Symbol of slaves’ struggles for freedom and dignity in the age of revolution, the onetime house slave Toussaint Louverture assumed leadership of the Haitian Revolution soon after its outbreak in August 1791.
For more than a decade Toussaint led the island’s exslave insurgent forces—first as an independent rebel chieftain; then, after the French abolition of slavery on the island in 1793, on the side of the French against the British and Spanish; then, as a renegade French officer after the decision of Napoleon I to retake the island and reestablish slavery.
In June 1802 at the height of the French invasion, Toussaint was betrayed by his own men, turned over to Napoleon’s army, transported in chains to Brest, and then to Fort-de-Joux prison in the Jura Mountains in France. Within the year he died of privation and ill-treatment, though by this time his name had become legendary in his native Saint-Domingue (Haiti) and throughout much of the Atlantic world.
Toussaint’s father was the son of a minor African chieftain, captured in war, sold into slavery, and transported to the French colony of Saint-Domingue, the most productive sugar-producing region in the world. At the time, more than 90 percent of the approximately 30,000 African slaves imported annually into Saint-Domingue toiled in the sugarcane fields and died within their first seven years.
Thanks to luck and the benevolence of a kind master, Toussaint’s father was among a tiny stratum of slaves who enjoyed certain freedoms and privileges. He converted to Catholicism, married, and was charged with cultivating a plot of land to provision the plantation near the northern port city of Cap-François.
His eldest child, Toussaint Bréda as he was known, learned to read and write French and Latin, thanks to the tutelage of his godfather and neighbor, the house slave Pierre Baptiste. Reading Caesar’s Commentaries, the writings of the Abbé Raynal, and other works gave Toussaint a grounding in the nature of history and the politics of empire.
He also became an herbalist and healer. Of unusual aptitude and intelligence, he assumed key responsibilities on his master’s estate, including coachman and stock steward, and earned a reputation in the community as a man of rectitude and learning.
In September 1791, a month after the outbreak of the slave uprising that would engulf the island for more than a decade, “Old Toussaint” as he was known, age 45, abandoned his master’s estate and joined the rebel ranks. Soon he became one of their top leaders. On April 29, 1793, the French abolished slavery throughout Saint-Domingue, hoping to quell the slave uprising and more effectively prosecute the war against the British and Spanish.
Toussaint, who had changed his surname to Louverture (“the opening”), brought his 4,000-strong army to the French side. In 1796 he was named brigadier-general, in command of all French forces on Saint-Domingue. Under Toussaint’s leadership, in April 1798, the British were finally driven from the island, after a five-year campaign and at the cost of some 25,000 British lives.
Before departing, the British had encouraged Toussaint to rebel against the French and declare independence; he refused. In February 1799 a mulatto army led by André Rigaud rebelled against Toussaint; by August 1800 Toussaint had crushed Rigaud’s rebellion.
Meanwhile Toussaint sought to restore some semblance of order to the island’s economy. He revived its sugar plantations, compelled former slaves back to work as wage-earners, and promulgated a series of laws regarding labor, land ownership, and taxes. He also established diplomatic relations with the United States. Anticipating Napoleon’s invasion, he purchased some 30,000 guns from the United States and distributed them among his forces.
On January 26, 1801, he marched into Spanish Santo Domingo, unifying the island’s eastern and western regions. He also promulgated a new constitution, permanently abolishing slavery and making Saint-Domingue effectively independent. On June 7, 1802, he was betrayed and turned over to the invading French.
In the decades following his death in France, Toussaint’s remarkable life became the subject of songs, stories, poems, novels, plays, and oral traditions that paid homage to the honor, courage, and martyrdom of the liberator of Haiti.