Joshua Alvarez at Bookforum:
In 1840, soon after Napoleon Bonaparte's spectacular rise and fall, the always-provocative Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle declared, “The History of the world is but the Biography of great men”: Individual heroes who changed the world through sheer willpower, charisma, or exceptional virtue. Carlyle's pantheon included Napoleon, as well as Luther, Shakespeare, Cromwell, and others. The “Great Man” theory of history launched a public debate, one Carlyle would ultimately lose to Herbert Spencer and his enduring thesis that even “great men” must be understood as products of their society.
In 1849, Carlyle penned a vicious pro-slavery screed, “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” in which he argued that Africans cannot rule themselves and therefore need European masters. Carlyle pointed to one country in particular:
“Alas, let him look across to Haiti, and trace a far sterner prophecy! Let him . . . banish all white men from the West Indies, and make it all one Haiti, with little or no sugar-growing, black Peter exterminating black Paul, and, where a garden of the Hesperides might be, nothing but a tropical dog-kennel and pestiferous jungle.”
There may not be an obvious connection between his pro-slavery and “Great Man” theories, but a reader could take pleasure in imagining Carlyle, as he wrote those words about Haiti, trying to suppress unpleasant thoughts about how, from those “pestiferous jungles,” emerged the extraordinary leadership of a great black man: Toussaint Louverture.