Toussaint Louverture led what is known as the only triumphant mass slave revolt in history. Thanks largely to his efforts, Haiti won its independence in 1804. But the island-nation didn’t live happily ever after. Institutional racism, political corruption, poverty and even natural disasters have left Haiti a nation in crisis. Still, Louverture remains a hero to the Haitian people and those throughout the African diaspora.
With this biography, learn about his rise, fall and the political prowess that resulted in him leaving an indelible mark on the island-nation once known as Saint Domingue.
Little is known about François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture before his role in the Haitian Revolution. According to Philippe Girard, author of 2016’s “Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life,” his family came from the Allada kingdom of West Africa. His father, Hippolyte, or Gaou Guinou, had been an aristocrat. Around 1740, however, members of the Dahomey Empire captured his family and sold them as slaves to the Europeans. Hippolyte specifically was sold for 300 pounds of cowrie shells.
His once aristocratic family now the property of European colonists, Louverture was not born in West Africa but likely on May 20, 1743, in the city of Cap on the Bréda plantation in Saint Domingue, a French territory. Louverture displayed a giftedness with horses and mules that impressed his overseer, Bayon de Libertat.
He also received training in veterinary medicine. His godfather, Pierre Baptiste Simon, likely played a large role in educating him. He may have also received training from Jesuit missionaries and from West African medicinal traditions.
Eventually Libertat freed Louverture, although he had no authority to do so, as the absentee slaveholders the Brédas owned Louverture.
It is unclear exactly which circumstances led Libertat to free him. The overseer reportedly had him drive his coach and then released him. Louverture was about 33 years old at the time.
Biographer Girard points out that it was highly unusual that Louverture was freed. The slave mothers of mixed-race children were most often freed, with men making up fewer than 11 percent of liberated slaves.
In 1777, Louverture married Suzanne Simone Baptiste, born in Agen, France. She is believed to have been his godfather’s daughter, but she may have been Louverture’s cousin. He and Suzanne had two sons, Issac and Saint-Jean. Each also had children from other relationships.
Biographers describe Louverture as a man filled with contradictions. He led a slave insurrection but never took part in smaller revolts that occurred in Haiti prior to the revolution. In addition, he wasn’t partial to any religious faith. He was a Freemason, who practiced Catholicism devoutly but also engaged in voodoo (in secret). His embrace of Catholicism may have factored into his decision not to participate in voodoo-inspired insurrections that took place in Saint Domingue before the revolution.
After Louverture won his freedom, he went on to own slaves himself.
Some historians have criticized him for this, but he may have owned slaves to free his family members from bondage. As the New Republic explains:
To free slaves required money, and money on Saint Domingue required slaves. As a free man, Toussaint leased a coffee estate from his son-in-law, including the slaves. True success navigating the slave system meant joining the other side. The revelation that the ‘Black Spartacus’ drove slaves spurred some modern historians to over-correct, speculating that Toussaint was a well-heeled bourgeois by the time of the revolution. But his position was more precarious. The coffee estate failed, and a slave register unearthed in 2013 records his tragic next move: Toussaint resumed his place on the Bréda plantation.
In short, Touissant remained a victim of the same exploitative system he’d joined to free his family.
But as he returned to the Bréda plantation, abolitionists begin to gain ground, even convincing King Louis the XVI to give slaves the right to appeal if their overlords subjected them to brutality.
HAITI BEFORE AND AFTER THE REVOLUTION
Before the slaves rose up in revolt, Haiti was one of the most profitable slave colonies in the world. About 500,000 slaves worked on its sugar and coffee plantations which produced a significant percentage of the world’s crops. The colonists had a reputation for being cruel and engaging in debauchery. The planter Jean-Baptiste de Caradeux, for example, is said to have entertained guests by letting them shoot oranges off the tops of slaves’ heads. Prostitution was reportedly rampant on the island as well.
After widespread discontent, slaves mobilized for liberty in November 1791, seeing an opportunity to rebel against colonial rule during the throes of the French Revolution. Toussaint’s comrade Georges Biassou became the self-appointed Viceroy and named him general of the royal army-in-exile. Louverture taught himself about military strategies and used his newfound knowledge to organize the Haitians into troops. He also enlisted deserters of the French military to help train his men. His army included radical whites and mixed-race Haitians as well as blacks.
As Adam Hochschild described in the New York Times, Louverture “used his legendary horsemanship to rush from one corner of the colony to another, cajoling, threatening, making and breaking alliances with a bewildering array of factions and warlords, and commanding his troops in one brilliant assault, feint or ambush after another.”
The slaves successfully fought the British, who wanted control over the crop-rich colony, and the French colonizers who’d subjected them to bondage. Both French and British soldiers left detailed journals expressing their surprise that the rebel slaves were so skilled. The rebels had dealings with agents of the Spanish Empire as well. Haitians also had to confront internal conflicts that sprang up from mixed-race islanders, who were known as gens de couleur, and black insurgents.
Louverture has been accused of engaging in the very practices for which he criticized the Europeans. He needed weapons to defend Saint Domingue and implemented a forced labor system on the island that was virtually the same as slavery to ensure that the nation had sufficient crops to exchange for military supplies. Historians say he held onto his abolitionist principles while doing what was necessary to keep Haiti secure. Moreover, he intended to free the laborers and wanted them to profit from Haiti’s achievements.
“In France, everyone is free but everyone works,” he said.
Louverture has not only been criticized for reintroducing slavery to Saint Domingue but also for writing a constitution that gave him the power to be a lifelong leader (much like the European monarchs he despised), who could choose his own successor. During the revolution, he took on the name “Louverture,” which means “the opening” to emphasize his role in the uprising.
But Louverture’s life was cut short. In 1802, he was lured into talks with one of Napoleon’s generals, which resulted in his capture and removal from Haiti to France. His immediate family members, including his wife, were captured as well. Abroad, tragedy would befall him. Louverture was isolated and starved in a fortress in the Jura mountains, where he died in April 1803. His wife survived him, living until 1816.
Despite his demise, Louverture biographers describe him as a leader who was far savvier than either Napoleon, who completely ignored his attempts at diplomacy, or Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner who sought to see Louverture fail by alienating him economically.
“If I were white I would receive only praise,” Louverture said of how he’d been slighted in world politics, “But I actually deserve even more as a black man.”
After his death, Haitian revolutionaries, including Louverture’s lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, continued to fight for independence. They won freedom in January 1804, when Haiti became a sovereign nation. Two-thirds of the French army died in their bid to squash the revolution, most from yellow fever rather than armed conflict.
Louverture has been the subject of numerous biographies, including 2007’s “Toussaint Louverture” by Madison Smartt Bell as well as biographies by Ralph Korngold, published in 1944; and Pierre Pluchon, published in 1989. He was also the subject of 1938’s “The Black Jacobins” by C.L.R. James, which the New York Times has called a masterpiece.
The revolution Louverture led is said to have been a source of inspiration to abolitionists such as John Brown as well as the many African nations that won independence in the mid-20th century.