Sudhir Hazareesingh “Black Spartacus” – book review

Toussaint Louverture was a man of many stories.

He was one of the founding fathers of Haiti, one of the leaders of the slave uprising, a French commander fighting against the British, and at last man betrayed by his own countrymen. I had only heard of him as a black revolutionary in Haiti – the first former colony which arose to independence through the fight of its former slaves. As such, this was one enough to make me interested in this biography of “the first black superhero” of the modern age. But Louverture was so much more than a comic-book style superhero.

His very name is a case in point. L’ouverture means “opening” in French.

“What precisely lay behind the metaphor of ‘opening’ is still a matter of debate: there are suggestions that French officials first used the term to describe Toussaint’s talent for reconciliation, or conversely, his astonishing capacity to snatch territories from their control; a French commissioner allegedly exclaimed in 1793 (…) ‘comment cet home fait donc overture partout.” So it was either – because he was so good at making peace or because he was so good at slaughtering the French? But as is if that wasn’t contradiction enough: there was also “a widely held but mistaken belief” that the name came from his missing front teeth, which he lost when a cannonball exploded near him. I have to say that I’m drawn to all these origins of the name: the idealistic “a talent for making peace”, the heroic “what incredible military skill”, and finally the pragmatic “it was just that his teeth were missing”. There is something about the man that defies simplification. He seems, well, real. And even the contradictions in these origin stories make it clear that he was clearly a legend in his own time too.

His story of military involvement starts at roughly 41, when he participated in the slave rebellion. But at this time, he had been a free man for 10 years – to the point where it is suspected he had slaves himself. This biography does not dwell much on the details of his early life – although it does point that he was Allada in origin , though born in Haiti – and that Toussaint spoke in both his father tongue, creole ,and French. He would recognise his Allada countrymen during the revolution and speak to them in their own language. Another interesting aspect of Toussaint’s early life is his attachment to catholicism. The suspicion is that it is through the Jesuits that he learned to read and write. Indeed, the Jesuits got into trouble with the French authorities – as they employed black missionaries, and often stated that all men were equal before God. Toussaint remained a devout catholic throughout his life, despite later aligning himself with French revolutionary interests.

During the slave rebellion against the French, Toussaint commanded his own regiment of runaway slaves. He had protected a number of white prisoners from an unjust execution by his fellow black commanders. There is suspicion that his catholicism made him a royalist. He then joined the Spanish forces, which were based in the eastern side of the island – they were natural allies against the revolutionary French, who were still obstinately claiming that though all men were created equal, white men were more equal than others. The French Republic abolished slavery on their (western) side of the island in 1793. In 1794, Toussaint decided to join the French forces. It is highly unlikely that these dates a coincidence.

Toussaint enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with the republican French Governor of the island, General Laveaux – he even referred to him as his father, ‘Papa’. Toussaint fought as a French commander against the British occupation of the island : the British still kept slaves – which meant that he was seen as a liberator. At this point, Hazareesingh seems to suggest that Toussaint saw himself as a Frenchman – he sent his children away to be educated in France. His soldiers knew the Marseillaise, and one of the regiments under his command was renamed as the sans culottes. It was Laveaux who first called Toussaint “Black Spartacus”, the leader announced by the philosopher Raynal to avenge the crimes perpetrated against his race”. Even that undoubted accolade has a strange undertone to it – for all his noble struggle for freedom against the Roman Empire, Spartacus was killed, and his supporters were crucified along the Via Appia. The French Republic (soon to be an empire) had an eerily similar way of treating their own Spartacus.

Unfortunately, Lavaux left for the mainland, and Toussaint’s relationship with the following two French governors soured quickly. He was also haunted by internal conflict. A rebellion was led against him by the mixed-race commander Rigaud – a fratricidal conflict, known in Haitian history as the “War of the Knives”. As if that were not enough, his own nephew, Moyse, rebelled against him too, claiming that his 1801 constitution favoured the white population of the island too much. The French disliked this constitution for the very opposite reason- they saw it is Toussaint’s bid for independence. It is this constitution that is often blamed for Napoleon’s invasion of the island, despite its numerous references to the republic. Take its most famous article, about the abolition of slavery

“3. Les esclaves ne sont point stuffers dans ce territoire; l’esclavage est abolished pour jambs. Tous les homes ne dans ce pays, vivant et meurent hommes libres et français.”

In its origin, one of the functions of the constitution was too conciliate the French, as well as to consolidate Toussaint’s local power.

Hazareesingh points out that Napoleon’s reasoning was likely much more pragmatic – a draft of a letter exists in which Napoleon approves Toussaint’s command and his decision to take over the Spanish territory of Saint-Domingue (the Eastern half of the island). This letter was never sent. Just think for a moment – how incredible that there should still in existence an unsent letter, which genuinely could have changed the course of history? So many lives could have been spared…

We don’t know exactly why it was never sent. A possible reason was the growing power of the colonial lobby in France, which demanded ‘reestablishment of order in the colonies’. Soon afterwards, a truce was made between the French and the British, which allowed the French to think of possibly expanding their power base into the Caribbean – and made the invasion of Haiti a possibility. It is likely this truce that jeopardised all of Toussaint’s efforts and allowed Napoleon to send an expeditionary force to the island under General Leclerc. A decision the French Emperor regretted was made to regret till the end of his life.

The original French plan had been to take over by cunning. The secret instructions to the expedition were to secure the coasts by flattery of the current military leaders. The next phase was the destruction of Haiti’s leadership – ‘whatever their colour’. All landowning blacks were to be stripped of their land – it was to be ‘returned’ to the white settlers. Slavery was to be reintroduced in the Eastern part of the island. Overtly, however, this invasion was all to do with Toussaint’s insubordination to Napoleon – and because this argument was employed, many of few of his own commanders and their soldiers deserted his side.

Despite the military advantage of the invading forces, Touissant was at first determined to fight.

“Those who will be spared by our sword will receive death at the hands of our vengeful climate”, Toussaint wrote – prophetically as it turned out. Yellow fever proved to be a scourge of the invading French forces and the scorched earth policy Toussaint implemented must have had its effects too. In an instruction to Dessalines, he said “it is imperative that the land which has been bather by our sweat should provide no nourishment to the enemy. Tear up the roads with shot, and throw the carcasses of dead horses into springs; destroy and burn everything, so that those who come to re-enslave us always have before their eyes the image of hell they deserve.”This policy was highly effective, and after a period of struggle, the French and Touissant agreed to a peace.

This is where it truly gets unpleasant. Though Leclerc was unable to win the island, he had determined to arrest Touissant. So this legendary revolutionary was captured by the French during a meeting, accompanied by only two of his men. It is said that his entourage was infiltrated by spies, and even his former companion, Dessalines conspired to get rid of him.Toussaint was deported to France in 1802, and died in 1803 in Fort de Joux – a prison selected specifically for its cold climate.

This was my attempt at a short summary of the events of Toussaint’s revolutionary life – but they are simply too many of them, packed in a relatively short period of time, for me to do him any justice. What I did not mention – fearing lack of nuance, is that this book also talks about the extreme contradictions of Toussaint’s life- his generosity to his enemies, but also his ruelty; his combat for black rights, but his refusal to let black citizens leave their former plantations to set up their own place (which he explained with an economic prerogative); his Frenchness and his compromises with the Americans and the British; his authoritarian tendencies and his overt republicanism …

There is so much to unpack in this man’s life, and this biography does an incredible job of relating his story. It reads exceptionally well too – but also gives you a good academic background, and lots of lovely footnotes ( I love footnotes). The paperback edition also has some colour plates and some pictures – and I like having those too, so I can try to imagine what people looked like.

Although there are some pictures of Toussaint going around, don’t get your hopes up if you would like to see the gap between his teeth. In some of them he was “Europeanized” to make his features more acceptable , in some he was just a vague copy of an existing picture of Napoleon, and not many at all seem to be contemporary with his lifetime…

P.S.

Toussaint may have died in 1803, but as soon as his people realised that the French were reintroducing slavery in the neighbouring colonies – the rebellion was alive again and the French forces were struggling.

In 1804, the state of Haiti was declared, with Dessalines at its head. Massacres of the white population ensued. A weird but interesting detail in this story is the fate of the Polish legionnaires who were part of Napoleon’s expeditionary corps – some of these men were so disgusted to find themselves fighting on the side of a colonial oppressor, that they deserted. These Poles were declared “noirs” by the first Haitian constitution and spared.

P.S. 2

Toussaint may have died in France in 1803, but general Leclerc died of yellow fever in 1802, only 5 months after he had authorised Toussaint’s capture. Ouch.

Also, if you want a more proper academic review of this book, check out this one.

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