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Haitian Revolution – François Toussaint

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Toussaint Bréda, Toussaint-Louverture (20 May 1743 – 8 April 1803) Was a leader of the Haitian Revolution. Born in Saint Domingue, in a long struggle for independence Toussaint led enslaved Africans to victory over Europeans, abolished slavery, and secured native control over the colony, Haiti, in 1797 while nominally governor of the colony.

He expelled the French commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, as well as the British armies; invaded Santo Domingo to free the slaves there; and wrote a constitution naming himself governor-for-life that established a new polity for the colony.

Especially between the years 1800 and 1802, Toussaint L’ouverture tried to rebuild the collapsed economy of Haiti and reestablish commercial contacts with the United States and Britain. His rule permitted the colony a taste of freedom which, after his death in exile, was gradually destroyed during the successive reigns of a series of despots. Translated from French, his name means “the awakening of all saints” or “all souls rising”. His last words were to his son in France, ““My boy, you will one day go back to St. Domingo; forget that France murdered your father.”


Toussaint L’Ouverture was born into slavery in the Plaine du Nord of what was then Saint-Domingue. He was born on the Bréda plantation of Bayon de Libertat, near Cap Français. Tradition says that his father was an African named Gaou-Guinou and probably a member of the Arada ethnic group. His father was an African chief. Toussaint Breda was lucky enough to be educated and to be literate. He read widely in French literature of the Enlightenment. He worked as a carriage driver and horse trainer on the plantation. His master freed him at age 33, when Toussaint married Suzanne.[2] He was a fervent Catholic, and a member of high degree of the Masonic Lodge of Saint-Domingue.[3][4] In 1791 slaves in the Plaine du Nord rose in rebellion. Different forces coalesced under different leaders. Toussaint served with other leaders and rose in responsibility. On 4 April 1792, the French Legislative Assembly extended full rights of citizenship to free people of color or mulattoes (gens de couleur libres) and free blacks.

In Saint-Domingue, this policy was resisted by many white colonists, although France sent three Commissioners to enforce it. Among them Sonthonax was the most radical, creating a bureaucracy of mulattoes at Le Cap in the North. After the execution of Louis XVI, in early 1793 France went to war against Great Britain and Spain. As unrest and racial war continued to disrupt Saint-Domingue’s institutions, Toussaint joined the Spanish army of Santo Domingo to find a way to end slavery. In August Sonthonax proclaimed emancipation for slaves in the north, where Toussaint and his allies were fighting; his fellow commissioners announced emancipation of slaves in the West and South, but the invasion by British troops in September overshadowed these changes. In 1793 Toussaint adopted as a surname his nickname of Louverture and used that as his full signature from then on.

By early 1794 Toussaint Louverture was able to organize 4,000 blacks (with some white and mulatto officers) into a band of loyal guerrilla troops, as he was a gifted, although untrained, leader and military strategist, and he used elements of western discipline for his troops. It was not until February 1794 that the French Convention formally abolished slavery. Toussaint negotiated with General Laveaux and changed sides in May 1794. He then fought against the Spanish, recovering all the forts of the Cordon de L’Ouest in less than two weeks and “delivering” the North to the French Republic. He also fought against the English.

By 1795, Toussaint controlled most of two provinces. His two lieutenants Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henry Christophe were extremely effective. Toussaint’s success drove André Rigaud, a man of color leading forces in the southwest, to renew his attacks from where free people of color were concentrated in Port au Prince. Rigaud controlled a force of officers of color and black troops, who controlled the South.

General Maitland meets Toussaint to discuss the secret treaty

By June 1795, the British had been driven back to the coast. In July the Spanish officially withdrew. Although the British continued to fight from coastal towns, Toussaint maintained his control over the North and West of Saint-Domingue. In May 1797 Sonthonax named Toussaint Louverture commander-in-chief of the French republican army in Saint Domingue.

He was also successful in leading his relatively small band of troops (in lightning quick strikes and using diplomacy) to gain strategic defeats and the withdrawal of an army of 10,000 British soldiers. In 1798, the British made a last-ditch attempt to oust Louverture by attacking from the South, sending General Thomas Maitland. Maitland failed and signed a secret treaty to make Toussaint Louverture to leave the ports open to commercial shipping of all nations. The British withdrew from the colony.

The British left Saint-Domingue completely in October 1798, but General Hedouville worked at increasing competition between Rigaud and Toussaint for control. Rigaud did not want to give up portions of the Western Department which he had taken over.

Toussaint appointed Jean-Jacques Dessalines to govern the South after his defeat of Rigaud in July 1800. He took extremely severe reprisals against the mulatto population, crushing the resistance and allegedly killing 10,000 men, women and children. After years of warfare and outrages, Dessalines’ brutality left bitterness among people of color. By 1800, Toussaint had subordinated all remaining colored forces.

In 1801 the Spanish capitulated to Toussaint Louverture, ceding the remainder of the island to his forces. He proclaimed the abolition of slavery in Santo Domingo. After this in July he proclaimed a new constitution which named him governor for life.

French Revolution and rebellion in Saint-Domingue

News of the French Revolution of 1789 and the message of Liberté, égalité, fraternité reached Saint-Domingue by 1790, and had a powerful impact on the island. French soldiers landing at Port-au-Prince joined blacks and people of color in brotherly union. They announced that the National Assembly in France had declared all men free and equal. It did not take long for the ideas of Enlightenment philosophy to spread through the island. When white planters failed to honor the promises made by the Declaration of the Rights of Man, widespread slave uprisings took place throughout the North.

Toussaint did not participate in the ill-fated campaign organized by Vincent Ogé, a wealthy free man of color. The revolt took place in October 1790 and tried to assert the voting rights of free people of color but it was brutally crushed by colonial forces. The following year in August a slave revolt broke out in the Northern Province. Toussaint found himself wavering. He worked as a servant and carriage driver on the plantation where he had grown up.

Initially, Toussaint was against the widespread destruction and bloodshed which was being unleashed by the rebels. Toussaint spent many months keeping his master’s slaves in order and preventing revolutionary laborers from setting fire to the plantation. It became clear that all white people were threatened. As the insurrection grew, Toussaint helped his master’s family to escape, sent his own family away to a safe spot in Spanish Santo Domingo, and made his way to the camp of rebel slaves. As a mature man near 50, he soon discerned the ineptitude of the rebel leaders and their willingness to compromise with white radicals.

Toussaint’s important position as a free-black coachman allowed him to serve as a link between the white plantation masters and the rebelling slaves. He also managed to obtain a pass from the governor which allowed him to travel from plantation to plantation and spread revolutionary ideas (although he was careful to keep his participation hidden from the white authorities). Toussaint’s prominence grew among revolutionary leaders until he became the movement’s undisputed leader. His famous Declaration of Camp Turel on 29 August 1793 serves as proof that his ideas would serve as a template for a future independent Saint-Domingue. Specifically, he called for a military state to preserve absolute freedom for all citizens.

Scorning these and using his ample experience in administration and leadership, Toussaint quickly gathered a following and trained his followers in tactics of guerrilla warfare but also insisted on discipline and order. In 1793, he became an aide to Georges Biassou. He rose rapidly in rank. The army of blacks proved successful against the yellow fever-ravaged and poorly led European troops.

After the execution of Louis XVI and the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars, when France went to war against Great Britain and Spain, numerous black commanders of the North joined the Spanish-led army of Santo Domingo against the French. Knighted and recognized as a general, Toussaint demonstrated extraordinary military ability and attracted renowned warriors such as his nephew Moïse and two future monarchs of Haiti, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henry Christophe. It was then that he gained the nickname L’Ouverture (“opening”), which he adopted but always spelled Louverture He exploited openings in the defenses of the opposition. Later that year, the British gained control of most of the coastal settlements of Saint-Domingue, including Port-au-Prince.

Toussaint Louverture’s victories in the North of Saint-Domingue, together with independent successes by people of color in the South and British occupation of the coasts, brought the French close to disaster. In 1793, Léger-Félicité Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel, representatives of the French revolutionary government in Paris, offered freedom to slaves who would join them as they struggled to defeat counter-revolutionaries and fight the foreign invaders. On 4 February 1794, the largely Jacobin National Convention in Paris confirmed the orders of emancipation, which abolished slavery in all territories of the French Republic.

In May of 1794, Toussaint Louverture decided to ally with the French, justifying his decision by the failures of Spain and Britain to free slaves. He declared that he had become a republican (after being a royalist). Toussaint Louverture has been criticized for such treatment of his former allies, as well as for mass slaughter of Spanish troops. Toussaint Louverture’s switch was decisive in France’s regaining control over Saint-Domingue.

Étienne Laveaux, the governor of Saint-Domingue, made Toussaint Louverture Général de Brigade. He succeeded in causing the British to suffer severe reverses; and expelled the Spaniards. Under Toussaint Louverture’s increasingly influential leadership, the French army of black, mixed-race, and white soldiers defeated the British and Spanish forces. Toussaint Louverture’s army won seven battles in one week against the Spanish forces in May of 1794 and recovered the forts of the Cordon de L’Oeust. He also fought against the uprising of Pinchinat, a leader who was a gen de couleur or mulatto.

Toussaint’s views toward the French mother country can be regarded as somewhat ambivalent. He was very much alarmed by Napoleon’s plans for the colonies of France. 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 Toussaint faced a dilemma. He recognized Napoleon’s superior military strength coupled with his ambitions to restore slavery, yet he had sworm to protect the freedom of the inhabitants of Saint-Domingue. Thus he pursued a strategy of appeasement in which he sought to retain connections with France. In Toussaint’s Constitution of 1801, Article 3 states: “There cannot exist slaves [in Saint-Domingue], servitude is therein forever abolished. All men are born, live and die free and French.”. Toussaint was also willing to compromise the dominant Vaudou faith for Catholicism. Article 6 clearly states that “the Catholic, Apostolic, Roman faith shall be the only publicly professed faith.” .

Campaign in support of the French Revolution

By 1795, Toussaint Louverture was widely renowned. He was revered by the blacks and appreciated by most whites and people of color for helping restore the economy of Saint-Domingue. He invited many émigré planters to return, as he knew their management and technical expertise was needed to restore the economy and generate revenues. He used military discipline to force former slaves to work as laborers to get the plantations running again. He believed that people were naturally flawed and that discipline was needed to prevent idleness. He no longer permitted the laborers to be whipped. They were legally free and equal, and they shared the profits of the restored plantations. Racial tensions eased because Toussaint preached reconciliation and believed that for the blacks, a majority of whom were native Africans, there were lessons to be learned from whites and people of color, among whom many men had been educated in France and often trained in the military.

The French governor Laveaux left Saint-Domingue in 1796. He was succeeded by Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, an extremist French commissioner who had served on the island before. He allowed Toussaint Louverture to effectively rule and promoted him to Général de Division. Toussaint was repelled by this radical’s proposals to exterminate all Europeans. He found Sonthonax’s atheism, coarseness, and immorality offensive. After some maneuvering, Toussaint Louverture forced Sonthonax out in 1797.

Next to go were the British, whose losses caused them to negotiate secretly with Toussaint Louverture. Treaties in 1798 and 1799 secured their complete withdrawal. Toussaint Louverture promoted lucrative trade with Great Britain and the United States. In return for arms and goods, Toussaint Louverture sold sugar and promised not to invade Jamaica and the American South. The British offered to recognize him as king of an independent Saint-Domingue. Distrusting the British because they maintained slavery, he refused. The British withdrew from Saint-Domingue in 1798.

Toussaint Louverture soon rid himself of another nominal French superior, Gabriel Hédouville, who arrived in 1798 as representative of the Directoire government of France. Aware that France had no chance of restoring colonialism as long as the war with Great Britain continued, Hédouville tried to pit Toussaint Louverture against André Rigaud, the leader of color who ruled a semi-independent state in the South. Toussaint Louverture, however, figured out his purpose and forced Hédouville to flee.

Hédouville was succeeded by Philippe Roume, who deferred to the black governor. Toussaint Louverture eliminated Rigaud by a bloody campaign in October 1799 that forced him to flee to France. His state led by people of color was conquered. Jean-Jacques Dessalines carried out a purge in the South so brutal that reconciliation with people of color was impossible. Many refugees fled the country, including thousands who went to New Orleans, Louisiana and added to both the free people of color and African populations there.

On 22 May 1799, Toussaint Louverture signed a trading treaty with the British and the Americans. In the United States, Alexander Hamilton was a strong supporter. However, after Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801, he reversed the friendly American policy.

Once he had control over all of Saint-Domingue, Toussaint Louverture turned to Spanish Santo Domingo, where slavery persisted. The colony never had the scale of slavery as in St. Domingue, however, and plantation agriculture was not widespread. Ignoring the commands of Napoleon Bonaparte, who had become first consul of France, Toussaint Louverture overran the Spanish settlement in January 1801, officially took control on the 24th, and freed the slaves.

Toussaint Louverture drafted a committee to write a constitution for the united island. This took effect on 7 July 1801 and established his own authority across the whole island of Hispaniola.

Historical significance

Monument of Toussaint Louverture in Santiago de Cuba Toussaint Louverture played a key role in what was the first successful attempt by a slave population in the Americas and the world to throw off the yoke of Western colonialism. He defeated armies of three imperial powers: Spain, France, and Great Britain. The success of the Haitian Revolution had enduring effects on shaking the institution of slavery throughout the New World. Haiti became the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere.

After being captured by the French general Leclerc, on the ship to France, Toussaint Louverture warned his captors that the rebels would not make his mistake in the following words: “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.”

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