Long before Black Panther, early modern Europeans embraced a different kind of Black avenger, one largely constructed by White abolitionists.
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New scholarship focused on the Haitian Revolution and its leader, Toussaint Louverture, accentuates the uprising’s profound impact on the history of the Atlantic world. It also unmasks the ways that ancient Roman figures such as Lucretia, Spartacus, and Hannibal were used by abolitionists to articulate their ambitions for the movement.
Long before Black Panther, early modern Europeans embraced a different kind of Black avenger, one largely constructed by White abolitionists who drew upon motifs and myths plucked from the annals of Roman history. In particular, writers in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries focused on Rome’s foundational tale of the rape of Lucretia around 509 BCE and the uprising of enslaved persons under the leadership of a Thracian gladiator named Spartacus in 73-71 BCE.
Cast as the paragon of virtue and chastity, the Roman noblewoman Lucretia killed herself in the late 6th century BCE, after telling her husband and father she had been raped by Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the king. They vowed to avenge her death, which led to the overthrow of Rome’s monarchy and the founding of the Res Publica (“Republic”) in 509 BCE. Her plight was famously written down by the likes of Livy and Ovid hundreds of years later, but would be used in the plays of the Enlightenment to justify the establishment of a government that protected women — but also excluded them from participation. A woman’s death had justified the creation of a patriarchal republic in Rome. The other tale, that of the Thracian gladiator named Spartacus who challenged Rome and her republic in the first century BCE, would also be repackaged. Abolitionism expanded its reach on the stage.
In Grégory Pierrot’s 2019 book, The Black Avenger in Atlantic Culture, the impact of Roman motifs used in plays on the British and French stage are carefully examined. Roman history and its familiar tales were frequently appropriated by French revolutionaries fighting to overthrow the monarchy. It was also manipulated by literary figures outraged by the transatlantic slave trade. In 1688, a White female playwright and writer named Aphra Behn published a novel called Oroonoko in order to unveil the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. It was later transformed by Thomas Southerne into a wildly popular play that premiered in 1695.
As Pierrot notes, the play was exceedingly well attended and staged throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. Notably, it was banned in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1795 and was never performed in Kingston, Jamaica. It focused on a failed revolt of enslaved persons led by an African prince from Kormantse, West Africa, who was enslaved and brought to the English colony of Surinam in South America. He and his love, Imoinda, are cast by Behn as a “beautiful black Venus to our young Mars”; however, Southerne recast Imoinda as a White European woman. Literary theorist Felicity Nussbaum notes in her work, The Limits of the Human: Fictions of Anomaly, Race, and Gender in the Long Eighteenth Century, that Black women in the 18th century were rarely allowed to possess personhood or subjectivity. They were most often described by White authors as having features closer to European ideals of beauty and likened to the Roman goddess Venus — or simply turned white altogether, as Southerne did to Imoinda.
Oroonoko is seen as the originator of the racist “noble savage” stereotype. It also drew on Roman antiquity by glorifying suicide in the face of tyranny, just as Roman republicans such as Cato the Younger and Lucretia had. The play inspired a widely read poem by John Whaley, “On a Young Lady’s Weeping at Oroonoko” (1732) which focused on a woman named Lucretia weeping while watching the play. Both Cato, who died rather than come under the rule of Caesar in 46 BCE, and Lucretia are heroized in these and many other 18th-century works as figures who resisted unjust rule.
Alongside this cooption, other Roman historical actors were deployed to signal revolution and the desire for freedom. The Thracian gladiator named Spartacus, largely overlooked in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, was reborn in new, early modern tales. He was cast as a romantic hero leader rather than the anti-hero threat to Roman power he had been seen as in his own time, when he led the Third Servile War from 73-71 BCE.
In his own analysis of the reception of Spartacus, ancient historian Brent Shaw has looked to the reemergence of Spartacus in the 18th century. This remaking of Spartacus as a hero began in the opera Spartaco, by the Neapolitan Giuseppe Porsile, first performed in Vienna in 1726. Shaw particularly points to the French attention paid to the gladiator in the mid-18th century. The subject of slavery and the treatment of the enslaved was in the public conversation due to French colonies overseas. Shaw remarks:
The consciousness of such problems provoked Jean Lévesque de Burigny, in the early 1770s, to publish lengthy essays on the condition of Roman slaves. The basic argument of these treatises was that the Romans avoided the recurrence of the violent outbursts of rebellion that characterized the late Republic by means of a modulated system of manumission and by providing legal regulation for the humane treatment of slaves.
The stage was again the locus for revising Roman motifs and it overlaid then modern politics. In 1760, Bernard-Joseph Saurin premiered a play in Paris called Spartacus: A Tragedy in Five Acts. French historians also began to write more on Spartacus, but it was Voltaire who pivotally stated that Spartacus’s revolt “was the most just, and perhaps the only just war’ in the world’s history.” Voltaire had been a big fan of Saurin’s Spartacus play and wrote to tell him so.
Alongside the revisiting of Lucretia and Spartacus in theatrical performances, new Roman histories, and emerging revolutionary philosophies — there were also new imaginings of the future. Science fiction, or its antecedents, play a part in this tale. In 1771, French novelist Louis-Sébastien Mercier wrote a popular futurist novel titled L’An 2440, rêve s’il en fut jamais (The Year 2440: A Dream If Ever There Was One). An early example of science fiction, the work focused on a man who fell asleep in 18th-century Paris, only to awake in a utopian Paris of the 25th century, free from inequities. The protagonist notes that a statue had been erected to a Black avenger who had freed the New World from slavery. The idea and prediction of a forthcoming Black avenger would grip the thousands who read L’An 2440 and many other historical and encyclopedic works in the late 18th century.
It was this idea of a Black savior and avenger which would then inspire the development by Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot and writer Guillaume-Thomas Raynal of the idea of the “Black Spartacus.” In 1774, a new edition of the Histoire des deux Indes (History of the East and West Indies) which first appeared in 1770 and had heavily critiqued Caribbean slavery, was printed with the new paragraph inspired by Mercier’s book.
Où est-il ce grand homme, que la nature doit peut-être à l’honneur de l’espèce humaine? Où est-il ce nouveau Spartacus, qui ne trouvera point de Crassus?
Where is this great man, whom nature owes perhaps the honor of the human species? Where is this new Spartacus, who will never find Crassus?
The idea of the Black Spartacus was a pastiche, a construction of White Frenchmen who then attached the title to the leader of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture.
In trying to understand the marketing of the Haitian Revolution to European audiences following the uprising of enslaved persons on Saint-Domingue in 1791, Pierrot notes that the Black avenger and Black Spartacus motifs were melded. The abstraction also “forced them into a profoundly racist frame of interpretation …. The mythologization of Louverture was a painstaking, deliberate process meant to translate and reduce the complex politics” of the Haitian Revolution. It was likely the French general Étienne Laveaux, who dubbed Louverture to be the fulfillment of Raynal’s “Black Spartacus” in 1794. Saint Domingue and its leader were recast for a White, Atlantic readership on Roman terms. The Haitian struggle for freedom from slavery and the establishment of their own republic was thus repackaged, blanketed with the veneer of Roman history, myth, and the merits of literacy.
In Sudhir Hazareesingh’s new book, Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture, the life of Louverture and his role in the Haitian Revolution is contextualized and a fuller portrait of the man painted. Louverture had previously been enslaved on the plantation of Bréda at Haut de Cap along the northern coastline of Saint-Domingue, today known as Haiti. He eventually came to manage a coffee plantation with enslaved workers as a free man and was widely read in many works of literature and philosophy from Machiavelli to Rousseau. Hazareesingh emphasizes that the revolution in Saint-Domingue “shook the Enlightment’s belief in the inherent superiority of all things European.” Louverture’s leadership and the rebellion on the island sent reverberations throughout the Caribbean, but also provoked fearful responses in the United States and Europe.
American enslavers were concerned with the events happening in the Caribbean and scared they would encourage revolt in the United States. In a letter to Aaron Burr on February 11, 1799, Thomas Jefferson denounced Louverture and the other leaders of the Haitian revolution as “cannibals of the terrible Republic.”
The Southern states do not discover the same care however in the bill authorising the President to admit Toussaint’s subjects to a free commerce with them, & free ingress & intercourse with their black brethren in these states. However if they are guarded against the Cannibals of the terrible republic, they ought not to object to being eaten by a more civilized enemy.
American politicians feared and rejected the Haitian Revolution, casting them as “cannibals,” while abolitionists mythologized the revolutionaries as new Romans, each without giving the Haitian people and their nuanced history their due.
Within the United States, both White and Black abolitionists turned to classical and biblical motifs, heroes, and aesthetics in order to rebut the Southern quotation of authors such as Aristotle and Augustine — a rhetorical tactic frequently deployed by enslavers to defend the existence of slavery. As ancient historian Margaret Malamud has discussed in her own work on African Americans and classics, Black abolitionist David Walker predicted that a new Hannibal, the famed Carthaginian general of the Second Punic War, would descend upon the world to overthrow White Romans (i.e. American enslavers). Black newspapers of the time drew on Cicero and Demosthenes, associating these orators with the likes of Frederick Douglass.
Biblical figures also played a part in the abolitionist movement. Religion scholars Nyasha Junior and Jeremy Schipper have recently shown the use of a Black Samson within the abolitionist movement:
By the 1850s, some abolitionists had begun to use the term “Samson” to refer to those involved in insurrections by enslaved persons. By the dawn of the Civil War, they extended that term to describe real-life persons who fought to end slavery. In the last half of the nineteenth century, poets, clergy, scholars, and other intellectuals began to identify biblical Samson with historical individuals who challenged racial oppression in America.
Within the 19th century in particular, ancient history was resurrected to signal the coming of a new age.
The parsing of classical motifs has also inspired a new movement among historians to understand historical events on their own terms. A new and singular understanding of the significance of the Haitian Revolution is emerging without neoclassical trappings. This new work from those studying the role of Haiti centers the lives, voices, and beneficiaries of the Haitian Revolution in order to bring its novel impact on the history of the Atlantic to the fore. Works like that of Pierrot and Hazareesingh have addressed the creation of a mythology and reconstructed the events of the revolution from 1791 to 1804. Additionally, new work by historian Brandon Byrd has connected Haiti and its history to “Black Internationalism”. His book The Black Republic African Americans and the Fate of Haiti teases out the complex role the Haitian Revolution played in American history, among African Americans in the US, and explores its impact on the Harlem Renaissance.
This new movement in scholarship on the influence and impact of neoclassical reimaginings of Black historical figures invites us to look past the alignment of Black figures with Roman heroes and heroines of yore. Like the Black Venus and Mars grafted onto Imoinda and Prince Oroonoko, Louverture was alternately called the Black George Washington, the Black Napoleon, and the Black Spartacus. Cloaking the Haitian Revolution in the Europeanized trappings of classical myth can rob the astounding success of the revolt of its uniqueness. However, this new research by historians of Haiti makes clear that Louverture and those who brought about the revolution on Saint-Domingue were not reincarnations. They were pioneers who changed the course of history by establishing the first Black republic in the Western Hemisphere.