God's Image in Ebony - Toussaint L'Overture

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Portrait of Toussaint Louverture
The following is a biographical text, published in 1854, about Toussaint Louverture from the book: God's Image in Ebony: Being a Series of Biographical Sketches, Facts, Anecdotes, etc., Demonstrative of the Mental Powers and Intellectual Capacities of the Negro Race, edited by H.G. Adams.


WE need look no farther for a contradiction of the alleged inferiority of the Negro race, than the subject of this sketch. Here was a man--a true "image of God cut in ebony"--black, and all black; with no drop of other than African blood flowing in his veins; but one generation removed from the wild and savage state of an unreclaimed son of the forest and the desert; a man, too, who passed the first fifty years of his life in a state of slavery, which, although of a mild form, admitted of but few means and opportunities of mental improvement; and yet, by the mere force of the moral and intellectual powers within him, he achieved a greatness, little, if at all inferior to that of any white-skinned warrior or legislator of his own, or any other age of the world's history. If we were among those who would set up the military hero as the highest type of human excellence, we should probably find sufficient in the career of this Toussaint L'Overture to justify our largest meed of praise and admiration; he might indeed well be called the "Napoleon of the Blacks," only that his patriotism was purer, his aims more noble and unselfish, his heart far less hard and cruel, and his mind too benevolent and solicitous for the good of his fellow-men, to allow of the fall and appropriate application of such a title. Did we admit that the magnanimous ruler, the framer and administrator of just and wholesome laws, the calmer of unruly passions, the reconciler of conflicting interests, and the reducer of chaotic elements into harmonious and symmetrical order, were entitled to the highest pinnacle of earthly glory and greatness, then might we also claim for this erewhile chief of a black-skinned community a lofty place in the estimation of the world. But it is neither as the warrior nor to the legislator, great as he undoubtedly was in both these capacities, that we look upon Toussaint L'Overture with the greatest admiration. Rather do we prefer to view him in his social and domestic relations--as the attached and devoted servant, the tender and affectionate husband and father, the faithful friend, the strict observer of his promises and engagements, "the man who never told a lie," and scorned to act meanly or disingenuously even to an enemy. These are the traits in his character, we say, which it best pleases us to contemplate, although they are not those, perhaps, which have contributed most to exalt him in the eyes of the world at large--which have, by the blaze of his achievements, and the loud blast of his renown, been attracted to that beautiful island of St. Domingo, or Hayti, (the land of mountains,) as it was originally, and is now again usually called--that island which has furnished us with so striking an example of Negro capacity, both mental and physical, and shown that the black man is not a whit inferior to his fair-skinned brother, either in the qualities which win for him the esteem and affection of all true hearts, or in those which are generally allowed to constitute real greatness of character.

Let us take a brief survey of the career of this extraordinary man, and see if we can find it that which will establish his right to the lofty position in which, by almost common consent, he has been placed; he having been, as the "Biographie Universelle" states, the model upon which, as Dictator and General, Napoleon formed himself. We shall take up our hero's history at the very earliest period of which a record can be found, in order to show how little he was removed from the barbarous and savage state in which the African tribes unhappily exist. Gaou Guinou, king of one of the most powerful of these tribes, had a second son, who was taken prisoner in war by a hostile people, and sold, as is customary in these cases, to some white traffickers in human merchandise. These civilized (?) and Christian (?) merchants having a cargo of sable brothers and sisters to dispose of, brought them to the shores of St. Domingo, into which island a large annual importation of slaves was then taking place. The African prince was purchased by the Count de Noé, a French proprietor of an extensive plantation situated a few miles inland from Cape Francois. Here the royal slave was kindly treated, and seems altogether to have led as happy a life as one in a state of bondage could well do; he married a maiden of his own colour and country--a fellow-slave on the same plantation --and by her had eight children, of whom Toussaint, born May 17th., 1743, was the eldest. To the parent, as nothing very remarkable is recorded of him, we need make no further allusion; it is to the illustrious son that our attention must now be directed.

Here, in this "Queen of the Antilles," as Hayti has been poetically called, beneath the balmy sky and amid the luxuriant vegetation of the tropics, the Negro boy seems to have grown up to manhood without experiencing any of those hardships, and privations, and sufferings, to which the slave is most commonly exposed. It appears to have been a point of honour with most of the French proprietors of this island, to treat their Negroes with kindness and consideration, and hence they were held in more regard and affection than the haughty Spaniards, who occupied, by a more ancient tenure of possession, the larger portion of the island, and looked upon these colonists from France with aversion and distrust. Bayon de Libertas, the agent or manager for Toussaint's master, who is called in some histories the Count de Breda, was no exception to this rule, and verily he had his reward; for, although in the sanguinary war of races or colours which by and by deluged the beautiful island, his property was destroyed, yet was his person and family protected, and conveyed beyond the reach of danger, and the means furnished him, out of the wreck of the property, to establish and maintain himself in a land of peace and safety; and it was by Negro hands, obeying the promptings of a warm, generous, and grateful heart, that this was effected.

The weakly lad Toussaint, whose back had not been made to bow beneath the burden, nor lacerated with stripes; whose little strength had not been tasked beyond what it would bear; but who had been allowed to lie about in the sunshine, taking care of the cattle, and performing such light duties as best suited him, had grown up then into a strong and energetic man. Always thoughtful and serious beyond his years, he had early attracted the attention of M. de Libertas, who, as some authorities say, had him taught to read and write; but this is unlikely; for, with all their affability and kindness to their slaves, these French masters still looked upon them as an inferior order of beings, on whom it would be useless, if not dangerous, to bestow mental instruction. The most probable account is that the young Toussaint gained such slight elementary knowledge as he possessed from one Pierre Baptiste, a shrewd and intelligent Negro on his master's estate, whose naturally good abilities had been cultivated and improved by some benevolent missionaries. Be this as it may, certain it is that our hero did, during the season of his by no means heavy bondage, snatch a few sprigs from the tree of knowledge; and so rich was the soil of the mind in which he planted them, that when he cast aside his shackles, came forth from his prison-house, and stood before the world as the champion and director of his lately enslaved, but now free brethren, all were astonished at the abundance and maturity of the fruits there displayed.

The thoughtful and intelligent, though somewhat weakly Negro youth, had, we say, grown up into a sturdy man. Sober, honest, industrious, and religiously disposed, it was soon seen that he was one in whom dependence might be placed; he was first advanced to the office of coachman to M. de Libertas, whose entire confidence he enjoyed; he was then appointed to the responsible post of foreman of the sugar works, and he now thought it well to choose for himself a wife, in which choice he manifested his sense by preferring to mere personal attractions, the qualities which distinguish a good housewife and a faithful bosom friend. Here is a beautiful picture which he once gave of conjugal happiness and of simple earnest piety:--"We went to labour in our fields with hand clasped in hand; we returned in the same manner; scarcely did we feel the fatigues of the day. Heaven bestowed a blessing on our toil; not only we swam in abundance, but we had the pleasure of giving provisions to Blacks who were in want. On the Sunday, and on holidays, my wife, my relatives, and myself went to church. Returning to our cottage, after an agreeable repast, we spent the rest of the day in family intercourse, and we terminated it by a prayer, in which we all joined."

Surely, amid the toils of state and harassing cares of his after life, even in his hours of greatest triumph,--his scenes of short-lived power and prosperity, this good man must have looked back on such a picture, painted by memory, with a yearning regret, even although he gazed from the broad sunshine of freedom into the dark night of slavery; for that night to him had many beautiful stars, that beamed down in placid loveliness, and shed a mild radiance around his path, such as few behold who dwell there. But it was duty which called him forth; in the first place loyalty to the French King, whom he had never seen, nor was ever likely to see, but whom he had been taught to consider as the rightful claimant of his fealty and allegiance.

"True as the dial to the sun,
Although it be not shined upon,"

was that noble heart of his, even when his better judgment was obscured, and his strong reason fettered, by the doctrine of blind, unquestioning obedience to the powers that be, by means of which, and the iron grasp of tyrranous rule, it is alone possible to keep men in a state of slavery. Loyalty, we say, at first to the King of France, caused Toussaint to assume the upright attitude of a free man, and once in that position, it was not long before the conviction, which his previous reading had frequently suggested, flashed upon his mind, that freedom was as much the right of himself and those of his own colour, as it was of those fair-skinned declaimers about liberty and equality, who, in setting forth their famous declaration, that "All men are born and continue free and equal as to their rights," did not probably consider that the Negroes who were held in bondage in the various French colonies, were entitled to the benefit of its application. "All men" did not include them, because they were not men, being by nature placed below the lowest in the scale of humanity. Not so, however, thought the Negroes themselves; and when this declaration of the assembled representatives of the French people, uttered amid the bloody throes of a struggle for freedom such as the world never saw before, was proclaimed in St. Domingo, Toussaint felt that it was a grand truth, such as the human mind conceives and utters only when stirred to its most profound depths by those feelings and emotions which approach the nearest to inspiration; and he felt, too, that it was not a truth, but a specious and delusive fallacy, if it did not apply to himself, and his sable brethren, and to every being to whom God had given an immortal soul.

Miss Martineau, in her fine historical romance, "The Hour and the Man,"in which the character of Toussaint is no doubt correctly drawn, gives this revelation of the state of his mind, before the conviction, to which we have alluded, came like a ray of morning, and flashed light into its inmost recesses. This was soon after the breaking out of the Negro insurrection, which, commencing in a plantation contiguous to that belonging to Toussaint's master, had spread like wildfire through the colony, and involved the whole property of the French planters in one wide scene of ruin and devastation, amid which many of the owners and their families perished. In this insurrection Toussaint had refused to join, because he saw nothing great or worthy in the motives which prompted the rising of the slaves. He assisted his kind master to escape, and to save as much of the property as could be borne off and rendered available for future subsistence, and when he had made every possible effort to mitigate the evils attendant on the state of anarchy and lawless violence into which the French settlements in St. Domingo were plunged, and found that he could not stay the tide of revolution, he withdrew, with such of the Negroes as chose to accompany him, to the Spanish part of the island, and placed himself and his followers under the command of the Spanish general, who sided with the French royalists, and consequently, as Toussaint then considered, had a claim to his service and assistance.

Alluding to the sons of our hero, who, with all the ardour of youth, were commencing their course of military discipline, Miss Martineau says, "The strong and busy years on which they were entering had been all spent by him in acquiring one habit of mind, to which his temperament and training alike conduced--a habit of endurance. It was at this time that he acquired the power of reading enough to seek for books; and the books that he had got hold of were Epictetus, and some fragments of Fenelon. With all the force of youth, he had been by turns the stoic and the quietist; and while busied in submitting himself to the pressure of the present, he had turned from the past, and scarcely dreamed of the future. If his imagination glanced back to the court of the royal grandfather, held under the palm shades, or pursuing the lion-hunt among the jungles of Africa, he had hastily withdrawn his mind's eye from scenes which might create impatience of his lot; and if he ever wondered whether a long succession of ignorant and sensual Blacks were to be driven into the field by the whip every day in St. Domingo, for evermore, he had cut short the speculation as inconsistent with his stoical habit of endurance, and his Christian principle of trust. It was not till his youth was past that he had learned anything of the revolutions of the world--too late to bring them into his speculations and his hopes. He had read from year to year of the conquests of Alexander and of Caesar; he had studied the wars of France, and drawn the plans of campaigns in the sand before his door till he knew them by heart; but it had not occurred to him that while empires were overthrown in Asia, and Europe was traversed by powers which gave and took its territories, as he saw the Negroes barter their cocoa nuts and plantains on Saturday nights--while such things had happened in another hemisphere, it had not occurred to him that change would ever happen to St. Domingo. He had heard of earthquakes taking place at intervals of hundreds of years, and he knew that the times of the hurricane were not calculable; but, patient and still as was his own existence, he had never thought whether there might not be a convulsion of human affections, a whirlwind of human passions, preparing under the grim order of society in the colony. If a master died, his heir succeeded him: if the "force" of any plantation was by any conjuncture of circumstances dispersed or removed, another Negro company was on the shore, ready to re-people the slave- quarter. The mutabilities of human life had seemed to him to be appointed to the Whites--to be their privilege and their discipline; while he doubted not that the eternal command of the Blacks was to bear and forbear."

But then far across the waters came sounding that glorious declaration of universal liberty, which was to Toussaint like a voice from heaven proclaiming the freedom of his enslaved brethren. He at once saw that his loyalty had mistaken its object, and that in fighting against the republic, he had been but serving the cause of oppression and despotism: henceforward his course must be different. He resigned the high command which he held under the Spanish general, and was about to retire to the obscurity of private life, there to abide patiently until providence by some unmistakeable sign should call him forth to the work of establishing the full and entire freedom of his race; and for this sign he had not to wait. The greater portion of the Negroes who had acted with him as the allies of the Spaniards, also deserted the royalist cause; others flocked to him from all quarters; and Toussaint was proclaimed by common consent the General-in- chief of these dusky forces--the emancipator of the Blacks. And it soon became evident that a master mind was among them. Neither the Mulattoes, a powerful body in the island, who had refused to recognise the right to liberty of those whose skin was but a few shades darker than their own; nor the Spaniards, who then held possession of about two-thirds of the land, were able to stand against the power of the Negroes, organized and directed by this Toussaint L' Overture, (the man who made an opening every where,) as the French republican general, after he gladly accepted his alliance, admiringly called him.

Soon, under the firm, judicious, and temperate rule of the Negro chief, the island of St. Domingo began to assume an aspect very different from what it had lately presented. The devastated plantations, which had become overgrown with the rank vegetation, and converted into perfect wildernesses, were again brought under cultivation, on a system which ensured to the cultivators, no longer toiling for the profit alone of exacting masters, a sufficient remuneration for their labour, while it rendered a considerable sum for the purposes of government. The White and Mulatto planters were invited to return and take possession of their estates, under certain conditions of allegiance to the ruling powers, and of payment to their free labourers. Outrages were repressed, whether committed by Blacks or Whites, and a feeling of peace and security began to take the place of the universal terror and distrust which had lately prevailed. Wherever his presence was most required, there was the Negro chief, calm, yet energetic; resolute, yet gentle and urbane. Of all plots and conspiracies he seemed to be made aware by some mysterious intuition, and he was in the midst of the plotters, sometimes alone and unarmed, to subdue them by the dignity of his moral courage and mild persuasion; sometimes with an overpowering force, to awe them into submission.

The French commissioner deemed it expedient to make him Governor-general of the island, of which he was in fact King, long ere he had thrown off the yoke of France, and declared his independence of all foreign power. Spain retired from the contest with him, and gave up the possession of that large portion of the island which she had held ever since its first discovery by Columbus. The British, who had for some time maintained a footing there, were also obliged to evacuate their posts, and leave him undisputed master of the fortifications. An anecdote, which exhibits the character of Toussaint in so honourable a light that we cannot refrain from quoting it, is related in reference to this period of his career. General Maitland, who commanded the British forces, before he finally left the island, was desirous that an interview should take place between himself and the Negro chief, and for this purpose did not hesitate to visit his camp, and thus place himself completely in the power of those with whom he had lately been at mortal enmity. Nothing could show more strongly a perfect confidence in Toussaint's integrity; which confidence the event fully justified. The Black general had received from Roumé, the French commissioner, a letter urging him to take this opportunity of serving the government at home, by seizing the person of the British officer, who, while on the way to the camp, had some intimation of this. He proceeded, nevertheless, and having reached Toussaint's quarters, had to wait some considerable time before the Black chief appeared. When he did so, be bore in his hand two letters, which he requested General Maitland to read. One was the treacherous proposal from the commissioner, the other the answer to it, just written, and containing an indignant refusal to act in so base a manner. "I am" he said in conclusion, "faithfully devoted to the republic, but will not serve it at the expense of my conscience and my honour."

It was not long after this that he sent his two sons, Isaac and Placide, to France, that they might be there educated under the eye of the Directory, and serve as hostages for his good faith and fidelity; and what a return he met with for his misplaced confidence! Every means were taken to attach these youths to the interests of France, and when Buonaparte, urged, partly by the misrepresentations of the enemies of Toussaint and the Blacks, who had been obliged to leave St. Domingo, and partly, it seems more than probable, by jealousy of a growing greatness that might one day overshadow his own, determined on sending an expedition against the island, these sons of the Negro chief were sent with it, as instruments to be used in any way that might best conduce to the overthrow of their father's power and influence. Twenty-five thousand men, the flower of the French army, were embarked on board this squadron, of more than fifty sail, and the leader of the expedition, Le Clerc, seems to have been fettered by no just feelings, nor honourable scruples, in his dealings and negociations with the ruling powers of the colony. He had proclamations for the people, full of fine-sounding words which meant nothing, and false representations of the good intentions of the home government towards the colony and the Negroes, for the generals to whom Toussaint had entrusted the defence of the various divisions of the island, some of whom were induced to betray the trust reposed in them, and to join their forces with those of the invaders; and, as a last resource, he had well-trained Cuba blood-hounds, which he did not fail to use when opportunity offered, for hunting down such of the Negroes as could neither be threatened nor cajoled into a desertion of the cause of freedom.

The first sight of the formidable French fleet assured Toussaint of the determination of Buonaparte to crush or subdue himself and his adherents, and bitter indeed was the disappointment to his noble heart, to find that one on whom he had looked as the champion of liberty--whose meteor-like career he had watched with intense admiration, and to whom he had repeatedly sent fraternal greetings and proffers of service and devotion--that he, above all others, should put forth his powerful arm to dash to the earth the cup of liberty, of which the long oppressed African had just begun to taste. This, we say, was a sore blow to Toussaint; yet was he neither daunted by it, nor urged, by the menacing aspect of this new danger, into any acts of rashness or cruelty towards the Whites in the island. His strict injunction to his emancipated countrymen had ever been "No retaliation for former wrongs and sufferings," and his severest punishments had fallen upon those of his followers who disregarded this command. He had his own nephew, a promising young officer, shot, for no other fault than a show of lenity towards some Negro rioters, who, in the district under his command, had risen to revenge their old grudges against their cruel masters; and there is no doubt that he greatly weakened his influence with the Black leaders, by his mild and merciful bearing towards the Whites and Mulattoes. And this was the man whom Le Clerc, after he had in vain endeavoured by all the arts of diplomacy to deceive or intimidate, proclaimed an outlaw; obliging him to take refuge, with his family, among the mountain-fastnesses of the island, where, surrounded by devoted friends and followers, he might have set at defiance the whole power of the French army, until the climate, which was making fearful ravages among them, had wrought for him the work of deliverance.

After the war had been carried on for some time with great loss to the French, a truce was proffered by Le Clerc, which Toussaint, grieved to the heart at the miseries and ravages of war, gladly accepted. This led to a pretended treaty, by which the Negro chief was assured of the continuance of his governorship of the island, and the retention of their respective ranks to all the officers of his army. Le Clerc was to act simply as the French deputy, and to take such a share in the regulation of affairs as the former representatives of the mother country had been accustomed to do. L'Overture was to retire for awhile to one of his country seats, and seek that repose which he so much needed. This treaty was the cause of great rejoicing throughout the island; the Blacks and the Whites mingled together amicably; all set about repairing the ravages of war; smiles were on every face, and hope in every heart, except those which harboured treachery, and knew that the treaty was all a delusion. Having thus lulled to sleep the vigilance of Toussaint and his devoted friends, the French set about contriving how they might entrap the mighty African, whom they dared not seize openly, and take him, as the First Consul had commanded, a prisoner to France. Nothing more infamous than this order, and his whole treatment of Toussaint L'Overture, is recorded of Napoleon, dark and bloody as are the spots upon the escutcheon of his glory, and his brother-in-law, Le Clerc, was a fit instrument for the carrying out of his nefarious design. With the oath on his lips--"I swear before the Supreme Being to respect the liberty of the people of St. Domingo"--with which he had concluded the treaty, he was plotting in his heart how best to compass the overthrow of the man by whom that liberty had been achieved, and in whom the coloured population of the island, numbering at least nine-tenths of the whole, trusted for its continuance. He instructed General Brunet , one of his officers, to overcharge one of the divisions, or cantonments of the island with troops; this, as was expected, called forth a remonstrance from the inhabitants, and Toussaint was invited from his secure retreat to meet the French general, and arrange the affair in a manner satisfactory to all parties. Generously confiding in the professions of his pretended friends, he came to the spot indicated with the specified number of attendants, and while the conference was in progress, was surrounded by a superior force, led on by an Admiral of France--no doubt "an honourable man"--and he and all the members of his family that could be readily laid hands on, were made prisoners, and hurried on board a ship of war, which instantly set sail, and conveyed him from the shores of that beautiful island on which he had hoped to show to the world how peaceful, how orderly, how great and prosperous, might become a commonwealth of Negroes, properly governed and instructed.

Before we lose sight of St. Domingo altogether, and accompany the unhappy Toussaint to his bleak prison and grave among the Jura Mountains, in the land of everlasting snow, let us put together a few of the most important dates which stand as mile-stones on the road of his extraordinary career. His birth we have already said occurred in the year 1743, so that at the breaking out of the first insurrection of the Blacks, in August, 1791, he had reached the ripe age of forty- eight years. At the end of 1793, when the British made an attempt to obtain a footing on the island, we find him occupying a leading rank in the Negro forces, and beginning to exercise that influence over his countrymen which he afterwards employed to such good purpose. The Blacks were then, with few exceptions, anti-republican, although they for awhile held aloof from either of the two parties, which here waged almost as fierce contention, as that which was going on between royalty and and republicanism in the mother country. The royalist tendencies of the Negroes may perhaps be accounted for by the fact, that the great body of the French planters, against whom they had revolted, were declared democrats.

It may assist us somewhat in forming a right estimate of Toussaint's mental capacity, if we contemplate for a moment the discordant elements which he was presently to reduce to order and subjection. The state of parties--the conflict of interests and opinions--in St. Domingo was most strange and unprecedented. There were the Spaniards, looking upon themselves as, by right of discovery and antiquity of possession, the only true lords of the soil, with their proud chivalrous notions of "the right divine of Kings," and their haughty contempt of the people and institutions of to-day; these, of course, were royalists to the back-bone. There were the French planters, who sang revolutionary songs, and shouted "Liberty and equality! Down with tyranny!" and all that sort of thing, who yet had been in their time, and would fain be again, the greatest tyrants breathing; who were bitterly incensed against the Blacks for attempting to carry out the doctrines which they preached, and were watching their opportunity to bring them again under the yoke of bondage, and take a terrible vengeance for the losses and indignities which they had suffered in the late revolt, against what they called, and perhaps considered, "God-constituted authority"--this impious seizure of liberty, and presumptious assertion of equality. There were the Mulattoes, a mixed breed of every shade of blackness, both in heart and countenance; denied by the Whites the rights of citizenship, and hating them; the holders of considerable property, and therefore powerful in the island, for evil if not for good. These free men looked down upon the lately enslaved Negroes as something infinitely lower than themselves in the scale of humanity, treated them with contempt, and, when opportunity served, with cruelty; they injured and therefore hated them, and were heartily hated in return. There were the English, who are pretty sure to be found in troubled waters all over the world, adding to the confusion worse confounded by the thunder of their cannon and the rattle of their musquetry; they, of course, were Bourbonites, although they did not side with the Spaniards, who looked on their intrusion with jealousy, nor indeed with any other considerable party on the island, of which they had been urged to take possession by some of the French royalists, who had fled for refuge to Jamaica and other of our West India dependencies; and so they had come, although with a force miserably deficient, to see what sort of a chance they had. And last, though far from least, there were the Negroes, numbering about five hundred thousand, in all the delirium of newly acquired freedom, ignorant and rude, as men must be in a state of slavery, with their hatreds and animosities, the growth of generations of wrong and suffering, liable to be led or provoked into the commission of all sorts of follies and crimes. "It was at this moment," says an authority that we have consulted with much pleasure and advantage,* 1 "of utter confusion and disorganization, when British, French, Mulattoes, and Blacks were all acting their respective parts in the turmoil, and all inextricably intermingle in a bewildering war, which was neither a foreign war, nor a civil war, nor a war of races, but a composition of all three-- it was at this moment that Toussaint L'Overture appeared, the spirit and ruler of the storm."

Early in 1794, intelligence of the decree of the convention, confirming the abolition of Negro slavery throughout the French colonies, reached St. Domingo, and opened the eyes of Toussaint, who was then a lieutenant-general under the Spanish commander, to whom he had rendered signal service; having attacked and taken many strong posts held by the republican forces, and given occasion, by his activity and success, to the memorable saying of the French commissioner Polverel, Cet homme fait overture purtout--That man makes an opening every where--and adopted the name given him by common consent of Toussaint L'Overture. In 1795, occurred an insurrection of Mulattoes at the town of Cape Francois, the head-quarters of the French general Laveaux, who was seized and imprisoned by the insurgents. This afforded the Negro chief an opportunity of proving his devotion to the republic, to which he had but recently sent in his adhesion. He marched at the head of ten thousand Blacks to the city, then held by the Mulattoes, whom he reduced to submission, thus rescuing the French general from his perilous position, and reinstating him in his command of the colony, of which the Negro chief was soon after made Lieutenant-governor by Laveaux, who was not slow to discover and acknowledge his extraordinary capacity. "It is this Black," said he, "this Sparticus predicted by Raynal, who is destined to avenge the wrongs done to his race;" to which saying we may as well here add the admission made by another French general, Lacroix, who wrote an account of the Revolution in the island, in terms by no means favourable to the Negroes--"It must be allowed that if St. Domingo still carried the colours of France, it was solely owing to an old Negro, who seemed to bear a commission from heaven to unite its dilacerated members." In 1795, a new commission arrived from the mother country, and Toussaint was loaded with compliments and expressions of obligation for his services; and in 1796, Laveaux being obliged to return to France, the Black general was made Commander-in- chief of the French forces; thus the whole authority of the colony, civil and military, was placed in his hands.

For the next five years we find Toussaint managing, with singular ability and address, the discordant elements submitted to his control. A French biographer states, that "he laid the foundation of a new state with the foresight of a mind that could discover what would decay, and what would endure. St. Domingo rose from its ashes; the right of law and justice was established; those who had been slaves were now citizens. Religion again reared her altars; and on the sites of ruins were built new edifices." Whether the idea of a separation from the mother country was entertained by Toussaint during this period, we cannot say; for one so devoted to the interests of his race, and so well able to guide and govern them, it was very natural to conceive a wish, at least, to found an independent kingdom, where the full power and capacity of the Negro character, in a state of freedom and enlightenment, might be developed. We do not find, however, that he gave expression to such a wish, although he acted with perfect independence towards the French commissioners, and even sent some of them, who interfered mischievously with his government of the island, back to France, but thither also he sent his two eldest sons to be educated, and that did not look as if he entertained any designs of a rupture with the mother country. In 1801, however, rumours reached the colony that Buonaparte, who had never condescended to answer, except by vague messages, the several letters which Toussaint had addressed to him, contemplated the re-establishment of slavery in St. Domingo; and then we have the first hint of an independent government. An assembly of representatives from all parts of the island was convened, and the draft of a constitution carefully drawn up and presented to them, by which the whole executive civil power, and the command of the forces, was to be placed in the hands of a governor-general. Toussaint was to hold this office for life, and to nominate the first of his successors, whose term of rule was to be limited to five years. This constitution, which gave to St. Domingo a virtual independence, under the guardianship of France, was proclaimed on the 1st. of May, in the above year.

It was perhaps the news of this movement in the direction of freedom, which at once determined Napoleon to crush the power which might one day interfere with his ambitious designs. He had just concluded a treaty of peace with England, and having, as he told his minister Forfait, who remonstrated with him on the projected invasion of St. Domingo, sixty thousand troops that he wanted to get rid of, as they would be troublesome to him at home, he fitted out this expedition of ships, on board which there embarked, in addition to the fighting men, his sister Pauline, the wife of Le Clerc, the commander, and a great number of French noblemen and gentlemen, with their ladies, to share the rich spoils which they expected to take, and to revel in the glories and delights of a tropical clime. How many of them found a grave amid the sands and swamps of the island, carried off by the fever and the pestilence which at certain seasons prevail, it is not necessary for us to say. Of the troops, although repeatedly reinforced, but a wretched remnant returned to tell the tale of their discomfiture. The treacherous seizure of Toussaint and his family, exasperated the Negroes to a pitch of phrenzy; such of them as had been deceived into a coalition with the French, at once saw their error, and turned against them. There was no longer truce, but war to the knife; unheard of cruelties were perpetrated on both sides; and the struggle terminated in the total defeat of the French, and the proclamation of the independence of St. Domingo, or Hayti, the original name of the island.

And what became of Toussaint L'Overture, whom we left heavily ironed, and confined in a cabin, apart from his family, on board the French man-of-war? When he arrived in the harbour of Brest, a few moments only were allowed him to say farewell for ever to his wife and children. According to some accounts he was first taken to Paris, and confined in the prison of the Temple, and there meanly persecuted by inquiries about much treasure, which it was supposed he had buried in St. Domingo. Finding that he would not, or, as it really appears, could not, make any revelations on this head, Napoleon had him conveyed with great secrecy to a solitary fortress in the Jura Mountains, where, after an imprisonment of ten months, in a miserable dungeon, whose stone walls and roof were glassy and beaded with moisture, the strong constitution of this child of the tropics yielded to the wasting influences of cold, hunger, and confinement; and he died, as surely, and more cruelly murdered, than if he had been shot, or hanged, like the vilest criminal.

In the "Quarterly Review," No. 42., will be found an able and elaborate article on "The Past and Present Condition of Hayti," in which full justice is done to the character of Toussaint, as well as to that of Henri Christophe and others associated with him in the work of delivering his race from bondage. This Christophe himself afforded a remarkable instance of Negro capacity, as did Dessalines, who shared with him for awhile the government of Hayti; but the good qualities of the latter were obscured by his sanguinary disposition, and intense hatred of the Whites. Of Toussaint's family nothing more is known than that they remained in France; his younger son died of decline soon after his father, and his wife in 1816; the second son, Isaac, wrote a brief memoir of Toussaint, which appeared in 1825.

A fine sonnet, penned by Wordsworth about the time of Toussaint's disappearance, will serve to show how his lot was regarded by the thoughtful and generous spirits of the period:--

"Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!
Whether the whistling rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon's earless den:--
O miserable chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee--air, earth, and skies;
There's not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee--thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exaltations, agonies,
And love, and Man's unconquerable mind."

Note 1: * Vide "Chambers's Useful and Entertaining Tracts," No. 57.

See also


  • Adams, H. G. (Editor). (1854). God's Image in Ebony: Being a Series of Biographical Sketches, Facts, Anecdotes, etc., Demonstrative of the Mental Powers and Intellectual Capacities of the Negro Race Chapel Hill, NC: Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH. Online Publication. (p. 15-31)