“With a message that resonates strongly in our own time.” Well at least the Wolfson History Prize judges were clear in awarding their 2021 prize to Sudhir Hazareesingh’s Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture. The reason they offered is one criterion of course, but it invites a number of questions, not least concerning how we determine what is the message of a book that supposedly resonates, which are the issues of our own time, and whether this is an appropriate measure of the quality of books.
Every judge of book prizes will have their own views, and, in offering mine, I am not implying that they are definitive; but, in over three decades of judging, I have never tried to prejudge the issues of our town time, or to award prizes at least in part accordingly. Let us first turn to Toussaint, then consider the Wolfson Prize, and then look at wider issues.
The European impact in the Caribbean had been a destructive nightmare for native societies, and the subsequent treatment of African slaves horrendous. To refer then to Saint-Domingue as a nightmare in the 1790s and early 1800s might seem in some respects to seek unfairly to shift the blame onto the slaves who rebelled, as well as to extenuate both the previous slave economy and the more widespread Caribbean practice of control.
That is not the intention, although that was certainly the response of many white people, and notably so as atrocity stories of killing, rape, mutilation and devastation were spread across the white societies of the Caribbean and then kept alive as a warning and as a product of the white diaspora from Saint-Domingue that followed the rebellion.
That, however, was a nightmare and for everybody, because the slaughter was widespread: white people were killed by black people but also by other white people, while black people, both slaves and free, were killed by white people and by other black people. Cruelty knew no ethnic barrier. It proved easier to destroy an uncivil society than to make a civil one.
Saint-Domingue, the epicentre of Caribbean change in the 1790s, was a very prosperous slave society that was totally destabilised by the French Revolution that began in 1789. Initially, the crisis was handled without too much difficulty in the French Caribbean. Furthermore, in Paris proposals for change were stalled, including the rejection in March 1790 that free men of colour be given the franchise. The measure did not pass until May 1791 and then only if they were born of free parents, with full equality not until April 1792.
Growing hostility between steadily more radical revolutionaries in Paris and conservative whites in the colony provided opportunities for a slave rebellion that broke out in August 1791. The complex situation there included the fighting between two other elements in the crisis, free blacks and petits blancs, that helped lead to the burning down of much of Port-au-Prince in November 1791.
Despite persistent reports that Britain would seek to gain the colony and appeals for intervention by white colonists, the British government adopted a very cautious response. The Foreign Secretary, William, Lord Grenville, observed that there was no intention of retaliating in the West Indies for French intervention in the War of American Independence, “and that we are fully persuaded that all the islands in the West Indies are not worth to us one year of that invaluable tranquillity which we are now enjoying.”
Radicalism in Paris led in April 1792 to the abolition of the colonial assemblies and their replacement by new assemblies that included the free black people. After France became a republic and executed Louis XVI, the French Revolutionary War widened in 1793 to include conflict with Britain and Spain.
That year, slavery was abolished in the colony by the local representatives. Having in 1792 sought the help of the free black people, they were now also seeking the support of the slaves against the conservative white people. The National Convention in Paris followed suit for all French colonies in February 1794.
Meanwhile, in Saint-Domingue, alongside bitter and violent rivalry between, and within, the white and black populations, there were also cross-currents in relations with Paris and with other powers. Spain, which was at war with France until 1795, provided aid to the rebels. British troops also intervened in 1794 on behalf of the conservative white people, before withdrawing in 1797, having faced major difficulties including yellow fever.
This left the colony divided between black forces under Toussaint L’Ouverture, who controlled the north and claimed to be acting for France, and mulattoes under André Rigaud who controlled the south: the mulatto planters feared the former slaves and kept a plantation economy going. In an instance of the geographical-political division also very much to be seen in Cuba, Haiti was long to have a political division between north and south, with the west often also forming a separate area of control.
Having defeated Rigaud in 1799-1800, Toussaint, who, like so many, was an ambivalent figure, part liberator, part harsh dictator, overran the neighbouring – formerly Spanish – Santo Domingo in 1801, which had been ceded to France in 1795. He also declared himself Supreme Head of the Island, although insisting that the island was still part of the French empire.
Toussaint’s seizure of power was not too different to that of Napoleon, a general in France in 1799, not that the latter, a racist, would have accepted the comparison. In turn, peace with Britain in 1802 gave Napoleon an opportunity to counter-attack, sending an army of 40,000 men, many Swiss conscripts or Poles, under his brother-in-law Charles Leclerc, to regain Saint-Domingue. Rigaud accompanied the expedition.
Treacherously seized on 7 June 1802 during negotiations, Toussaint died in prison in France in 1803 – his only visit to the country.
Napoleon hoped that Saint-Domingue would be part of a French empire in the West. This would include Louisiana, Florida, Cayenne, Martinique and Guadeloupe. In Guadeloupe, in 1802, thanks in part to amphibious capability, French authority was rapidly reasserted against the resistance of former slaves: the French killed about 10,000 people, a tenth of the population, including all the black soldiers captured. Slavery was re-established.
Toussaint died in prison in France in 1803 – his only visit to the country.
Although effective on Guadeloupe, a relatively small island, the brutality of French occupation and re-establishment of slavery, made it impossible to reach a compromise in Saint-Domingue where, resistance continued and became much stronger from October 1802. Terrible brutality, with Leclerc pressing for a war of extermination, compromised French success, but so also did poor leadership and planning, distance from France, a lack of troops, money and supplies, and the resumption of war with Britain in 1803 which led to a British blockade that both cut supplies and destroyed the basis for any French empire in the West.
In turn, the Haitians benefited from their ability to work with the environment, from their use of irregular operations, and from the deadly impact of yellow fever not only on the locals but even more on the French, including Leclerc who died in November 1802.
As so often in analysis, it is helpful to emphasise more than one approach to causation, in this case stressing both Haitian resistance and British naval power. At present, it is more fashionable to emphasise the former, but that does not necessarily make that account more accurate. Driven back to Le Cap, and crucially defeated at Vertières on 18 November 1803, the French force agreed a truce with Toussaint’s successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a former slave who had fought under Toussaint from the north, and, that month, was transported by British warships to Jamaica. The surviving white settlers fled, to Cuba, New Orleans, Philadelphia and other destinations, and the independence of Haiti was proclaimed on 1 January 1804.
The potential of independence was not much more encouraging to some commentators than the inequality and stagnation of continued reality of imperial rule, and the two were linked in Haiti, where, amidst mass devastation and a marked fall in the population, some of the plantation economy producing for European markets had survived the slave rebellion in 1791, the highly destructive subsequent warfare, and independence from France in 1804.
Slavery had gone, formally abolished when Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared independence on 1 January 1804, but the black élite who ran the state used forced labour to protect their plantations from the preference of people instead to live independently as peasant proprietors.
Dessalines had insisted that people serve as soldiers or as labourers, and the control over labour continued thereafter. As a result, amidst the development of class and colour divisions, notably prejudice against those with a darker skin, a prejudice also seen elsewhere (for example in Brazil), the pressures of the global economy and the attractions of cash crops selling into international markets triumphed over the potential consequences of independence.
These sales, in turn, were affected by competition from the products of Caribbean colonies. Compensation to France agreed in 1825 in order to gain recognition of independence, which was finally unconditionally granted, hit both living standards and social capital on Haiti.
Political stability proved elusive after the overthrow of Jean-Pierre Boyer, who had unified Haiti in 1820. He remained as President until 1843, when he was overthrown by a rebellion organised by Charles Rivière-Hérald, a general, who, in turn, fell in 1844 in the face of defeat by Dominican rebels and rebellions in Haiti, both by his governmental opponents and by the “Army of the Sufferers,” a peasant force, led by a former officer and pledged to black rather than mulatto rule.
The next President, Philippe Guerrier, another general, died in office in 1845, being succeeded by Jean-Louis Pierrot, yet another general who was overthrown in 1846 by Jean-Baptiste Riché, another general, who died, possibly poisoned, in 1847.
His successor, Faustin Soulouque, another general, the last of the Presidents to have fought in the War of Independence and to have been an ex-slave, was also a general. Once President, he set up a militia, the Zinglins, who terrified mulattoes. A murderous but effective autocrat, Soulouque openly backed Vodou, and in 1849 re-established the empire, originally proclaimed by Dessalines in 1804, becoming Faustin I. A Haitian nobility was also established. On the model of Napoleon, he had an imperial coronation in 1852. Invasions of the Dominican Republic in 1849, 1850 and 1855 failed.
In 1858-9, Fabre Geffrad, (a general), overthrew Soulouque, becoming President, surviving coup attempts in 1858, 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, and finally fleeing in 1867 in the face of serious division within the country. His successor, Sylvain Salnave, a major, who had rebelled in 1864 and 1866, was faced by a peasant rising and disputes with Congress. The latter led Salnave to re-establish the Presidency-for-life, but this led to a civil war. Fleeing to the Dominican Republic in 1869, he was handed back, court martialled and shot.
It would be interesting to see the Wolfson judges explain why they think Hazareesingh significantly advances the subject
Nissage Saget, another general, succeeded him, and was able to serve out his term (1870-4) peacefully and in full, although he faced quarrels with liberals trying to introduce parliamentary rule. In 1875, riots and assassinations marred the presidency of Michel Domingue, another general, but his successor, Pierre Théoma Boisrond-Canal, another former general, managed to be President in 1876-9, 1888, and 1902, and to die, peacefully and not in exile, in 1905. Louis Salomon (r. 1879-88), an autocratic moderniser, faced serious rebellions, notably in 1883-4, 1887 and 1888, leading him to resign and flee.
In turn, the election of François Légitime, a general, in 1888 led to a battle in which a rival general was killed, but, in 1889, he resigned in the face of opposition from yet another general, Florvil Hyppolite, who, however, suppressed rebellions, improved the economy, and was able to die in office in 1896. His successor, Tirésias Sam (r. 1896-1902), helped oversee a measure of stabilisation.
Toussaint had much in common with his nemesis, Napoleon. Both were men of blood, although Napoleon was more egregious in overthrowing the largely stable Directory government in 1799. Neither man founded a stable system, but Toussaint’s fate made the limitations of his achievement less apparent.
In his Black Spartacus, the Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture, Sudhir Hazareesingh does not devote sufficient attention to this issue, nor, indeed, to the more general difficulty of managing a transition from revolution to stable independence. The transition also proved a serious problem across Latin America and the United States, where civil war, as in Argentina, underlined the problems of federalism, and least so in Brazil where legitimacy and continuity were best preserved in the post-colonial transition. Military figures also seized power elsewhere, notably in Thailand and Vietnam, and the comparison would be worthwhile.
Hazareesingh is following well-trodden ground in dealing with Toussaint, and offers little of originality. A prize would have been better deserved had he handled the post-Toussaint years, but I suspect that the judges lacked the knowledge to appreciate that: judging a prize that spans centuries and subjects is never easy and there can be a tendency to fail to ask adequate questions about what is not well-known.
This is a particular problem with trade books, such as those published by Hazareesingh’s American and British publishers as they generally lack adequate anonymous peer-group assessment. Those wanting a clear and thoughtful account might be better off turning to Jeremy Popkin’s A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution (Wiley, 2011), which also has the great virtue of not being too long. His Facing Racial Revolution. Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Insurrection (Chicago Press, 2007) is a more major piece of work, while he has also published You Are All Free. The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
It would be interesting to see the Wolfson judges explain why they think Hazareesingh significantly advances the subject; but do not expect it, for there is no such advance.
Instead, some may feel that there is a degree of virtue-signalling. This seems more plausible to me than the unworthy observation that three of the four judges are Fellows of the British Academy with Oxbridge links and published by Allen Lane, and the winner is?
Judges are supposed to deliver, at least to the sponsoring institution, a united verdict (I have only been involved in one that failed that basic test and know of only one other likewise), but that does not mean that all will agree with a result. Secondly, judges are bound by what is submitted. If Vincent Brown’s Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Harvard University Press) is easily a better book than Black Spartacus, that would not help if it was not submitted.
Rather than probing these issues, though they certainly need discussion, there is the question of the “message” we are supposed to take. If Saint Domingue was a horrific plantation colony, independent Haiti was, for many decades, ghastly, and its subsequent history was scarcely untroubled. Is the “lesson” we are supposed to imply, that it would have been better if, like Martinique and Guadeloupe, Saint Domingue had remained part of the French system? I suspect not, but there is a degree of naivety in Hazareesingh’s account, as well as the message cited at the outset, that is striking.
Anyway, I can recommend from the shortlist, the only other book on it I have read, Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books. A History of Knowledge Under Attack.
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