Recent obituaries of the late Kirk Douglas have highlighted his appearance in the title role in Spartacus as one of his most memorable performances. The film is based on the story of the gladiator who led a rebellion of slaves that threatened the very survival of the Roman Republic. Spartacus did not survive his defeat in 71 BC, but his exploits, recorded by Roman historians, passed into legend. They were familiar to every classically educated person down the centuries, and that famous film has made his name known to many more who otherwise might never have heard of him. No slave rebellion of comparable resonance occurred until the late 18th century. But when one did, the man who emerged as its leader was soon being compared with his Roman predecessor. He too was eventually defeated, but unlike that of Spartacus, the slave uprising in the French colony of Saint-Domingue succeeded, culminating in the proclamation of Haiti as an independent black republic in 1804.
Toussaint Louverture was no gladiator. He grew up to work as a coachman. Although born a slave, he was given his freedom in his thirties and then became a minor slave-owner himself. Educated by the Jesuits, he was fully literate and spoke the local kreyòl dialect as well as French. Apart from this, very little is known for certain about Toussaint’s life before the 1790s; nor is it clear whether he played any part in the initial slave rebellion when it broke out in August 1791. Much of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s treatment of these early years is made up of speculation about what Toussaint might have done or could be imagined doing or thinking. Hazareesingh is a fervent admirer and there is more than a touch of hagiography in this eminently scholarly biography. His fairly consistent assumption throughout is that his hero had always been the admirable model of revolutionary rectitude that the more solid documentary evidence of his later activities gives us. Toussaint was certainly a man of presence and organisational ability, but the available sources suggest that he only emerged clearly as a leader in 1793, when what had formerly been the richest colony in the world had already experienced several years of increasing chaos.
Some sort of slave uprising had been feared or predicted in Saint-Domingue long before it happened. François Makandal, an African-born slave, was remembered as leading a brief insurrection in the 1750s prior to being captured and publicly executed. Over the next thirty years the slave population ballooned to more than 450,000, as against 40,000 whites and almost as many of mixed race. The outbreak of a revolution in metropolitan France, proclaiming liberty and equal human rights, raised immediate questions about France’s overseas colonies, yet the status of slavery was scarcely one of them. The main issue in Saint-Domingue concerned the balance of power between the free populations, white and coloured, in the new political world. Bitterly and sometimes violently contested, this question fractured the fabric of political and social authority in the colony, and this was the context of the great rebellion. It brought massacres of white planters and the collapse of most of the slave-powered economy. When France declared war on Britain, terrified whites begged the British to intervene to restore the old order – which they did in 1793, with catastrophic results for their disease-ravaged troops. Commissioners sent from France reluctantly recognised that the only way to affirm the French revolutionary republic’s authority in Saint-Domingue was to free Saint-Domingue’s slaves, and therefore proceeded to do so. Even more reluctantly, in February 1794 the National Convention in Paris endorsed their actions. For the moment, it worked, but it also meant that in the mind of every former slave in Saint-Domingue a red line had been drawn. Slavery must never be restored.
Nobody believed this more profoundly than Toussaint. The conviction underpinned the rest of his career. But he did not believe that a society of free blacks implied no role for white sympathisers, and he did not believe that his native island could recover its lost prosperity by dismantling the plantation economy. The black labour force must return to the fields, but as wage labourers. Nor did he disdain the help of white collaborators as he gradually achieved pre-eminence among a number of rival factional leaders. He regularly proclaimed his loyalty to France, and his value to the republic was first fully recognised by General Etienne Laveaux, who served as the colony’s governor between 1793 and 1796. ‘He is bursting with virtues,’ Laveaux reported, ‘with talent, and with martial qualities; he is full of humanity, truly conquering, and indefatigable in his activities as [a] warrior.’ Toussaint in turn revered Laveaux, and saved him from an attempted coup by mixed-race leaders resentful of the favour he showed to the black majority.
A grateful Laveaux was the first to call Toussaint the Black Spartacus. But after Laveaux’s departure, he could not rely on the successive envoys sent by the republic to represent its authority in the colony – even Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, who had proclaimed the emancipation of slaves in 1793. They all came with ambiguous instructions about the long-term future of a colony still scarcely imaginable without slavery, and sooner or later Toussaint fell out with all of them. Nor could he take for granted the loyalty of his own black lieutenants. Both Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe, who would later be the first leaders of independent Haiti, had no time for the white or coloured populations, and after Toussaint disappeared they vented their hatred through massacres of these minorities. Others, including his own nephew, plotted against him. His ruthless response to their challenges makes Hazareesingh’s claims that he hated violence seem suspiciously hollow.
By 1800, backed by his black army made up mostly of African-born former slaves, Toussaint was the dominant power in Saint-Domingue. He was increasingly acting independently of envoys sent from France. Having driven out the British invaders and subdued restive and resentful coloured leaders, he took it upon himself to pre-empt French policy. In 1795, Spain had agreed to cede the rest of the island of Hispaniola to the republic. But integrating a territory where slavery still existed with one where emancipation remained precarious presented huge challenges, and during the continued disorder in Saint-Domingue nothing was done to implement annexation. Toussaint now decided to force the pace with a full-scale invasion. Sweeping resistance aside, he announced freedom for all the Spanish-owned slaves. Then, in 1801, he promulgated a new constitution that appointed him governor-general and military commander of the whole territory, and declared that the abolition of slavery was its fundamental law. It was done in the name of the French republic, but to many it looked like a declaration of independence, since it had certainly not been agreed through any discussion with France.
But France was now ruled by its own military commander and the ambiguous policy of the Directory was at an end. Until he had defeated his European enemies, Napoleon temporised with regard to what he saw as the problem of Saint-Domingue. Toussaint sent him a series of conciliatory letters, to none of which he replied. But as soon as peace with Great Britain made the seas safe, Napoleon began to assemble a vast expedition to take back control of the colony and restore slavery. Toussaint knew it was coming and made such preparations as he could. When the great fleet and its twenty thousand troops, commanded by Napoleon’s own brother-in-law Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc, arrived early in 1802, Toussaint found himself declared an outlaw and a number of his leading followers deserted him. Still he fought the invaders to a stalemate and concluded what he believed to be an honourable truce, but as soon as he laid down his arms Leclerc, following Napoleon’s instructions, had him arrested and put on a ship to France. Here he was taken to a remote and inhospitable fortress in the Jura Mountains, where he survived just eight months.
By then Leclerc too was dead, killed by the fevers that would soon wipe out most of his army. Having seen what had happened to the earlier British invaders, Toussaint had predicted as much. And as soon as the invaders made clear that they intended to restore slavery, black support melted away. Along with it went Napoleon’s dream of restoring Saint-Domingue’s former glory. It was Dessalines, not his former commander, who declared Haitian independence. But although Toussaint did not live to hear of it, he would be forever remembered in the new state, and wherever else slavery was challenged, as the greatest of all martyrs for black freedom.