by Sudhir Hazareesingh
The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture
A BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week
The definitive modern biography of the great slave leader, military genius and revolutionary hero Toussaint Louverture.
The Haitian Revolution began in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue with a slave revolt in August 1791, and culminated a dozen years later in the proclamation of the world’s first independent black state. After the abolition of slavery in 1793, Toussaint Louverture, himself a former slave, became the leader of the colony’s black population, the commander of its republican army and eventually its governor. During the course of his extraordinary life he confronted some of the dominant forces of his age – slavery, settler colonialism, imperialism and racial hierarchy. Treacherously seized by Napoleon’s invading army in 1802, this charismatic figure ended his days, in Wordsworth’s phrase, ‘the most unhappy man of men’, imprisoned in a fortress in France.
Black Spartacus draws on a wealth of archival material, much of it overlooked by previous biographers, to follow every step of Louverture’s singular journey, from his triumphs against French, Spanish and British troops to his skilful regional diplomacy, his Machiavellian dealings with successive French colonial administrators and his bold promulgation of an autonomous Constitution. Sudhir Hazareesingh shows that Louverture developed his unique vision and leadership not solely in response to imported Enlightenment ideals and revolutionary events in Europe and the Americas, but through a hybrid heritage of fraternal slave organisations, Caribbean mysticism and African political traditions. Above all, Hazareesingh retrieves Louverture’s rousing voice and force of personality, making this the most engaging, as well as the most complete, biography to date.
After his death in the French fortress, Louverture became a figure of legend, a beacon for slaves across the Atlantic and for generations of European republicans and progressive figures in the Americas. He inspired the anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass, the most eminent nineteenth-century African-American; his emancipatory struggle was hailed by those who defied imperial and colonial rule well into the twentieth. In the modern era, his life informed the French poet Aime Cesaire’s seminal idea of negritude and has been celebrated in a remarkable range of plays, songs, novels and statues. Here, in all its drama, is the epic story of the world’s first black superhero.