Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture

October 31, 2020
Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture

"There are almost no stories that can compete withToussaint's, as Hazareesingh's exciting narrative proves . . .Breathtaking." —Amy Wilentz, SpectatorA new interpretation of the life of the Haitianrevolutionary Toussaint LouvertureAmong the defining figures of the Age of Revolution, ToussaintLouverture is the most enigmatic. Though the Haitianrevolutionary's image has multiplied across the globe—appearing onbanknotes and in bronze, on T-shirts and in film—the onlydefinitive portrait executed in his lifetime has been lost. Wellversed in the work of everyone from Machiavelli to Rousseau, he wasnonetheless dismissed by Thomas Jefferson as a "cannibal." ACaribbean acolyte of the European Enlightenment, Toussaint nurtureda class of black Catholic clergymen who became one of the pillarsof his rule, while his supporters also believed he communicatedwith vodou spirits. And for a leader who once summed uphis modus operandi with the phrase "Say little but do as much aspossible," he was a prolific and indefatigable correspondent,famous for exhausting the five secretaries he maintained,simultaneously, at the height of his power in the 1790s.Employing groundbreaking archival research and a keeninterpretive lens, Sudhir Hazareesingh restores Toussaint to hisfull complexity in Black Spartacus. At a time when hissubject has, variously, been reduced to little more than aone-dimensional icon of liberation or criticized for his personalfailings—his white mistresses, his early ownership of slaves, hisauthoritarianism —Hazareesingh proposes a new conception ofToussaint's understanding of himself and his role in the Atlanticworld of the late eighteenth century. Black Spartacus is awork of both biography and intellectual history, rich with insightsinto Toussaint's fundamental hybridity—his ability to uniteEuropean, African, and Caribbean traditions in the service of hisrevolutionary aims. Hazareesingh offers a new and resonantinterpretation of Toussaint's racial politics, showing how he usedEnlightenment ideas to argue for the equal dignity of all humanbeings while simultaneously insisting on his own world-historicalimportance and the universal pertinence of blackness—a messagewhich chimed particularly powerfully among African Americans.Ultimately, Black Spartacus offers a vigorous argumentin favor of "getting back to Toussaint"—a call to take Haiti'sfounding father seriously on his own terms, and to honor his rolein shaping the postcolonial world to come.