Louverture at the Brit


H. Rousseau and L.Dumont, Toussaint-Louverture, c. 1889

From History Today:

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.’

“Britannia’s Black Spartacus”, Stephen Ridgwell, History Today

Comments are closed.