France-Amérique: What personal reasons led you to study French history and the life of Toussaint Louverture?
Sudhir Hazareesingh: I grew up on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, a former French colony [until 1810] where the influence of French culture remains very strong, and my father was an ardent Francophile: He got his doctorate from the Sorbonne, and we used to receive French newspapers regularly at home. French culture is profoundly rooted in history – in a way that British culture is not – and so I naturally became interested in French history, especially revolutionary history. Toussaint Louverture was both a way of broadening my understanding of this revolutionary story in a colonial setting, which I had not studied so far, and also returning to my Mauritian roots. Late 18th-century Isle de France, as Mauritius was known then, and St. Domingue were both plantation societies where slavery prevailed and was strongly contested through rebellions and acts of marronage [slaves running away].
Was Louverture a product of the Enlightenment or an opportunist looking to make his fortune?
The charge of opportunism leveled at Louverture by his adversaries is not consistent with any reasonable interpretation of the facts. If he had been a real opportunist, he would have remained loyal to the Spaniards in 1793-1794; they were in a much better position in St. Domingue at the time than the French. Or indeed in 1798, he would have come over to the British, who were willing to use their immense resources to bribe him if he switched sides. In 1802, when the French military invaded the island, Napoleon sent Louverture a letter promising him honors and fortune if he accepted to collaborate. He refused again. He would not compromise on the fundamental question of slave emancipation and believed, unfortunately, that the French would stand by him as he defended this principle. I would also add that he was not just a fils des Lumières; he was shaped by the African culture of his ancestors, who hailed from the Kingdom of Allada in what is now Southern Benin, as well as by elements of Caribbean spirituality, notably Catholicism and the vaudou religion.
Why is Louverture celebrated very little in Haiti and not at all in France, even though Napoleon praised him in The Memorial of Saint Helena?
Louverture did not complete the Haitian journey towards independence because he was captured by Bonaparte’s army in 1802, and died in exile a year later at the Fort de Joux, in the Jura region. It was left to his lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, to bring the war of national liberation to its conclusion, and this is why Dessalines is seen by so many of his compatriots as the founding father of the Haitian nation. There is also the fact that Louverture believed, right until the end, that cooperation with France was in the best interests of his country. This was proved wrong by Napoleon’s invasion, by General Charles Leclerc’s treacherous capture and deportation of Louverture [who had agreed to an honorable surrender and retired to his plantation], one of the most shameful acts in modern French military history, and by Haiti’s subsequent history – in particular, the reparations which France extorted from Louverture’s successors. In France, I would not agree that Louverture is not celebrated “at all.” Since 1998, he has a plaque at the Panthéon, which makes him an official French national hero. There are streets, statues, and public gardens all over France named after him, and his name often comes up on May 10 each year, when France officially commemorates the abolition of slavery. [Last May, a Toussaint Louverture garden was inaugurated in the 20th arrondissement of Paris.] But he deserves to be more fully integrated into the French roman national, and I was pleased to see that President Emmanuel Macron mentioned Louverture warmly, and as an example of authentic republican idealism, in the speech he gave at the Institut de France to commemorate the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death on May 5, 2021.
Do you see the slave rebellion of St. Domingue and the republic instated by Louverture as heralding the subsequent wave of emancipation and decolonization?
The series of revolutions in St. Domingue from 1791 to 1804 were a landmark both for emancipation from slavery and self-determination of colonial peoples. The Haitian Revolution stimulated resistance to slavery across the Atlantic and provided the intellectual and practical inspirations for abolitionist movements, based on the true principle of cosmopolitan fraternity. Haiti gave assistance to Venezuelan leader Simón Bolívar, thus contributing to the decolonization of South America, and anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements in the 19th and 20th centuries also drew inspiration from the events of St. Domingue. The Négritude movement, notably in the writings of Aimé Césaire, was durably fascinated by Louverture, and Ho Chi Minh was hailed as “the Toussaint Louverture of Indochina.”
How do you explain the repression of the Napoleonic era?
We need to look properly at the second half of the 1790s in France, which is where the counter-revolution which culminates in Napoleon’s coup has its roots. The abolition of slavery by the Convention in 1794 created a significant backlash among the slave-owning and propertied classes in France, and they pushed very hard for a return to the status quo ante; many key members of Napoleon’s entourage in the early years of the Consulate were ardent slavers. Bonaparte himself had very crude views on race: He famously declared that he was “with the whites” because “he himself was white,” and that the 1794 abolition had been a mistake. His racism also led him to underestimate the valor of the Black army of St. Domingue. Like many Europeans at the time, he believed in the inherent military superiority of white people. The Haitian war of independence would prove him wrong in this regard.
Did Louverture influence the United States during his lifetime or afterwards?
Louverture was a household name among African Americans throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th century, while the Haitian Revolution played a major role in shaping American abolitionism and the later fight for African American equality and dignity. Louverture is a perfect model in the U.S. because he can appeal both to Christian abolitionism as well as to those who believed in a more robust, military-style resistance. One of the greatest American abolitionists was Frederick Douglass, who talked about Louverture constantly in his speeches and celebrated the emancipation of the Haitian people as evidence of the capacity of Black people for self-government. Thousands of African Americans settled in Haiti at various points in the 19th century.
Can French ignorance of Louverture be explained by a general lack of awareness and the idealization of French colonialism? Is this history of colonization still waiting to be written and taught?
The story of Louverture and the Haitian Revolution fundamentally challenges the dominant republican and Napoleonic narratives of the period: The republican, because it highlights the French Revolution’s ambiguities and inconsistencies about slavery [which was restored by Bonaparte in 1802]; the Napoleonic because the invincible French army was humiliatingly defeated by St. Domingue’s revolutionaries at the Battle of Vertières in November 1803, paving the way for Haitian independence on January 1, 1804. The French are still trapped in a sugar-coated idealization of their nation’s modern history, which presents 1789 and the dominant republican tradition as the sole source of collective freedom and emancipation. This is perhaps true for metropolitan France but the colonial experience, notably under the Third and Fourth Republics, was much less liberating for the peoples living under French rule. As for the teaching of this history, there is now a lot more about slavery in the French school curriculum, which is positive, but the Haitian Revolution is no longer taught in metropolitan lycées, which is very unfortunate. It is not possible to understand the French Revolution properly without making sense of what happened in St. Domingue in the 1790s. The Fondation pour la Mémoire de l’Esclavage has recently produced an excellent survey about the lacunae in the study of France’s slave and colonial past in schools and I hope its recommendations are taken up by the French government.
Do Louverture’s despotism, the reintroduction of slavery, and the reparations demanded by France explain partially or wholly Haiti’s current poverty?
There is no single cause of Haiti’s current misfortunes, and its self-serving and corrupt domestic elites have undoubtedly mismanaged the nation’s affairs for at least the past century. But this economic and political instability was neither natural nor inevitable, but rather a product of the structural hostility faced by Haiti in the early decades after independence. This ostracism of the world’s first Black post-colonial state culminated in the compensation extorted by the French government, which cast a long shadow over Haitian political and economic development across the entire 19th century. In the early 20th century, the Americans invaded and occupied Haiti as well. France has refused to acknowledge its historic role in causing this terrible damage to Haiti and should follow the example of Germany, which has just agreed to pay reparations to Namibia for the genocide they carried out in the early 20th century. The total amount paid by Haiti to France, excluding interest, is estimated by the French economist Thomas Piketty at 30 billion euros. This money, incidentally, was used mainly to compensate wealthy landowners in France, so la patrie des droits de l’homme in this instance stole from the poor to give to the rich. Moreover in 1848, when France finally abolished slavery, the Second Republic wasted no time in compensating slave owners for their loss of “property.” The time has now come for France to do the honorable thing.
Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture by Sudhir Hazareesingh, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.
Interview published in the August 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.