The Last Days Of Toussaint L'Ouverture

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Fort de Joux
The dungeon in which Toussaint Louverture died
Toussaint Louverture
French engraving from 1802.
Death certificate of Toussaint Louverture.
The The Last Days Of Toussaint L'Ouverture is an account by John Bigelow (1817–1911), editor (co-editor of the New York Evening Post ), author, and diplomat (US Consul in Italy), of a 1859 visit to the site of Toussaint Louverture's imprisonment and death on April 7, 1803: Fort de Joux. From the book Retrospections Of An Active Life. This also appeared in John R. Beard's book, Toussaint L'Ouverture: A Biography and Autobiography and was published in the New York Independent in 1861. (Beard p. 347)

Fort de Joux


I returned to Paris by way of Lausanne, for a look at the dwelling there to which Gibbon had given classic importance, and then I next took the somewhat unusual route over the mountains to Pontarlier. I wanted to get a view, if possible, of Mont Blanc from the heights of the Jura; to become better acquainted with the people of this department of France, whom of all the French I most admire; and, above all, to visit the famous Chateau de Joux, where Mirabeau was confined at the time he contracted his scandalous relations with Mme. de Monnier, the "Sophie" of his Vincennes correspondence, and where Toussaint L'Ouverture died, a victim to the treachery of Napoleon and the severity of an Alpine climate.

As the diligence passed under the Fort de Joux, the chief object of my pilgrimage before reaching Pontarlier, I dismounted, allowing my baggage to go on to the bureau de poste. The fort, now more than seven centuries old, stands upon the very summit of a solid rock about five hundred feet high, which descends very abruptly on all sides, and by its position at a defile in the mountains, commands the approach from every direction. With three hundred men it was impregnable in former times, notwithstanding which, in consequence of its great value as a frontier fortification, it has changed hands more frequently perhaps than any fortress in France outside of Paris.

I found a small garrison at the fort, consisting mostly of soldiers just returned from Italy, who were lounging about in the last stages of disgust with the monotonous perch to which they were condemned. A chatty old woman, who acted as concierge, promptly responded to my request to visit the castle, by running for her keys. She then led me over the portcullis, the ornaments of which showed that it was built before battle-ages and bows and' arrows went out of fashion, into the courtyard where the commandant resided. The first curiosity to which she invited my attention was the well of the castle, dug through the solid rock down to the level of the little river Orbe, which winds along the base of the hill, a depth of at least five hundred feet. My cicerone, to give me some idea of the depth of the well, threw in some stones, from which no sound or echo of any kind came up. This well was built for the use of the garrison during a siege, though in ordinary times they are supplied with water caught in cistern. It has not been used for many centuries, if ever; the citadel, when it has changed hands, having generally been betrayed, or shared the fate of battles fought elsewhere.

The well was built, my guide told me-and her information I have confirmed from other sources-by the serfs and vassals of the feudal proprietor of the fort, in the ninth century. She lowered her voice when she added that multitudes who went down to work in its abysses never returned to the light of day. Indeed, the tradition is that they were told when they were sent to their work that they were not to return till it was finished. They were obliged to dig large recesses at regular and convenient distances in the sides of the pit, as their excavations progressed, and these were their homes during their frightful imprisonment, from which most were relieved only by death.

Of all the dreadful shapes which "man's inhumanity to man" has ever taken, there are few which feed the imagination with more fearful visions of misery and despair than were reflected from this dark, impenetrable mirror, framed five hundred feet deep in granite. When I considered that all the enormities of which this structure had been the occasion and the theatre were perpetrated in the quest of water, in all ages and countries the consecrated emblem of truth, I was struck for the thousandth time with the resemblance which runs through all the forms of human perversity.

While pondering the question whether France had gained any more substantial advantage from her endless and sanguinary ecclesiastical wars than from the sinking of this dismal pit, which the dews of heaven, that fall alike upon the unjust and the just, made superfluous, my guide led me to another part of the fort, where she showed me an opening like a closet in the wall, about three feet deep and high, and perhaps four feet long. Here, she informed me, Amaury, one of the earliest proprietors of the chateau, confined his wife, a young woman of only seventeen years, for infidelity to him during his absence with the crusaders in the Holy Land in 1170. He hung her suspected paramour upon the mountain immediately opposite, and confined Bertha-that was her name-in this mural sepulchre, which was too small to admit of her standing erect or lying prostrate, or indeed of stretching her limbs in any direction. The only view of the outer world that she could get was through a little window, cut so that she could see the remains of her lover dangling from a distant tree. After some ten years of indescribable misery, death released her from her prison and from her brutal jailer.

The good old woman, who related this legend tearfully although I have no doubt she had told it a thousand times before-gave great force to her denunciation of the cruel crusader by adding that, "after all, Bertha was innocent."

Crossing the court and passing along the gloomy corridor of stone, I was next led to a door which, as my companion proceeded to unfasten, she informed me was occupied by the "naygre." It was the dungeon of Toussaint, first called "L'Ouverture" by a French officer, because of his military prowess in opening the ranks of the English soldiers with his sword during some engagement. Though of African origin, and forty-eight years a slave, he took advantage of the revolutionary troubles in France, and subsequent hostilities between France and England, to make the blacks of St. Domingo independent, and himself President for life. Bonaparte, who approved of the lead he took in saving the colony from the English, was solicited to approve the action of the Central Assembly which made him President. Toussaint's letter bore the following somewhat memorable but not altogether conciliatory superscription, "The first of the blacks to the first of the whites." Bonaparte's answer was taken out by Leclerc, his brother-in-law, and thirty thousand of the best troops in France, who issued a proclamation apprising the islanders that the French general had been sent out as the first magistrate and captain-general of the colony. Toussaint bade him and his master defiance, set fire to the Cape, retired to the mountains, and resisted the invaders with such success that at the end of eight months Napoleon's brother-in-law had but three thousand effective men out of the thirty thousand that had landed with him. Finding it impossible to conquer Toussaint, Leclerc invited him to a conference, under the usual pledges for his safety, and when in his power, regardless of his own honor or that of his master, or of the nation so gravely compromised by his conduct, he hustled the too confiding negro on board of a ship and sent him to France. After a brief confinement in the Temple at Paris, Napoleon ordered him to the Fort de Joux. The room which he occupied, and to which I was now introduced, is some twenty-five or thirty feet long, by, say, twelve broad. There was a fireplace on one side near the middle, but no furniture of any kind. Its walls were all of stone, and arched with stone overhead. Near the ceiling one end was pierced by a small window which admitted what light and air the inmates were expected to enjoy, but which seemed enough to keep the place sufficiently dry for habitation. On the mantel over the fireplace was the lower half of a skull, most of the brain-cover having been taken off, and resting on what remained, was the following avis, which my guide forbade my copying, as contrary to the orders of the commandant, and for a transcript of which, as for many other gratifying attentions, I was indebted to M. Girod, to whose archaeological and historical labors I have already made allusion

Toussaint L'Ouverture, who effected the enfranchisement of the negroes of his country, and in the day of his prosperity designated himself as the Bonaparte of St. Domingo, and who wrote to Napoleon, "The first of the blacks to the first of the whites," terminated his career in this casement of the donjon of Fort de Joux. It is pretended that he answered an aide-de-camp of the First Consul, who came to ask him where he had concealed his treasures: "Say to your master that I will die before he shall know anything from me."

The Chef de Bataillon Amiot, commandant of the Place du Fort de Joux, found him here in a corner of his fireplace struck with apoplexie foudroyante, the 17th Terminal, the year 11. Some days before his death he declared that he had buried 15,000,000 in the mountains by slaves whom he had destroyed.

I felt indignant at finding such a gross calumny as this upon the character of one of the bravest, and, according to his opportunities, one of the most remarkable men of his day, perpetrated by the authority of the Government; and when I was refused permission to take a copy of it, my inference was that those who placed it there knew that it was one of those lies that would not bear ventilation, and therefore kept it from the public, but left it to do what it could quietly to poison the minds of all who made the pilgrimage to his tomb. I was afterwards satisfied by M. Girod that I did the French Government injustice, at least in one respect, for he assured me that no orders to prevent copies being made of the paper on the mantel had ever been given to the concierge.

It is a shame, however, for the Government to perpetuate such an absurd scandal upon the memory of Toussaint as that he destroyed the slaves who helped him hide his treasures; for the story not only is supported by no evidence, but it lacks the first element of plausibility. That he may have said he had treasures buried in St. Domingo, and that he may have added, for the purpose of being sent back to find them, that there were no living witnesses of their burial, is not impossible; but it is preposterous to suppose that such a man as Toussaint would have perpetrated such a gratuitous crime, or, if he did, that he would have told of it, without any apparent motive.

This story to the prejudice of "the first of the blacks" is as unfounded as another which has been current ever since Toussaint's death, and which is generally credited in Hayti now; that he was poisoned by the orders of Napoleon, or at least upon the supposition that his speedy demise would gratify the Emperor. Even supposing there was some motive for getting Toussaint more completely out of the way than he was, which is hardly credible, the circumstances of his death are not matters of conjecture or suspicion, but of public record, and exempt the authorities of that day from any other responsibility f or his sudden death than naturally attaches to his treacherous arrest and removal in midwinter from the climate of the tropics, in which he had lived sixty years, to a bleak Alpine region, more noted than any other in France for the severity of its winters.

The day after his death two physicians of Pontarlier made an official examination of his remains, and certified that he died of apoplexy and pleuro-pneumonia. Their certificate, or proces verbal, as it is termed, is filed among the archives of the hotel de ville in Pontarlier, from whence M. Girod was kind enough to procure for me a copy duly authenticated under the seal of the mayoralty of Pontarlier. As this certificate had never been in print, and as it finally disposes of a very painful suspicion which is still widely credited, I give it entire.

Post-mortem Examination of Toussaint L'Ouverture

Copy of the Minutes of the Post-mortem Examination of Toussaint L'Ouverture

We, the undersigned, Doctor in Medicine and Surgeon of the city of Pontarlier, pursuant to the invitation of Citizen Amyot, Commandant of the Fort de Joux, and of Renaud, Justice of the Peace of the canton of Pontarlier, have gone to the said Fort de Joux, when, in their presence, we have proceeded to the opening and the examination of the body of the negro Toussaint L'Ouverture, prisoner, whose death yesterday we have verified.
Post-mortem Examination
A little mucus mixed with blood in the mouth and on the lips, the left lateral sinus and the vessels of the pia mater gorged with blood, serous effusion in the lateral ventricle same side, the choroid pleurus infiltrated and strewed with hydatids, the pleura adhering almost entirely to the substance of the lungs; sanguineous engorgement of the right lung, as well as of the pleura corresponding, but of a purulent nature in these viscera; a little fatty polypus in the right ventricle of the heart, which otherwise was in a natural state; emaciation of the epiploon-pathological state of this membrane such as it presents after a long sickness. The stomach, the intestines, the liver, the spleen, the veins, the bladder, exhibited no alteration.
In consequence, we declare that apoplexy 1 , pleuro-pneumonia 2, are the causes of the death of Toussaint L'Ouverture.

Made, and certified to be true, at the Fort de Joux, the 18th Terminal [Germinal], An. XI of the French Republic. [April 8, 1803]
(Signed) TAVERNIER, Doctor of Medicine.

Certified to conform with the original by us, the undersigned Secretary of the Mayoralty of Pontarlier.
PONTARLIER, 5th December, 1859.
(Signed) JACQUIT, etc.

Through the kindness of M. Girod I was enabled to derive from the archives of Pontarlier some further particulars respecting Toussaint's condition and treatment during his confinement here, which seemed worthy of exhumation. They are embodied in documents the originals of which I inspected.

The first simply acknowledges the notice sent to the prefecture of the department by the subprefect that Toussaint had arrived, and informs that functionary that the arrangements for the security of the prisoner are to be under the exclusive direction of the general in command of that division.

The second notifies the prefect that the Minister of Par had given orders that Toussaint should receive healthy and suitable food, and that he should be clothed suitably for the season, with the understanding that he must not wear a general's uniform.

The estimation in which their prisoner was held by the French Government, and the rigor of treatment to which they deemed it necessary to subject him, are revealed in the third letter from the prefect of the department to the subprefect at Pontarlier. The following extract from it might have been clipped, mutatis mutandis, from one of Governor Wise's heroic appeals to the chivalry of Virginia against John Brown:

I recommend you [he writes] not to lose sight of this important object. If any man imprisoned for the rest of his days, whatever the degree of his guilt, did not appeal to our humanity, I would say that this person, who is known only by his repeated perfidy, murders, pillage, incendiarism, and the most frightful cruelties, did not deserve any. But whatever be the opinion we ought to entertain of him, the orders of the Minister are precise. Toussaint must not see any person, nor must he be permitted to leave the chamber in which he is confined, under any pretext whatever. The guard of the fort should be set with the greatest exactness, and without the relaxation of vigilance. The General of Division only can modify the rigor of these orders, and I know he will not do it without being authorized by the Minister. The commandant must sleep at the fort, unless specially authorized to the contrary by his superiors. The supplies of the prisoner have been prescribed. They must not be exceeded upon any pretext. Every excess will be stricken off from the account.

The next letter, No. 4, was written immediately after receiving intelligence of Toussaint's death. In it the prefect says:

You will also please, on the receipt of this letter, make an inventory, in the presence of the Commandant d'Armes, of all the effects used by the prisoner, and sell them at auction to the highest bidder, after the customary notices. You will prepare a report of the sale for me, and remit the proceeds of it to the widow Benedict upon her receipt, deducting the sums due her for her supplies.

From these documents and others which I was shown it appears:

That Toussaint was guarded with unusual, if not excessive rigor, and that the view taken of his character and career at that time by the War Department, whose agent declared that if there was an exception to the rule that pity was due to the unfortunate, Toussaint was the exception, was very different from that which is taken of him now by the world, and indeed by the French themselves, who, through the mouth of the most inspired of their modern poets, have said of him, "Cet homme est une nation," and within fifty years after his cheerless death accepted the lesson of his life by striking the chains off every slave held under a French title.

They show that he was not poisoned, but that he died in all probability of a disease contracted in consequence of his involuntary removal to a colder and more intemperate climate than at his age-over sixty-his constitution, used to the warmth of the tropics, could endure.

It appears that he was abundantly supplied with fuel and artificial light, for in two months these supplies cost one hundred and fifty-six francs, which, M. Girod assured me, is a very large allowance, for wood then was much cheaper, he said, than at the then present day.

Whether he had a servant for a while after his arrival, and if so, whether a negro or a Frenchman, does not appear. From the general character of the instructions in reference to him, and in the absence of any special provision for the access to him of one of his own color, it is to be presumed that, if he was allowed a servant, it was a Frenchman.

It appears that he was allowed to write and have some luxuries, such as nutmegs, sugar, bath, etc. These, I presume, came out of the four francs a day allowed him from the first for board, washing and mending.

It is apparent, unfortunately, as M. Girod suggested, that, since the moderate sum of 128 fr. 70 c. was all that the effects supplied by the Government brought after only seven months' use, his wardrobe was not probably supplied as it should have been for such a severe climate.

And finally, it appears that a woman keep his apartment in order.

The order forbidding Toussaint to see any one not attached to the service of the garrison seems to have been unnecessarily rigorous, but it was probably aimed at Rigaud, Toussaint's ablest and most trusted aide in St. Domingo, who was captured very soon after his chief, and sent to the Fort de Joux, where he remained until after Toussaint's death, when he was released. They never saw each other, though sleeping so near together, after they separated in St. Domingo.

Upon the walls of Toussaint's apartment I was surprised to find but one inscription from the hands of visitors; that was the name of Catiline Nau, a man whom I remember to have met at Port-au-Prince in 1854, where he discharged the functions of an Assistant Secretary of State in the Department of Foreign Affairs, under Soulouque, and who had the credit, which I do not doubt he deserves, of having written the telling and statesmanlike dispatches of the Haytian Government in reply to the agents sent out by Fillmore and the English and French governments, many years ago, to compel the Emperor to acknowledge the independence of the Spanish or eastern part of the island. M. Nau is probably the only Haytian who has ever made this pious pilgrimage to the prison and tomb of the most renowned of African statesmen. M. Nau, I understand, has since died, much regretted by his countrymen, whose interests he carefully watched and tended during his life.

Toussaint's remains, consigned to a grave under the chapel of the fort, were discovered by a captain of engineers in 1850. The top of his skull, which had probably been sawed off at the time of the post-mortem examination, and replaced, he deposited in the city library of Pontarlier, where it was shown me by M. Girod, and the rest of the head stands on the mantelpiece in the room where Toussaint was confined and died.

Note 1: 1. Sudden impairment of neurological function, especially from a cerebral hemorrhage; a stroke. 2. An effusion of blood into a tissue or organ.

Note 2: Inflammation of the pleura and lungs; pneumonia aggravated by pleurisy.

See Also


  • Beard, J. R. (John Relly) (1863). Toussaint L'Ouverture: A Biography and Autobiography. Chapel Hill, NC: Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH. Online Publication
  • Bigelow, John (1909). Reflections Of An Active Life. New York: The Baker & Taylor Co. LCCN 09035935. Vol. I 1817-1868 (pp. 235-244)
  • Pleuropneumonia. (n.d.). The American Heritage Stedman's Medical Dictionary. Retrieved February 11, 2006, [1]
  • Apoplexy. (n.d.). The American Heritage Stedman's Medical Dictionary. Retrieved February 11, 2006. [2]