Black Spartacus, Sudhir Hazareesingh Allen Lane, £25
This is a gripping biographical account of Toussaint Louverture (1743-1804), the greatest black revolutionary leader emerging within the age of bourgeois revolutions, who “took from the Enlightenment, what the Enlightenment never dreamt of”. Hazareesingh, an Oxford scholar, has succeeded in enriching the epic story of the self-emancipation of enslaved Africans from a revolt in 1791 into a revolutionary struggle. It abolished slavery on the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue, declaring independence as Haiti in 1804. This was the only successful slave revolution in history, achieved against all odds, and facing the formidable might of three European empires. Hazareesingh succeeds in rescuing the myriad of Toussaint’s seemingly contradictory actions, and the many turns taken during the course of the revolution, from accounts that have attempted to cast doubt on his commitment to the ideals of revolutionary France.
Some claim him to be a conservative and aspiring landowner, a tyrannical authoritarian who betrayed his race. Others, astonishingly, argue he was a ‘royalist agent’. He writes: “Toussaint embodied the many facets of Saint-Domingue’s revolution by confronting the dominant forces of his age —slavery, settler colonialism, imperial domination, racial hierarchy and European cultural supremacy — and bending them to his will.” New research reveal Toussaint was briefly employed in two hospitals for services as a doctor.
Documents attributed to him in this role suggest he was far more involved in the initial planning of the revolt than previously thought. Freed in 1776, he owned at least one slave. There are new poignant revelations about Toussaint’s family, highlighting the personal tragedy inflicted by slavery. The geopolitical fault lines created by British, French and Spanish imperialist rivalry were navigated with Machiavellian cunning, gaul and flair, Toussaint’s only compass being the total abolition of slavery. With this aim, he wove together all the disparate elements to construc an army of Africans, forged together with the ideals of ‘unity and ‘fraternity’. He declared “equality cannot exist without liberty and for liberty to exist we need unity”.
A plantation labourer described the behaviour of its multi-racial leadership of black, coloured and white officers as if “all were born from the same mother”. His attempts to revive the plantation economy, in a world that deemed black people incapable of independent political thought, was also the means to show that a black state could exist and function under a new, multiracial moral force and authority established and created by black agency. Black Spartacus is an account of how slavery was smashed and how an “intuitive genius…shook the Enlightenment’s belief in the inherent superiority of all things European”.
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A pick of the highlights