Louverture, Toussaint (1746?–1803)

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Louverture, Toussaint (1746?–1803)

Born a slave in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti), Toussaint Louverture (May 20, 1746?–April 7, 1803) died before he was sixty, a figure of international renown. He rose to power as a general and statesman during the Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804, which ended slavery in the Caribbean's wealthiest colony and created the Americas' second independent state. Toussaint's contribution to both these achievements, however, remains controversial, as does his role in the slave uprising from which they emerged.


According to a nineteenth-century memoir by his son, Isaac, Toussaint's father was an African of royal lineage. Toussaint learned the Aja-Fon language of his forbears as well as the local Creole, and he eventually acquired a basic command of French. He became a Christian and learned to read and, in middle age, to sign his name. Toussaint's experience of slavery was relatively benign; he worked first as a stable lad and then as a coachman. Living with his enslaved wife and children on the Bréda plantation until the slave insurrection of 1791, Toussaint was long assumed to be a member of the slave "elite" at the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution. Many of his contemporaries thought so, and this was the image he cultivated until his death. However, documents published in 1977 show that he had been free since before 1776 and that he had owned and rented both land and slaves, albeit in very small quantities. He was thus a propertied black freedman from the lower ranks of colonial society's free colored middle sector, like several other leaders of slave rebellions or conspiracies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Toussaint's familiarity with African, Creole, and European cultures helps explain his political acuity and versatility as a leader.


There have long existed two contradictory versions of Toussaint's role in the 1791 uprising, which was the largest slave revolt in American history. Some believe he secretly helped organize the uprising as an intermediary in a white counterrevolutionary plot against colonial democrats. Others argue that he was not involved at all, but instead belatedly joined the slave rebels' ranks and only in the course of 1792 emerged as one of their top military commanders. Like most insurgents, Toussaint joined the invading Spanish forces that in 1793 sought to seize Saint-Domingue from the French, and he immediately began to distinguish himself as a charismatic and cunning leader. Historians disagree to what extent Toussaint was a pragmatic opportunist or an idealistic visionary. In negotiations with the whites, he occasionally supported a compromise peace that would have forced most rebels back into slavery. Unlike other slave leaders, however, he did not sell black prisoners and non-combatants to the Spanish, and clearly he was not fighting for his own freedom. There is no proof that he championed a complete end to slavery before beleaguered French radicals in Saint Domingue took up the idea in August 1793. Yet it was about this time that he adopted the name L'Ouverture, with its cryptic connotation of a new beginning, and he soon became identified with the cause of liberty for all, even while fighting for the pro-slavery Spanish. In the spring of 1794, he transferred his allegiance to the French Republic around the time it officially declared slavery abolished.

During the following four years of constant warfare against Spanish and British invaders, Toussaint's ragged soldiers continually lacked for food, clothing, and ammunition. They suffered terrible casualties, but in the process, Toussaint forged a formidable army that eventually prevailed. The French made him lieutenant governor of the colony in April 1796 and commander-in-chief of its army the following year. At the same time, he deftly outmaneuvered the French officials sent to control him. In the bitter War of the South (1799–1800), the black leader drove out his erstwhile ally, André Rigaud, a free man of color and his last remaining rival. Ignoring French instructions, he then annexed the neighboring colony of Santo Domingo, which though ceded to France in 1795, was still administered by Spain. He thereafter ruled unchallenged the whole island of Hispaniola.


Most white colonists fled during the 1790s, and many of Saint Domingue's plantations passed into the hands of Toussaint's black officers, who sequestered abandoned property. Seeking to revive the plantation economy, Toussaint continued the French republican policy of compelling former slaves to continue working on the plantations in return for a share of the produce, and he used the army to impose labor laws that included the use of corporal punishment. The policy was unpopular, as the masses preferred to become independent peasant smallholders. They also resented Toussaint's purchasing Africans from slave ships to supplement the workforce that had been decimated in the revolution. With no export economy, however, there would be no revenue to maintain the black army. And without the army, the social gains of the revolution would be at the mercy of France's unstable politics. Toussaint also encouraged the return of white planters. Some say this was because he believed in a multi-racial future for Saint-Domingue in which he saw a role for European expertise; others regard it as disguised hostage taking, as many planters were not given their estates back.

While acting the role of loyal servant of France, Toussaint conducted his own foreign policy, signing in 1799 a nonaggression treaty with Britain and the United States, which were then at war with France. In July 1801 he angered the new head of state, Napoleon Bonaparte, when he promulgated his own constitution, which made him dictator for life. While maintaining the system of remunerated serfdom for former slaves, the document blended the egalitarianism of the French Revolution with some culturally conservative features reflecting Toussaint's piety. In politics, it anticipated Bonaparte's own military authoritarianism. Above all, it allowed France no effective role in the colony. Toussaint stopped short of declaring independence, perhaps because the provocation might have caused Britain and the United States to cut off the commerce on which his army depended. Or perhaps he was more interested in the substance of statehood than in its symbolism.

Bonaparte wanted to restore France's authority and then reintroduce racial discrimination and slavery. He sent a large military expedition that reached Saint Domingue in February 1802. Caught unawares and uncertain of Napoleon's intentions, Toussaint resisted but failed to rally his followers under the banner of independence. Defeated in a three-month campaign, he surrendered and was deported to France. He died in prison in April 1803 but left behind others who finally expelled the French and founded the state of Haiti.


In his lifetime, biographies of Toussaint were published in France, England, Sweden, and the United States. He was popular with France's enemies because he stood up to Bonaparte, and he was celebrated by abolitionists and radicals as a symbol of black accomplishment and antislavery. Generally vilified as sanguinary and duplicitous by French writers, he was an inspiration to enslaved and free blacks around the Caribbean. Some slave owners in the U.S. South praised him for his respectful attitude toward whites and for imposing forced labor on the former slaves. Modern biographers have variously depicted him as a revolutionary idealist, a black nationalist, or the first of many postcolonial dictators.

See alsoHaiti; Slave Revolts: Spanish America; Slavery: Spanish America.


Bell, Madison Smartt. Toussaint Louverture: A Biography. New York: Pantheon, 2007.

Geggus, David. "Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution." In Profiles of Revolutionaries on Both Sides of the Atlantic: 1750–1850, edited by R. William Weisberger. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. London: Allison and Busby, 1890.

Laurent, Gérard M. Toussaint Louverture à travers sa corre-spondance. Madrid: G. Laurent, 1953.

Pluchon, Pierre. Toussaint Louverture: Un révolutionnaire noir d'Ancien Régime. Paris: Fayard, 1989.

                                          David Geggus