Who Was François Toussaint L'Ouverture?
François Toussaint L'Ouverture was a former Haitian slave who led the only successful slave revolt in modern history. Standing steadfastly, he fought to end slavery and gain Haiti’s independence from European powers, France and Spain. Forming an army of former slaves and deserters from the French and Spanish armies, he trained his followers in guerrilla warfare and successfully ended slavery in Hispaniola by 1795.
Born May 20, 1743, François Toussaint's early life is not well documented. It is believed his father was Gaou Guinou, the younger son of the king of Allada, a West African kingdom. His family was sold into slavery and sent to the Caribbean. Toussaint was fortunate to be owned by enlightened masters who allowed him to learn to read and write. He read the classics and the Enlightenment political philosophers, who deeply influenced him. He also developed a deep devotion to the teachings of Catholicism.
Intelligent and hardworking, Toussaint became an expert in medicinal plants and horsemanship. Recognized by his master for his abilities, he quickly rose to become the plantation’s chief steward. It is said that he was given his freedom in 1776, the same year the United States declared its independence from Great Britain. Toussaint continued to work for his former owner and married Suzanne Simone Baptiste in 1782. The couple had three children: Placide, Isaac and Saint-Jean.
On August 22, 1791, slaves rebelled in the French colony of Saint-Domingue on the western half of Hispaniola. Inspired by the French Revolution, and angered by generations of abuse, slaves began slaughtering whites with impunity. At first, François Toussaint was uncommitted. He was nearly fifty years-old and married with a family, farming a small plot of land and running a plantation for his former master. But the rebellion began to expand and eventually it migrated to where Toussaint was living. His decision to join the rebellion wasn’t only driven by the desire to defend his way of life. Toussaint was also deeply influenced by his Catholic religion, which condemned slavery, and Enlightenment philosophers, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote of the equality of man.
Toussaint first secured safety of his wife and family in the Spanish-controlled eastern half of the island, away from the rebellion. He then saw to it that his former master’s family was on a boat bound for the United States. Toussaint joined Georges Biassou’s rebels who had allied with the Spanish against France. During his time in slavery, Toussaint had learned African and Creole herbal-medical techniques. He now served as a doctor to the troops as well as a soldier. Toussaint quickly developed a reputation and was given command of 600 black former slaves. His forces were well-organized and steadily grew to 4,000 men. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, an escaped slave, joined Toussaint and quickly became a close confident and able lieutenant. It was during this time that Toussaint adopted the surname Louverture, from the French word for “opening” or “opening the way.’
While the Caribbean islands boiled with rebellion, European powers were fighting to gain advantage. The British government was concerned that the slave revolt would spread to their neighboring colony of Jamaica. Seeking an opportunity to harass the French, the British sent troops to put down the slave revolt. Fearing defeat, the French National Convention acted to preserve its colonial rule and secure the loyalty of the black population. In 1794 France granted freedom and citizenship to all blacks in the Empire. But the British troops remained determined to wreak havoc on France’s tenuous hold on Saint-Domingue.
Following France’s decision to emancipate the slaves, Toussaint reversed his allegiance and joined forces with the French against Spain. His first mission was to attack Spanish-controlled Santa Domingo on the eastern side of the island. He was now fighting his former black colleagues, who were still loyal to Spain. Under his leadership, Toussaint’s troops were able to capture Santa Domingo. The Treaty of Basel, in July 1795, ended the hostilities between France and Spain and the Spanish pulled out of Hispaniola. Toussiant contained the remaining British troops, rendering them ineffective and soon they too withdrew from the island.
By 1796, Toussaint was the leading political and military figure in the colonies. Admired by the former slaves, whom he’d help free, he was also well respected by the many French authorities who technically still controlled Saint-Domingue. Having temporarily secured peace with the European powers, Toussaint turned to the domestic unrest still festering on the island. Prior to 1791, the mulatto population, who were not enslaved, had owned slaves themselves. Many wanted them back. In 1799, Toussaint was able to defeat the mulatto army with the help of Dessalines. The contest lasted a year with claims of atrocities committed by Dessalines’ army.
Toussaint was now the de facto ruler of the entire island of Hispaniola. He introduced a constitution, which reiterated the abolition of slavery and declared himself Governor-General for Life, with nearly absolute powers. Hoping to bring some stability back to Hispaniola, he set out to reestablish agriculture and improve the economic conditions. Toussaint established trade agreements with the British and the Americans, who supplied his forces with arms and goods in exchange for sugar and the promise not to invade Jamaica or the American South. Defying French Revolutionary laws, he allowed plantation owners, who had fled during the rebellion, to return. He imposed military discipline on the workforce, while at the same established reforms that improved workers’ conditions.
Deal with Napoleon Bonaparte
In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte gained control of France, amidst the chaos of the French Revolutionary government. He issued a new constitution that declared all French colonies would be ruled under special laws. Toussaint and others suspected this would mean the return of slavery. He was careful not to declare full independence and professed himself a Frenchman to convince Napoleon of his loyalty. Napoleon confirmed Toussaint’s position as colonial governor and promised not to reinstate slavery. Napoleon also forbade Toussaint from invading Santo Domingo, the eastern half of the island, where he had French authorities, trying to restore order after the Spanish departure.
The temptation to have complete control over the entire island was too tempting for Toussaint. In January 1801, his armies invaded Santo Domingo and took control with little effort. He instituted French law, abolished slavery, and set out to modernize the country. Angered by Toussaint’s boldness, in 1802, Napoleon sent his brother-in-law, General Charles Emanuel Leclerc, with 20,000 French troops to regain control. These men were hand-picked for their experience in the campaigns in Europe and would be a formidable force against Toussaint.
Significance and Accomplishments
Though he didn’t live to see it, Toussaint’s actions set in motion a series of global events that changed the geography of the western hemisphere and spelled the beginning of the end for European colonial domination in the Americas. Frustrated by a rebellion he couldn’t control in Hispaniola, Napoleon Bonaparte decided not to expand his empire into North America and sold the Louisiana territory to the United States in 1803. This paved the way for western expansion throughout the 19th century. Toussaint’s actions also inspired revolutions in several Latin American countries over the next 100 years and American abolitionists to fight for an end to slavery.
Though Toussaint was able to put up strong resistance for several months, eventually his coalition fell apart. Most Europeans and mulattos living on the island sided with the French. In time, even Toussaint’s best generals, Henri Christophe and Dessalines joined Leclerc. By June, 1802, the end was near. Under the pretense of discussing peace, French General Jean-Baptiste Brunet sent a letter to Toussaint inviting him to his quarters. There Toussaint was arrested and sent to Fort-de-Joux in the Jura Mountains of France. Under intense interrogation, he died of pneumonia and starvation on April 7, 1803.
Soon after, Jean-Jacques Dessalines switched sides again and commanded rebel forces against the French. In a series of victories, Dessalines’ coalition of blacks and mulattos were successful in forcing the French to surrender and leave the island. In 1804, Dessalines proclaimed independence and declared himself emperor. Hispaniola became the first black independent republic in the world.
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