Mentor on Hazareesingh, 'Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture'

Author: 
Sudhir Hazareesingh
Reviewer: 
Gaetan Mentor

Sudhir Hazareesingh. Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. 464 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-374-11266-0.

Reviewed by Gaetan Mentor (Independent scholar and member of the Société Haïtienne d’Histoire, de Géographie et de Géologie) Published on H-Haiti (April, 2021) Commissioned by Chelsea Stieber (Catholic University of America)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56440

Ed. note: A French version of this review is available at H-Haiti.

Toussaint Louverture--who was not a Black Spartacus--would certainly have been delighted to see his story told, commented on, and circulating again throughout the world, in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic to boot!

He undoubtedly would have felt satisfaction seeing the apt hands of Sudhir Hazareesingh--a British-Mauritian fellow of the British Academy, fellow and tutor in political science at Balliol College, Oxford--chisel his biography, his rise to power and hold of it, his leadership, the myths surrounding his life, his military feats, his letters, his justifications to the French metropole, and auspiciously present his proud character, full of prestige and faith in his future.

Sudhir Hazareesingh’s opus demonstrates once more the fascination that the life of the Haitian precursor continues to hold for historians the world around. Toussaint from Bréda who, through his own efforts and through the ineluctable force of events whose progress he appeared to direct and control, became L’Ouverture--the opening--the Man; or, rather, the Political Animal. Defeated, or perhaps considering his mission accomplished, he allowed himself to be captured, through treachery, to retire as a troublesome political prisoner in frigid Fort de Joux, in the French Jura mountains near Switzerland. There, surrounded by white snow, he succumbed, frozen, he the Black Antillean who for eight years, between 1794 and 1802, had warmed up the ground of the island of Saint-Domingue.

Sudhir Hazareesingh’s thick, four-part, 427-page volume is heavy, and not just literally, but also in the richness of the documentation it offers and a substantial bibliography that reviews, corrects, completes, and comments on almost everything that has been published, in Haiti and abroad, about our swashbuckling hero--a real person, not a myth--our Toussaint, whom the author calls Black Spartacus.

Thus the author’s extensive research allowed him to reframe portraits of Toussaint from such classics as C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins, Horace Pauléus Sannon’s Histoire de Toussaint Louverture, Pierre Pluchon’s Toussaint, or, more recently, Philippe Girard’s.[1]

Haiti and its mysteries must have inspired Hazareesingh to divide his book in four sections representing the four main elements of creation: earth, fire, water, and air.

Part 1: “A Revolutionary is Born” (Earth Element)

Toussaint was born on the earth of Saint-Domingue, on the sugar plantation of Bréda, near Haut du Cap.

Part 2: “The Making of the Louverturian Order” (Fire Element)

Establishing the Louverturian order required the fire of weapons and the heat of local, regional, and international politics.

Part 3: “Toussaint in Power” (Water Element)

In power, Toussaint spread like water.

Part 4: “The Leader and his Myth” (Air Element)

There is something aerial about Toussaint’s leadership, his prodigious ability to travel fast and wide, to stealthily appear and disappear, the myths surrounding him and his forced flight in a boat blown into exile and disappearance by the wind.

I warmly recommend reading Sudhir Hazareesingh’s fascinating story, Black Spartacus, The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture.

I did not read it in one sitting: as a historian and biographer of Toussaint myself, I wanted to immerse myself in it, dig deep down to its roots; I wanted to experience in my mind the feats it describes, I wanted for a moment to imagine myself as an aide-de-camp to Toussaint Louverture, accompanying him on his treks, or following him discreetly on his not-so-secret romantic escapades!

Still, I did not like everything about this handsome, informative book. That is to be expected.

Black Spartacus!

That is bothersome!

It bothers me!

A work colossal in its breadth, content, and numerous contributions, a work that analyzes in the deepest of depths, rises to the tallest height, and covers extensive ground in depicting our protagonist … and yet in its title reduces him to the color of his skin, which of course does not harm his honor.[2]

No, brilliant biographer! Our Toussaint was no Black Spartacus.

We refuse this Black juxtaposed to the name of the famous gladiator from Thrace.

Toussaint’s life, his works and yours prove that Toussaint cannot be classified as or reduced to a Black version, with all the reductive connotations this implies in Western thought.

As you describe well, Toussaint, like the eagle, rose well above the fray and soared into a space reserved for the great men of this world; he negotiated as an equal with representatives of European nations. He was a statesman, and the Caribbean, American, British, Spanish and French repercussions of his feats proved the global dimensions of his character. Hazareesingh writes that the Saint-Domingue revolution “shook the Enlightment’s belief in the inherent superiority of all things European” (p. 2), and further tells us that “from London and Paris through Virginia and Louisiana to Jamaica, Cuba, Brazil and Venezuela, planters and merchants echoed these alarms and lambasted the man they saw as the ‘Robespierre of Saint-Domingue.’ Simon Taylor, the wealthiest sugar baron in Jamaica, ‘tossed and turned in his luxurious bed linen, suffering repeated bouts of fever’ as he imagined Toussaint and his revolutionaries arriving on his plantations and slitting his throat” (p. 3). According to the Annual Register of London, quoted in your book, Toussaint in 1802 was “the major public figure of the year, and a great man” (p. 2). Toussaint’s impact cannot possibly be limited solely to the Caribbean.

I would not even accept the designation of Antillean Spartacus, as Toussaint went far beyond the region.

But, crucially, Toussaint was not a slave leader!

He did not obtain the name of Louverture through Catholic baptism. It is not a white name, or a day of the week, the name of a white saint, or one drawn from Greek mythology. This is the name he gave himself as a free man.

No, Sudhir Hazareesingh: these were no slaves. These were free people. Some had been captured in Africa; others were born under the yoke of a bondage forced upon them by supremacy of weapons, by the Catholic religion, by corruption and the inhumane commerce built on human beings, families torn apart, and racial segregation, in a land of expatriation and dehumanization. Most of them were warriors, fugitives of oppression, Maroons of freedom all, whom Toussaint had the honor and intelligence to organize and turn into an army worthy of Napoleonic France’s, led by white, mixed, and Black officers.

This point is important for us Haitians, and for those of us descended from Toussaint or from ancestors who fought at his side or against him, who loved or opposed him!

It is important for all Black people!

It is important for all oppressed people!

Toussaint Louverture was an Antillean general whose life and struggles continue to resonate internationally to this day!

Son of a bygone era, Toussaint still lives; yes, his deep and numerous roots tap into our present moment--that of Haiti and of so many other peoples!

Toussaint’s body, his ashes, still warm, scattered secretly and unjustly among others, near the Fort de Joux, belongs to the past just as do Spartacus, his legend, and his myth; but his spirit, the Louverturian Spirit, does not!

Louverture’s soul; better yet: Louverture’s egregore will only abscond when his ideal for the land of Saint-Domingue become Haiti is reborn from its ashes!

Louverture, dear biographer, unlike Spartacus, does not belong to the past.

No: we refuse his burial! And anyway, we do not have his body!

Bonaparte’s crime, denounced, remains unprosecuted and unpunished.

The First Consul made his mortal remains--kò kàdav[3]--disappear, but the investigation remains open in the tribunal of history!

And it shall remain open as long as there are Haitians, Black people, or any people with a love of freedom and justice!

The history of Toussaint Louverture will therefore remain unfinished.

However brilliant an author may be, one can only ever suspend their words about Toussaint Louverture as I now suspend mine about this superb contribution.

Congratulations, and thank you!

Notes

[1]. C. L. R James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1963); Horace Pauléus Sannon, Histoire de Toussaint Louverture (Port-au-Prince: Impr. A. A. Héraut, 1938); Pierre Pluchon, Toussaint Louverture: De l'esclavage au pouvoir (Paris: L'École, 1979); Pierre Pluchon, Toussaint Louverture: Un révolutionnaire noir d'Ancien régime (Paris: Fayard, 1989); Philippe Girard, The Slaves Who Defeated Napoléon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2011).

[2]. “Does the color of my skin harm my honor?” Toussaint Louverture, Mémoire du général Toussaint Louverture (1802).

[3]. Créole. Cadaver, lifeless body.

Citation: Gaetan Mentor. Review of Hazareesingh, Sudhir, Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture. H-Haiti, H-Net Reviews. April, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56440

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