Nearly 10 years before the French Revolution, in a widely read book called Histoire Philosophique des Deux Indes, two philosophers in Paris, Abbé Raynal and Denis Diderot, published a warning to Europe: if it didn’t soon put an end to the twin abominations of slavery and the slave trade, “an avenger” would come forth who would uproot the practice altogether. In France, this book helped inspire the revolution. And in the French Caribbean colonies, the slaves held on to this prophecy, just as in 1789 they would hold on to the words of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, one of the founding documents of the Western liberal order: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” And these rights are “natural, inalienable and sacred.”
But what did the French Revolution actually do for the abolition of slavery?
As it turns out, nothing.
The Rights of the (White) Man
The revolutionaries in France were terrified at the prospect of racial equality. And the Declaration of the Rights of Man was not initially intended to include the rights of any man (let alone woman) of color. A far cry from abolition, the French Revolution declared the colonies’ slaves to be foreign nationals, blocked reforms, and constitutionally recognized slavery. It criminalized dissent against slavery, and put the properties of white colonizers under national protection. In Saint-Domingue, as Haiti was formerly called, this national “property” included 500,000 slaves.
In the late 18th century, white supremacists overpowered Saint-Domingue’s local government and twisted the revolution’s language of liberty, justice, and patriotism to justify racial divisions and crush the heads of fledgling rebels on the wheel (a torture method used for public execution). Following the French Revolution, the revolutionaries in France and the white supremacists in the colony shared the ambition of preserving their colonial plantations, which ran on slave labor and were the world’s richest producers of sugar and coffee. So it was with a measure of poetic justice emblematic of the Bastille spirit that when Saint-Domingue’s slave revolution took root, in 1791, after the publication of that fateful Histoire Philosophique, it began with the burning of these plantations and the total annihilation of the slave economy.
There is a remarkable story in historian Sudhir Hazareesingh’s new book, Black Spartacus, about a colonizer who goes back to his burned plantation. Nothing remains there except for one building, which is now occupied by a commander of the slave revolt. The colonizer finds all his books have been burned except for Histoire Philosophique, which lies open to the very page where the prophecy was written. The commander is Toussaint Louverture, one of Black Power’s greatest champions and the future governor-general of Saint-Domingue—a slave in the master’s house.
The colonizer finds all his books have been burned except for Histoire Philosophique, which lies open to the very page where the prophecy was written.
Black Spartacus is the story of Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution, and a meditation on how the struggle against white supremacy and racism is one of the oldest of the human race. Slavery has ended, and empires are no more, but racism still endures. And so reading about Louverture is edifying—because when slavery was finally abolished, it was done out of political necessity, not on principle.
In 1793, the French were losing control of Saint-Domingue to the Black revolutionaries, and the emancipation of slaves was one of the methods it employed to rally support. None of the white men in power believed in the equality of the races. And yet former colonial empires such as Britain and France would still have us believe they were the ones to end slavery and free slaves. “It was the slaves themselves, by their insurrection, who had made slavery impossible,” Hazareesingh writes. If there were any principles to be held, they were held up by the people of color. Louverture believed, with fervor, that each man should be free. The revolution he engineered was for the sake of freedom, not for power. In Black Spartacus, Louverture emerges as the only principled hero of the Haitian Revolution of 1791 to 1804; the republicans, monarchists, mixed-race allies, and even Black allies of the revolution pale in comparison to Louverture’s natural intelligence and capable war strategy. In his lifetime, he destroyed slavery in two colonies—Saint-Domingue and the neighboring Santo Domingo (owned by the Spanish)—ended colonialism on Hispaniola, and unified the island (now home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic) under a new constitution.
Hazareesingh attributes the unique success of the Haitian Revolution to Louverture’s commitment to the notion of Black unity and brotherhood. Louverture unified slaves and free Blacks into an army and fought off the French, Spanish, and British Empires, at times maneuvering them to fight each other. The Black resistance was against white supremacy, regardless of nationality. The writer C. L. R. James has previously called Louverture a “Black Jacobin.” Hazareesingh reclaims Louverture from the French for Blacks and for people of color. In doing so he presents to us a portrait of an original revolutionary whose self-worth and philosophy were formed by his African ancestry—his Creole and Christian values—and who fought in the name of his philosophy and his vision of an equal Saint-Domingue, where every race lived in freedom.
Ankita Chakraborty is a writer and journalist from India