“There is more to do in terms of creating a society in which opportunities are equally available to all: we remain too stratified”

Sudhir Hazareesingh:

* ‘The Haitian revolution is now seen as an event at least equal in magnitude to the French and American revolutions. I think it is even more important than those two’

*  ‘The French are still struggling to come to terms with their imperialist legacy, as was shown recently by President Macron’s embarrassingly enthusiastic official celebration of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death’

On June 9, 2021, Sudhir Hazareesingh has won the Wolfson History Prize 2021 for his book ‘Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture’, a ‘gripping account’ of the Haitian Revolutionary leader. The Wolfson History Prize is the UK’s top history award which is given annually by the Wolfson Foundation to the best historical writing for the general audience “reflecting qualities of both readability and excellence in writing and research”. David Cannadine, Chair of the Wolfson History Prize Judging Panel, said, “’Black Spartacus’ vividly re-creates the extraordinary career of the leader and hero of the Haitian revolution, which reverberated far beyond that island and far beyond the Caribbean. This is an erudite and elegant biography with a message that resonates strongly in our own time.”

Sudhir Hazareesingh has been a fellow and Tutor in Politics at Balliol College, Oxford, since 1990. Most of his work relates to modern political history from 1850, including the history of contemporary France as well as Napoleon, the Republic and Charles de Gaulle. In today’s ‘Encounter’, he talks about his interest “the intersection of revolutionary politics and charismatic leadership”, the significance of the Haitian revolution, which is now seen as “an event at least equal in magnitude to the French and American revolutions” but which is in his view “even more important than those two” as well as about the “similarities between the Louverturean path towards self-determination and the road followed by my father’s generation of Mauritian nation-builders – working together across ethnic groups, building bridges rather than walls…”

* Your fascination with great figures that have shaped history continues with your latest publication. You have written about de Gaulle, Gambetta and Napoleon. How did the idea of writing about Toussaint Louverture come about?

I have always been interested in the intersection of revolutionary politics and charismatic leadership: how the two phenomenona are connected, and feed upon each other. I had not done any research on French colonial history and so when I started to explore this field it became obvious that Toussaint Louverture should be my subject, as he is a revolutionary leader par excellence.

* Critics have lauded the extensive research carried out for your book. Toussaint Louverture was known to be a prolific writer and has bequeathed considerable material that constitutes a trove for biographers. Do tell us more about the research process and the most unexpected findings on him.

It was excellent but somewhat daunting to find so much material in the archives on Toussaint, especially as it was dispersed across so many different locations – mostly in France (in Paris, Aix-en-Provence, and Bordeaux) but also in Britain, Spain, and the United States. He was a voluminous letter-writer (at the height of his power he would dictate several hundred missives a day) but this material is even more scattered. So it was a real challenge pulling all of it together.

I think the most remarkable finding from the archives is how methodical a thinker and political strategist he was: everything he did, whether it was in the administrative, military, or diplomatic fields, was carefully reasoned and worked through. My other main finding (and this is something historians have not sufficiently appreciated) is that he was a superbly creative leader, drawing on the thinking and practices of others but always looking for solutions of his own, and which were appropriate for the particular circumstances of late colonial Saint-Domingue.

* Louverture’s progress from slave to father of the nation constitutes a singular story. Your book, which hails him as “the first black superhero of the modern age”, differs from other biographies in that it lays emphasis on the myriad of influences that made him the towering figure that he was, and the importance of faith and the African culture in making him who he was. Could you tell us more about the complexity of the one you describe as the incarnation of a ‘republicanisme creolisé’?

Toussaint was a voracious learner, absorbing intellectual and cultural influences from far and wide: in the religious, scientific and military traditions of his ancestral Allada people (Toussaint’s father had been a senior official in the kingdom); in the varied belief systems of 18th century Saint-Domingue, including Catholicism, the spiritual ideals of the native American Taino people, resistance ideologies of runaways, and the vodou religion; and in radical Enlightenment ideas about emancipation and equality. All of these ideas and values were interacting in his mind in 1791, like a tropical symphony, when he joined the insurrection of the enslaved.

* You state that the success of the Haitian insurrection compared to that of other colonies in the Atlantic world can be attributed to the strength in numbers of the revolutionaries, Toussaint’s leadership but also to the slaves’ knowledge of military strategy. On the latter, you describe a hybrid of European techniques of war and ‘guerilla’ tactics. Which of these had the most telling influence on the outcome?

I think they combined perfectly. I have a chapter in which I analyse Toussaint’s military art and he put together from scratch – early on his fighters literally had no clothing and hardly any weapons — a formidable fighting force. He knew perfectly how to use classical European military techniques, while also making the best of the topography of Saint-Domingue, where the inland territories are rugged and often very mountainous (the native American population of the island called it ‘Ayti”, which means land of mountains, and this is the origin of the name Haiti).This sort of landscape is very propitious for guerilla war, and Toussaint and his army exploited these opportunities to the full in their successful wars against the Spaniards, the British, and finally the French.

* One of the influences on Toussaint Louverture is François Makandal, a maroon leader with a solid knowledge of voodoo practices that adopted a more radical approach in his fight and privileged the killing of slave-owners through guerrilla techniques such as the adding of poison to their meals. Toussaint opted for a more peaceful path to liberation. What explains this more measured approach?

I would not necessarily call Toussaint’s way “peaceful”: he believed in using force as and when necessary (which is why he supported the slave insurrection of 1791, which kicks off the Haitian revolution), but he generally preferred to try and build bridges with people, including with the white settlers whom Makandal wanted to eliminate, and the British and the Americans with whom he wanted to trade so as not to become completely dependent on the French; one of his mottos was “doucement allé loin”.

The fundamental difference with Makandal was that Toussaint’s path to liberation followed what I would call an insider strategy – he always tried to work within existing institutions, and try to create something new while building up a position of strength. This is how he worked together with the slave elite on the plantations to help plan the 1791 insurrection (he was never tempted by marronage). Likewise, he also moved Saint-Domingue progressively towards autonomy and self-determination in the 1790s while also trying to stay within the French system. He did not want independence, at least in the short run.

* The outcome of the battle of Vertières in November 1803, which saw the triumph of freedom-fighters over colonizers, is attributed to Toussaint Louverture who had already passed away in a French prison in April of that year. Do you subscribe to the view that the success of the liberators is the result of Toussaint’s influence?

Toussaint was arrested and deported in mid-1802 but by that point he had put into place the strategy which would eventually defeat the French: unifying the popular resistance under a central military command, adopting a scorched earth policy so that the invaders would struggle with supplies, harassing enemy lines constantly but retreating to the hinterland whenever necessary. Toussaint knew that the rainy season would bring diseases (notably yellow fever) which would decimate the invading forces. This is exactly what had happened to the British invaders in the 1790s. Above all, Toussaint had prepared his people to believe in themselves, and to fight back against anyone who came to enslave them: when he would review his troops he would raise his rifle and shout out “this is our strength!”.

* The Haitian revolution and the birth of the first black independent state has been subject to what you term as ‘erasure’, whereby this chapter of history has been ‘removed from sight’. How tough is it for historians to counter the imperialist-framing of such historical occurrences?

It is somewhat easier now that there are more people of colour (and from the Global South) who produce history, and that historians in the West are more aware of the seminal impact of the Haitian revolution, which is now seen as an event at least equal in magnitude to the French and American revolutions (I think it is even more important than those two). But there is still a tendency to treat these sorts of revolutionary events as marginal or peripheral, partly because doing otherwise threatens dominant narratives which Western countries have embraced for generations.

The French, for example, see their 1789 revolution as a glorious historical episode, which paved the way for the liberation of humankind: in fact, the events in Saint-Domingue throughout the 1790s show that it was Toussaint Louverture and his people who were leading this struggle for human emanicipation, and of course the French under Napoleon went on to restore slavery in 1802, later building a colonial empire which treated black and coloured people as subjects, not full citizens.

The French are still struggling to come to terms with this imperialist legacy, as was shown recently by President Macron’s embarrassingly enthusiastic official celebration of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death.

* Your father Dr Kissoonsingh Hazareesingh was also a historian in his own right. Was he a great influence on your thinking, on your reading of history and on your worldview?

I think (and hope!) I have very much followed in his footsteps: “Haza”, as he used to be affectionately called, was a citizen of the world, very comfortable with and proud of his Indian roots, and also passionate about British and French culture (he studied at Cambridge and then the Sorbonne).

I grew up hearing about his exciting travels, and exchanges with people like Senghor and Malraux, and surrounded by all the wonderful books he had collected over the years– his interests were all at once literary, historical and political, and he did not see any meaningful difference among these three intellectual spheres. I spent my entire adolescence in our library upstairs in the family home in Phoenix and so I can say without doubt that he was a decisive influence on who I am and have become.


* Would you say that being Mauritian helped you get a better understanding of the Haitian story and generally on slavery?

There are many ways in which my Mauritian roots proved immensely helpful. The ile de France (as Mauritius was then known) and colonial Saint-Domingue had a lot in common: both were ruled by the French as plantation societies based on slavery, and experienced a lot of resistance activities and marronage. When I was growing up in Mauritius, I used to hear stories about slave revolts led by charismatic leaders such as Diamamouve, Tatamaka, and Madame François – at the time of course I knew nothing about Haiti and its glorious history; it did not feature in the school history curriculum.

Kreyol is spoken in Saint-Domingue/Haiti, and I could appreciate from my Mauritian experience (the two kreyols have some commonalities) all the marvellous opportunities this kind of language, with its creativity, wit and playfulness, and colourful imagery, would give someone like Toussaint in developing his leadership skills and independent line of thinking.

I am also very struck by the similarities between the Louverturean path towards self-determination and the road followed by my father’s generation of Mauritian nation-builders – working together across ethnic groups, building bridges rather than walls, promoting toleration and forgiveness rather than conflict, and effectively sharing power among groups and institutions rather than concentrating it all narrowly in a few hands.

* What are your views, as a historian, on the ongoing decolonisation process in Mauritius? Where have we reached and what is yet to be done?

Mauritius has much to be proud of: it has built a strong multi-cultural democracy, where citizens are treated equally in political terms, and where all religions are respected. We have remained on good terms with the British and the French (more so with the latter than the former, and quite rightly given the ongoing disgraceful British behaviour over the Chagos islands; colonialism never dies in some quarters).

We have maintained our cultural heritages with Europe, Africa and Asia, and been fortunate in having some very effective leaders since independence, the two most outstanding being Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and Sir Anerood Jugnauth, who has just left us (more proof, were it need, that leadership can make a big difference in politics).

At the same time, we are a young nation and there is more to do in terms of creating a society in which opportunities are equally available to all: we remain too stratified. There is also further work to accomplish in creating a genuine Mauritian identity, which amounts to more than the sum of our different parts. I think we will get there and this sentiment is already much more widespread among the younger generations, and can also be admired in Mauritian literature, poetry and painting (art deals naturally with the universal).

It was also very heartening to see the robust collective reaction across the island to the Wakashio disaster: it brought home how fragile our environment is, and that we must do our best to nurture and protect it.

* There must be other fascinating historical stories about events and towering personalities to tell when you look towards the East. Have you given some thought to that?

I have indeed, and one of the fascinating characters I would love to find out more about is Ho Chi Minh, who led his people to freedom after fighting off the French and the Americans. His story also shows the universality of the Haitian revolution: the African-American artist Paul Robeson called Ho Chi Minh “the Toussaint Louverture of Vietnam”.

* Published in print edition on 22 June 2021

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