William Wells Brown - Toussaint L'Ouverture
Many of the planters sent their mulatto sons to France to be educated. When these young men returned to the island, they were greatly dissatisfied at the proscription which met them wherever they appeared. White enough to make them hopeful and aspiring, many of the mulattoes possessed wealth enough to make them influential. Aware, by their education, of the principles of freedom that were being advocated in Europe and the United States, they were ever on the watch to seize opportunities to better their social and political condition. In the French part of the island alone, twenty thousand whites lived in the midst of thirty thousand free mulattoes and five hundred thousand slaves. In the Spanish portion, the odds were still greater in favor of the slaves. Thus the advantage of numbers and physical strength was on the side of the oppressed. Right is the most dangerous of weapons--woe to him who leaves it to his enemies!
The efforts of Wilberforce, Sharp, Buxton, and Clarkson to abolish the African slave trade, and their advocacy of the equality of the races, were well understood by the men of color. They had also learned their own strength in the island, and that they had the sympathy of all Europe with them. The news of the oath of the Tennis Court and the taking of the Bastile at Paris was received with the wildest enthusiasm by the people of St. Domingo.
The announcement of these events was hailed with delight by both the white planters and the mulattoes; the former, because they hoped that a revolution in the mother country would secure to them the independence of the colony; the latter, because they viewed it as a movement that would give them equal rights with the whites; and even the slaves regarded it as a precursor to their own emancipation. But the excitement which the outbreak at Paris had created amongst the free men of color and the slaves, at once convinced the planters that a separation from France would be the death-knell of slavery in St. Domingo.
Although emancipated by law from the dominion of individuals, the mulattoes had no rights: shut out from society by their color, deprived of religious and political privileges, they felt their degradation even more keenly than the bond slaves. The mulatto son was not allowed to dine at his father's table, kneel with him in his devotions, bear his name, inherit his property, nor even to lie in his father's graveyard. Laboring as they were under the sense of their personal social wrongs, the mulattoes tolerated, if they did not encourage, low and vindictive passions. They were haughty and disdainful to the blacks, whom they scorned, and jealous and turbulent to the whites, whom they hated and feared.
The mulattoes at once despatched one of their number to Paris, to lay before the Constitutional Assembly their claim to equal rights with the whites. Vincent Ogé, their deputy, was well received at Paris by Lafayette, Brissot, Barnave, and Gregoire, and was admitted to a seat in the Assembly, where he eloquently portrayed the wrongs of his race. In urging his claims, he said, if equality was withheld from the mulattoes, they would appeal to force. This was seconded by Lafayette and Barnave, who said, "Perish the colonies rather than a principle." of the men of color, and Ogé was made bearer of the news to his brethren. The planters armed themselves, met the young deputy on his return to the island, and a battle ensued. The free colored men rallied around Ogé, but they were defeated and taken, with their brave leader, were first tortured, and then broken alive on the wheel.
The prospect of freedom was put down for the time, but the blood of Ogé and his companions bubbled silently in the hearts of the African race; they swore to avenge them.
The announcement of the death of Ogé in the halls of the Assembly at Paris created considerable excitement, and became the topic of conversation in the clubs and on the Boulevards. Gregoire defended the course of the colored men, and said, "If Liberty was right in France, it was right in St. Domingo." He well knew that the crime for which Ogé had suffered in the West Indies, had constituted the glory of Mirabeau and Lafayette at Paris, and Washington and Hancock in the United States. The planters in the island trembled at their own oppressive acts, and terror urged them on to greater violence. The blood of Ogé and his accomplices had sown every where despair and conspiracy. The French sent an army to St. Domingo to enforce the laws.
The planters repelled with force the troops sent out by France, denying its prerogatives and refusing the civic oath. In the midst of these thickening troubles, the planters who resided in France were invited to return and assist in vindicating the civil independence of the island. Then was it that the mulattoes earnestly appealed to the slaves, and the result was appalling. The slaves awoke as from an ominous dream, and demanded their rights with sword in hand. Gaining immediate success, and finding that their liberty would not be granted by the planters, they rapidly increased in numbers; and in less than a week from its commencement, the storm had swept over the whole plain of the north, from east to west, and from the mountains to the sea. The splendid villas and rich factories yielded to the furies of the devouring flames; so that the mountains, covered with smoke and burning cinders, borne upwards by the wind, looked like volcanoes; and the atmosphere, as if on fire, resembled a furnace.
Such were the outraged feelings of a people whose ancestors had been ruthlessly torn from their native land, and sold in the shambles of St. Domingo. To terrify the blacks and convince them that they could could never be free, the planters were murdering them on every hand by thousands.
The struggle in St. Domingo was watched with intense interest by the friends of the blacks, both in Paris 1 and in London, and all appeared to look with hope to the rising up of a black chief, who should prove himself adequate to the emergency. Nor did they look in vain. In the midst of the disorders that threatened on all sides, the negro chief made his appearance in the person of a slave, named Toussaint. This man was the grandson of the King of Ardra, one of the most powerful and wealthy monarchs on the west coast of Africa. By his own energy and perseverance, Toussaint had learned to read and write, and was held in high consideration by the surrounding planters as well as their slaves.
His private virtues were many, and he had a deep and pervading sense of religion, and in the camp carried it even as far as Oliver Cromwell. Toussaint was born on the island, and was fifty years of age when called into the field. One of his chief characteristics was his humanity.
Before taking any part in the revolution, he aided his master's family to escape from the impending danger. After seeing them beyond the reach of the revolutionary movement, he entered the army as an inferior officer, but was soon made aid-de-camp to General Bissou 2. Disorder and bloodshed reigned throughout the island, and every day brought fresh intelligence of depredations committed by whites, mulattoes, and blacks.
Such was the condition of affairs when a decree was passed by the Colonial Assembly giving equal rights to the mulattoes, and asking their aid in restoring order and reducing the slaves again to their chains. Overcome by this decree, and having gained all they wished, the free colored men joined the planters in a murderous crusade against the slaves. This union of the whites and mulattoes to prevent the bondman getting his freedom, created an ill feeling between the two proscribed classes which seventy years have not been able to efface. The French government sent a second army to St. Domingo, to enforce the laws giving freedom to the slaves; and Toussaint joined it on its arrival in the island, and fought bravely against the planters.
While the people of St. Domingo were thus fighting amongst themselves, the revolutionary movement in France had fallen into the hands of Robespierre and Danton, and the guillotine was beheading its thousands daily. When the news of the death of Louis XVI. reached St. Domigo, Toussaint and his companions left the French, and joined the Spanish army in the eastern part of the island, and fought for the kin of Spain. Here Toussaint was made brigadier general, and appeared in the field as the most determined foe of the French planters.
The two armies met; a battle was fought in the streets, and many thousands were slain on both sides; the planters, however, were defeated. During the conflict the city was set on fire, and on every side presented shocking evidence of slaughter, conflagration, and pillage. The strifes of political and religious partisanship, which had raged in the clubs and streets of Paris, were transplanted to St. Domingo, where they raged with all the heat of a tropical clime and the animosities of a civil war. Truly did the flames of the French revolution at Paris, and the ignorance and self-will of the planters, set the island of St. Domingo on fire. The commissioners, with their retinue, retired from the burning city into the neighboring highlands, where a camp was formed to protect the ruined town from the opposing party. Having no confidence in the planters, and fearing a reaction, the commissioners proclaimed a general emancipation to the slave population, and invited the blacks who had joined the Spaniards to return. Toussaint and his followers accepted the invitation, returned, and were enrolled in the army under the commissioners. Fresh troops arrived from France, who were no sooner in the island than they separated--some siding with the planters, and others with the commissioners. The white republicans of the mother country arrayed themselves against the white republicans of St. Domingo, whom they were sent out to assist; the blacks and the mulattoes were at war with each other; old and young, of both sexes and of all colors, were put to the sword, while the fury of the flames swept from plantation to plantation and from town to town.
During these sad commotions, Toussaint, by his superior knowledge of the character of his race, his humanity, generosity, and courage, had gained the confidence of all whom he had under his command. The rapidity with which he travelled from post to post astonished every one. By his genius and surpassing activity, Toussaint levied fresh forces, raised the reputation of the army, and drove the English and Spanish from the island.
With the termination of this struggle every vestige of slavery and all obstacles to freedom disappeared. Toussaint exerted every nerve to make Hayti what it had formerly been. He did every thing in his power to promote agriculture; and in this he succeeded beyond the most sanguine expectations of the friends of freedom, both in England and France. Even the planters who had remained on the island acknowledged the prosperity of Hayti under the governorship of the man whose best days had been spent in slavery.
The peace of Amiens left Bonaparte without a rival on the continent, and with a large and experienced army, which he feared to keep idle; and he determined to send a part of it to St. Domingo.
The army for the expedition to St. Domingo was fitted out, and no pains or expense spared to make it an imposing one. Fifty-six ships of war, with twenty-five thousand men, left France for Hayti. It was, indeed, the most valiant fleet that had ever sailed from the French dominions. The Alps, the Nile, the Rhine, and all Italy, had resounded with the exploits of the men who were now leaving their country for the purpose of placing the chains again on the limbs of the heroic people of St. Domingo. There were men in that army that had followed Bonaparte from the siege of Toulon to the battle under the shades of the pyramids of Egypt--men who had grown gray in the camp.
News of the intended invasion reached St. Domingo some days before the squadron had sailed from Brest; and therefore the blacks had time to prepare to meet their enemies. Toussaint had concentrated his forces at such points as he expected would be first attacked. Christophe was sent to defend Cape City, and Port-au-Prince was left in the hands of Dessalines.
With no navy, and but little means of defence, the Haytians determined to destroy their towns rather than they should fall into the hands of the enemy. Late in the evening the French ships were seen to change their position, and Christophe, satisfied that they were about to effect a landing, set fire to his own house, which was the signal for the burning of the town. The French general wept as he beheld the ocean of flames rising from the tops of the houses in the finest city in St. Domingo. Another part of the fleet landed in Samana, where Toussaint, with an experienced wing of the army, was ready to meet them. On seeing the ships enter the harbor, the heroic chief said, "Here come the enslavers of our race. All France is coming to St. Domingo, to try again to put the fetters upon our limbs; but not France, with all her troops of the Rhine, the Alps, the Nile, the Tiber, nor all Europe to help her, can extinguish the soul of Africa. That soul, when once the soul of a man, and no longer that of a slave, can overthrow the pyramids and the Alps themselves, sooner than again be crushed down into slavery." The French, however, effected a landing, but they found nothing but smouldering ruins, where once stood splendid cities. Toussaint and his generals at once abandoned the towns, and betook themselves to the mountains, those citadels of freedom in St. Domingo, where the blacks have always proved too much for the whites.
Toussaint put forth a proclamation to the colored people, in which he said, "You are now to meet and fight enemies who have neither faith, law, nor religion. Lot us resolve that these French troops shall never leave our shores alive." The war commenced, and the blacks were victorious in nearly all the battles. Where the French gained a victory, they put their prisoners to the most excruciating tortures; in many instances burning them in pits, and throwing them into boiling caldrons. This example of cruelty set by the whites was followed by the blacks. Then it was that Dessalines, the ferocious chief, satisfied his long pent-up revenge against the white planters and French soldiers that he made prisoners. The French general saw that he could gain nothing from the blacks on the field of battle, and he determined upon a stratagem, in which he succeeded too well.
A correspondence was opened with Toussaint, in which the captain-general promised to acknowledge the liberty of the blacks and the equality of all, if he would yield. Overcome by the persuasions of his generals and the blacks who surrounded him, and who were sick and tired of the shedding of blood, Toussaint gave in his adhesion to the French authorities. This was the great error of his life.
Vincent, in his "Reflections on the Present State of the Colony of St. Domingo," says, "Toussaint, at the head of his army, is the most active and indefatigable man of whom we can form an idea; we may say, with truth, that he is found wherever instructions or danger render his presence necessary. The particular care which he employs in his march, of always deceiving the men of whom he has need, and who think they enjoy a confidence he gives to none, has such an effect that he is daily expected in all the chief places of the colony. His great sobriety, the faculty, which none but he possesses, of never reposing, the facility with which he resumes the affairs of the cabinet after the most tiresome excursions, of answering daily a hundred letters, and of habitually tiring five secretaries, render him so superior to all those around him, that their respect and submission are in most individuals carried even to fanaticism. It is certain that no man, in the present times, has possessed such an influence over a mass of people as General Toussaint possesses over his brethren in St. Domingo."
The above is the opinion of an enemy--one who regarded the negro chief as a dangerous man to his interest.
Invited by the captain-general of the island to attend a council, the black hero was treacherously seized and sent on board the ship of war Hero, which set sail at once for France. On the arrival of the illustrious prisoner at Brest, he was taken in a close carriage and transferred to the castle of Joux, in the Lower Pyrenees. The gelid atmosphere of the mountain region, the cold, damp dungeon in which he was placed, with the water dripping upon the floor day and night, did not hasten the death of Toussaint fast enough. By Napoleon's directions the prisoner's servant was taken from him, sufficient clothing and bedding to keep him warm were denied, his food curtailed, and his keeper, after an absence of four days, returned and found the hero of St. Domingo dead in his cell. Thus terminated the career of a self-made man.
Toussaint was of prepossessing appearance, of middle stature, and possessed an iron frame. His dignified, calm, and unaffected features, and broad and well-developed forehead, would cause him to be selected, in any company of men, as one born for a leader. Endowed by nature with high qualities of mind, he owed his elevation to his own energies and his devotion to the welfare and freedom of his race. His habits were thoughtful; and like most men of energetic temperaments, he crowded much into what he said. So profound and original were his opinions, that they have been successively drawn upon by all the chiefs of St. Domingo since his era, and still without loss of adaptation to the circumstances of the country. The policy of his successors has been but a repetition of his plans, and his maxims are still the guidance of the rulers of Hayti. His thoughts were copious and full of vigor, and what he could express well in his native patois he found tame and unsatisfactory in the French language, which he was obliged to employ in the details of his official business. He would never sign what he did not fully understand, obliging two or three secretaries to re-word the document, until they had succeeded in furnishing the particular phrase expressive of his meaning. While at the height of his power, and when all around him were furnished with every comfort, and his officers living in splendor, Toussaint himself lived with an austere sobriety which bordered on abstemiousness. He was entirely master of his own passions and appetites. It was his custom to set off in his carriage with the professed object of going to some particular point of the island, and when he had passed over several miles of the journey, to quit the carriage, which continued its route under the same escort of guards, while Toussaint, mounted on horseback and followed by his officers, made rapid excursions across the country, to places where he was least expected. It was upon one of these occasions that he owed his life to his singular mode of travelling. He had just left his carriage when an ambuscade of mulattoes, concealed in the thickets of Boucassin, fired upon the guard, and several balls pierced the carriage, and one of them killed an old domestic who occupied the seat of his master. No person knew better than he the art of governing the people under his jurisdiction. The greater part of the population loved him to idolatry. Veneration for Toussaint was not confined to the boundaries of St. Domingo; it ran through Europe; and in France his name was frequently pronounced in the senate with the eulogy of polished eloquence. No one can look back upon his career without feeling that Toussaint was a remarkable man. Without being bred to the science of arms, he became a valiant soldier, and baffled the skill of the most experienced generals that had followed Napoleon.
Without military knowledge he fought like one born in the camp. Without means he carried on the war. He beat his enemies in battle, and turned their own weapons against them. He laid the foundation for the emancipation of his race and the independence of the island. From ignorance he became educated by his own exertions. From a slave he rose to be a soldier, a general, and a governor, and might have been king of St. Domingo. He possessed splendid traits of genius, which was developed in the private circle, in the council chamber, and on the field of battle. His very name became a tower of strength to his friends and a terror to his foes. Toussaint's career as a Christian, a statesman, and a general, will lose nothing by a comparison with that of Washington. Each was the leader of an oppressed and outraged people, each had a powerful enemy to contend with , and each succeeded in founding a government in the new world. Toussaint's government made liberty its watchword, incorporated it in its constitution, abolished the slave trade, and made freedom universal amongst the people. Washington's government incorporated slavery and the slave trade, and enacted laws by which chains were fastened upon the limbs of millions of people. Toussaint liberated his countrymen; Washington enslaved a portion of his. When impartial history shall do justice to the St. Domingo revolution, the name of Toussaint L'Ouverture will be placed high upon the roll of fame.
Note 1: The French anti-slavery group: Société des Amis des Noirs.
Note 2: Georges Biassou - See also: Toussaint letter to Biassou during Boukman Rebellion
- William Wells Brown - Dessalines - Wiliam W. Brown on Jean-Jacques Dessalines, from the same book.
- Wells Brown, William (1863). The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements. Chapel Hill, NC: Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH. Online Publication - p. 192-104