RWBF:Chapter Five Section 1

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Toussaint Louverture’s life and his African roots are contaminated with myth, and many details are vague. His accomplishments, however, are far from obscure. With prodigious military cunning and diplomatic finesse, he harnessed the energy of the slave rebellion of 1791 into a full-fledged revolution that resulted in the independence of Haiti in 1804. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Haiti’s political and military leader at the time of independence, would declare that he “had avenged America”, but Dessalines was only running the last leg of the race that Louverture had begun. Louverture, having been both a master and a slave, wanted the revolution to accomplish more than establish a state without slavery. He attempted to create a society in which people of all colors and statuses could coexist peacefully. Unfortunately, this would never come to pass. Although Toussaint’s hopes of a multicultural republic may have been ahead of his time, he nevertheless set the stage for enormous social change in the Caribbean, in tandem with the enormous political revolution in France.

Early Life and Family

Toussaint Louverture was born on the Bréda plantation, near Le Cap in the northern province, as Toussaint Bréda. The exact year of his birth is not known. Historical evidence and claims made by Toussaint himself place his date of birth anywhere between 1739 and 1746. In any case, he was in his late forties or early fifties when the revolution broke out in 1791, making his military feats even more impressive.

According to Issac Louverture, who wrote two versions of a biography of his legendary father, Toussaint was the grandson of an African prince of the Arada nation of the Western Coast of Africa. The Arada were known as the “warrior tribe”—they were reputed for their cunning and ruthlessness in battle.

As a child, Toussaint was weak and sickly, earning the nickname of Fatras-Baton (“trash-stick”). Because he was too weak to work in the sugar cane fields, he was put to work with the livestock, and he proved to be a rather skilled veterinarian and horseman. He was educated by his godfather, Pierre Baptiste, who knew French, some Latin, and a little geometry. Toussaint almost certainly was taught to read and write under his godfather’s tutelage, though Toussaint always claimed that he had taught himself as an adult just prior to the revolution. He was neither a fluent speaker nor writer of French; he constantly relied on secretaries to write letters for him, and he resorted to Creole to express himself fully. Nevertheless, he impressed his contemporaries of all races by his exposure to the arts, sciences, and language. Toussaint was also raised extensively in Catholicism: his education in this area was so extensive that there is some speculation that he was owned by Jesuits before coming to Bréda.

Toussaint was freed in 1776, but even before that, he enjoyed special privileges and considerable authority while still in slavery. As a young man Tousssaint was promoted to a commandeur, essentially a slave manager on the plantation. He was also a coachman who routinely ran important errands for the manager of the plantation. In short, he was one of the highest, if not the highest-ranking slave on the Bréda plantation.

Toussaint did not marry until he was in his forties, but he did not suffer from a lack of romance. He was neither a physically attractive man, nor powerfully built, but his power must have made him a prize catch. Before he married his wife, Suzanne Baptiste, Toussaint had had four sons and four daughters out of wedlock. Suzanne had an infant son named Placide at the time of their marriage, which Toussaint claimed as his own. Whether or not Placide was really Toussaint’s son is just another of the many mysteries of Toussaint’s life. He would always insist that Placide was his legitimate son. Placide would later join his father in fighting off the French in Saint Domingue right before Toussaint was arrested and deported to France.

Toussaint had two other sons from his marriage: [[Isaac Louverture}Issac]] and Saint-Jean Louverture. Issac would refuse to fight against the French with his father and brother [[Placide Louverture}Placide]] when they invaded Saint Dominge, and he spent the rest of his life in France. He later wrote two separate accounts of Toussaint’s life: one anecdotal narrative of childhood memories of his father, the other a personal account of the invasion of Leclerc’s army.

Role in 1791 Slave Rebellion

Many commandeurs in the Northern Provence attended the secret meetings that preceded the slave rebellion. It's possible that Toussaint was a nondescript presence at one of these meetings, perhaps functioning as a preliminary instigator. During the first month or so of the revolution, he remained on the Bréda plantation. He was actually instrumental in keeping the sugar production going, to the delight of the plantation's owners. But suddenly, in the fall of 1791, he deflected and joined Biassou's rebel army. He initially served as a secretary, but then was given the position of "Médicin Général" (general doctor) because of his apparent skill with both African and Creole herbal medicines. He also seemed to have rudimentary knowledge in European medicine.

Toussaint clearly had a larger role in Biassou's army than tending to the medical needs of the soldiers. By late December 1791 he was acknowledged as a de facto general. He communicated regularly with Biassou, Boukman, and Jean-François, and had his own group of subordinate soldiers. This rapid (and probably self-bestowed) promotion was due to his cleverness, effective diplomacy, and resourcefulness. For example, a problem that frequently plagued the rebel army was short supply lines. Toussaint confronted this problem with a simple but effective tactic: the rebel slaves rolled boulders down on the European troops at a close range, and then raided them for supplies.

Another important source of supplies was the Spanish in Santo Domingo. Like Toussaint, the Spanish were pragmatic and opportunistic, and were all too willing to aid the rebellion in Saint Domingue. A blow to the whites in Saint Domingue was a blow to France's economic infrastructure, and Spain knew this. They drafted Toussaint, Biassou, and Jean François into the Spanish army in June 1793 in hopes of annexing Saint Domingue to Santo Domingo. In order to remain in the rebel leaders' good graces, Biassou and Jean-François were given the title of general (and promised with liberty), while Toussaint was a lower-ranking "maréchal du camp".

Toussaint gained much of his military power and diplomatic respect while fighting for the Spanish. He preferred to take territory and hold onto the North of Saint Domingue by diplomacy--but when he resorted to battle, he usually won. He was known for treating his white prisoners of war quite humanely, according to his Catholic teachings, a quality that pleased his Spanish commanding officers. As he had in Biassou's rebel army, he quickly rose in rank and wielded a great deal of autonomy, working more and more independently from the Spanish.

In the spring of 1794, Toussaint began having open conflict with Biassou, his commanding officer. By this time, Étienne Sonthonax, the commissioner sent by the Convention, had abolished slavery in the North. Spain was suffering military losses, possibly exacerbated by small insurrections withing the army that Toussaint may have instigated. It was becoming both politically and militarily unlikely that Spain would accomplish its goal of gaining the French part of Hispaniola. Étienne Laveaux, general of the French army, invited Toussaint to join the French side in May 1794. Toussaint accepted and left the Spanish with barely a second thought, just as he had left Bréda nearly three years earlier.

During the early stages of the revolution Toussaint made a concerted effort to be as unnoticed as possible. He was, in fact, just as influential in the revolution in the North as Biassou, Jean-François, and Boukman. Toussaint quietly built his power base during the early 1790s, so by the time Sonthonax freed the slaves in the North, he had already proven militarily and diplomatically that he was a force to be reckoned with, and encouraged the slave rebel leaders to fight with him.

Sources: Toussaint Louverture by Madison Smartt Bell. Without him, this article would not be possible. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution by Laurent Dubois