Charles Forsdick (Jacobin Magazine) reviews Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture by Sudhir Hazareesingh (Penguin, 2021).
Sudhir Hazareesingh’s account of what he dubs the “epic life” of Toussaint Louverture provides a meticulous biography of his subject and, at the same time, a comprehensive new introduction to the Haitian Revolution in general. Black Spartacus represents a substantial intervention in the field of Haitian revolutionary historiography and the wider historiography of revolution.
Hazareesingh’s biography has rightly attracted numerous accolades, not least the Wolfson History Prize, the UK’s most prestigious award for a work of historical nonfiction. There is also reported to be a TV adaptation in the offing by Mammoth Screen, the British production company known for such series as The Serpent and Poldark.
Black Spartacus is compellingly written and presents its rich source material, both historiographic and archival, with a welcome lightness of touch. The resulting work will cement Louverture’s standing in the Anglophone world as a key figure of the age of revolutions whose contemporary resonance is more apparent than ever.
An Energy With No Borders
“The ideal of black empowerment,” notes Hazareesingh, “was at the heart of Toussaint’s legend.” First published in September 2020, during the autumn following the murder of George Floyd and the global protests associated with Black Lives Matter, the new biography proved timely. Many people cited the Haitian leader as a historical precedent and inspiration for the contemporary movement.
Here is a man who transformed revolt into organized revolution, a leader characterized by an uncompromising commitment to universal emancipation.
It may not be a “progressive handbook for revolution across the globe,” as the author describes C. L. R. James’s work The Black Jacobins. Yet Black Spartacus nevertheless offers an account of a revolutionary icon who led a struggle for black emancipation combating the key forms of oppression of his age: “slavery, settler colonialism, imperial domination, racial hierarchy and European cultural supremacy.” Here is a man who transformed revolt into organized revolution, a leader characterized by an uncompromising commitment to universal emancipation, who exposed the blind spots and illogicality of European thinking.
Hazareesingh’s aim is to show how Louverture was above all “inspired by the Makandalist ambition to create a common consciousness among black slaves, by the movement’s appeal to their aspirations for liberty, and by its goal to forge an efficient revolutionary organization.” The term “Makandalist” refers to François Makandal, who organized a secret society of Haitian slaves a generation before Louverture, preparing a revolt before he was captured and brutally executed. His example helped inspire the revolution that Louverture went on to lead.
The original hardback’s cover image is drawn from François Cauvin’s 2009 portrait of Louverture with a pintade (guinea fowl) forming his hat. In Haiti, people see these birds as a symbol of liberty and resistance. On their introduction to the colony, they are reported to have resisted domestication and fled their would-be captors in the style of Maroons.
The conclusion of Black Spartacus moves from the archive to the varied corpus of cultural representations that feature Louverture. Having cited Wyclef Jean and Akala, Hazareesingh closes with Haitian voices, specifically with those of the band Chouk Bwa (“Tree Stump”). Its name was inspired by the revolutionary leader’s speech on the “tree of liberty,” one that he is said to have delivered when Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops kidnapped him and deported him from Haiti to France, where he would die in captivity in April 1803. Hazareesingh quotes the group’s singer, Edele Joseph, who summarizes his band’s Louverturian spirit: “The mission is to bring positive energy to people. . . The energy has no borders.”
The Precursor and the Liberator
Outside Haiti, Louverture has tended to attract more hagiographic approaches that often downplay his personal and strategic flaws. These complexities are more visible in Haiti itself, where the specters of the Revolution are never far from the surface.
Outside Haiti, Louverture has tended to attract more hagiographic approaches that often downplay his personal and strategic flaws. In his 2005 essay, La Cohée du Lamentin, Édouard Glissant described the ghost of Toussaint Louverture haunting the ramparts of the Château de Joux, the fort in the Jura region of France where, progressively starved by Napoleon of food, heat, and light, he died in April 1803. The French had sought to remove Louverture from the country and neutralize his influence over the formerly enslaved inhabitants of the colony of Saint-Domingue. Instead, the man now known as the “Precursor” inspired his former generals — notably Jean-Jacques Dessalines (the “Liberator”) and Henri Christophe — to rise up again against Charles Leclerc’s occupying forces. They transformed a revolution driven by a desire for emancipation from enslavement into an anti-colonial war of independence.
Writers often attribute very different views of Haiti’s future to the Precursor and the Liberator, with the former supposedly committed to the country’s autonomy in a French commonwealth of nations, while the latter was naturally suspicious of former colonizers and insisted on self-sufficiency at all costs. In reality, the differences between the two men were not as polarized as these depictions suggest. Yet Haitian politics remains split between Louverturians and Dessalineans, as the legacies of the revolution continue to resonate in the present. [. . .]
Black Spartacus belongs to a long tradition of English-language biographies that concentrate on Toussaint Louverture. This lineage extends back to the 1802 English translation of Jean-François Dubroca’s racist, scurrilous, and pro-Napoleonic account of his life but also includes more approving texts that followed in the nineteenth century, such as The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Negro Patriot of Hayti, published by the Unitarian minister John Relly Beard in 1853.
The main text with which Hazareesingh inevitably engages, however, is The Black Jacobins. This is a work that the author clearly admires, but it does not escape his criticism. In emphasizing his subject’s Jacobin credentials, Hazareesingh argues, C. L. R. James ignored his monarchist tendencies as well as the “breathtaking originality” of his revolutionary endeavors.
Other English-language biographies followed in the wake of James, most notably Ralph Korngold’s Citizen Toussaint, published by the Left Book Club in 1944, and Wenda Parkinson’s “This Gilded African,” which appeared in 1978. More recently, there has been a cluster of biographical studies, notably those of Madison Smartt Bell and Philippe Girard.
Smartt Bell’s life of Louverture is a companion piece to his trilogy of novels on the Haitian Revolution. It presents his subject as a vaudouisant, a shape-shifting practitioner of traditional religion who at the same time mastered and deployed Enlightenment knowledge. Girard draws on an impressive body of archival material, particularly when it comes to his subject’s early life. Yet his analysis reverts to a new conservative revisionism that claims one of Louverture’s principal aims was to acquire wealth and social status for himself. [. . .]
See more on the book at https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/303/303774/black-spartacus/9780141985060.html