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Tousant L'Overture

François-Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture About this sound pronunciation (help·info), also Toussaint Bréda, Toussaint-Louverture (May 20, 1743 – April 7, 1803) was the leader of the Haitian Revolution. His military genius and political acumen led to the establishment of the independent black state of Haiti, transforming an entire society of slaves into a free, self-governing people. The success of the Haitian Revolution shook the institution of slavery throughout the New World.

Toussaint Louverture began his military career as a leader of the 1791 slave rebellion in the French colony of Saint Domingue. Initially allied with the Spaniards of neighboring Santo Domingo, Toussaint switched allegiance to the French when they abolished slavery. He gradually established control over the whole island, expelled British invaders 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 free labour, negotiated trade treaties with Britain 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 for life. In 1802 he was forced to resign by forces sent by Napoleon Bonaparte to restore French authority in the colony. He was deported to France, where he died in 1803. The Haitian Revolution continued under his lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who declared independence in 1804.

The earliest records of Toussaint's life come from a small number of his recorded remarks and the reminiscences of his son Isaac Louverture. Most histories give Toussaint's father as Gaou Guinou, a younger son of the king of Arrada in modern-day Benin, who had been captured in war and sold into slavery. His mother, Pauline, was Gaou Guinou's second wife. The couple had several children, of whom Toussaint was the eldest son. Some historians believe that his father was Pierre Baptiste, who is conventionally held to have been his godfather.

Toussaint is thought to have been born on the plantation of Bréda at Haut de Cap in Saint-Domingue, 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, and he was about 50 at the start of the revolution in 1791. In childhood, he earned the nickname Fatras Baton, 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 Bayon de Libertat when the new overseer 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 patois; he was familiar with Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher who had also lived as a slave; and his public speeches as well as his life's work, according to his biographers, evidence a familiarity with Machiavelli. Some cite Abbé Raynal, who wrote against slavery, as a possible influence:

He may also have attained some education from Jesuit missionaries. His medical knowledge is attributed to familiarity with African 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, but 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 sometimes thought to have been his cousin or his godfather's daughter. Towards the end of his life, he told General Cafarelli that he had fathered 16 children, of whom 11 had predeceased him.[citation needed] Not all his children can be identified for certain, but his three legitimate sons are well known.[citation needed] The eldest, Placide, was probably adopted by Toussaint and is generally thought to be Suzanne's first child with a mulatto, Seraphim Le Clerc.[citation needed] 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 actually freed in 1776 at the age of 33, and this 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 driver, charged with organising the work force.

As a free man, Toussaint began to accumulate wealth and property of his own. Surviving legal documents show him briefly renting a small coffee plantation worked by a dozen 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 at Ennery.

Religion and spirituality

Throughout his life, Toussaint was known as a devout Catholic. Although Vodou was generally practiced on Saint-Domingue in combination with Catholicism, little is known for certain of Toussaint's connection with it, except that, as effective ruler of Saint-Domingue, his official policy was to discourage it.

It has been 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
The Rebellion: 1791–1794
Toussaint L'Ouverture, as depicted in an 1802 French engraving.

Beginning in 1789, the French Revolution led to instability on Saint-Domingue, though initially the black population did not become involved in the conflict. In August 1791, a Vodou ceremony at Bois Caiman 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 Bizefranc de Lavaux, but it was in these battles that the French first recognized him as a significant military leader.

Some time in 1792-3 Toussaint adopted the surname L'Overture , from the French word for "opening". 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, Toussaint had also 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 L'Overture ; 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 L'Overture ,

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, Toussaint had been in diplomatic contact with the French general Étienne Maynaud Bizefranc de Lavaux. During this time, competition between himself and other rebel leaders was growing and the Spanish had started to look with disfavor 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, he switched allegiance from the Spanish to the French and rallied his troops to Lavaux.

Allegiance with the French: 1794–1796

Toussaint joined the French in early May 1794, raising the republican flag over the port of Gonaïves and provoking a mass 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 now 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 4000 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 Henry Christophe.

Before long Toussaint 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.[52] 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, Toussaint 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. Nevertheless, there were regular small rebellions by workers protesting poor conditions, their lack of real freedom or fearing a return to slavery.

Another of Toussaint's concerns was to manage potential rivals for power within the French part of the colony. The most serious of these involved the mulatto commander, Villate, based in Cap-Français. Toussaint and Villate had been in competition over the right to command some sections of troops and territory since 1794. By 1796 Villate was able to drum up popular support by accusing the French authorities of plotting a return to slavery. On March 20, he imprisoned Toussaint's friend and ally, the French Governor Lavaux and appointed himself Governor in his place. Toussaint's troops quickly fell on Cap-Français to deliver Lavaux and rout Villate. Toussaint famously opened the warehouses to the public, proving that they were empty of the chains supposedly imported to prepare for a return to slavery. The insurrection ended in a triumphal ceremony in which Toussaint and Lavaux asserted their partnership in power. Lavaux proclaimed Toussaint Lieutenant Governor, announcing at the same time that he would do nothing without his approval, to which Toussaint replied "After God, Lavaux".

The Third Commission: 1796–1797

A few weeks after the triumph over the Villate insurrection France's representatives of the third commission arrived on Saint-Domingue. Among them was Sonthonax, the commissioner who had previously declared abolition on the same day as Toussaint'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 Toussaint in popularity and 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 Toussaint threatening him with prosecution and ordering him to get Bayon off the territory. Toussaint then went over his head and wrote to the French Directoire directly for permission for Bayon to stay. Only a few weeks later, he abruptly turned against Sonthonax and on 24 August 1797, he forcibly deported him from the island.

There were in fact several reasons why Toussaint might want to get rid of Sonthonax, but the one he gave out officially was 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, and 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 America: 1798
General Frederick Maitland meets Toussaint to discuss the secret treaty

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, Andre 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, 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, Toussaint and Rigaud met commissioner Hédouville together. Hoping to create a rivalry that would diminish Toussaint's power, Hédouville displayed a strong preference for a flattered Rigaud, and an aversion for Toussaint However, General Maitland was also playing on French rivalries and evaded the authority of Hédouville 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, Toussaint 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. Toussaint accused Rigaud of trying to assassinate him to gain power over Saint Dominque 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.

Toussaint persuaded Roume to declare Rigaud a traitor in July 1799 and attacked the southern state.[87] The civil war 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: James claims a few hundred deaths in contravention of the amnesty. The contemporary French general, Pamphile de Lacroix, suggested 10,000.

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 An early engraving of L'Ouverture.

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. In March 1801, Toussaint formed a constitutional assembly to draft a constitution for Saint-Domingue that would preempt these 'special laws'.

Toussaint promulgated the Constitution of 1801 on 7 July, officially establishing his authority over the entire island of Hispaniola and confirming most of his existing policies. It made him governor general for life with near absolute powers and the possibility of choosing his successor. 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 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, "From the First of the Blacks to the First of the Whites", but received no reply. During this time, Bonaparte was under pressure from refugee planters who assured him that the colony had been most profitable with enslaved labour. He eventually decided to send an expedition of 20,000 men to Saint-Domingue to restore French authority.

Leclerc's campaign

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.[106] Meanwhile, Toussaint was preparing for defence and insuring discipline. This may have contributed to a rebellion against forced labour 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 deRochambeau 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 officiers 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, Toussaint 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.


After three weeks, Leclerc sent troops to seize Toussaint L'Overture and his family. He deported them to France on a warship, claiming that he suspected the former leader of plotting an uprising. It was during this crossing that Toussaint L'Overture 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 many and they are deep.

They reached France on 2 July 1802 and, on 25 August, Toussaint L'Overture was sent to the jail in Fort-de-Joux in the Doubs. While in prison, he died of pneumonia in April 1803. In his absence, Jean-Jacques Dessalines led the Hatitian rebellion until its completion, finally defeating the French forces in 1803.

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