Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture by Sudhir Hazareesingh

Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture by Sudhir Hazareesingh
Published by Penguin on the 3rd September 2020.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Haitian Revolution began in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue with a slave revolt in August 1791, and culminated a dozen years later in the proclamation of the world's first independent black state. After the abolition of slavery in 1793, Toussaint Louverture, himself a former slave, became the leader of the colony's black population, the commander of its republican army and eventually its governor. During the course of his extraordinary life he confronted some of the dominant forces of his age - slavery, settler colonialism, imperialism and racial hierarchy. Treacherously seized by Napoleon's invading army in 1802, this charismatic figure ended his days, in Wordsworth's phrase, 'the most unhappy man of men', imprisoned in a fortress in France.

Black Spartacus draws on a wealth of archival material, much of it overlooked by previous biographers, to follow every step of Louverture's singular journey, from his triumphs against French, Spanish and British troops to his skilful regional diplomacy, his Machiavellian dealings with successive French colonial administrators and his bold promulgation of an autonomous Constitution. Sudhir Hazareesingh shows that Louverture developed his unique vision and leadership not solely in response to imported Enlightenment ideals and revolutionary events in Europe and the Americas, but through a hybrid heritage of fraternal slave organisations, Caribbean mysticism and African political traditions. Above all, Hazareesingh retrieves Louverture's rousing voice and force of personality, making this the most engaging, as well as the most complete, biography to date.

After his death in the French fortress, Louverture became a figure of legend, a beacon for slaves across the Atlantic and for generations of European republicans and progressive figures in the Americas. He inspired the anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass, the most eminent nineteenth-century African-American; his emancipatory struggle was hailed by those who defied imperial and colonial rule well into the twentieth. In the modern era, his life informed the French poet Aimé Césaire's seminal idea of négritude and has been celebrated in a remarkable range of plays, songs, novels and statues. Here, in all its drama, is the epic story of the world's first black superhero.

I didn't think I'd ever heard the name Toussaint Louverture before picking out this meticulously researched biography by Sudhir Hazareesingh, however my partner recognised it as the title of a Courtney Pine composition which we then listened to. Hazareesingh's final chapter describes instances of how Toussaint's legacy has been reimagined in art, music and literature across the globe so it was great to be able to add one more example to this list. This reinforced even more to me though how limited my knowledge of global history is. The Haitian Revolution, or Saint Domingue as it was in the 1790s, was equally as ground-breaking and, well, revolutionary as the French one, yet 'official' white-centric history has pushed the one into relative obscurity while celebrating the other.

Black Spartacus is an excellently detailed biography of Toussaint in which Hazareesingh draws together information from the man's own surviving writings as well as many letters and reports about him. He explores not only what Toussaint achieved on Saint Domingue, but how he went about uniting his country into a truly multicultural society, albeit temporarily. Events take place primarily on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola so Black Spartacus followed on nicely from another recent history read, Conquistadores by Fernando Cervantes, in educating me about Caribbean history. I felt I got a much fuller understanding of the protagonists and their motivations from Black Spartacus however. The book is written in a scholarly style, but I didn't notice it ever getting too dry. I would have liked English translations of the several brief French and Kreyol quotes that are included. My French is adequate for literal translations, but especially in the cases where Toussaint was flaunting his verbal dexterity, I know I sometimes missed out on understanding the full references. That aside though, I very much appreciated this opportunity to learn about Toussaint as the accomplished statesman he undoubtedly was, and to see glimpses of the private man behind the legend. Black Spartacus is an intense book to read, but I found it very rewarding.

Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Sudhir Hazareesingh / Biography and memoir / Books from Mauritius

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