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Genre Non-Fiction, Biography
Other Formats Available Hardback, paperback, ebook
Publication Date March 2020
Length 17 hours 35 minutes
Content Warnings Enslavement, racism, torture, violence and gore
What It’s About
Toussaint Louverture is a name that should echo through the annals of history. Born into slavery, he led a revolutionary army to liberate enslaved men, women, and children across Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti).
Not only that, but he became governor of Saint-Domingue, negotiating fiercely with France, Britain, and the USA. Toussaint sought peace and prosperity for his nation, determined to secure long-term freedom for Black and mixed-race citizens. In Black Spartacus, Sudhir Hazareesingh vividly brings to life this powerful, dedicated, yet controversial leader.
I was in the mood to try something different when I stumbled across Black Spartacus on BorrowBox – I read a lot of memoirs but not much biography.
At first, I was a little intimidated by the book’s length (the audiobook comes in at over 17 hours), but I soon found that the chapters flew by. Toussaint’s incredible life makes for an action-packed and dramatic story. I also found the political double (and triple!) crossings and cunning diplomatic maneouvres just as engaging as the battle scenes.
Hazareesingh incorporates moments of tenderness, warmth, and humour that really bring Toussaint’s personality to life, whether he is responding to needy citizens or making a mischievous dig at a French diplomat.
“Our Toussaint was no Black Spartacus. We refuse this Black juxtaposed to the name of the famous gladiator from Thrace. . . . Toussaint cannot be classified as or reduced to a Black version, with all the reductive connotations this implies in Western thought.”~ Gaetan Mentor, Haitian historian
While immediately absorbing, the book is not entirely accessible for beginners. It assumed knowledge of events such as the French Revolution which left me feeling a little lost.
Reading a biography rather than my usual memoirs made me wrestle with the role of a biographer too. Hazareesingh clearly, and quite rightly, admires Toussaint: an extraordinary individual with a strong sense of honour and duty to the common good. His values of equality and respect were rare treasures that we could use just as much in today’s society.
Nevertheless, the author sometimes fails to interrogate the more controversial elements of Toussaint’s leadership, such as his lenience towards white plantation owners, authoritarian approach, and disciplinary severity that could escalate into violence.
Hazareesingh often projected back in time to try and explain Toussaint’s various thought processes and decisions. While this did create a strong sense of narrative, I would have preferred a little more nuance and uncertainty.
Diversity and Representation
It was fascinating to learn more about Haiti’s history as the first Black republic, and the revolutionary energy that fuelled this independence.
There was one area of radicalism that I wanted to see explored in more depth, though. Toussaint’s biography emphasises his commitment to equality and brotherhood… but what about sisterhood? Women were no background figures in Toussaint’s personal and political life, and played significant roles in negotiation and warfare, but are mentioned only in brief tantalising asides.
Beyond the Book
Black Spartacus may focus on Toussaint Louverture himself, but it also gave me a far more thorough understanding of Haitian history. At times, this history makes for a sobering account of colonial violence and exploitation. However, I appreciated how the author foregrounds resistance rather than imperial benevolence as an agent of change.
Haitian citizens did not become free because France ‘granted’ the abolition of slavery. They fought, died, sacrificed, and undertook acts of incredible bravery that deserve to be recognised in the history books.
If you’re reading Black Spartacus as a book club pick or just looking to ponder the story in a little more depth, these questions should help get you started:
1. How far do you think the biographer’s influence can be seen in Black Spartacus?
2. What did you know about the history of the French and/or Haitian revolutions prior to reading this book? Did it change your perspective on either of these major historical events?
3. Which element of Toussaint’s leadership did you find most controversial and why?
“the audacity to envision a world organized around radically different principles.”~ Sudhir Hazareesingh, ‘Black Spartacus’
You want to learn more about Haitian history through an epic and dramatic biography.
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Have you read Black Spartacus and if so, what did you think? Do you have any other biographies to recommend? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!