Toussaint Louverture (aka François Dominique Toussaint Louverture and Toussaint Bréda; Kreyòl: Tousen Louvèti) (May 20?, 1743 Haut-du-Cap, Saint-Domingue – April 7, 1803 Fort de Joux, France)
Born François Dominique Toussaint Bréda, Toussaint Louverture was the preeminent figure of the Haitian Revolution. A former slave, he became a brilliant general and capable administrator, defeating British, Spanish, and French troops, emancipating the slave population, and overseeing the country's initial attempts at reforming its political and social structure. His extraordinary efforts at reaching across lines of race and class set him apart from his contemporaries, and his vision of a race-blind, independent country of equals was ahead of his time. As skilled as he was on the battlefield, Toussaint was equally at ease manipulating the machinery of politics and diplomacy. Wise, intelligent, tireless, ascetic, pragmatic, opportunistic, fond of aesthetic pleasures, the man many called "Papa Toussaint" grew up taking care of plants and animals, and the theme of Toussaint as "father" or "caretaker" runs throughout his life story.
Signature of Toussaint Louverture.
Toussaint's true life story is a enigma, the details lost, disputed, or never recorded. Indeed, even in life, Toussaint cultivated an air of mystery, the better to keep his allies on their toes and his enemies off their guard. Simplistic descriptions of his motivations or desires never seem to do the man justice, as his aims seemed to evolve along with a rapidly changing political situation. True to his chosen name, he continued throughout his life to find openings to advance the cause of the citizens of Saint-Domingue. He never, it seems, beat a straight course, but tacked back and forth to use the currents of history to his advantage.
Born into slavery in 1743, Toussaint grew up on Bréda Plantation, near Le Cap in the north of Saint-Domingue. As a boy, he was called Fatras Bâton, or "Walking Stick". Though skinny and undersized, he was strong and energetic. He had a natural affinity for animals and became a master horseman. He would also develop a keen knowledge of horticulture. There exists no definitive portrait of Toussaint, but he is widely reported to have been far from handsome, yet possessing of an irresistible charisma.
waz the beginning uv reality for me
in the summer contest for
who colored child can read
15 books in three weeks
i won & raved abt TOUSSAINT L’OUVERTURE
at the afternoon ceremony
belonged in the ADULT READING ROOM
& I cried
& carried dead Toussaint home in the book
he was dead & livin to me
cuz TOUSSAINT & them
they held the citadel gainst the French
wid the spirits of ol dead Africans from outta the ground...
Excerpt from: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf a stageplay by Ntozake Shange (1975)
There is a legend that Toussaint's father was Gaou-Ginou, an African chieftan of the Arada tribe from Dahomey (the current Bénin), and Toussaint is reported to have spoken at least some Aradas. However, it is probable that, as Toussaint claimed, his father was the man who many have written was his godfather, Pierre Baptiste Simon, an educated black slave. Regardless, Toussaint was blessed with an informal education and a kind master, leaving him somewhat sheltered from the horrific treatment that most black slaves received in Saint-Domingue.
At age 33, Toussaint was given his freedom. Toussaint married Suzanne Simone Baptiste Louverture and had two children with her. A few years later, he would rent a plot of land, to which were attached 13 slaves. Toussaint owned at least one slave himself, and would later give him his freedom.
Toussaint may have been involved in the planning of the Boukman Rebellion of 1791, but what is certain is that he joined the army officially very shortly after the initial revolt. First working as a doctor, Toussaint soon became a military commander, and his skill in battle would become legendary. He was both feared and respected by allies and enemies alike. Toussaint would maintain the highest moral and ethical standards throughout his campaigns.
Toussaint was not immune to the racial pressures of his day, though he did more than most in his time to promote equality. Indeed, he took extraordinary measures throughout his military and political life to treat all races equally and fairly, and the trust this engendered helped him solidify his control of the colony. However, when a regiment of mulattos defected to the enemy, causing him to lose a battle with the British at St. Marc, he vowed to never truly trust them again.
In August 1793, Toussaint used the name L'Ouverture, or, "The Opener of the way," in a document for the first time. The origins of the name are unclear, and several hypotheses seem plausible. One is that he was given the name for his uncanny ability to find and exploit openings on the battlefield. He might have given himself the name for similar reasons, or it may have started as a friendly taunt, referring to the gap in his teeth courtesy of a spent bullet. Whatever the origin, Toussaint dropped the apostrophe in short order and became simply Toussaint Louverture.
Having consolidated his control of the colony by (1799?), Toussaint set about securing its long term independence. He proposed a constitution that ensured equal treatment for all races (and made him governor-for-life). He negotiated informal trade agreements with Britain and the United States, and instituted forced labor policies intended to keep the colony's productivity high. It was during this period of relative peace and prosperity that Toussaint's power began to wane.
Toussaint was the Governor General of Saint-Domingue from April 1, 1797 to May 5, 1802.
Toussaint Louverture is betrayed by the French
Death certificate of Toussaint Louverture.
In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte sent his brother-in-law General Leclerc with an expedition of 20,000 soldiers and secret orders to retake control of the colony and to reinstitute slavery. Toussaint's rebel forces put up fierce resistance, ultimately causing Napoleon to commit 40,000 additional troops. Eventually, though, critical hesitations along with defections and betrayals within his officer corps led to Toussaint's surrender. Though allowed to retire from the field and return to civilian life, Toussaint was eventually betrayed, kidnapped, and taken to a prison in the French Alps. Upon leaving Saint-Domingue, Toussaint remarked to Daniel Savary, a French captain, : "In overthrowing me, you have cut down in Saint-Domingue only the trunk of the tree of liberty. It will spring up again by the roots, for they are numerous." He never saw his country again.
Toussaint Louverture died in Fort de Joux on April 7, 1803, unaware that his army would rally behind the leadership of his former general, Jean Jacques Dessalines, to win the colony's independence for good. After many hard-fought battles – the last of which was the Battle of Vertières – the newly liberated Haiti declared independence on January 1, 1804.
In 2003 the international airport in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince was renamed Toussaint Louverture Airport.
Lithograph by Maurin after a lost earlier drawing (1838).
What did Toussaint look like?
There are no definitive, surviving portraits of Toussaint, so no one knows for sure. Most who described him say he was not a handsome man, but had a powerful presence. Marcus Rainsford, for one, observed: ""He is a perfect black ... of a venerable appearance, but possessed of uncommon discernment. ... He wears as a uniform, a kind of blue spencer, with a large red cape falling over his shoulders, and red cuffs with eight rows of lace on his arms, and a pair of large gold epaulettes thrown back on his shoulders; a scarlet waiscoat, pantaloons and half-boots; a round hat with a red feather and national cockade; and an extreme large sward is suspended from his side."
What others have said about Toussaint Louverture
"At the head of all is the most active and indefatigable man one can imagine. One can definitely say that he is everwhere and above all in the place where sound judgement and danger lead him to believe that his presence is the most essential. His great sobriety and the ability given only to him of never resting, the advantage he has of going back to office work after a tiresome journey, of replying to a hundred letters a day and of habitually exhausting five secretaries." - Colonel Vincent, in a note to Bonaparte. (Parkinson, p. 84)
Beauchamp said "His political performance was such that, in a wider sphere, Napoleon appears to have imitated him." (Korngold, p. xi)
"Toussaint is a Negro and in the jargon of war he is also called a brigand. But we would like to say that this Negro who was born to avenge the outrage to his race has proved that the character of a man has nothing to do with his colour." - The London Gazette, 1798 (Parkinson, p. 84)
"Toussaint with a greatness of mind which was remarkable agreed to allow those French colonists who had sided with us to remain and promised to respect their properties; as it was known that this magnanimous black ever kept his word, no important exodus followed our retreat." - Sir Spencer St. John (Parkinson, p. 97)
"The [French Directory's Agent in Saint Domingue does nothing at present but what he is desired to do. The whole machine of Government, both civil and military, is regulated and guided by the General-in-Chief." - Edward Stevens, Consul General of the United States of America to Saint Domingue, in a dispatch to General Thomas Maitland, Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force to Saint Domingue. (Korngold, p. ix)
"He says a thousand rosaries a day in order to deceive everyone the better." - Georges Biassou (Parkinson, p. 77)
"Never did one know where he was, nor what he was doing, if he was leaving, if he was staying, where he was going, from where he was coming." - Pamphile Lacroix (Parkinson, p. 84)
"General Laveaux called him "the negro, the Spartacus, foretold by Raynal, whose destiny it was to avenge the wrongs committed on his race" (Rainsford)
"[T]he Spanish Marquis d'Hermona declared, in the hyperbole of admiration, that "if the Supreme had descended on earth, he could not inhabit a heart more apparently good, than that of Toussaint L'Ouverture." (Rainsford)
"The role which the great Negro Toussaint, called L'Ouverture, played in the history of the United States has seldom been fully appreciated. Representing the age of revolution in America, he rose to leadership through a bloody terror, which contrived a Negro "problem" for the Western hemisphere, intensified and defined the anti-slavery movement, became one of the causes, and probably the prime one, which led Napoleon to sell Louisiana for a song; and, finally, through the interworking of all these effects, rendered more certain the final prohibition of the slave-trade by the United States in 1807" (Du Bois, p. 70).
"Without military knowledge he fought like one born in the camp. Without means he carried on the war. He beat his enemies in battle, and turned their own weapons against them. He laid the foundation for the emancipation of his race and the independence of the island." (Wells Brown p. 104)