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
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:
"Nations of Europe! Your slaves are not in need of your generosity or of your
councils, in order to break the sacrilegious yoke which oppresses them. The
Negroes lack but a chief. Where is the great man? He will appear; We have no
doubt of it. He will show himself; He will unfurl the sacred standard of liberty.
This venerable signal will cause to gather around him the companions of his
misfortune. More impetuous than the torrents, they will leave everywhere the
indelible traces of their just resentment. The Old World will join in applause with
the name of the hero, who shall have established the right of humanity.
Everywhere the people will institute trophies to his glory."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.