Based on meticulous research in the French archives, Hazareesingh’s scholarship deserves the highest praise. At times, though, his story teeters on the brink of hagiography, with Louverture cast as a near-flawless paragon of political heroism. Indeed, given the well-known trajectory of many revolutionary leaders, it was surely an ominous moment when he made himself governor for life in 1801. But France’s own military strongman had other ideas. “I am for the whites,” Napoleon said bluntly, “because I am white; I have no other reason, and this one is good enough. How can we have given liberty to Africans, to men without any civilisation?”
Two hundred years on, Haiti’s is the only successful slave revolution in history. It was led by Toussaint Louverture, a Haitian former slave and emblem of slavery’s hoped-for abolition throughout the Americas. This superb new history of Louverture and his legacy portrays Saint-Domingue as the most profitable slave colony the world had ever known. The glittering prosperity of Nantes and Bordeaux, Marseilles and Dieppe, derived from commerce with the Caribbean island in coffee, indigo, cocoa and cotton; Saint- Domingue’s sugar plantations alone produced more cane than all the British West Indian islands together.
It is not without its own very strong point of view, presenting Toussaint above all as a fierce and effective opponent of slavery. But it is at times an extraordinarily gripping read. The book is grounded in a remarkable job of research. Hazareesingh has scoured archives in France, Britain, the US and Spain (not Haiti itself, where, regrettably, relatively little material has survived). He has not been able to resolve some of the greatest open questions about Toussaint, such as whether the black leader plotted the slave rebellion at the behest of French royalists, who hoped it would undercut moves towards independence by white landowners.
If one were to quibble with Hazareesingh, it might be with the light attention paid to some of the other central characters such as Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the Haitian general and later ruler, as we never fully understand his motivations or the reason behind his ultimate betrayal of Louverture. Ultimately, however, Black Spartacus is a triumph. It takes a nearly impossibly complex history and weaves it into a compelling and accurate narrative that reads like fiction.
Hazareesingh wants to cut through the retrospective ideological analyses of previous biographies to ‘find our way back to Toussaint... to see the world through his eyes’. He achieves this through strong narrative writing, and a sense of the logistical intensity and personal direction that were needed to conduct a full-blown guerrilla war without electricity, transport or radio communications. He also shows us Toussaint as if he were, somehow, being covered by People magazine: sending out dozens of letters a day, wearing down his five poor secretaries as he shoots off follow-up letters to ensure delivery while writing billets-doux to his mistresses (almost all of which were destroyed, along with other items, when the French invaded Saint-Domingue). He makes decisions about his children’s education; he requests new, clean clothing. He loves horses and roses; he loves music, and he supervises music students.
Hazareesingh lays out the twists and turns of the different warring blocs, illustrating how Louverture played off the colonial powers against each other (Spain, ruler of the eastern half of the island of the island, was outwitted too). As a general Louverture mastered guerrilla tactics, which gave him the upper hand over his better-armed opponents. He was, it seems, magnanimous too. Prisoners were not routinely put to the sword, and he was willing to build coalitions among sympathetic whites and members of the mixed-race elite. He was cultured too, with a particular fondness for music.
Much of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s treatment of these early years is made up of speculation about what Toussaint might have done or could be imagined doing or thinking. Hazareesingh is a fervent admirer and there is more than a touch of hagiography in this eminently scholarly biography. His fairly consistent assumption throughout is that his hero had always been the admirable model of revolutionary rectitude that the more solid documentary evidence of his later activities gives us. Toussaint was certainly a man of presence and organisational ability, but the available sources suggest that he only emerged clearly as a leader in 1793, when what had formerly been the richest colony in the world had already experienced several years of increasing chaos.