New Books | Black Spartacus

In this award-winning biography, Sudhir Hazareesingh recounts the experiences and principles that shaped the life of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture (Picador, 2021). Copyright © 2021 by Sudhir Hazareesingh. All rights reserved. 

The greatest challenge facing the historian of Toussaint Louverture’s pre-revolutionary life is painting a coherent picture of his political values. No record has been found reliably connecting him to any particular event, group or sensibility before 1791, and much of what he himself later declared was clearly intended to be consistent with his position as an eminent French revolutionary leader. The only glimpses we catch from the 1785 Bréda registry are references to his “gentleness” and his “Catholic zeal”, but we should not read too much into such observations –  not least as the author of this annotation did not even know that Toussaint had been emancipated for the past decade. Bayon’s coachman was no doubt able to give off an impression of meekness when it suited him, and was already adept at disguising his appearance and keeping a low profile –  qualities which would serve him very well during his political life.

Oral tradition has it that the single most influential work to shape Toussaint’s world view was Guillaume-Thomas Raynal and Denis Diderot’s Histoire philosophique des Deux Indes, a sweeping indictment of European colonialism which denounced the barbarity of slavery. Its authors warned that if Europeans continued to “massacre, imprison and plunder” the indigenous inhabitants, an “avenger” would arise to destroy the practice of human bondage. Toussaint was later likened to this liberator by his French admirers in Saint-Domingue, and he readily accepted the accolade – so much so that he became known as the “Black Spartacus”. Yet even though the text was familiar in the colony, it is unlikely that it shaped Toussaint’s thinking about his condition as a slave before the revolution: rather, he later adopted it as a way of reassuring his French comrades about the robustness of his republican beliefs. A more fundamental reason to be sceptical is that the Histoire philosophique was not a call to arms to the Black slaves, but primarily a warning to colonial authorities and slave-owning classes. For even the most radical fringes of the European philosophical establishment, the idea of a revolution carried out by Black slaves in the name of universal republican principles, leading to the collective empowerment of the Black population in the colonies, was simply “unthinkable”.

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As the philosopher Louis Sala-Molins mused ironically: “How did [Toussaint] manage to snatch from the Enlightenment what the Enlightenment never dreamt of?” In addition, Toussaint’s views on religion were diametrically opposed to the anticlericalism of Diderot. Raynal himself published a pamphlet specifically about Saint-Domingue in 1785, which did not call for the abolition of human bondage, merely the introduction of more humane treatment of slaves, and punishments which were “less severe”.

The sources of Toussaint’s early political thought can be found much closer to home. Indeed, his Bréda plantation was located near the centre of the first slave revolts in mid-18th-century Saint-Domingue. Under the charismatic leadership of François Makandal, marron slaves are thought to have formed secret societies across the north of the colony between the mid 1740s and the late 1750s, with the aim of destroying settler dominance and ultimately achieving Black emancipation. Makandal was captured and publicly executed in 1758, and historians disagree about the scale and even the existence of this conspiracy. In the Haitian tradition, Makandal is hailed as one of the nation’s early freedom fighters: one historian likened his movement to a “Black Carbonarism” whose members exchanged information and  coordinated their actions, with the use of poison as one of their preferred methods. It is suggested that they developed vodou religious rituals to cement their ties, and established a complex network of communication across northern towns and plantations; Makandal is also believed to have been a vodou priest of Kongolese origin, and his agents included small merchants as well as slaves in senior positions, such as commandeurs and coachmen. Whatever view one takes of Makandal himself and his organisation, there is widely documented evidence that he became a legend in  late-colonial Saint-Domingue, inspiring terror among whites and capturing the imagination of Black dissidents and rebels. Many of his supporters believed that their leader’s supernatural powers had enabled him to survive; so widespread were the activities of the secret societies that they had their own spirit, Ezili Kawoulo, whose anniversary was celebrated every year.

How actively Toussaint’s Bréda plantation was penetrated by these revolutionary undercurrents is difficult to establish, especially as any rebels had to operate covertly, and “resistance” took a variety of forms, ranging from mockery and foot-dragging to marronage, strikes and outright acts of rebellion. The correspondence between the estate management and the owners during the 1773 revolt mentioned slaves forming “cabals” in order to resist punishment, suggesting the existence of some form of slave organisation on the site, as well as a significant occurrence of marronage (which was much higher in northern Saint-Domingue than in the rest of the colony). In the same year, Bayon de Libertat referred to the consultation of “soothsayers” by plantation slaves, indicating that vodou practices were beginning to spread alongside traditional Catholic rituals. A few years later Bayon pardoned two slave-drivers named Hippolyte and Jean-Jacques who organised a mass walkout from one of the Noé plantations. By the mid 1780s strikes had become widespread in the northern plain of Saint-Domingue. Other sources tell us that Bayon offered a reward for the return of two of his slaves who had gone into marronage, an Allada woman named La Garonne and a Martinique-born person of colour named Joseph. A report to the Bréda owners by a disgruntled white official denounced the anarchic state of the plantation, likening it to a “carnival” because of the absenteeism of the slaves, who often disappeared to nearby Cap for days on end; it also noted the “penchant for idleness, promiscuity and independence” among the domestic servants.

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At first sight, this Makandalist world of African stick fights, nocturnal chica and kalinda dances, vodou rituals and plantation brotherhoods seems far removed from Toussaint’s practical preoccupations, to say nothing of his strongly held Catholic values. Yet the frontier between vodou and Catholicism (and between both of these and African herbal science) was highly porous. There were substantial overlaps between Toussaint and the beliefs and personal traits attributed to Makandal, which were embraced by his followers – notably their deism, their visceral opposition to slavery, their intimate knowledge of natural medicine, their charisma and above all their commitment to the ideal of fraternity. Furthermore, Toussaint’s duties as Bayon’s coachman required him to remain in very close touch with the plantation workers; it is also clear that he managed to retain their support and trust throughout this period, and, as noted, to renegotiate their working conditions during their conflict with Delribal. He could surely not have sustained such a position without engaging with, and fully understanding, the politico-religious culture of the dissident slaves.

In fact, everything we know about Toussaint’s later methods suggests that his relationship with Makandalism was not one of complete identification, but of creative adaptation. He believed, through his personal experience, that the European settler population could be worked with, and indeed was vital for the colony’s economic future. He would have been opposed, too, to the killings of Black slaves by Makandal’s agents: the shedding of blood, especially Black blood, was always abhorrent to him. Above all, Makandal was eventually captured, and the teenage Toussaint probably witnessed his public execution at Cap in 1758: he would have taken his defeat as evidence that an all-out quest to confront the dominant order was unlikely to succeed. At the same time, his subsequent political thinking shows that he was inspired by the Makandalist ambition to create a common consciousness among Black slaves, by the movement’s appeal to their aspirations for liberty, and by its goal to forge an efficient revolutionary organisation which could project its influence across the different parts of the colony.

It was in this ability to take existing social and political forms, absorb them fully and then redeploy them to his own ends that Toussaint’s genius lay. In the later 1790s, he followed the same approach with Catholicism, adapting for his political purposes the religious networks instituted by the Jesuits in the mid 18th century. He also borrowed creatively from vodou culture, as was illustrated in the emergence of his own form of Makandalist mysticism, with his use of particular rhetorical expressions and contrasts (light-dark, bitter-sweet, good-evil, earth-heavens) and his fondness for vivid natural symbols. Makandalist rituals typically ended with the chant, “après Bon Dieu, c’est Makandal”, and Toussaint frequently used this turn of phrase in his own speeches in the 1790s (but replacing “Makandal” with other names). He also borrowed Makandal’s techniques of displaying different-coloured substances to convey his political messages, and used a variety of subterfuges to appear and disappear rapidly; these added to the supernatural aura already associated with him, with some of his people hailing him as a sorcerer who was a reincarnation of Makandal.

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