Toussaint-Louverture was one of the most important leaders of the Haitian Revolution. He is generally considered to be the father of Haitian independence although he did not survive to see Haiti become free, and during his lifetime he claimed to be loyal to France.
Much of Toussaint’s early life is shrouded in mystery. He was probably born in 1743, a slave on the Bréda plantation at Haut-du-Cap near today’s Cap Haitien. There he was known as Toussaint Bréda. He served the plantation as a caretaker of livestock and a coachman, and was obviously a valuable slave who was treated with some consideration by his masters. He was allowed to marry Suzanne Simone before 1776, and they had three children. The estate manager, Antoine Bayon de Libertat, granted him his freedom, probably around 1774. By the 1780s he owned land and slaves and was a small-scale planter. He also served in the colonial militia. Haitian tradition holds that he went to Savannah, Georgia with the French army to fight in the American Revolution.
Toussaint, who knew how to read and write, became secretary to Georges Biassou (d. 1801), one of the early leaders of the slave rebels in Saint-Domingue’s north province shortly after the great uprising of August 1791. He brought military professionalism and ideological and political coherence to the slave rebels’ cause. After Biassou’s death, Toussaint became supreme commander and led his forces to victories over a wide variety of enemies. It was at this time that he took the surname Louverture. He first fought against the French revolutionary government alongside Spanish and French Royalist troops. When in 1794 the government in Paris abolished slavery, Toussaint switched sides, taking a good-sized Spanish force by surprise and wiping it out. Then, he fought British invaders and dissident Haitian rebels before taking control of the entire island by 1801.
As governor-general of the island, he set up a system of required labor service for the former slaves that tried to respect both the human rights of the agricultural laborers and the property rights of the land owners, and to ensure the supply of tropical produce for the French market. But his system was highly unpopular among the former slaves, who did not want to go back to working on sugar plantations after they had fought a terrible war for their freedom. They refused to work, and the Haitian army had difficulty forcing them. Production of sugar remained very low.
This setback led Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821), now the supreme leader in France, to decide that Toussaint’s liberty was not worth the price. Napoléon’s wife and brother-in-law both owned property in Haiti and wanted the old system restored, and Napoléon saw the abolition of slavery as one of the excesses of the radical revolutionaries that he was determined to reverse. When he sent an army in 1802 to overthrow Toussaint and restore the old system, Toussaint and a few of his soldiers fought the invaders, but most of his army obeyed Napoléon’s orders. The few resisters put up a tough fight but were finally defeated. Toussaint was arrested and taken to France, where he died in prison. Even as he was breathing his last, his former generals were becoming aware of Napoléon’s plans and plotting a new uprising. JeanJacques Dessalines, Toussaint’s lieutenant, led them in a terrible life-or-death struggle and won Haitian liberty on January 1, 1804.
Toussaint-Louverture became a symbol of freedom for blacks throughout the African diaspora. He inspired an 1802 sonnet by William Wordsworth, “To Toussaint Louverture,” which is considered one of the founding documents of English romanticism in literature as well as an inspiration to English abolitionists. He also inspired the African American artist Jacob Lawrence to make a famous series of portraits illustrating moments in Toussaint’s life. Lawrence’s art played a role in the great African American cultural renaissance of the 1930s and also inspired a re-evaluation of Toussaint in modern scholarship. With The Black Jacobins (1938) C. L. R. James attempted to make the Haitian Revolution fit the Marxist category of bourgeois revolution, but Toussaint somehow took over the book and became the idealized tragic hero. Subsequent scholarship refined James’s view, both by illuminating the repressive nature of Toussaint’s regime and by showing that Toussaint was a pre-revolutionary free colored plantation owner (and so more like the bourgeois James had signally failed to paint him as). However, modern scholars and Haitian national tradition still see him as a tragic, perhaps flawed, but essentially heroic figure who deserves to be considered alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, and Marcus Garvey as one of the great heroes of black liberation. Toussaint remains the tragic hero of the Haitian Revolution who wanted to make a just, multiracial society in the French empire and ended up inadvertently creating a black American republic, Haiti, which has been a dictatorship for most of its national existence.
SEE ALSO Haitian Revolution; James, C. L. R.
Bell, Madison Smartt. 2007. Toussaint Louverture: A Biography. New York: Pantheon.
Dubois, Laurent. 2005. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.
James, C. L. R.  1989. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage.
Stewart R. King