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.