Book brief: Black Spartacus

In addition to flogging my own book, I have been meaning to write a few words about books that I’ve recently read and found interesting. Nothing as structured or formal as a review or even a book report, but perhaps a way to highlight some recent scholarship and maybe even some fiction.

For the first “book brief” I want to mention a new book I’ve just finished, Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture by the historian Sudhir Hazareesingh. It’s published by Penguin and intended for academic and non-academic audiences. It’s been widely acclaimed, including winning the prestigious Wolfson History Prize.

Toussaint is indeed a fascinating figure; despite his influence in Haiti, the wider Caribbean, and for many African Americans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he does not get much attention in how history is taught in the United States–something that goes for the Haitian revolution and independence generally. As Hazaraeesingh indicates, following CLR James and others, that’s not a coincidence. Haiti’s 1791 slave uprising and eventual 1804 independence as a free black republic terrified slave owners in the US and the still-colonized and slaveholding Caribbean. Haiti was less forgotten than erased from how history is taught.

No one played a larger role in that struggle than Toussaint. Born into slavery, Toussaint gained freedom and then used his position and incredibly physical and mental attributes to become a leader of a revolt, then a revolutionary general and leader. He was a prolific correspondent, which allows Black Spartacus to offer an incredibly detailed and richly sourced picture of Toussaint and his military and political campaigns against the British (who sought to conquer Saint Domingue and reimpose slavery) and the Spanish (who ruled the slaveholding colony of Santo Domingo, now the Dominican Republic).

Toussaint was certainly heroic, and Black Spartacus does a tremendous job of highlighting those qualities and feats as a leader, strategist, and politician. For a “trade” book, it’s a pretty academic read, though a worthy one. I certainly learned a tremendous amount about Toussaint’s life and the road to Haitian independence. The book also acts as a reminder of the many reasons why Haiti deserves more attention in the United States’ own history.

During the period between the slave revolt and independence, Saint Domingue grew increasingly autonomous under Toussaint, but it was still part of the revolutionary (and then Napoleon’s) French empire. During that French interregnum, the United States was quite warm with Toussaint and even supplied him naval support and arms to counter revolts. This was, in large part, to balance British power. Once Napoleon turned against Toussaint and invaded to reestablish control and slavery, that changed. After a bloody campaign, Toussaint was exiled to France and left to rot and die alone in a French jail. In an act of wanton cruelty, he was denied access to friends or family at the end of his life. The clear and present French plan to bring slavery back to a population that had won its freedom by force of arms unified opposition and sparked a general uprising. Haiti gained independence without Toussaint. His successors led an insurgency that defeated the world’s most powerful country at that time; the United States took advantage of Napoleon’s crumbling imperial plans by completing the Louisiana Purchase. Though its expansion owed Haiti a great deal, it shunned and excluded the second independent country in the Western Hemsiphere. But for many in Latin America, Toussaint would be an inspiration and Haiti a direct source of support (in the case of Simón Bolívar) in the independence wars the spread after 1810.

By focusing on Toussaint as “the first Black superhero of the modern age,” my feeling was that the book left some of Toussaint’s fascinating contradictions underexplored. Toussaint was a dedicated republican, but he did not see that as contradicting the idea of staying in the French Empire where Saint Domingue would remain an unequal colony. Likewise, Toussaint seemed to have less interest in core republican ideas about division of power; his was a praetorian and often authoritarian republic. Toussaint sought to impose controls over social life, including strict ideas about Catholic marriage, though he appears to have kept mistresses all over the island. Toussaint wanted to transform the economy, but remained tied to a system of plantations; where Black ownership of these increased, it appears to have often favored the well-connected and the military.

These contraditions don’t necessarily take away from his heroism. At times, his contradictions responded to constraints in a pragmatic way. Toussaint clearly had a solid grasp of international relations, and he seems to have intuited the problems an independent Haiti would face in a hierarchical, racist, and imperial international society. After 1804, both Europe and the US cut off Haiti. Economically and socially, it paid a great price, on top of the devastation caused by an invasion and years of internal and external conflict. The US would only extend recognition during the US Civil War; France would only do so when promised a massive indemnity. Having fought France to end slavery and become free, Haitians had to pay for that a second time.

That’s more than I intended to write, but obviously there is a lot here. Very much worth the read!

1 Comment

  1. Jim Allgaier says:

    Thanks Dr. Tom! What a fascinating read….I only vaguely remember reading about Toussaint in the past and Haiti’s fight for independence….

    This has sparked another surge of interest….I appreciate your sharing this with us!

    Jim Allgaier 909-736-7678 (c)

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