Toussaint Louverture

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Toussaint Louverture (May 20?, 1743 – April 7, 1803) (aka François Dominique Toussaint Louverture; aka Toussaint Bréda)

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 Fratras Baton, 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.

There is a legend that Toussaint's father was Gaou-Ginou, an African chieftan of the Arada tribe, 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. 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 completely trust their race again.

In August 1793, Toussaint used the name L'Ouverture, or "The Opening," in an official 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.

In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte sent his brother-in-law General Etienne 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. He would die 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 on January 1, 1804.

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."

A gallery of portraits of the man can be found at haiti-usa.org.

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)
  • Da Hermonas exclaimed, "If God descended upon earth he could find no one with a purer heart than Toussaint L'Ouverture." (Parkinson, p. 77)
  • "He says a thousand rosaries a day in order to deceive everyone the better." - Jean-Jacques 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)

References

  • Dubois, Laurent. (2004). Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-01304-2.
  • Geggus, David Patrick (2002). Haitian Revolutionary Studies (Blacks in the Diaspora). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-34104-3.
  • James, C.L.R. (1989). The Black Jacobins. Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. (2nd Ed., Revised) New York: Vintage Press. ISBN 0-679-72467-2.
  • Korngold, Ralph (1944). Citizen Toussaint. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. LCCN 44007566.
  • Parkinson, Wenda (1978). This Gilded African. London: Quartet Books. ISBN 0-7043-2187-4