“The name of Toussaint L’Ouverture is all but unknown in India,” remarked Ramananda Chatterjee, the editor of the Calcutta-based Modern Review, in April 1908. “Lives such as his,” nevertheless, “may inspire us with self-confidence.” Chatterjee, whose Modern Review was a fearless critic of imperialism and racism, printed for his readers a biographical sketch of this intrepid Haitian revolutionary leader. It ended with a poignant question: was he “the greatest man that has ever lived?”

We can ask a second question today: why was a Bengali in the early twentieth century writing about a black Caribbean leader from the late eighteenth century?

Toussaint Louverture (1743?-1803) was indeed a remarkable man. Born a slave, he led the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue (renamed Haiti when it became independent in 1804) through a decade of whirlwind revolution – on the heels of similar, yet far less radical revolutions in the United States and France. Citizens of Paris and Philadelphia proclaimed the modern republican ideals of liberty and equality, but Louverture and his revolutionaries went a step further. They demonstrated that the rights of citizenship were not only for white men. Theirs was an experiment so bold and audacious that it frightened the likes of Thomas Jefferson.

“Toussaint Louverture was the first black superhero of the modern age,” writes Sudhir Hazareesingh, author of a majestic and meticulously researched new biography, Black Spartacus. Hazareesingh’s account helps us understand why Louverture’s accomplishments were so inspiring for generations of abolitionists and anti-imperialists around the world – including a handful of individuals in colonial India.

Able commander

Amidst the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment, the Haitian Revolution was, as Hazareesingh tells us, “the age’s most comprehensive example of radical change.” It began as a slave rebellion in 1791. As Louverture emerged as the most talented and gifted leader of the rebellion, he articulated a political vision that strikingly combined the intellectual traditions of France, west Africa (where the majority of Saint-Domingue’s slaves had been born), and the Caribbean.

He preached racial equality, matching black emancipation with generous policies of forgiveness and integration for the colony’s white and mixed-race populations. Brotherhood and fraternity were hallmarks of Louverture’s republicanism, where citizenship was defined as being independent of the colour of one’s skin.

Not surprisingly, this radical egalitarianism provoked horror amongst many in revolutionary France – and even greater revulsion in the United States, Britain, and Spain, which had little tolerance for challenges to an economic order based on plantation slavery. In the 1790s, Saint-Domingue became the centre in a storm of a vicious imperialist tug-of-war involving all of these nations. Never mind lofty Enlightenment principles like liberté, égalité, fraternité: black republicanism was an existential threat to the fantastic profits squeezed out of bonded labor.

In these conflicts, Louverture, who briefly joined the Spanish forces before rallying to the French side and becoming Saint-Domingue’s commander-in-chief, proved himself to be an almost superhuman military commander. He slept and ate sparingly, was constantly on the move, pushed his soldiers to undertake audacious acts of bravery (once, while storming a fort and discovering that their ladders were too short, Louverture’s troops instead formed a human ladder while taking enemy fire), and perfected tools of psychological and guerilla warfare. Dramatically, Louverture timed his attacks against British troops with the arrival of thunderstorms, a technique which, according to one ashen-faced redcoat, produced “one of the grandest effects of Horror I have ever experienced.”

A true emancipator

Historians have, in the past, questioned Louverture’s precise motives and objectives. How committed was he to black emancipation? Did he form an alliance of convenience with the white planter class? Were his instincts ultimately conservative and authoritarian? Hazareesingh relies on a trove of archival sources to dismiss doubts about Louverture’s liberal, emancipationist credentials. Having wrested blacks’ freedom by force, the Haitian general’s first and ultimate priority was to prevent the reimposition of slavery, which was a very real possibility as the embers of France’s revolutionary spirit cooled.

While not seeking outright independence from France, Louverture struggled for Saint-Domingue’s autonomy, deftly undertaking a diplomatic balancing act with European powers. Britons normally dominate in popular narratives of the abolition of slavery. Yet here, they come off as arch-villains: attempting to use Louverture for their own imperialist interests and reimposing slavery when they conquered part of Saint-Domingue. The Americans, surprisingly, emerge in a much more favourable light, offering aid and money despite fears that Saint-Domingue’s revolution would spill over into Southern plantations.

Amidst the cannon fire and Great Power intrigues, Louverture burnished the reputation of his people. Saint-Domingue’s army was a respected, highly disciplined fighting force, largely refraining from pillage and treating civilians and captured enemies with utmost care. Their valour stood in sharp contrast with that of French or British troops.

Louverture built up a highly efficient administrative cadre which was fanatically obsessed with civic improvement and efficiency. This included municipal institutions where ex-slaves and ex-slave owners worked together and a network of public schools – a remarkable innovation for its time. Louverture even attempted redesigning towns with rational street layouts and public hygiene in mind. Saint-Domingue became a living refutation to the dominant European sentiment that black people were somehow lacking in intelligence, rationality, military skill, and bravery.

In a few quick years, the revolution entered even more uncharted territory. Louverture expelled three French colonial agents in rapid-fire succession, invaded Spanish Santo Domingo (thereby emancipating all slaves on the island of Hispaniola), and drafted a constitution. Most incredibly, he tried to get British help to import African slaves into labor-starved Saint-Domingue. The slaves would be freed upon arrival, of course, but the plan fuelled rumours that Louverture’s commitment towards emancipation was waning.

There were worries of creeping authoritarianism: Louverture’s constitution appointed himself as governor for life and instituted a draconian system of enforced agricultural labour in order to revive Saint-Domingue’s plantation economy. Matters came to a head in late 1801 and early 1802. Napoleon dispatched a naval force to reassert French colonial control, provoking an even messier conflict on Saint-Domingue’s already blood-drenched soil. French troops captured Louverture but they lost the colony, which broke from France shortly after Louverture’s death in exile in 1803.

The cause of universal liberty

Did Louverture overreach? Hazareesingh does not think so: he believes that racism, rather than specific political developments, motivated Napoleon’s turn against Louverture and republican Saint-Domingue. The prospect of an enlightened, liberal polity under black control was simply inconceivable to even the most broadminded Europeans. To others of a more conservative bent, including Bonaparte, it was downright dangerous. Saint-Domingue’s political experiment needed to be snuffed out.

Yet Louverture’s legacy was not so easily wiped away. Events in Saint-Domingue became powerful inspiration for further rebellions and revolutions across the Atlantic – from the Irish Rebellion of 1798 to the American Civil War. A later generation of thinkers recognised Louverture as the “first great anti-colonialist leader the world has ever seen.”

It is in this sense that some Indians like Ramananda Chatterjee began reading up on Haitian history. There were a few striking parallels between the Haitian Revolution and the Indian nationalist movement. Hazareesingh points out that Louverture and emancipated blacks were originally pro-royalist in some respects: they regarded Louis XVI, the doomed French monarch, as a progressive force who could counterbalance Saint-Domingue’s slave-driving colonial authorities. Early Indian nationalists, as the British historian Miles Taylor has recently demonstrated, imagined a similar duality between a benevolent Queen Victoria and reactionary ruling white sahibs.

Louverture, furthermore, agonised about a complete break with France: he was torn between his French republican instincts and a desire to safeguard Saint-Domingue’s hard-fought autonomy. Colonial autonomy or independence—this was precisely the same dilemma which tormented Indian nationalists before the Congress adopted the purna swaraj resolution in 1930.

Hazareesingh’s penultimate chapter is titled “A Universal Hero,” words which effectively sum up Toussaint Louverture’s historical significance. His black nationalism was not exclusivist: Frederick Douglass, the black American abolitionist, believed Louverture’s goal was to “serve the cause of universal liberty.” Such universalism captured the imagination of progressives well beyond Haiti’s shores, in Cuba, Brazil, the United States, Ireland, South Africa, France, and – thanks to Ramananda Chatterjee and his Modern Review – early twentieth century India.

Black Spartacus The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture

Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture, Sudhir Hazareesingh, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.