Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2016
By Kevin Williams
Toussaint Louverture, born Pierre Dominique Toussaint Breda, grew up with the life of a slave. He was born onto the Breda Plantation, of which he was named. Many slaves of the time took the name of the plantation on which they served. The name Toussaint has origin in the Feast of All Saints (May 20). As he grew, his physical appearance was anything but ideal. He was skinny and stooped. He was teased with the saying "fragile little stick." During his youth he had special relationships with both plants and animals. He was extremely good with horses, and he learned plants and herbs well enough to become an accomplished medical practitioner before he reached the age of twenty. His godfather during was a priest named Simon Baptiste, who was able to teach Toussaint to read and write (Ros 8-9).
As Toussaint grew into adulthood, he was able to achieve success on the Breda Plantation as far as a slave was concerned. His owner, Bayon de Libertad, gave him 40 acres and 13 slaves to manage. He built his own farmstead and a small coffee plantation. Just about the time Toussaint was to turn 30, he married Suzanne Simon. This was odd because it was unique for slaves to marry (this marriage would later be revoked by Napoleon). Suzanne would grant her husband two sons and he would have one step son. Through his upbringing, he became a devout Roman Catholic (Ros 9).
Toussaint would not end up changing his last name from Breda into Louverture until he was almost 50 years old. Eventually Toussaint's role on the plantation became that of coachman. It helped that he had a knack for horses and an obvious intelligence that was admired by his master. To be a coachman, was to receive a great honor on a plantation. The coachman was not obligated to work in the fields and received much greater luxury than other slaves. This job opened the door for him to read, study, and learn.
Toussaint's life would be drastically changed by one document that he crossed while in his study. Histoire Philosophique des deux Indeo by Abbe Raynal had an important section which read:
These words ignited his dedication to one purpose, freedom of the blacks. He saw himself as a hero whom he had adored, Spartacus, who would bring liberty. He managed, after reading this passage and making up his mind to change the purpose of his life, to keep his inhibitions inside himself (Waxman 54-60).
The years from 1763 to 1791 were the Golden Age of Saint Dominique. The class system was set and harmony existed, for the most part. At the top of the class system were the grands blancs, the white French noblemen who were very wealthy. The second level included the petits blancs who were also white middle and lower income overseers, grocers, artisans, etc. The third class was called the gens de colour. It was made up of mulattoes and free blacks. At the bottom of the totem pole was the slaves, of which class Toussaint was a member. Laws did exist that prevented major mistreatment of slaves and lower classes known as Code Noir. There were very few uprising in this system. Uprisings of slaves began for certain reasons.
The ideas of the Enlightenment, economics, and public opinion laid the foundation for abolition, and political action would follow. In 1772, Somerset set the precedent by freeing all the slaves in England; thus, beginning a large public opinion movement. England also founded the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade on May 22, 1787. The French counterpart, Amis des Noirs, was founded in France the following year (Ott 6-20).
Tension would mount in the late 1780's and would lead to an explosion that would take decades to solve. The landscape in Haiti before the explosion looked like this: Haiti had approximately 600 plantations, 100,000 cocoa trees, 93,000 heads of cattle, 1,000,000 potato fields, and 6,000,000 banana trees. Much of this would soon be destroyed (Waxman 41).
Violence came with the wave of the French Revolution. Mid 1787 had brought about the first sign of revolution in France, and this worried the grands blancs of Haiti. On August 26, 1789, The Declaration of the Rights of Man was adopted. Fear rose greatly among the Saint Dominique delegates mainly because the declaration stated that property was a right and that slaves were property. The slaves were not the only group that felt discriminated. The Mulattoes were upset because the National Assembly failed to recognize them as full citizens and, they too, were ready for change (Ott 21-35).
The explosion and change mentioned above was known to historians as the "Night of Fire." At the time, slaves in Haiti, numbering one half million, had a 20 to 1 advantage over the white on the island. Slave rebellions had already broken out is Grenada, Dominica, Trinidad, Saint Vincent, Jamaica, and Cuba (Ros 2). The year 1789 had been marked by white disunity, exploitation of the gens de colour, maltreatment of the slaves, and the abolition movement (Ott 21). August 22, 1790, the mulattoes made a small step by killing 3 whites. One of their leaders, Vincent Oge, said, "Our arms shall make us independent and respectable." Of course the whites responded to his plot by killing 200 mulattoes. Oge was killed and became a "John Brown like" hero for the mulattoes (Ott 35-37). Pamphlets and word of mouth were used to encourage blacks to join the revolting parties. Two years of turmoil, rather than one single event, built up to the coordinated "Night of Fire" (Ott 41-42).
August 22, 1791 was the date set aside for the combined revolutionary effort among the lower classes to occur. On the "Night of Fire" hundreds of miles of fields and plantations went up in flames. 50,000 slaves under the leadership of Boukman had revolted. They painted their bodies with ashes and blood. They tortured and killed 2,000 whites using such inhumane ideas as rape, murder, and decapitation. After that night, the whites counter-attacked 15,000 to 20,000 blacks and mulattoes (Ros 5-6).
Toussaint was working on the Breda Plantation during the "Night of Fire." He did not participate in the insurrection (Waxman 86). He told his brother to take his wife and children to Santo Domingo, where Spaniards ruled. He helped his master by driving him and his family to the coast where he could escape to America. Toussaint would return to find Breda destroyed. He then left the plantation to join the slave camps. 40% of France's trade balance consisted of processing and transporting coffee, sugar, cocoa, indigo, cotton, and tobacco from Haiti. The "Night of Fire" had dramatically changed things (Ros 10-11).
Jean Francois and Biassou emerged as the leaders of the black effort. Men, women, and children led odd guerrilla attacks usually consisting of 10 or 12 blacks. The men and children would approach the enemy making loud chants and noises, and then they would get dead quiet which brought fear to their adversaries (Ros 35,39). In early 1792, the mulattoes were very indecisive. The blacks had a plan that may have suppressed the revolt. They asked for a four day work week, which would allow them three days to make money for themselves and their families. During all negotiations and early skirmishes, Toussaint was gaining popularity throughout the army.
On April 4, 1792, the National Assembly at Paris induced Louis XVI to sign a decree declaring all people of color and all free Negroes in the colonies to enjoy political rights with the whites. Toussaint quickly recognized that the new law made no provision for the slaves. France sent 6,000 of its troops to make sure that the law was carried out. Even after fighting in Le Cap between all three of the groups involved and the destruction of the city, Toussaint claimed loyalty to the Bourbons and France.
In March of 1793, Louis XVI was beheaded. Many Negroes including Toussaint, who were shocked from the death of their king, passed to the Spanish side of the island in Santo Domingo to fight under Charles IV of Spain, who had just declared war on France. He had a good reason for gaining their arms, which was the promise to all Negroes of liberty, exemptions and the enjoyment of privileges (Waxman 94-99). Toussaint wrote two proclamations on August 25th and August 29th of 1793. In the first, he called for blacks to join the Spanish and says he owes his inspiration to God, which was part of his attempt to suppress African Voodoo. The second proclamation contained a promise from Toussaint to avenge the black people and he called, in his final words, for liberty and equality (Tyson 27-28).
Toussaint was given command of 4,000 troops and he was quickly able to cutoff French communications to Le Cap and captured some French officers; thus, forcing 1500 French troops to surrender. Toussaint took three cities for the Spanish before he received a promotion to Lieutenant General and received a jeweled sword from Marquis d' Hermona. Hermona, the Spanish leader in Santo Domingo, gave Toussaint the sword for Charles VI. Much area in the South, North, and West had been taken by the Spanish, black, and some mulatto forces.
Toussaint's move to Spain was good until the Spanish decided to combine forces with the British. Toussaint was angered by the British arrival at the point in time when he had become the most powerful leader on the island (Waxman 102-106).
On February 4, 1794, six delegates were sent to the Convention in France. The six consisted of two whites, two blacks, and two mulattoes. At the meeting on slavery, Chamboulas spoke stating, "In 1789, the aristocracy of birth and religion were abolished, but the aristocracy of skin color continued to exist. Now its final hour has come and the equality of all people will become reality." He received a deafening applause. Levasseur added, "When we drafted the concept of a constitution for the people of France, we forgot the unfortunate Negro people. Future generations will reproach us for this. Let us now correct this oversight by proclaiming freedom for the Negroes. May the President never allow the Assembly to have any more discussions on this subject (Ros 79)."
Now that the French had decided to abolish slavery, Toussaint faced a major decision. The French were down and Leveaux was almost defeated when Toussaint made his decision to rejoin the French. Spain quickly lost the North and Toussaint drove the British out of the West (Waxman 94-110). In a letter to General Leveaux on May 18, 1794, Toussaint called his joining of the Spanish army a mistake. He added, "let us join," in referring to the French and the blacks (Tyson 29).
In the fall of 1794, Toussaint attacked the British, under the new leadership of Sonthonax, with his new weapon, the abolition of slavery. Toussaint restored many of the French whites but they were not getting near the profit they had before. July 22, 1795 produced the Treaty of Basil between the French and the Spanish. In this treaty Santo Domingo was ceded to the French (Ros 84-85). The treaty also broke up the black leaders who were fighting for Spain, Jean Francois and Biassou. Toussaint received a promotion to the status of Brigadier General (Waxman 111).
Pinchinout, a mulatto leader, rose in the West. He wanted the blacks and the mulattoes to cooperate and join him. Spain still had influence and Toussaint wanted the French to control all of Santo Domingo. March 1796, mulatto's began to try to seize power. By March 20, Villate, a major mulatto general, captured Laveaux and his officers and imprisoned them. Leveaux was freed by a black force. Toussaint reacted to the coup by stating, "Don't ever pay any attention to what savage rebels will try to tell you. In this colony, there are more Negroes than whites and mulattoes combined. And if any problems should arise, the French republic will stand behind us as the strongest party. I am your commander in chief; I maintain law and order here." Laveaux called him a savior and referred to him as the black Spartacus, a hero whom Toussaint had always admired (Ros 86-88).
In 1796, the island was basically broken up into mulatto control in the South, black control in the West and North, and the British in the East. Toussaint was able to use his control and prestige to reinforce working conditions (Waxman 114-116). May 11, 1796, was the date on which Sonthonax returned to the island accompanied by Roume, and he began his return by fighting against Villate and the mulattoes. After Sonthonax had turned his attention toward Toussaint, Louverture started a rumor in August of 1797 claiming that Sonthonax was wanting to initiate partial slavery. On August 16 Toussaint proclaimed martial law. He demanded Sonthonax go to France. Finally, Toussaint achieves that status of sole ruler of Haiti bringing and end to Sonthonax's power, for good (Ros 89-94).
Toussaint sent two letter to the Directory in France calling for liberty and equality, and the letters pledged allegiance to Republican France, as long as they shared the commitment to liberty and equality. His first letter to the Directory was date October 28, 1797. He starts his address by explaining that before the Villate Affair, all order and harmony existed as far as the absence of law would allow. He reminded the Directory that he had obeyed Laveaux and that the blacks fought for Laveaux and France. Toussaint the addressed his hatred for Vaublanc and went as far as to threatened the Frenchman. Vaublanc claimed that the whites are the only true Frenchmen. Toussaint then asked the following, "If the friends of freedom classified under this respectable denomination include men submitting heart and soul to the French constitution, to its beneficial laws, men who cherish the French friends of our country, we swear that we have, and will always have, the right to be called French citizens. Will the crimes of powerful men (Vaublanc) who rip son from mother always be glorified and will error of the weak always be a source of oppression?" The second letter said the following, "They (slaves) supported their chains only so long as they did not know any condition of life more happy than that of slavery. If they had 1,000 lives, they would sacrifice them all rather than be forced back into slavery. France will protect us." Toussaint's purpose in writing these letters was to show the French Directory that proprietors and the English were trying to restore slavery (Tyson 36-45).
In 1798, Toussaint tried to push the British, under General Maitland, out of Port-au-Prince. He succeeded and entered the city. He was given a medallion from the white planters that said, "Second only to God." After negotiating a truce with the English, Toussaint entered Mole-Saint-Nicholas in triumph. The English showed him the highest respect. The honored him with a great dinner and presented him with silver service and two bronze ornaments (Waxman 116). He agreed on a treaty with the Americans and the British on May 22, 1799, and he purposely excluded Rigaud's southern empire from trade (Ott 110). The English agreed to give up their military positions on the island and set free all black and mulatto troops under their command. Under the treaty, San Domingo would be a commercially independent and neutral power (Waxman 127). The British then evacuated the island (Ros 97). This treaty shocked Roume because the British and the French were at war at the time of the treaty (Ott 110).
Toussaint declined an English offer to be the monarch of San Domingo under an English controlled island. He was still loyal to France. Toussaint developed close ties with the English and he was single-handedly reestablishing agriculture on the island. A few days following the treaty, Toussaint had ordered a special church service and he took the pulpit so that he could announce the success of the French Republic in triumphing over her enemies in Europe and San Domingo. His goal in all of this was to maintain freedom and wipe out color distinctions. Toussaint best tactic in achieving his goals and reestablishing an agriculture base was discipline. His troops live on corn and would not even pillage when told not to do so. He had an enemy on the island who was second in rank. The Frenchman, Hedouville, rose up against Toussaint with French forces. He was no match for Toussaint and returned to France in defeat. Toussaint wrote of Hedouville and explained all of his wrong doings to the French leadership (Waxman 129-136).
About this time, Napoleon had risen to power in France. Upon hearing this Louverture stated, "Bonaparte is a fine man and France is his. But Haiti is mine. I am not in his way, so why would he come and block my way? And if he does, he will have to face a buck rather than a sheep." On December 13, 1799, Napoleon allowed America free trade with Haiti, pitting the black Napoleon against the white Napoleon (Ros 115-116). Napoleon would soon require Toussaint to use his force only against the British (Ott 115).
The Directore did not want to go through the trouble of another French man and decided to use Rigaud against Toussaint (Waxman 137). As it was, both Toussaint with all 3 castes and Rigaud with his mulattoes wanted to rule the island (Ott 111). Toussaint wrote to Rigaud to try to avoid fighting. He even went as far as to ask the Frenchman, Roume, to arbitrate between Rigaud and himself. Roume's failure caused both side to begin preparation for a battle. Rigaud began the fight by suffocating one white and twenty-nine blacks in Jeremie. He continued attacks and Toussaint raised 10,000 troops at Port-au-Prince (Waxman 140-144). By October of 1799, Toussaint had taken major cities to the North and prepared to attack the South. Toussaint with a total of 55,000 black troops was additionally helped by the American fleet. The Boston, Connecticut, Constitution, and the General Greene all participated in the fight against Rigaud and France (Ott 112). Shortly after the major attack, Napoleon threw his support to Toussaint (Waxman 156). He sent a letter to Roume on May 2, 1800, asking Toussaint to make peace with the mulattoes (Ros 117). Rigaud soon sailed for France, and with him gone, the mulattoes surrendered. Toussaint, as was his custom, quickly pardoned all (Waxman 156-157).
With Rigaud gone, Toussaint now had control again. He put Dessalines in control of the South, and he put General Kerversau in Santo Domingo (still Spanish). Toussaint initiated an uprising against Roume, who had been his ally, and imprisoned him. Roume had not been cooperating with Toussaint's idea of taking the Spanish part of the island. Roume agree to cooperate and to invade Santo Domingo. In May 1800, Roume changed his mind once again and is again imprisoned by Toussaint. It took Toussaint about 7 months to totally defeat the Spanish (Ott 111). On January 24, 1801, a twenty shot salute lowered the Spanish flag and raised the French in Santo Domingo (Ros 120). He spoke to the citizens of Saint Dominique on March 16th. Part of his speech stated, "I announce to you with great satisfaction that I have taken possession of the Spanish part of Saint Dominique in the name of the French Republic…with very little loss I gained possession of the whole island…Salut et fraternelle amitie (Corbett). Napoleon was angry, and his wife Josephine did not add to his feelings. She once stated during this time period that Napoleon was the, "Toussaint Louverture of the whites" (Ros 143).
Napoleon quickly began preparation to invade Haiti. On July 7, 1801, Toussaint issued his constitution. It created a total end to slavery, and it gave Toussaint total power. He used military rule to establish taxes, outlaw voodoo, make divorce virtually impossible, create education, and improve roads (Ros 120-122). Toussaint dictatorial decree, later that year in November, worked to tighten discipline and laid out punishments for those who disobeyed his decrees (Tyson 59). Napoleon had already begun, in February of that same year, trying to work out a treaty with the British in order to defeat Toussaint (Ros 122).
Vincent was sent to Paris to try to persuade Napoleon, in 1801, to accept Toussaint and his rule on the island (Waxman 193). Napoleon used his French General Vincent to push Toussaint inland and win the coast of France, which he did (Ros 131). Napoleon, meanwhile, was using propaganda to turn France against Toussaint. The French dictator also needed a position far away from France for his brother-in-law, LeClerc. Napoleon took Toussaint's two sons from the French school which they attended and sent them ahead to bring their father news of the coming of the French fleet (86 ships total). LeClerc was sent to annihilate the blacks under Toussaint and Dessalines.
The French leader had established a three part plan. First was a friendly preparation, second was the killing, and third was the destruction of Toussaint, Dessalines, Moyse, and the other rebellious leaders. If any of the officers behave well during the second period, then they were to be sent to France. Napoleon ordered that Toussaint must be sent to France. He wanted Toussaint to pledge loyalty before the entire French army. At the end, all Negroes who remained were to be disarmed and put to work. Finally, Napoleon stated that no black above the rank of captain was to be allowed to stay on the island for fear of further upheaval (Waxman 193-200).
Napoleon knew just how powerful Toussaint was. He actually drew many ideas from Toussaint's constitution. Evidence of this exists because of almost identical wording in some of Napoleon's documents and the Louverturian constitution. When Toussaint implemented his constitution, the people of the island would actually experience almost a year of peace before the French disruption. During that time, Toussaint had Africans imported on their on free will. He still claimed Haiti as part of the French commonwealth, although he viewed himself as an independent leader. All holidays and traditions in Haiti were French, although Louverture would add his own touches as ruler of Haiti. He created the All Saints Day holiday because, after all, it was his birthday. He put bust of Raynal, Spartacus, and himself up in parks and cities throughout the island. He established two newspapers in Haiti: Le Cap Francois and Gazette Officielle. Toussaint was very interested in establishing libraries and he decreed that schools and literacy would be necessary. He established a system of about 70 horses that he used to move himself throughout his island empire. He, as many inhabitants described it, was always there. He was constantly moving from city to city and would many times appear to catch people sleeping or slacking on their jobs. He would promptly put them back to work. He had always been known as an eavesdropper. Toussaint's best trait, however, was his ability to see things clearly and objectively, which probably kept him alive in many situations (Ros 132-142).
On January 29, 1802, LeClerc landed in San Domingo. He actually split the large fleet up and sailed into several different ports around the island. Moving ahead of schedule, the French quickly attacked. Rochambeau, the head general under LeClerc. Christophe, a major general under Toussaint, resisted LeClerc's initial landing of his troops. Christophe put into action the planned strategy of retreat and burnt Le Cap. LeClerc sent the two boys with their tutors to take a letter to Toussaint. Abbe Coisnon, a tutor who knew of the French plot, delivered the letter from Napoleon and Toussaint replied with a letter to LeClerc claiming that he would rather give his sons than sacrifice black freedom. He sent his sons and their tutors with the letter. LeClerc set out to surround Toussaint buy nature and climate made it a difficult venture. Rochambeau was able to overcome Toussaint's forces where he had landed and killed 800. General Maurepas slowed LeClerc enough to prevent the cornering of Toussaint by the French. Maurepas then surrendered and switched sides. Port-au-Prince quickly fell to the French before it could be burnt. Toussaint, trying to save his tail from Rochambeau, led his forces on a wild goose chase after a small group of Toussaint's men. It worked.
Crete-a-Pierrot was a mountain fort built by the British that was one of the last strongholds of Toussaint. The native forces defended it well, but eventually LeClerc would take it at the expense of 2,000 men. LeClerc became very confident of French victory and made a huge mistake. He issued power to proprietors over the Negroes. This shocked both the whites and blacks of the island. Toussaint went north toward Le Cap with his new weapon. He spread the chance of slavery to everyone who would listen. The change to summer in 1802 brought yellow fever to the French. Meanwhile, Christophe was tempted with promises of no slavery and joined LeClerc. Dejected at having lost nearly all of his great leaders, Toussaint set up negotiations and a meeting at Le Cap for a treaty. Toussaint was hailed as the Liberator because LeClerc called of no slavery. 400 troops guarded the peace talks between the two men. On May 7, 1802, peace came to San Domingo.
Toussaint retired to one of his plantations in Ennery, cities were being rebuilt, Negroes returned to the fields, and commerce began to flourish. Two weeks after Toussaint retired, small pox began to take the white population. In 3 weeks, 3,000 were dead. The blacks worked to nurse the sick and remained peaceful. Napoleon still wanted to arrest Toussaint. Brunet, a supposed friendly general, drew Toussaint in and 10 soldiers took him prisoner. He was put on a boat with his family and sent to France. Toussaint was isolated during the trip and guarded by many men with fixed bayonets. They reached France on July 2, 1802. On August 23, Toussaint and his servant were put in Fort de Joux. He had a 20' by 12' cell with a tiny amount of light. Eventually Toussaint would have no contact with anyone in the outside world. He was stripped of his military uniform so he could have no proof of having served France. The jail-keeper, threatened by Napoleon, would not even get Toussaint medicine when he was sick. He died in prison because of neglect and pneumonia and apoplexy on April 7, 1803 (Waxman 204-284). Toussaint wrote a memoir, while in prison, as an attempt to free himself of the charges against him. He held on to the belief that Napoleon would give him a fair trial, which never happened. He affirmed his loyalty to France and said he resisted LeClerc based on his improper behavior. Toussaint stated that he was angry over his arrest and recounted his career with France and his administrative loyalty to the Republic and its leader, Napoleon. He added that his constitution was a mistake. His plea was disregarded and he was left in prison to die (Tyson 65).
Toussaint Louverture had lived the life of a hero. He was described physically as an ugly man with many scars and no teeth in his upper jaw, which was lopsided. He liked to wear a madras upon his head, and he walked with a slight limp. He was reported to have fathered 10 children during his lifetime, seven of which were illegitimate (Ros 42). He was wounded 17 times during battle and had at least 10 attempts on his life. Some of his doubles, and yes he did have doubles, were actually killed. He often slept on the ground, and he only required two to three hours of sleep per day. He was well trained in the arts of fencing, fighting with sabers, and throwing knives (Ros 138). Toussaint's biggest weakness was perhaps his failure to face the fact that the goal of unconditional freedom was incompatible with the maintenance of the plantation system (Trouillot 8). He was a true hero of liberation and a shining example of a freedom fighter.
Corbett, Bob. "Toussaint Takes Spanish Saint Domingo for France." General Advertiser 16 March 1801.
6 June 2003 .
Ott, Thomas. The Haitian Revolution: 1789-1804. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1973.
Ros, Martin. The Night of Fire: The Black Napoleon and the Battle for Haiti. New York: Sarpedon, 1991.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Nation, State, and Society in Haiti, 1804-1984. Washington, D. C.: The Wilson Center, 1985.
Tyson, George, ed. Great Lives Observed: Toussaint Louverture. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1973.
Waxman, Percy. The Black Napoleon: The Story of Toussaint Louverture. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1931.