Black Spartacus by Sudhir Hazareesingh

Black Spartacus by Sudhir Hazareesingh

Toussaint Louverture, the subject of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s “remarkable” biography, was the architect of the only successful slave revolt in history, said Ben Horowitz in the FT. In the 1790s, he spearheaded a crusade in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) that led to half a million slaves being emancipated, and the country’s independence. 

You might expect such a figure to be a household name – yet his story is strangely “under-reported”. One reason for this neglect is that it is “far from easy to tell”. Evidence about his early life is patchy, and he was a “seemingly contradictory” figure – an agitator for independence who became a French general, and a freedom fighter with authoritarian tendencies. Hazareesingh, an Oxford don, has taken this “impossibly complex history” and woven it into a “narrative that reads like fiction”. Black Spartacus is “perhaps the sharpest portrait yet” of the man he dubs the “first black superhero of the modern age”. Louverture was born at some point between 1736 and 1746 on a plantation in the north of Saint-Domingue, said Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times. Although life was hellish for most of the colony’s slaves, Louverture was relatively fortunate: he was educated by Jesuit missionaries, and was granted freedom in the 1770s – whereupon he “promptly took out a lease on a coffee plantation and owned at least one slave himself”. When a slave uprising broke out in 1791, Louverture “rose inexorably to the fore”, becoming the rebels’ chief military commander. However, this didn’t prevent him, three years later, striking a deal with France’s radical first republic, which had announced that it was abolishing slavery. 

He became Saint-Domingue’s lieutenant governor, and helped defend the colony against rival imperial powers – including the Spanish and the British. Over the next decade, Louverture “emerged as the colony’s uncontested strongman, and brought it to the brink of independence”, said David A. Bell in The Guardian. Yet in 1802, he became a victim of Napoleon Bonaparte’s desire to “reassert full French control”. Invited to a parley with French forces, he was arrested and transported to the “cold, lonely Fort de Joux, in the Jura Mountains of France”, where he died in 1803 – a year before Haiti became an independent republic. Both a “remarkable job of research” and an “extraordinarily gripping read”, this is an impressively “complete, authoritative and persuasive biography”.


 

Comments