Toussaint L'Ouverture & the Haitian Revolution

Napoleon was one of the greatest generals who ever lived. But at the end of the 18th century a self-educated man who grew up enslaved and with no military training drove Napoleon out of Haiti and led his country to independence. The remarkable leader of this independence movement was Toussaint Breda (later called Toussaint L'Ouverture). 

It began in 1791 in the French colony of Saint Dominique (later Haiti). Though born into slavery in Saint Dominique, Toussaint learned of Africa from his father, who had been born a free man there. He learned that he was more than the horrific situation forced upon him, that he was a man with brains and dignity. Toussaint learned to read and write and read every book he could get his hands on. He particularly admired the writings of the French Enlightenment philosophers, who spoke of individual rights and equality.

In 1789, the French Revolution rocked France. The sugar plantations of Saint Dominique, though far away, would never be the same. Spurred on by such Enlightenment thinkers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, some early revolutionaries began to question the European use of slavery in the Americas. Those moderate revolutionaries were not willing to end slavery but they did apply the "Rights of Man" to all Frenchmen, including its Black and mixed race population. Plantation owners in the colonies were furious and fought the measure. Finally the revolutionaries gave in and retracted the measure in 1791.

The news of this betrayal triggered mass slave revolts in Saint Dominique, and Toussaint became the leader of the rebellion. He became known as Toussaint L'Ouverture (the one who finds an opening) and brilliantly led his army of formerly enslaved Haitians.

He successfully fought the French (who helped by succumbing to yellow fever in large numbers) as well as invading Spanish and British armies who attempted to suppress the rebellion as well.

By 1793, the revolution in France was in the hands of the Jacobins, the most radical of the revolutionary groups. This group, led by Maximilian Robespierre, was responsible for the Reign of Terror, a campaign to rid France of “enemies of the revolution.” Though the Jacobins brought indiscriminate death to France, they were also idealists who wanted to take the revolution as far as it could go.

So they again considered the issue of “equality” and voted to end slavery in the French colonies, including what was now known as Haiti.

There was jubilation among the blacks in Haiti, and Toussaint agreed to help the French army eject the British and Spanish. Toussaint proved to be a brilliant general, winning 7 battles in 7 days. He became a de facto governor of the colony.

In France the Jacobins lost power. People finally tired of blood flowing in the streets and sent Maximilian Robespierre to the guillotine, ending the Reign of Terror. A reaction set in. The French people wanted to get back to business. More moderate leaders came and went, eventually replaced by Napoleon, who ruled France with dictatorial powers. He responded to the pleas of the plantation owners by reinstating slavery in the French colonies, once again plunging Haiti into war.

By 1803 Napoleon was ready to get Haiti off his back: he and Toussaint agreed to terms of peace. Napoleon agreed to recognize Haitian independence and Toussaint agreed to retire from public life. A few months later, the French invited Toussaint to come to a negotiating meeting with full safe conduct. When he arrived, the French (at Napoleon's orders) betrayed the safe conduct and arrested him, putting him on a ship headed for France. Napoleon ordered that Toussaint be placed in a prison dungeon in the mountains, and murdered by means of cold, starvation, and neglect. Toussaint died in prison, but others carried on the fight for freedom.

Six months later, Napoleon decided to give up his possessions in the New World. He was busy in Europe and these far-away possessions were more trouble than they were worth. He abandoned Haiti to independence and sold the French territory in North America to the United States (the Louisiana Purchase).

 

L'Ouverture gradually established control over the whole island and used his keen political and military influence to gain dominance over his rivals. Throughout his years in power, he worked to improve the economy and security of Haiti. Worried about the economy, which had stalled, he restored the plantation system using paid labor; negotiated trade agreements with the United Kingdom and the United States; and maintained a large and well-trained army.

Though L'Ouverture died in 1803, the Haitian Revolution continued under his lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who declared independence on January 1, 1804, thereby establishing the sovereign nation of Haiti.

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