Radio 4 Next Week Serialises Biography of Black Haitian Revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture

Radio 4’s ‘Book of the Week’ next week, according to the Radio Times for 14-20 November 2020, is Sudhir Hazareesingh’s Black Spartacus, a biography of Toussaint L’Ouverture. L’Ouverture was the leader of slave rebellion in what is now Haiti in the late 19th century, which threw out the French and turned their former colony into the first Black republic. The piece about the serial on page 130 of the Radio Times by David McGillivray runs

Book of the Week: Black Spartacus – the Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture

In 1791 enslaved Africans on the island now known as Haiti rose up against their French masters in the world’s first and only successful slave revolution. Their leader was the brilliant general and diplomat Toussaint Louverture, subject of a new book by Mauritian-born lecturer in politics at Balliol College Oxford, Sudhir Hazareesingh. Using correspondence and military reports in French archives, Hazareesingh brings startling new insights into the life of the man largely responsible for the establishment of the first black republic. Louverture, a real-life black superhero, fought not only the French but also the British and Spanish. “It was the greatest revolution of all time,” the author says. The serialisation is read by Adrian Lester.

The programme’s on at 9.45 each day, Monday to Friday. The blurbs for the days’ instalments are as follows:

Monday

1/5 Adrian Lester reads from Sudhir Hazareesingh’s biography of the former slave who headed an insurrection that led to the Haitian Revolution. The first instalment looks at Toussaint’s early life, his progress to coachman and his education by the Jesuits. Abridged by Libby Spurrier.

Tuesday

2/5 Following the Saint Domingue uprising, Toussaint show himself to be both a focused military leader and a man of compassion.

Wednesday

3/5 In 1798, Napoleon sends an agent, Gabriel de Heouville, to reduce Tousaint’s power in Saint-Domingue.

Thursday

4/5 Toussaint’s sweeping reforms of both public and private activity help to bring about huge rises in productivity and exports, but his authoritative leadership style inspires rebellions, led by his nephew Moyse.

Friday

5/5 Napoleon Bonaparte and Toussaint Louverture engage in a fierce battle of both wit and force over Saint-Dominge. After three months of fighting, Toussaint seeks to negotiate a truce, but is arrested and embarks on his first sea voyage – one way – to France.

Louverture was clearly a brilliant and gifted leader. His revolution was an inspiration to slaves across the Caribbean, and the sought to emulate his success in their own revolts. These also included the British West Indies, alarming the colonial authorities there and the government at home.

However, there was also a serious negative aspect to the revolution. Major Moody used the condition of the former slaves in Haiti after the revolt as part of the argument in his parliamentary report in the 1820s that slaves in the British Caribbean weren’t ready for their freedom. After the revolution, the government had been faced with a financial crisis due to possible loss of their export commodity, sugar. The country was therefore divided up between Louverture’s generals, and the former slaves were forbidden to leave their plantations. Each plantation was given a quote of sugar to produce. If they failed to produce this quota, then the generals and army moved in and started executing those workers. I believe they were burned to death. I don’t know whether this came after Louverture was removed from power, although it might have been during his rule when the book says that rebellions broke out against his ‘authoritative’ leadership.

Moody’s conclusion surprised contemporaries, because he certainly wasn’t personally racist. He lived in Somerset with a Black wife. His report is interesting because it also includes letters from a former American slave, who had been freed by his mistress in Louisiana. The former slave had travelled to Haiti, and obviously felt a strong attachment to his former mistress by writing letters to her about his new adopted country and its conditions.

The report also discusses issues that are still, unfortunately, very relevant today. He felt describes the greater numbers of Blacks than Whites in American prisons, and concluded that there is so much prejudice against Blacks in America and Britain that the only way they can possible succeed as equals would be if they had their own country. This is the view of Black radical groups like the Nation of Islam. Let’s work together to make sure it’s mistaken.

I haven’t come across this particular book before, but there have been other works recently published about the Black revolutionaries of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. One of these is The Black Jacobins. Louverture was inspired by the French Revolution, which attempted to end slavery as well as liberating the White serfs from their aristocratic masters. I don’t think the French were able to restore serfdom after the revolution’s failure, but they were successful in restoring Black slavery. This led to the growth of French anti-slavery movements like Amis des Noirs.

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