TOUSSAINT LOUVERTURE (c.1743–1803), French general and Haitian political leader.
Legends maintain that on Toussaint (All Saint's Day), 1 November 1745, at a plantation owned by the Comte de Bréda, a first son was born to a former African king. In Catholic Saint-Domingue (as Haiti was known during the French colonial period), the slave child was christened François Dominique Toussaint. François Antoine Bayon de Libertat, the plantation overseer, saw only potential in the small, frail boy, and in a striking departure from convention, ensured that he became literate and solidly grounded in the Catholic faith. While Toussaint's equestrian skills earned him the exclusive position of driver and master of horses at Bréda, he also gained wide recognition among his fellow slaves as a master practitioner of herbal medicine—felicitous skills that would serve Toussaint well during the convulsions that lay ahead.
Battles for primacy between the white social classes and mulattoes characterized the French Revolution in Saint-Domingue, until the night of 22 August 1791, when tens of thousands of slaves throughout the colony's great northern plain revolted, torching cane fields and plantations, and massacring nearly every non-black they could find. After helping the Bayon de Libertat family to safety, Toussaint joined the rebellion, and by early 1793 was among the thousands of rebel slaves who had crossed into neighboring Santo Domingo, where the Spanish king offered freedom and promotion for black (and white) fugitives who would take up arms against French Republicans. Starting as physician and key advisor to slave leader Georges Biassou, Toussaint eventually attained the rank of brigadier with an independent command of more than 4,000 black troops—irregulars that he drilled into an extraordinarily competent fighting force. Throughout 1793, Toussaint's military talent became so well established that by August, he composed a general call to arms to the slaves of Saint-Domingue in which he referred to himself for the first time as "Louverture"—the opening.
"I am Toussaint Louverture, my name is perhaps known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want liberty and equality to reign in Saint-Domingue. I work to make them exist." (Toussaint to his "brothers and friends" in Saint-Domingue, 29 August 1793)
"By defeating me, one has only cut the trunk of the tree of Negro liberty in Saint-Domingue; it will rise again by its roots, for they are numerous and deep." (Toussaint from his cell in Fort de Joux)
For reasons that remain unclear, on 6 May 1794, Toussaint renounced his allegiance to Spain, declared for France, and quickly amassed a series of victories against his former Spanish and British confederates. In 1796, Toussaint rescued French Governor General Étienne Laveaux from imprisonment by disaffected mulattos; Laveaux reciprocated by appointing Toussaint lieutenant governor general of the colony. France's Directory followed suit, officially promoting Toussaint to division general, and naming him lieutenant governor general and commander in chief of armies of Saint-Domingue (2 May 1797). By November 1800, Toussaint was complete master of Saint-Domingue. He annexed Santo Domingo in February 1801, and in May, promulgated the island's first
constitution—a document that named him governor general for life.
Acknowledged as a protector to anyone, regardless of color, who would support his designs for a stable, resurgent Saint-Domingue, Toussaint exercised his authority to rebuild the devastated colony. He encouraged the return of émigré French planters and enforced labor decrees through martial law, but ensured that former slaves were compensated for their labor with one-third of the crops they helped produce. However, Toussaint's regime barely had time to accrue measurable successes before the colony was once again at war.
In December 1801, Napoleon I (r. 1804–1814/15) dispatched to Toussaint his most respectful greetings, along with a 21,000-man invasion force under the command of his brother-in-law, Captain-General Charles-Victor-Emmanuel Leclerc (1772–1802). Leclerc's secret instructions from Napoleon included orders to conciliate Toussaint and his leaders (promising anything in order to take possession of the colony), disarm the blacks, and then force their return to slavery. Ferocious fighting ensued until Toussaint and Leclerc concluded an armistice during which the black general was allowed to retire under protection to his estate. This reprieve was only a ruse; Toussaint and his family soon were abducted from their home and spirited away to France, where Napoleon had the general barbarously incarcerated in the dungeons of Fort de Joux in France's eastern Jura Mountains. Toussaint died the following year from exposure and neglect, while his wife and children simply disappeared. Fighting in Saint-Domingue continued until November 1803 when, abandoned by Napoleon and decimated by yellow fever and malaria, the pitiful remnants of the Army of Saint-Domingue surrendered to General Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758–1806).
As the result of Napoleon's ill-advised treatment of Toussaint and Saint-Domingue, France not only lost any chance to regain meaningful influence over its most lucrative former overseas possession, but also a potential staging base for regaining control of the Louisiana Territory. The impact on Haiti, however, was tragic. Minus Toussaint's unifying leadership, Haiti devolved into the 200 years of internecine fighting and corrupt administrations that characterize the country into the twenty-first century.
Fick, Carolyn E. The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below. Knoxville, Tenn., 1990.
Heinl, Robert Debs, Jr., and Nancy Gordon Heinl. Written in Blood: The Story of the Haitian People, 1492–1971. Boston, 1978.
James, Cyril Lionel Robert. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Rev. ed. New York, 1963.
James L. Haynsworth