its examination of letters and documents from the Haitian revolution compliments the foundational work of C.L.R. James.
A slightly different version of this review appeared in Haiti Liberté.
Danny Shaw is a professor of Caribbean and Latin American Studies at the City University of New York. He frequently travels to Haiti to stay with the mass anti-imperialist movement. A Senior Research Fellow at the Center on Hemispheric Affairs, Danny is fluent in Haitian Kreyol, Spanish, Portuguese and Cape Verdean Kriolu.