The best books about Toussaint Louverture and his impact on the world

Christian Høgsbjerg Author Of Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions
By Christian Høgsbjerg

Who am I?

When we are thinking of the origins or roots of contemporary movements like #BlackLivesMatter, the Haitian Revolution represents a foundational, inspirational moment but one of also wider world-historical impact and importance – ‘the only successful slave revolt in history’ – and so as the most outstanding leader to emerge during that revolutionary upheaval Toussaint Louverture will always retain relevance and iconic significance. I've had an interest in Toussaint and the Haitian Revolution ever since undertaking my doctorate on how the black Trinidadian revolutionary historian C.L.R. James came to write his classic history of the Haitian Revolution. I currently teach history, including the history of Atlantic slavery and abolition, in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Brighton. 

I wrote...

Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions

By Charles Forsdick, Christian Høgsbjerg,

Book cover of Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions

What is my book about?

Heroic leader of the only successful slave revolt in history, Toussaint Louverture is one of the greatest anti-imperialist fighters who ever lived. Born into slavery on a Caribbean plantation, he was able to break from his bondage to lead an army of formerly enslaved Africans to victory against the professional armies of France, Spain, and Britain during the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804. 

In this lively narrative biography, Louverture’s fascinating life is explored through the prism of his radical politics. Charles Forsdick and Christian Høgsbjerg champion this ‘black Jacobin’ whose revolutionary legacy has inspired people and movements in the two centuries since his death up to and including the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement.  

The books I picked & why

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The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution

By C.L.R. James,

Book cover of The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution

Why this book?

This work was the first work I read about the Haitian Revolution as a student, and though published in 1938, The Black Jacobins is a classic of historical literature which still remains the best starting place for understanding Toussaint Louverture as a revolutionary leader and his place in history. Born in Trinidad, a Caribbean island with a legacy of slavery and so not entirely unlike Haiti itself, James as a black anti-colonialist became inspired by the Russian Revolution which represented a massive challenge to racism and imperialism. 

The Marxist theory of permanent revolution, outlined in Leon Trotsky’s own History of the Russian Revolution, helped James understand how the Haitian Revolution and the French Revolution were intrinsically intertwined throughout, and so how Jacobinism could inspire Toussaint, just as James himself had been inspired by Bolshevism. The Black Jacobins is a brilliant model of revolutionary history at its best, panoramic in its scale, passionate in its argument, making the enslaved themselves central to the story of the emancipation from slavery, and a work which has helped inspire many of those struggling for colonial and black liberation ever since.  

The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below

By Carolyn E. Fick,

Book cover of The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below

Why this book?

Carolyn Fick was a doctoral student of C.L.R. James and George Rudé during the 1970s in Montreal, Canada, and in keeping with the turn of social history towards ‘history from below’ in that decade, produced a pioneering study in 1990 of the wider contested forms of revolutionary leadership beyond Toussaint Louverture during the Haitian Revolution, particularly in the South of what was then French colonial Saint Domingue. Carolyn remains a leading historian of the Haitian Revolution, and her work helps us better understand the class dynamics of the revolutionary process as it unfolded, and the tragedy of Toussaint as he developed into a representative of a new land-owning ruling class in Saint Domingue, even as he continued to strike powerful blows at European slave-owning colonial powers.  

The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution

By Julius S. Scott,

Book cover of The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution

Why this book?

Taking as its title a line from the sonnet William Wordsworth wrote in 1802 in honour of the then imprisoned Toussaint Louverture, Julius S Scott’s work – like that of Carolyn Fick – gives us a powerful sense of just how revolutionary the Haitian Revolution was. Focusing on how sailors, runaway slaves, soldiers, and others spread revolutionary ideas of the Radical Enlightenment across the Caribbean during the 1790s, Scott gives us another brilliant ‘history from below’, full of inspiring examples of internationalism. Leaders of other slave revolts across the Caribbean took on names like ‘Toussaint’, while even the English radical Thomas Paine came to inspire Francophone blacks in this period – such as the imprisoned ‘John Paine’ detained by British authorities in colonial Jamaica in 1793.

Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution

By Laurent Dubois,

Book cover of Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution

Why this book?

Over the past few decades, scholarship on the Haitian Revolution in the Western academy has developed in leaps and bounds after decades of relative neglect and marginalisation and the ‘silencing’ of the revolution identified by Michel Rolph Trouillot. One of the very best works in recent years on the Haitian Revolution is Avengers of the New World by Laurent Dubois, which brings together recent archival research with a beautifully written narrative that is both accessible and highly informative. Dubois has also written more widely on Haiti’s history, and also wrote a fine foreword when C.L.R. James’s 1934 play, Toussaint Louverture: The story of the only successful slave revolt in history was published for the first time by Duke University Press in 2013.  

Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture

By Sudhir Hazareesingh,

Book cover of Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture

Why this book?

There have been many biographies and studies of Toussaint Louverture written in the two centuries and more since his death in a French prison in 1803, including from within Haiti itself where a rich nationalist historiography of the revolution has always existed. Sudhir Hazareesingh builds on the best of these and utilises the latest archival research in his impressive study Black Spartacus, likely to be the definitive biography of ‘the epic life of Toussaint Louverture’ for the foreseeable future. Though Hazareesingh’s focus on Toussaint as a ‘superhero’ means he inherently has little if any use for the methodology of history ‘from below’ outlined in many of the other works on the Haitian Revolution I have selected here, and he downplays the critical role of other revolutionary leaders at various points, nonetheless the work is still very valuable for helping us understand Toussaint himself.  

Hazareesingh makes powerful and sophisticated arguments about Toussaint’s ‘revolutionary republicanism,’ with its focus on ‘the equal dignity of the citizenry and a commitment to the ideals of popular sovereignty and service to the general interest,’ his ‘republicanism of war,’ and his ‘republicanism of brotherhood which held up the enticing prospect of a multiracial community of equals’.  

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