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Haiti’s Toussaint Louverture: The first black superhero of the modern age

Sunday 3 January 2021, by siawi3

Source: https://unherd.com/2020/12/the-first-black-superhero-of-the-modern-age/?tl_inbound=1&tl_groups[0]=18743&tl_period_type=3


The first black superhero of the modern age

Black Spartacus: This biography of revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture could not be more timely

BY Ralph Leonard

Illustration depicting Toussaint Louverture participating in the successful revolt. Photo: Getty

Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.

December 29, 2020

In the summer of 1791, a slave owner named Leclerc returned to his plantation in Northern Saint Domingue (modern-day Haiti), not long after an uprising by his slaves. His property was destroyed, but only one building was left standing. And upon entering and investigating the scene, he was surprised to discover that only one book from his torched library survived: the 4th edition of the Histoire Philosophique des Deux Indes by Abbe Raynal and Denis Diderot, a radical, anti-slavery pamphlet by two Enlightenment thinkers examining the history of European colonisation in the “New World”. The book was left open on a page that warned of “terrible reprisals” that would dished out onto the colonists if they did not free their slaves.

This poetic episode from Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture, Sudhir Hazareesingh’s voluminous yet gripping biography, is a small demonstration of the historical magnificence of that revolution. The slaves not only appropriated the Historie philosophique, but as Hazareesingh writes: “brought the text to life in a glorious display of erudition, swagger and wit”. The life of the Haitian slave leader, published in September this year, could not been more timely, as the historical legacy of slavery and racism came to dominate debate in the United States and beyond.

Most Westerners will be familiar with the importance of the years 1776 and 1789. The American and French revolutions were the two defining moments of modern history, events that overthrew monarchy and feudal absolutism with new Enlightenment ideas of liberty, equality and republicanism, thus sparking “The Age of Revolution”.

The Haitian Revolution of 1791 might be included into this same bracket. A revolution as monumental as events in the United States and France, it erupted just two years after the fall of the Bastille on a small Caribbean island, organised and executed by African slaves fighting for their liberation against French slave masters.

It should be regarded as one of the great events of world history, being the first rebellion in which slaves overthrew their masters, abolished slavery, beat off multiple imperial powers and managed to set up their own nation and constitution. It was, in Aime Cesaire’s words, when “black men stood up in order to affirm, for the first time, their determination to create a new world, a free world.”

It is mainly because of CLR James’ indispensable masterpiece, Black Jacobins, which artfully retells its triumphs and tragedies, that the Haitian revolution has attracted any awareness, let alone esteem in our culture at all. Otherwise it has been a revolution largely relegated to obscurity.

Thankfully, Black Spartacus is a valuable gem for readers eager to enlighten themselves about the revolution and especially for the man who lead it. Toussaint Louverture’s life can rightfully be described as “epic”; born a slave in the 1740s on the Breda plantation in Saint Domingue, France’s most valuable colony, his existence was defined by oppression and cruelty.

After helping to organise the most successful slave rebellion in history, and later becoming its leader and general, he turned his fellow emancipated slaves into a formidable fighting force, outsmarting his enemies, and authoring a constitution in 1801. This abolished slavery once and for all, included a non-racial definition of citizenship — and brought Haiti on the brink of independence. In response Napoleon sent an expedition to crush the revolution and re-install slavery. It failed as Haiti became independent in 1804?—?though by then Louverture had been captured and had died in the grim, snowy Fort de Joux in France the previous year.

While Louverture’s life is extraordinary, much of it has been the subject of mystery and legend. We don’t know precisely what year he was born, what year he was legally emancipated, or when he learned how to read. No official portraits of him exist, so we don’t even have an accurate depiction of what he looked like. Moreover, there are certain aspects of Louverture’s life we simple will never know. For example, the letters he wrote to his various mistresses (many of them white) were torched by Napoleon’s army in 1802. Moreover, Toussaint had as much interest as anyone else in creating the mysterious aura around his name.

However, Black Spartacus is rooted in an impressive depth of research. Hazareesingh dived straight into the various, and often untouched archives in France, Spain, Britain and America (unfortunately not Haiti itself as not much material has survived) to “find our way back to Toussaint: to return as far as possible to the primary sources, to try to see the world through his eyes, and to recapture the boldness of his thinking and the individuality of his voice.”

According to his own claim, Hazareesingh has succeeded in arguably painting the richest portrait of Louverture’s life to date in biographical form, one that captures the “boldness of his thinking” and “his voice”, as well as the complexities and nuances of his political life.

One way he does this is torpedoing a common misconception about Louverture, that he had little affinity or attachment to his Caribbean and African heritage. Loverture wasn’t ashamed of his African origins, or sought to distance himself from it — he embraced it. He was raised in the Allada culture by his parents, where he learned their native Fon language, which he was known to frequently use when conversing with his soldiers (often to their delight). He was knowledgeable in African herbal medicine. While he didn’t personally adhere to Vodou, he was intimate with it and used it as a repository to inspire his people. And his military prowess was in some sense influenced by the martial cultures of the various African peoples on Saint Domingue, as much as studying the writings of Julius Caesar.

Louverture’s genius also comes from how he was able to appropriate the ideals of the Enlightenment and use them against the European powers enslaving his people. Hazareesingh points out, as other have before him, that Louverture eventually became familiar with the writings of Raynal, Diderot and Rousseau, and saw that the French revolution had betrayed its own stated ideals when it “manifestly sided with the slave-owners” in Saint Domingue. If Liberté, égalité and fraternité are universal and have any concrete meaning, then surely they apply to enslaved blacks as much as to white bourgeois men? Louverture’s vision, in contrast, was more faithful to republican ideals, especially in his non-racial idea of fraternité, in which liberated black slaves, white colonists and mixed-race peoples would live together as “a single family of friends and brothers”.

In Louverture one finds a distinction between the evil of European colonialism and the good that flowed out of many of the ideas of the European Enlightenment. As Hazareesingh writes: “The Haitian revolution generated its own set of emancipatory principles, making it the most masterful political improvisation of the Radical Enlightenment.”

What the author does marvellously is show the multiple streams that formed Louverture’s political views; not just African mysticism and Enlightenment philosophy, but also his visceral Catholic humanism, which taught that all of God’s children are equal no matter their colour. This last idea Louverture probably got from radical Jesuit priests he knew on the Breda Plantation, and who likely taught him how to read. This syncretic ideology formed what Hazareesingh describes as “creole republicanism”, inspiring a ferocious opposition to slavery and inspired social solidarity among the former enslaved.

But Louverture was no simple-minded idealist. He describes Louverture as a foxy, “revolutionary political operator” who knew the importance of Machiavellian strategy. The Haitian leader could be very cynical and cunning if it meant protecting the revolution, which is why he made alliances and counter-alliances at different times with the Spanish, French and British Empires against each other, all of whom ultimately had predatory ambitions for Haiti and had nothing but racial hostility towards the Haitian revolution. At one point, while officially still allied with France, he betrayed a French agent he had helped send to Jamaica to start another slave revolt, by revealing the plans of the expedition to a British agent.

On principle Louverture was “sincerely committed to the liberation of black people in Jamaica from British rule”, but suspected the French were using him and his army as cannon fodder for a risky foreign intervention, which he and his advisors feared would “imperil all the achievements of the revolution in Saint Domingue” and whose ultimate purpose was to get rid of him. Louverture’s raison d’etre was to defend and consolidate the Haitian revolution by any means necessary, which is why Hazareesingh clearly writes with admiration, although without descending into hagiography. Because Louverture, like almost every revolutionary leader since Oliver Cromwell, had an authoritarian streak too.

Hazareesingh recognises that he “became increasingly trapped in an authoritarian spiral” in his desperate attempts to restore the pre-revolutionary plantation economy, in order to kickstart the economic development of Haiti and protect it from external attack. He withheld civic roles from women, and in the infamous 1801 constitution named himself leader for life.

Nevertheless, perhaps the most enjoyable chapters come towards the end when Louverture’s cultural and political legacy are discussed, in death transformed into a symbol of liberation across the world.

Both William Wordsworth and Bob Marley paid tribute to him in song and verse. Jamaican slaves and Irish republicans were inspired by his opposition to racism, in the case of the former singing in 1799 that “black, white and brown, we’re all de same”. Louverture proved inspirational to 19th-century abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and John Brown, and 20th century anti-imperialists like CLR James and Aime Cesaire. Louverture and the Haitian revolution were a “precursor for modern emancipatory politics” — and few people can claim to have a legacy as enduring as this.

The concept of the “Great Man of History” may no longer be fashionable, but if it has any validity then Toussaint Louverture is surely one of them. To rise from slavery to become the great emancipator of the 18th century, and in CLR James’ words the “finest product” of the Enlightenment, is a mark of greatness.

Louverture’s life shows how individuals can have a decisive role in changing, even in the midst of larger social and economic forces. His will and determination, his fierce struggle for man’s “natural liberty” is a testament to what Wordsworth called “man’s unconquerable mind”. So we should be thankful that Sudhir Hazareesingh has written the outstanding biography of “the first black superhero of the modern age”.