“The name of Toussaint L’Ouverture is all but unknown in India,” remarked Ramananda Chatterjee, the editor of the Calcutta-based Modern Review, in April 1908. “Lives such as his,” nevertheless, “may inspire us with self-confidence.” Chatterjee, whose Modern Review was a fearless critic of imperialism and racism, printed for his readers a biographical sketch of this intrepid Haitian revolutionary leader. It ended with a poignant question: was he “the greatest man that has ever lived?”

We can ask a second question today: why was a Bengali in the early twentieth century writing about a black Caribbean leader from the late eighteenth century?

Toussaint Louverture (1743?-1803) was indeed a remarkable man. Born a slave, he led the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue (renamed Haiti when it became independent in 1804) through a decade of whirlwind revolution – on the heels of similar, yet far less radical revolutions in the United States and France. Citizens of Paris and Philadelphia proclaimed the modern republican ideals of liberty and equality, but Louverture and his revolutionaries went a step further. They demonstrated that the rights of citizenship were not only for white men. Theirs was an experiment so bold and audacious that it frightened the likes of Thomas Jefferson.

“Toussaint Louverture was the first black superhero...

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