The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804):A Different Route to Emancipation
Copyright 2003Prof. Jeremy Popkin, (email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Not for citation without permission
The American Revolution of 1776 proclaimed that all men have “inalienable rights,” but the revolutionaries did not draw what seems to us the logical conclusion from this statement:that slavery and racial discrimination cannot be justified.The creation of the led instead to the expansion of African-American slavery in the southern states.It took the Civil War of 1861-65 to bring about emancipation.
Just when the American constitution was going into effect in 1789, a revolution broke out in .Like the American revolutionaries, the French immediately proclaimed that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”But did this apply to the slaves in ’s overseas colonies?The question was an important one.Even though ’s colonies looked small on the map, the three Caribbean colonies of Saint Domingue (today’s ), and contained almost as many slaves as the thirteen much larger American states (about 700,000).Saint Domingue was the richest European colony in the world.It was the main source of the sugar and coffee that had become indispensable to “civilized” life in .
The French slave colonies had a very different social structure from the slave states of the American South.The white population in the largest colony, Saint Domingue, numbered only 30,000 in 1789.In the , non-whites were almost always put in the same class as black slaves, but in the French colonies, many whites had emancipated their mixed-race children, creating a class of “free coloreds” that numbered 28,000 by 1789.The free coloreds were often well educated and prosperous; members of this group owned about 1/3 of the slaves in the colony.They also made up most of the island’s militia, responsible for keeping the slaves under control.
Black slaves heavily outnumbered both the whites and the free coloreds, however:there were 465,000 of them in Saint Domingue by 1789.About half of the slaves had been born in .Slaves were imported from many regions in .They brought some traditions and beliefs with them, but they had to adapt to a very different environment in the .Newly arrived slaves had to learn a common language, creole, a dialect of French.Out of elements of African religions and Christianity they evolved a unique set of beliefs, vodou, which gave them a sense of identity.
Many early supporters of the French Revolution were uncomfortably aware of the role that slavery played in ’s colonies.Some of them formed a group called the Société des Amis des Noirs (“Society of the Friends of Blacks”), which discussed plans for gradual abolition of slavery, the ending of the slave trade, and the granting of rights to educated free colored men from the colonies.
Like white plantation-owners in the American South, slaveowners in the French colonies participated actively in the French Revolution.They demanded liberty for themselves: above all, the liberty to decide how their slaves and the free people of color in their colonies should be treated.The slaves were their hard-earned property, they argued, and a fair-minded government could not even consider taking them away.If the French National Assembly took up the issue of slavery, the colonial plantation-owners threatened to imitate their neighbors to the north and launch a movement for independence, or else to turn their colonies over to the British, ’s traditional enemies.The slaveowners also violently denounced the Société des Amis des Noirs, accusing it of stirring up the slaves and the free colored populations in the colonies.
The French revolutionaries, many of whom had money invested in the colonial economy, took these issues seriously.A well-funded lobbying group backed by the plantation-owners, the Club Massiac, spread pro-slavery propaganda and convinced the National Assembly to guarantee that no changes would be made in the slave system without the consent of the whites in the colonies.Initially, representatives of the colonial free colored population, many of whom owned slaves themselves, had hoped that the whites might be willing to reach an agreement with them and form a common front against the slaves.Most colonial whites, however, feared that granting political rights to people who were partly descended from slaves would undermine racial hierarchy and lead eventually to the abolition of the slave system.
The free coloreds, many of whom had been educated in France, did have some supporters in the French National Assembly and in the Société des Amis des Noirs.They were very frustrated when planter opposition kept the National Assembly from granting them equal rights with the whites.In October 1790, a free colored leader, Vincent Ogé, returned to Saint Domingue from France and led an armed uprising.He did not try to gain support among the slaves, and his movement was quickly crushed by the trained white troops on the island.Ogé and his followers were executed in a particularly cruel manner.When news of the executions reached France, the National Assembly blamed the colonists for their severity and passed a decree granting rights to a minority of the free colored population.The revolutionaries were beginning to move away from unswerving support for the whites in the colonies.
Before this split could grow, however, the white colonists in Saint Domingue found themselves facing a much more serious danger.On the night of 21-22 August 1791, a coordinated slave revolt broke out in the north of the island, the area of the largest plantations.Black slaves massacred their masters, and set fire to plantation buildings.At the same time, a separate rebellion started among the free coloreds in the west of Saint Domingue.
Although the revolts did great damage, the whites kept control of the colony’s major cities.They were sure that troops would eventually arrive from France and put down the rebellions.Initially, the leaders of the slave insurrection did not demand the total abolition of slavery.Instead, they negotiated for freedom for themselves and their families, and for a system under which slaves would have worked 3 days a week for themselves and 3 days for their masters.The whites, however, refused to make any concessions.The free coloreds in the west and the whites in that region did negotiate an agreement, but it soon fell apart.
By the fall of 1792, French troops had succeeded in regaining control of most of the island.But the French and the whites in the colony were becoming increasingly divided among themselves about the French Revolution.In France, the king, Louis XVI, was overthrown in August 1792, and a new, more radical assembly, the National Convention, was elected.When this news reached Saint Domingue, it split the white population.The radical revolutionaries in France sent a commissioner, Sonthonax, to take charge of the island, but most whites refused to obey him.Sonthonax began to seek support among the free coloreds, insisting that they should have the same rights as whites.In June 1793, white forces opposed to the Revolution and the granting of rights to people of color tried to seize control of the island’s main city, Cap Français.Outnumbered, Sonthonax made a radical move:he called on the black insurrectionaries to attack the city, promising that slaves who fought on the side of the Revolution would be freed.This allowed him to defeat the whites, although Cap Français was burned down in the fighting.In August 1793, Sonthonax extended his abolition decree to cover the entire slave population.
The leaders of the black revolt that had begun in 1791 were still distrustful of Sonthonax and the French.They feared that the National Convention might not support Sonthonax’s emancipation decree.The white planters had also not given up the fight.Some of them encouraged the British and Spanish to send forces to Saint Domingue.Others sent deputies to France who managed to convince many supporters of the Revolution that Sonthonax was trying to set up his own dictatorship in the island.
The National Convention eventually realized that the white colonists’ deputies had misled them.On Feb. 4, 1794, the Convention took a decisive step:France became the first European country to officially outlaw slavery in all its colonies.A black and a mixed-race deputy from Saint Domingue were seated in the Convention, another first in European history.While this measure marked a breakthrough for the abolition movement, it was not passed entirely on idealistic grounds.The British had already captured the French colony of Martinique.They were poised to take over Guadeloupe, and they threatened to conquer Saint Domingue as well, if Sonthonax could not rally the blacks to his side.France thus had little to lose by granting emancipation in the Caribbean.Significantly, the abolition decree was never applied in the two small French slave colonies in the Indian Ocean, which were not threatened by the British.Some revolutionaries hoped that the proclamation would set off slave revolts in other countries’ colonies, thereby helping France in its war against them.
Since the start of the insurrection in 1791, several black generals had emerged as leaders of the movement fighting the French and the whites in Saint Domingue.Most of them had allied with France’s enemies, England and Spain, and some had sold slaves to the Spanish to raise money for their troops.Even the news of the French emancipation proclamation did not persuade most of these generals to change sides.
One of the black leaders did rally to the French side in early 1794, however.His name was Toussaint de Bréda; in 1794, he began to call himself Toussaint Louverture (“Toussaint the Opening, or the Way”).Originally a slave, Toussaint had been freed before the Revolution and at one time owned a small plantation with 15 slaves.He does not seem to have been among the earliest supporters of the 1791 uprising, but he joined it soon afterward and was quickly recognized for his military and political skills.By 1794, he had built up the best-organized and most effective military unit on the island.When he decided to join Sonthonax and the French republicans in May 1794, the military balance soon shifted in their favor.
By the summer of 1794, the combined forces of Toussaint and the French had regained the upper hand in Saint Domingue, although the British continued to hold part of the island until 1798.Toussaint had received the rank of general in the French forces.During this period, he steadily increased his power at the expense of a series of French generals and political figures sent to govern the island.He also outmaneuvered the leaders of the free coloreds and rival black commanders.Toussaint conducted secret negotiations with the British that led to their withdrawal from Saint Domingue in 1798; he also had contacts with the United States government, which was then involved in a virtual war with France and was happy to undermine French control over their colonies.
Historians disagree about what Toussaint was aiming at during these years.Some think he already intended to create an independent country; others believe he was hoping for an arrangement in which Saint Domingue would remain a French colony, but with a government of its own, chosen by all its citizens, regardless of race.Toussaint was aware that, as revolutionary fervor in France was dying down, some politicians were calling for the restoration of slavery in the colonies; he had no intention of letting that happen.But he needed French support against the British, and so he played a complicated game and kept his real goals unclear.
Toussaint did hope to restore Saint Domingue’s economy.Although he assured the black population that there would be no return to slavery, he insisted that most former slaves had to return to their plantations and resume field work.They would now be paid and have more free time, but they were still not free to leave or to become independent farmers on their own land.Toussaint needed the income from the large plantations to support his army.To ensure the loyalty of his officers, he gave many of them large estates.Toussaint thus began to create a black-dominated society, but one with a large gap between the ruling elite and the mass of the population.
Toussaint made a point of including some people of mixed race and even some whites in his ruling elite, but he did not allow them any independent authority.In 1799-1800, he fought a bloody war against the remaining leaders of the mixed-race group, who had taken control of much of the west and south of Saint Domingue during the earlier fighting.In 1801, he crushed a rebellion by one of his closest followers, Moyse, who had favored dividing land more evenly among the former slaves.
By this time, a new ruler had taken over France: Napoleon Bonaparte.Toussaint quickly sensed that this determined and authoritarian leader would not be likely to tolerate a largely autonomous government in what Napoleon still regarded as a French colony.While sending messages designed to win Napoleon’s favor, Toussaint also oversaw the drafting of a constitution for Saint Domingue that would make the island virtually independent.
Napoleon considered various plans for France’s colonies during his first years of power.Among other ideas, he even thought of employing Toussaint and his black troops to create a large French empire in Louisiana.As long as he was still at war with the British, he could not do much about Saint Domingue because the British Navy prevented French ships from sailing to the Caribbean.In late 1801, however, Britain and France made peace.Napoleon immediately began preparations to send military forces to regain control of Saint Domingue and France’s other Caribbean colonies.These efforts succeeded in Martinique, where slavery had never been abolished, and in Guadeloupe, where it was restored with great bloodshed in 1802.
The French military expedition to Saint Domingue, commanded by General Leclerc, arrived in early 1802.Surprisingly, Toussaint did not immediately call for all-out resistance.The French were able to occupy the island’s major port cities, and Toussaint’s leading military commanders, particularly his right-hand man General Dessalines, went over to the French side.Toussaint himself withdrew to his plantation; in June 1802, the French arrested him and shipped him to France, where he died in prison in 1803.
While Toussaint and his generals submitted to the French, much of the former slave population did not.By the fall of 1802, it had become clear that the French were not just trying to regain control of the island but also meant to bring back slavery, as they had in Guadeloupe.But the French were losing large numbers of men in guerrilla fighting; even more were falling victim to yellow fever, which killed General Leclerc himself.Dessalines and other generals now resumed fighting against the French.When war between Britain and France began again in May 1803, the French troops were cut off from supplies and reinforcements.By the end of the year, the French commander Rochambeau was forced to surrender and agree to withdraw from the island.
The fighting in 1802-1803 was extremely brutal.The French troops committed many atrocities in their attempt to bring the island under control and restore slavery.In response, blacks killed many of the whites who had remained in Saint Domingue.At the end of December 1803, General Dessalines proclaimed the independence of the former colony, giving it a new name derived from the original Indian inhabitants: Haiti.
The success of the Haitian Revolution sent shock waves throughout the slave societies of the New World.For the first time in the history of the New World, a slave revolt had culminated in the total defeat of white forces.Although he died before Haitian independence was achieved, Toussaint Louverture’s story became a legend:a black former slave had shown that he could defeat the best white generals and outwit the most skillful white politicians.Haiti became the first former European colony where people of color succeeded in overturning slavery and racial inequality.Memories of the Haitian Revolution have continued to influence movements for liberation for the past two centuries.
At the same time, however, Toussaint Louverture left a troubled legacy to Haiti’s black population.The very inegalitarian society he created, based on rule by a military caste, left a lasting imprint on the country’s social structure.In addition, he did not succeed in overcoming the divisions between the lighter-skinned descendants of the mulatto or mixed-race group and the mass of the population.Conflicts between these two groups have marked much of Haiti’s subsequent history.
Haiti has also had a long struggle to overcome the hostility of the outside world.The United States did not even recognize Haiti as a sovereign nation until 1862, and many Haitians still have bad memories of the long period of American military occupation from 1915 to 1934.Popular images of Haiti in the United States have been strongly influenced by sensationalistic books and movies about vodou; only in recent years have anthropologists and scholars in religious studies begun to take a more serious interest in this aspect of Haitian culture.
Despite Haiti’s small size, the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 was a major event in world history.It posed the question of what it would mean if people of color insisted that the promises of freedom made by the American and French Revolutions also applied to them.The Haitian Revolution was the forerunner of modern anticolonial movements in the Third World.
Historians of race relations in United States history have much to learn from the Haitian Revolution.Slave revolts in the United States did not succeed, but the Haitian example shows that their failure was not inevitable.Toussaint Louverture and his supporters demonstrated that blacks were capable of defeating white armies and setting up a functioning government.Between 1798 and 1802, Saint Domingue under Toussaint’s rule offered a glimpse of the possibility that a New World slave society could be transformed into a genuinely multi-racial community.
On the other hand, the example of Saint Domingue shows that it took special conditions for a slave revolt to succeed in the New World.Slaves outnumbered whites in Saint Domingue by more than 10 to 1.Even so, their superior military technology enabled the whites to control the colony until the French Revolution divided the whites among themselves and turned the mixed-race population against them.Toussaint’s success also depended heavily on his ability to play the different white powers against each other.At crucial moments in his career, he benefited from support from the Spanish, the British, and the Americans.Understanding the conditions that allowed the Haitian Revolution to succeed helps us understand what factors allowed the white slaveowners of the American South to keep power for so long.
French Attitudes Toward Africans and Slavery on the Eve of the French Revolution (1789) (two citations from Pruneau de Pommegorge, Description de la Nigrité (1789))
“If religion did not teach us beyond any doubt that we are all descendants of a single man, one would certainly believe that, just as he did with dogs and parrots, God created several species of men at the same time.” (59)
“By what right do we permit ourselves to take men like ourselves away from their homeland?To cause massacres and continual wars there?To separate mothers from their children, husbands from their wives?To cause those who are too old to be sold to be massacred… in front of their children, because of our lust to buy these unfortunates?”
The First Mention of Toussaint in a French Document (1792)
“At the Time of so hazardous an Occurrence as this was, Toussaint, of Breda, Biassou’s Aid de Camp [Biassou was one of the rebel leaders], braving all Danger, attempted to save us, though he might have been himself the Victim to this Monster’s Rage.He represented to him, that we could not, and ought not to be thus sacrificed, without being imprisoned, and calling a Court Martial upon us.”(Gros, An Historick Recital, of the Difference Occurrences in the Camps of Grande-Reviere… by M. Gros, 62.Gros had been taken prisoner by the blacks during the insurrection.)
A White Combatant Describes the Behavior of a Captured Black Rebel
The anonymous French author captured a black rebel who was about to be executed.The man told him, “’It is the Devil who gets inside this body of mine.I am a good nigger, but against my will the Devil is too strong.’His excuse made me laugh despite my anger, and had I been alone, I would certainly have saved him.”The other white soldiers were less sympathetic, however, and insisted on executing the man.“When he saw that his fate was sealed, he began to laugh, sing, and joke.At times, however, reviling us in a furious tone, at times jeering at us in mockery.He gave the signal himself and met death without fear or complaint.” (My Odyssey, 33-4).
Toussaint’s First Public Appeal to the Population of Saint Domingue (1793)
“I am Toussaint Louverture.My name is perhaps know to you.I have undertaken to avenge you.I want liberty and equality to reign throughout Saint Domingue.I am working towards that end.Come and join me, brothers, and combat by our side for the same cause.” (George Tyson, Toussaint L’Ouverture, 28)
The French General Rochambeau describes Toussaint in 1796
“Wanting to travel and to see the Africans for myself, with my own eyes, to determine whether it was possible to get them back to work after they had been so suddenly emancipated, I visited the provinces of the north and the west and I stopped for a while in Gonaives where I stayed with Toussaint Louverture.I conferred with him, he seemed to have some ideas about how to conduct military operations…He is religious, a friend of order, and submits to the new laws through which he obtains all the respect he desires.He certainly has his own little ambition which he carefully tries to hide…I don’t know if he will settle for a supporting role when he can or wants to play the leading one…The blacks in the North worship him and I fear… that he may overawe the agents of the Directory.” [The Directory was the French republican government set up after the end of the Reign of Terror; it was overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799].
A French Legislator’s Explanation of the Slave Revolt (1797)
“In the midst of the general exaltation of passions caused by the Revolution, when the word liberty was in everyone’s mouths, even those of the white colonists who used it to claim tyrannical power and political independence for themselves, when the symbols of freedom were displayed everywhere, it would have been odd indeed if the blacks alone had been deaf to the sound of a word that promised them a condition so different from the one they were suffering under.They saw the whites fighting among themselves and alienating the mulattoes.They outnumbered the whites ten to one.One would have to have a very poor understanding of human nature to think that, in such a situation, the blacks needed any inspiration other than this impulse that is irresistible for all living creatures…”(Garran-Coulon, Rapport sur les Troubles de Saint-Domingue, 2:194)
A French Comment on the Slave Army (1797)
“The blacks… showed their political intelligence after the victory.It is reported that they did not lose a man, that many of their units were better armed than the whites themselves, and that they maintained an excellently coordinated fire.”(Garran-Coulon, 2:609)
A White Plantation-Owner Describes the Behavior of Emancipated Blacks (1799)
“They profit from their present preponderance to vex the whites, humiliate them whenever the circumstances permit, by outbursts, thefts, or insults that aren’t punished.‘You punished me, now I punish you!’That is their unanimous cry.” (Descourtilz, Voyages (1809), 2:452-3)
Toussaint Justifies His Forced-Labor Program (1800)
“In order to secure our liberties, which are indispensable to our happiness, every individual must be usefully employed, so as to contribute to the public good…Whereas, since the revolution, labourers of both sexes, then too young to be employed in the field, refuse to go to it now under pretext of freedom, spend their time in wandering about, and give a bad example to the other cultivators… I do most peremptorily order as follows: “Art. 1.All overseers, drivers, and field-negroes are bound to observe, with exactness, submission, and obedience, their duty in the same manner as soldiers….Art. 3 “All field-labourers, men and women, now in a state of idleness, living in towns, villages, and on other plantations than those to which they belong… are required to return immediately to their respective plantations…” (G. Tyson, Toussaint L’Ouverture, 52-3)
A French Description of Toussaint in 1801
“Toussaint, at the head of his army, is the most active and indefatigable man of whom we can form an idea…His great sobriety, the faculty, which none but he possesses, of never reposing, the facility with which he resumes the affairs of the cabinet after most tiresome excursions, of answering daily a hundred letters, and of habitually tiring five secretaries, render him so superior to all those around him that their respect and submission are in most individuals carried even to fanaticism.It is certain that no man, ion the present times, has obtained such an influence over a mass of ignorant people as General Toussaint possesses over his brethren in St. Domingue.”
David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution.A general history of early movements for abolition throughout the western world.
Robin Blackburn.The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848.A general history of the events that led to emancipation in the New World (outside the US), emphasizing economic factors.
C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins.The best-known history of the Haitian Revolution in English, first published in 1938.James sees the Haitian Revolution as a black version of the revolution in France.
Thomas Ott, The Haitian Revolution, 1789-1804.Ott’s account is especially strong on the military and diplomatic aspects of the Haitian Revolution.
Carolyn Fick, The Making of Haiti:The Haitian Revolution from Below.The most recent study of the Haitian Revolution in English, Fick’s book stresses the role of the ordinary slaves in the movement’s success.
David Geggus, Haitian Revolutionary Studies.Geggus is the leading historian of the Haitian Revolution in the United States today.This recently published volume includes essays on a number of aspects of the movement.
John D. Garrigus, “White Jacobins/Black Jacobins:Bringing the Haitian and French Revolutions Together in the Classroom”.French Historical Studies 23 (2000), 259-75.An excellent bibliography of recent publications about the Haitian Revolution.
Althea de Puech Parham, ed., My Odyssey:The first person account of a young white man from France who fought against the slave revolt.He gives some interesting descriptions of the black fighters.
Madison Smartt Bell, All Souls’ Rising and Master of the Crossroads:a novel series by a contemporary American author that gives a dramatic and fairly accurate picture of the Haitian Revolution.Bell plans a third volume carrying the story down to the achievement of Haitian independence in 1804.
For the airport in Haiti, see Toussaint Louverture International Airport. For the 2012 film, see Toussaint Louverture (film).
François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture (French: [fʁɑ̃swa dɔminik tusɛ̃ luvɛʁtyʁ] 20 May 1743 – 7 April 1803), also known as Toussaint L'Ouverture or Toussaint Bréda, was the best-known leader of the Haitian Revolution. His military and political acumen saved the gains of the first Black insurrection in November 1791. He first fought for the Spanish against the French; then for France against Spain and Great Britain; and finally, for Saint-Domingue against Napoleonic France. He then helped transform the insurgency into a revolutionary movement, which by 1800 had turned Saint-Domingue, the most prosperous slave colony of the time, into the first free colonial society to have explicitly rejected race as the basis of social ranking.
Though Toussaint did not sever ties with France, his actions in 1800 constituted a de facto autonomous colony. The colony's constitution proclaimed him governor for life even against Napoleon Bonaparte's wishes. He died betrayed before the final and most violent stage of the armed conflict. However, his achievements set the grounds for the Black army's absolute victory and for Jean-Jacques Dessalines to declare the sovereign state of Haiti in January 1804. Toussaint's prominent role in the Haitian success over colonialism and slavery had earned him the admiration of friends and detractors alike.
Toussaint Louverture began his military career as a leader of the 1791 slave rebellion in the French colony of Saint-Domingue; he was by then a free black man and a Jacobin. Initially allied with the Spaniards of neighboring Santo Domingo (modern Dominican Republic), Toussaint switched allegiance to the French when they abolished slavery. He gradually established control over the whole island and used political and military tactics to gain dominance over his rivals. Throughout his years in power, he worked to improve the economy and security of Saint-Domingue. He restored the plantation system using paid labour, negotiated trade treaties with the UK and the United States, and maintained a large and well-disciplined army.
In 1801, he promulgated an autonomist constitution for the colony, with himself as Governor-General for Life. In 1802 he was forced to resign by forces sent by Napoleon Bonaparte to restore French authority in the former colony. He was deported to France, where he died in 1803. The Haitian Revolution continued under his lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who declared independence on January 1, 1804. The French had lost two-thirds of forces sent to the island in an attempt to suppress the revolution; most died of yellow fever.
Almost nothing is known for certain about Toussaint Louverture's early life, as there are contradictory accounts and evidence about this period. The earliest records of his life are his recorded remarks and the reminiscences of his second legitimate son Isaac Louverture. Louverture's parents are not known. John Beard's biography of Louverture claims that family traditions name his grandfather as Gaou Guinou, a son of the King of Allada. Louverture's parents had several children, of whom Toussaint was the eldest son. Pierre Baptiste Simon is usually considered to have been his godfather.
Toussaint is thought to have been born on the plantation of Bréda at Haut de Cap in Saint-Domingue, which was owned by the Comte de Noé and later managed by Bayon de Libertat. His date of birth is uncertain, but his name suggests he was born on All Saints Day. He was probably about 50 at the start of the revolution in 1791. Various sources have given birth dates between 1739 and 1746. Because of the lack of written records, Toussaint himself may not have known his exact birth date. In childhood, he earned the nickname Fatras-Bâton, suggesting he was small and weak, though he was to become known for his stamina and riding prowess. An alternative explanation of Toussaint's origins is that he arrived at Bréda with a new overseer (Bayon de Libertat) who took up his duties in 1772.
Toussaint is believed to have been well educated by his godfather Pierre Baptiste. Historians have speculated as to Toussaint's intellectual background. His extant letters demonstrate a command of French in addition to Creole; he was familiar with Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher who had lived as a slave; and his public speeches as well as his life's work, according to his biographers, show a familiarity with Machiavelli. Some cite Abbé Raynal, who wrote against slavery, as a possible influence: The wording of the proclamation issued by then rebel slave leader Toussaint on August 29, 1793, which may have been the first time he publicly used the name "Louverture", seems to refer to an anti-slavery passage in Abbé Raynal's "A Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies."
He may also have received some education from Jesuit missionaries. His medical knowledge is attributed to familiarity with African or Creole herbal-medical techniques as well those techniques commonly found in Jesuit-administered hospitals. A few legal documents signed on Toussaint's behalf between 1778 and 1781 raise the possibility that he could not write at that time. Throughout his military and political career, he made use of secretaries for most of his correspondence. A few surviving documents in his own hand confirm that he could write, though his spelling in the French language was "strictly phonetic."
Marriage and children
In 1782, Toussaint married Suzanne Simone Baptiste Louverture, who is thought to have been his cousin or his godfather's daughter. Towards the end of his life, he told General Caffarelli that he had fathered 16 children, of whom 11 had predeceased him. Not all his children can be identified for certain, but his three legitimate sons are well known. The eldest, Placide, was probably adopted by Toussaint and is generally thought to be Suzanne's first child with a mulatto, Seraphim Le Clerc. The two sons born of his marriage with Suzanne were Isaac and Saint-Jean.
Slavery, freedom and working life
"I was born a slave, but nature gave me the soul of a free man."
Until recently, historians believed that Toussaint had been a slave until the start of the revolution. The discovery of a marriage certificate dated 1777 shows that he was freed in 1776 at the age of 33. This find retrospectively clarified a letter of 1797, in which he said he had been free for twenty years. It seems he still maintained an important role on the Breda plantation until the outbreak of the revolution, presumably as a salaried employee. He had initially been responsible for the livestock, but by 1791, his responsibilities most likely included acting as coachman to the overseer, de Libertat, and as a slave-driver, charged with organising the work force.
As a free man, Toussaint began to accumulate wealth and property. Surviving legal documents show him renting a small coffee plantation worked by a dozen of his slaves. He would later say that by the start of the revolution, he had acquired a reasonable fortune, and was the owner of a number of properties and slaves at Ennery.
Religion and spirituality
Throughout his life, Toussaint was known as a devout Roman Catholic. Although Vodou was generally practiced on Saint-Domingue in combination with Catholicism, little is known for certain if Toussaint had any connection with it. Officially as ruler of Saint-Domingue, he discouraged it.
Historians have suggested that he was a member of high degree of the Masonic Lodge of Saint-Domingue, mostly based on a Masonic symbol he used in his signature. The membership of several free blacks and white men close to him has been confirmed.
The Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) was a slave revolt in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, which culminated in the elimination of slavery there and established the Republic of Haiti. It was the only slave revolt which led to the founding of a state and is generally considered the most successful slave rebellion ever to have occurred in the Americas.
The Rebellion: 1791–1794
Beginning in 1789, free people of color of Saint-Domingue were inspired by the French Revolution to seek an expansion of their rights. Initially, the slave population did not become involved in the conflict. In August 1791, a Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman marked the start of a major slave rebellion in the north. Toussaint apparently did not take part in the earliest stages of the rebellion, but after a few weeks he sent his family to safety in Spanish Santo Domingo and helped the overseers of the Breda plantation to leave the island. He joined the forces of Georges Biassou as doctor to the troops, commanding a small detachment. Surviving documents show him participating in the leadership of the rebellion, discussing strategy, and negotiating with the Spanish supporters of the rebellion for supplies.
In December 1791, he was involved in negotiations between rebel leaders and the French Governor, Blanchelande, for the release of their white prisoners and a return to work in exchange for a ban on the use of the whip, an extra non-working day per week, and freedom for a handful of leaders. When the offer was rejected, he was instrumental in preventing the massacre of Biassou's white prisoners. The prisoners were released after further negotiations with the French commissioners and taken to Le Cap by Toussaint. He hoped to use the occasion to present the rebellion's demands to the colonial assembly, but they refused to meet with him.
Throughout 1792, Toussaint, as a leader in an increasingly formal alliance between the black rebellion and the Spanish, ran the fortified post of La Tannerie and maintained the Cordon de l'Ouest, a line of posts between rebel and colonial territory. He gained a reputation for running an orderly camp, trained his men in guerrilla tactics and "the European style of war", and began to attract soldiers who would play an important role throughout the revolution. After hard fighting, he lost La Tannerie in January 1793 to the French General Étienne Maynaud, but it was in these battles that the French first recognised him as a significant military leader.
Some time in 1792-93, Toussaint adopted the surname Louverture, from the French word for "opening" or "the one who opened the way". Although some modern writers spell his adopted surname with an apostrophe, as in "L'Ouverture", Toussaint himself did not, as his extant correspondence indicates. The most common explanation is that it refers to his ability to create openings in battle, and it is sometimes attributed to French commissioner Polverel's exclamation: "That man makes an opening everywhere". However, some writers think it was more prosaically due to a gap between his front teeth.
Despite adhering to royalist political views, Louverture had begun to use the language of freedom and equality associated with the French Revolution. From being willing to bargain for better conditions of slavery late in 1791, he had become committed to its complete abolition. On 29 August 1793 he made his famous declaration of Camp Turel to the blacks of St Domingue:
Brothers and friends, I am Toussaint Louverture; perhaps my name has made itself known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want Liberty and Equality to reign in St Domingue. I am working to make that happen. Unite yourselves to us, brothers and fight with us for the same cause.
Your very humble and obedient servant, Toussaint Louverture,
General of the armies of the king, for the public good.
On the same day, the beleaguered French commissioner, Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, proclaimed emancipation for all slaves in French Saint-Domingue, hoping to bring the black troops over to his side. Initially, this failed, perhaps because Toussaint and the other leaders knew that Sonthonax was exceeding his authority. However, on 4 February 1794, the French revolutionary government proclaimed the abolition of slavery. For months, Louverture had been in diplomatic contact with the French general Étienne Maynaud de Bizefranc de Lavaux. During this time, competition between him and other rebel leaders was growing, and the Spanish had started to look with disfavour on his near-autonomous control of a large and strategically important region. In May 1794, when the decision of the French government became known in Saint-Domingue, Louverture switched allegiance from the Spanish to the French and rallied his troops to Lavaux.
Alliance with the French: 1794–1796
Toussaint joined the French in early May 1794, raising the republican flag over the port of Gonaïves and provoking an exodus of refugees. In the first weeks, he eradicated all Spanish supporters from the Cordon de l'Ouest, which he had held on their behalf. He faced attack from multiple sides. His former colleagues in the black rebellion were now fighting against him for the Spanish. As a French commander, he was under attack from the British troops who had landed on Saint-Domingue in September. On the other hand, he was able to pool his 4,000 men with Lavaux's troops in joint actions. By now his officers included men who were to remain important throughout the revolution: his brother Paul, his nephew Moïse, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe.
Before long, Louverture had put an end to the Spanish threat to French Saint-Domingue. In any case, the Treaty of Basel of July 1795 marked a formal end to hostilities between the two countries. Even then, the black leaders Jean-François and Biassou continued to fight against Toussaint until November, when they left for Spain and Florida, respectively. At that point, most of their men joined Toussaint's forces. Toussaint also made inroads against the British troops, but was unable to oust them from Saint-Marc, so he contained them and rendered them ineffective by returning to guerilla tactics.
Throughout 1795 and 1796, Louverture was also concerned with re-establishing agriculture and keeping the peace in areas under his control. In speeches and policy he revealed his belief that the long-term freedom of the people of Saint-Domingue depended on the economic viability of the colony. He was held in general respect and resorted to a mixture of diplomacy and force to return the field hands to the plantations as emancipated and paid workers. Workers regularly created small rebellions, protesting poor conditions, their lack of real freedom or fearing a return to slavery.
Another of Louverture's concerns was to manage potential rivals for power within the French part of the colony. The most serious of these was the mulatto commander Jean-Louis Villatte, based in Cap-Français. Toussaint and Villate had competed over the command of some sections of troops and territory since 1794. Villatte was thought to be somewhat racist towards black soldiers such as Toussaint and planned to ally with André Rigaud, a free man of colour, after overthrowing French General Étienne Lavaux. In 1796 Villate drummed up popular support by accusing the French authorities of plotting a return to slavery. On 20 March, he succeeded in capturing the French Governor Lavaux, and appointed himself Governor. Louverture's troops soon arrived at Cap-Français to rescue the captured governor and drive Villatte out of town. Toussaint was noted for opening the warehouses to the public, proving that they were empty of the chains supposedly imported to prepare for a return to slavery. He was promoted to commander of the West Province two months later, and was eventually made Saint-Domingue's top-ranking officer in 1797. Lavaux also proclaimed Toussaint Lieutenant Governor, announcing at the same time that he would do nothing without his approval, to which Louverture replied "After God, Lavaux".
The Third Commission: 1796–97
A few weeks after the triumph over the Villate insurrection, France's representatives of the third commission arrived in Saint-Domingue. Among them was Sonthonax, the commissioner who had previously declared abolition on the same day as Louverture's proclamation of Camp Turel. At first the relationship between the two was positive. Sonthonax promoted Toussaint to general and arranged for his sons, Placide and Isaac, to attend the school that had been established in France for the children of colonials.
In September 1796, elections were held to choose colonial representatives for the French national assembly. Toussaint's letters show that he encouraged Lavaux to stand, and historians have speculated as to whether he was seeking to place a firm supporter in France or to remove a rival in power. Sonthonax was also elected, either at Toussaint's instigation or on his own initiative, but while Lavaux left Saint-Domingue in October, Sonthonax remained.
Sonthonax, a fervent revolutionary and fierce supporter of racial equality, soon rivalled Louverture in popularity. Although their goals were similar, there were several points of conflict. The worst of these was over the return of the white planters who had fled Saint-Domingue at the start of the revolution. To Sonthonax, they were potential counter-revolutionaries, to be assimilated, officially or not, with the ‘émigrés’ who had fled the French Revolution and were forbidden to return under pain of death. To Toussaint, they were bearers of useful skills and knowledge, and he wanted them back.
In summer 1797, Toussaint authorised the return of Bayon de Libertat, the ex-overseer of Breda, with whom he had a lifelong relationship. Sonthonax wrote to Louverture threatening him with prosecution and ordering him to get Bayon off the territory. Toussaint went over his head and wrote to the French Directoire directly for permission for Bayon to stay. Only a few weeks later, he began arranging for Sonthonax's return to France that summer. Toussaint had several reasons to want to get rid of Sonthonax; officially he said that Sonthonax had tried to involve him in a plot to make Saint-Domingue independent, starting with a massacre of the whites of the island. The accusation played on Sonthonax's political radicalism and known hatred of the aristocratic white planters, but historians have varied as to how credible they consider it.
On reaching France, Sonthonax countered by accusing Toussaint of royalist, counter-revolutionary and pro-independence tendencies. Toussaint knew that he had asserted his authority to such an extent that the French government might well suspect him of seeking independence. At the same time, the French Directoire government was considerably less revolutionary than it had been. Suspicions began to brew that it might reconsider the abolition of slavery. In November 1797, Toussaint wrote again to the Directoire, assuring them of his loyalty but reminding them firmly that abolition must be maintained.
Treaties with Britain and the United States: 1798
For several months, Toussaint found himself in sole command of French Saint-Domingue, except for a semi-autonomous state in the south, where the mulatto general, André Rigaud, had rejected the authority of the third commission. Both generals continued attacking the British, whose position on Saint-Domingue was looking increasingly weak. Toussaint was negotiating their withdrawal when France's latest commissioner, Gabriel Hédouville, arrived in March 1798, with orders to undermine his authority.
On 30 April 1798, Toussaint signed a treaty with the British general, Thomas Maitland, exchanging the withdrawal of British troops from western Saint-Domingue for an amnesty for the French counter-revolutionaries in those areas. In May, Port-au-Prince was returned to French rule in an atmosphere of order and celebration.
In July, Louverture and Rigaud met commissioner Hédouville together. Hoping to create a rivalry that would diminish Toussaint's power, Hédouville displayed a strong preference for Rigaud, and an aversion for Toussaint. However, General Maitland was also playing on French rivalries and evaded Hédouville's authority to deal with Toussaint directly. In August, Toussaint and Maitland signed treaties for the evacuation of the remaining British troops. On 31 August, they signed a secret treaty which lifted the British blockade on Saint-Domingue in exchange for a promise that Toussaint would not export the black revolution to Jamaica.
As Toussaint's relationship with Hédouville reached the breaking point, an uprising began among the troops of Toussaint's adopted nephew, Hyacinthe Moïse. Attempts by Hédouville to manage the situation made matters worse and Toussaint declined to help him. As the rebellion grew to a full-scale insurrection, Hedouville prepared to leave the island, while Toussaint and Dessalines threatened to arrest him as a troublemaker. Hédouville sailed for France in October 1798, nominally transferring his authority to Rigaud. Toussaint decided instead to work with Phillipe Roume, a member of the third commission who had been posted to the Spanish parts of the colony. Though he continued to protest his loyalty to the French government, he had expelled a second government representative from the territory and was about to negotiate another autonomous agreement with one of France's enemies.
The United States had suspended trade with France in 1798 because of increasing conflict over piracy. The two countries were almost at war, but trade between Saint-Domingue and the United States was desirable to both Toussaint and the United States. With Hédouville gone, Louverture sent Joseph Bunel to negotiate with the government of John Adams. The terms of the treaty were similar to those already established with the British, but Toussaint continually resisted suggestions from either power that he should declare independence. As long as France maintained the abolition of slavery, it seems that he was content that the colony remain French, at least in name.
Expansion of territory: 1799–1801
In 1799, the tensions between Toussaint and André Rigaud came to a head. Louverture accused Rigaud of trying to assassinate him to gain power over Saint-Domingue for himself. Rigaud claimed Toussaint was conspiring with the British to restore slavery. The conflict was complicated by racial overtones which escalated tension between blacks and mulattoes. Toussaint had other political reasons for bringing down Rigaud. Only by controlling every port could he hope to prevent a landing of French troops if necessary.
After Rigaud sent troops to seize the border towns of Petit-Goave and Grand-Goave in June 1799, Louverture persuaded Roume to declare Rigaud a traitor and attacked the southern state. The resulting civil war, known as the War of Knives, lasted over a year, with the defeated Rigaud fleeing to Guadeloupe, then France, in August 1800. Toussaint delegated most of the campaign to his lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who became infamous, during and after the war, for massacring mulatto captives and civilians. The number of deaths is contested: the contemporary French general François Joseph Pamphile de Lacroix suggested 10,000 deaths, while the 20th-century Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James later claimed only a few hundred deaths in contravention of the amnesty.
In November 1799, during the civil war, Napoleon Bonaparte gained power in France and passed a new constitution declaring that the colonies would be subject to special laws. Although the colonies suspected this meant the re-introduction of slavery, Napoleon began by confirming Toussaint's position and promising to maintain the abolition. But he also forbade Toussaint to invade Spanish Santo Domingo, an action that would put Toussaint in a powerful defensive position. Toussaint was determined to proceed anyway and coerced Roume into supplying the necessary permission. In January 1801, Toussaint and Hyacinthe Moïse invaded the Spanish territory, taking possession from the Governor, Don Garcia, with few difficulties. The area had been wilder and less densely populated than the French section. Toussaint brought it under French law which abolished slavery, and embarked on a program of modernization. He was now master of the whole island.
The Constitution of 1801
Napoleon had made it clear to the inhabitants of Saint-Domingue that France would draw up a new constitution for its colonies, in which they would be subjected to special laws. Despite his initial protestations to the contrary, it seemed likely all along that he might restore slavery, which obviously worried the former slaves in Saint-Domingue. In March 1801, Louverture appointed a constitutional assembly, mainly composed of white planters, to draft a constitution for Saint-Domingue. He promulgated the Constitution on July 7, 1801, officially establishing his authority over the entire island of Hispaniola. It made him Governor-General for Life with near absolute powers and the possibility of choosing his successor. However, Toussaint was careful enough as to not explicitly declare Saint-Domingue's independence, immediately acknowledging that it was just a single colony of the French Empire in Article 1 of the Constitution. Article 3 of the constitution states: "There cannot exist slaves [in Saint-Domingue], servitude is therein forever abolished. All men are born, live and die free and French." The constitution guaranteed equal opportunity and equal treatment under the law for all races, but also confirmed Toussaint's policies of forced labour and the importation of workers through the slave trade. Toussaint was not willing to compromise the dominant Vodou faith for Catholicism. Article 6 clearly states that "the Catholic, Apostolic, Roman faith shall be the only publicly professed faith."
Toussaint charged Colonel Vincent with the task of presenting the new constitution to Napoleon, even though Vincent himself was horrified to discover that the general had gone so far. Several aspects of the constitution were damaging to France: the absence of provision for French government officials, the lack of advantages to France in trade with its own colony, and Toussaint's breach of protocol in publishing the constitution before submitting it to the French government. Despite his disapproval, Vincent attempted to submit the constitution to Napoleon in a positive light, but was briefly exiled to Elba for his pains.
Toussaint professed himself a Frenchman and strove to convince Bonaparte of his loyalty. He wrote to Napoleon but received no reply. Napoleon eventually decided to send an expedition of 20,000 men to Saint-Domingue to restore French authority, and possibly to restore slavery as well.
Napoleon's troops, under the command of his brother-in-law, General Charles Emmanuel Leclerc, were to seize control of the island by diplomatic means, proclaiming peaceful intentions, and keeping secret his orders to deport all black officers. Meanwhile, Toussaint was preparing for defence and ensuring discipline. This may have contributed to a rebellion against forced labor led by his nephew and top general, Moïse, in October 1801. It was violently repressed with the result that when the French ships arrived not all of Saint-Domingue was automatically on Toussaint's side. In late January 1802, while Leclerc sought permission to land at Cap-Français and Christophe held him off, the Vicomte de Rochambeau suddenly attacked Fort-Liberté, effectively quashing the diplomatic option.
Toussaint's plan in case of war was to burn the coastal cities and as much of the plains as possible, retreat with his troops into the inaccessible mountains and wait for fever to decimate the European troops. The biggest impediment to this plan proved to be difficulty in internal communications. Christophe burned Cap-Français and retreated, but Paul Louverture was tricked by a false letter into allowing the French to occupy Santo Domingo; other officers believed Napoleon's diplomatic proclamation, while some attempted resistance instead of burning and retreating. French reports to Napoleon show that in the months of fighting that followed, the French felt their position was weak, but that Toussaint and his generals were not fully conscious of their strength.
With both sides shocked by the violence of the initial fighting, Leclerc tried belatedly to revert to the diplomatic solution. Toussaint's sons and their tutor had accompanied the expedition with this end in mind and were now sent to present Napoleon's proclamation to Toussaint. When these talks broke down, months of inconclusive fighting followed. On 6 May 1802, Louverture rode into Cap-Français to treat with Leclerc. He negotiated an amnesty for all his remaining generals, then retired with full honors to his plantations at Ennery.
Arrest and imprisonment
Jean-Jacques Dessalines was at least partially responsible for Louverture's arrest, as asserted by several authors, including Louverture's own son Isaac. On 22 May 1802, after Dessalines "learned that Louverture had failed to instruct a local rebel leader to lay down his arms per the recent ceasefire agreement, he immediately wrote to Leclerc to denounce Louverture’s conduct as “extraordinary.” For this action, Dessalines and his spouse received gifts from Jean Baptiste Brunet.
Leclerc originally asked Dessalines to arrest Louverture, but he declined. The task then fell to Jean Baptiste Brunet. However accounts differ as to how he accomplished this. One account has it that Brunet pretended that he planned to settle in Saint-Domingue and was asking Toussaint's advice about plantation management. Louverture's memoirs however suggest that Brunet's troops had been provocative, leading Louverture to seek a discussion with him. Either way, Louverture had a letter in which Brunet described himself as a "sincere friend" to take with him to France. Embarrassed about his trickery, Brunet absented himself during the arrest. Brunet deported Louverture and his aides to France on the frigate Créole and the 74-gun Héros, claiming that he suspected the former leader of plotting an uprising. Boarding Créole, Toussaint Louverture famously warned his captors that the rebels would not repeat his mistake:
In overthrowing me you have cut down in Saint Domingue only the trunk of the tree of liberty; it will spring up again from the roots, for they are numerous and they are deep.
The ships reached France on 2 July 1802 and, on 25 August, Toussaint Louverture was sent to the jail in Fort-de-Joux in the Doubs. While in prison, he died on the seventh of April 1803. Suggested causes of death include exhaustion, malnutrition, apoplexy, pneumonia and possibly tuberculosis. In his absence, Jean-Jacques Dessalines led the Haitian rebellion until its completion, finally defeating the French forces in 1803.
On August 29, 1954, the Haitian ambassador to France, Léon Thébaud, inaugurated a stone cross memorial for Toussaint Louverture at the foot of the fort. Years afterward, the French government ceremoniously presented a shovelful of soil from the grounds of Fort-de-Joux to the Haitian government as a symbolic transfer of Toussaint Louverture's remains. An inscription in his memory, installed in 1998, can be found on the wall of the Panthéon in Paris, inscribed with the following description:
Combattant de la liberté, artisan de l'abolition de l'esclavage, héros haïtien mort déporté au Fort-de-Joux en 1803.
(Combatant for liberty, artisan of the abolition of slavery, Haitian hero died in deportation at Fort-de-Joux in 1803.)
The inscription is opposite a wall inscription, also installed in 1998, honoring Louis Delgrès, a mulatto military leader who died leading the resistance against Napoleonic reoccupation and re-institution of slavery in Guadeloupe; the location of Delgrès' body is also a mystery. Both inscriptions are located near the coffins of Jean Jaurès, Félix Éboué, Marc Schoelcher and Victor Schoelcher.
Toussaint Louverture influenced John Brown to invade Harpers Ferry. John Brown and his band captured citizens, and for a small time the federal armory and arsenal. Brown's goal was that the local slave population would join the raid. But things did not go as planned. He was eventually captured and put on trial, and was hanged on December 2, 1859. Brown and his band of brothers shows the devotion to the violent tactics of the Haitian Revolution. During the 19th century African Americans used Toussaint Louverture as an example of how to reach freedom. Also during the 19th century, British writers focused on Toussaint's domestic life and ignored his militancy to show Toussaint as a non-threatening rebel slave.
- English poet William Wordsworth published his sonnet "To Toussaint L'Ouverture" in January 1803.
- African-American novelist Frank J. Webb references Toussaint in his 1857 novel The Garies and Their Friends about free African Americans. Toussaint's portrait is a source of inspiration for the real estate tycoon Mr. Walters.
- In 1934, Trinidadian historian C. L. R. James wrote a play entitled Toussaint L'Ouverture, which was performed at the Westminster Theatre in London in 1936 and starred actors including Paul Robeson (in the title role), Robert Adams and Orlando Martins. The play was later revised in 1967 as The Black Jacobins, after James's classic 1938 history of that name.
- In 1938, American artist Jacob Lawrence created a series of paintings about the life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, which he later adapted into a series of prints. His painting, titled Toussaint L’Ouverture, hangs in the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, US.
- In 1944, the African-American writer Ralph Ellison wrote the story "Mr. Toussan", in which two African-American youths exaggerate the story of Toussaint L'Ouverture. In this story, Toussaint is seen as a symbol of Blacks asserting their identities and liberty over White dominance.
- Kenneth Roberts' best-selling novel Lydia Bailey (1947) is set during the Haitian Revolution and features L'Ouverture, Dessalines, and Cristophe as the principal historical characters. The 1952 American film based on the novel was directed by Jean Negulesco; Toussaint is portrayed by the actor Ken Renard.
- The 1971 album Santana