Britannia’s Black Spartacus

Toussaint Louverture, the father of Haitian independence, became an unlikely star of the Victorian London stage.

Toussaint Louverture, 19th-century engraving. Alamy.
Toussaint Louverture, 19th-century engraving. Alamy.

In June 1846, 13 years after slavery in the British Empire had been outlawed, and just at the moment when the Sugar Duties Act removed protective tariffs for plantation owners in British colonial possessions in the West Indies, the fugitive author of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave was halfway through a speaking tour of Britain. At the same time that Douglass was recounting the evils of slavery in the American South, the African American actor Ira Aldridge was thrilling audiences with his powerful portrayals of Shakespeare’s Othello and the Jamaican slave, Karfa (or ‘Three Fingered Jack’), in the perennially popular serio-pantomime Obi; or, Three Fingered Jack, a pro-slavery account of the escaped slave Jack Mansong. Troubling as such works now appear, the actions of this murderous ‘monster’ are nevertheless given forceful justification. Karfa explained his revenge was justified because: ‘With blood and rapine the white man swept like a hurricane o’er our native village … the vexed spirits of my wife and child hover o’er me like a holy curse.’ 

Meanwhile, at the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton, East London, the life of the former slave-turned-leader of the Haitian revolution, Toussaint Louverture, was about to be realised on stage. To William Wordsworth, Louverture, imprisoned in Fort de Joux in the Jura Mountains of France at the end of his life, embodied ‘man’s unconquerable mind’. He has continued to have a rich cultural afterlife, likened to such inspirational figures as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, or, somewhat ironically, to Napoleon. This growing ‘Louverturian cult’ was particularly on display in George Dibdin Pitt’s Toussaint L’Ouverture; or, The Black Spartacus performed at London’s Britannia Saloon. 

Described by Dickens as a place of giant ham sandwiches and flowing pots of porter for attentive working-class theatregoers, from its opening in 1841 the Britannia Saloon (or ‘Brit’) was the people’s theatre. Every night, for as little as tuppence, the Britannia mixed singers, animal acts and acrobats with an ever-changing programme of comedies, melodramas, versions of Shakespeare and historical drama. One of half a dozen playhouses in the area, the Brit sought the new and the topical and so, too, did those who wrote for it, such as the astonishingly prolific George Dibdin Pitt. Best known today for bringing Sweeney Todd to the stage, by the time he was focusing on Toussaint Louverture, the radically inclined writer was at the peak of his creative powers. 

Drawing on a tradition of rebel-themed dramas, such as the Roman tragedy Virginius (1820), William Tell (1825) and indeed Spartacus (1840), Dibdin Pitt’s portrayal of Toussaint was informed, too, by Harriet Martineau’s novel The Hour and the Man (1841). Based on extensive research, including a visit to Fort de Joux, Martineau’s historical romance repeatedly stated the idea of black agency and capability. As her version of Toussaint puts it: ‘Blacks are men – fit to govern as to serve.’ Widely read on both sides of the Atlantic, The Hour and the Man presented Toussaint as the quintessential Victorian hero – intelligent, brave, magnanimous in victory and devoted to his family. For American abolitionists, such as Wendell Phillips, it was a foundational text.

The Brit was not Drury Lane and, given the resources at his disposal, Dibdin Pitt could never hope to replicate the range and detail of Martineau’s three volume novel. There was also the constraint of time. Three weeks before the play opened Douglass delivered an address at the nearby Finsbury Chapel to an enthusiastic audience of 3,000. Wanting to capitalise on Douglass’ visit to the area, the copy of the script sent to the Lord Chamberlain for approval contains the note ‘to be produced as early as possible’. Yet despite these constraints Dibdin Pitt provided a stirring and action-packed drama. Played as a reluctant revolutionary who grows into his world-changing role, and providing a stark counterpoint to characterisations such as Karfa, the Britannia’s Black Spartacus proclaims before God: ‘I am no villain and no murderer.’ Nobly refusing any calls for reprisals, Toussaint’s insistence on his equality with the ‘lordly white’ is absolute. 

Committed to the values represented by the French tricolour, which several times he is shown holding, Toussaint is eventually betrayed by the country he idealises yet wishes to be free from. In a well-crafted exercise in dramatic licence, Toussaint dies on the battlefield leading a charge against the soldiers of imperial France. His final words are ‘liberty’ and ‘never forget our independence’. Though presented as a historical drama, its resonances with the present were obvious, not least through the invention of a brutal American overseer who, before the rebellion, makes ready use of the lash. Equally, however, the action was safely enough in the past, and set far enough away, not to trouble the Lord Chamberlain – unlike Dibdin Pitt’s 1847 Irish nationalist drama Terry Tyrone, which was refused a license for its political overtones. Providing a patriotic reminder of Britain’s own role in the abolition of slavery, the play also contained a welcome dose of French-bashing. Simple in construction and execution, Toussaint L’Ouverture; or, The Black Spartacus was rousing entertainment with plenty of meaning.

In the virile hands of Newton ‘Bravo’ Hicks, who had lately been playing the Inca general Rolla in the conquistador drama Pizarro, the role of Toussaint would certainly have been given full-blooded treatment. But, as with the Ethiopian Serenaders, a successful minstrel troupe from Massachusetts then performing in the West End, Toussaint was played blackface. Recognised by the Haitian government as the ‘first man of colour in the theatre’, and later enjoying several seasons at the Britannia, one wonders what Ira Aldridge would have made of the part. A ‘universal hero’ fit for many purposes, at the height of the Abyssinian crisis in 1936 Toussaint was finally played in Britain by a man of African descent. In a new version of the story by the Trinidadian-born Trotskyist and author of The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James, the role of Toussaint was taken by the American actor and political activist, Paul Robeson. ‘Toussaint L’Ouverture at Westminster’, announced the theatrical newspaper the Era.

Stephen Ridgwell researches Victorian and Edwardian cultural history.