Toussaint Louverture: Destiny and Contradictions

Born into slavery in the French colony of Saint-Domingue around 1740, Toussaint Louverture became a free man under the Old Regime.  He nevertheless joined the slave uprising in the colony in 1791, rising to become one of its leaders.  In 1794, he switched sides, joining the French; by 1798, he was the lawfully appointed governor of Saint-Domingue and an influential figure in France’s politics and international diplomacy.  After a contest of wills with Napoleon, Louverture ended his life as a prisoner in France.  Today, he is honored in the Pantheon, the French capital he never saw, whereas in his native Haiti, he is remembered as “the Precursor” who paved the way for Jean-Jacques Dessalines, “the Liberator” who proclaimed the country’s independence.

Legends surround Louverture’s early life.  His parents had been brought to the Caribbean as captives, and he was initially known as Toussaint Bréda, after the plantation on which he was born.  From an early age, he is said to have stood out because of his intelligence and determination.  Unusually for an enslaved man, he learned to read and write, became a staunch Catholic, and made a first marriage with a free Black woman named Cécile before he himself achieved free status.  In the 1770s, he briefly owned a small plantation and a few slaves, but by the time of the French Revolution, he was again working on the Bréda plantation, where his second wife Suzanne and children were enslaved.  His position as a coachman allowed him freedom to travel and to build up a network of contacts, some of whom would become important allies in his later career.

Although Louverture is often described as the leader of the slave uprising that began in August 1791, in fact little is known about his role in its early stages.  His name does not appear in documents until late in that year, when he was one of the signatories of a proposal for a negotiated settlement to the uprising.  By mid-1793, however, he was an independent military commander, although he was overshadowed by Georges Biassou and Jean-François Papillon, the recognized leaders of the insurrection.  Like them, he welcomed Spanish offers of arms and a position in the Spanish army and proclaimed himself a supporter of the Bourbons and the Church, even rejecting the first French offers of emancipation.  At some point in mid-1794, after the French revolutionary government proclaimed the abolition of slavery and the tide of war shifted in their favor, Louverture—he had adopted that name in August 1793—changed to their side, unlike Georges Biassou and Jean-François Papillon, who remained loyal to the Spanish.  Louverture and his troops played a crucial role in the struggle against the Spanish and British, and by mid-1796, when he put down a coup attempt against the French governor Etienne Laveaux, he was clearly the most powerful figure in the island.

Louverture pressured Laveaux and the civil commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax to return to France, and by the end of 1797 he was pursuing his own independent policies. He intervened in French politics by supporting the coup d’état of 8 Fructidor Year V and conducted his own negotiations with the British and Americans.  For economic reasons, he was determined to revive the plantation economy, which led him to issue unpopular labor regulations ordering the Black population to resume work on them, putting him at odds with much of the rural Black population.  In 1799-1800, he fought a brutal war with André Rigaud, a mixed-race general who dominated the south of the colony.  By this time, Napoleon had seized power in France.  The two strong-minded leaders eyed each other warily, Louverture recognizing that the new French ruler might try to bring back slavery and Napoleon fearing that Louverture might declare the colony independent. 

When Louverture defied Napoleon’s instructions by occupying the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo and issuing a constitution of his own, a clash became inevitable. As he prepared to meet a French invasion, Louverture brutally quashed an insurrection led by his nephew Moïse, thereby alienating many Black peasants. A  French military expedition commanded by Napoleon’s brother-in-law Charles Victoire Leclerc landed in Saint-Domingue in early 1802. The extent of Louverture’s role in organizing resistance to the French remains disputed, and part of the population, resentful of his authoritarian rule, did not support him.  After several months of bloody fighting, his principal generals submitted to Leclerc, leaving Louverture no choice but to do likewise.  He was allowed to retire to one of his plantations, but was taken prisoner in June 1802 and deported to France. Denied a trial, he was confined in the Fort de Joux in the Jura mountains, where he died in April 1803, leaving behind a memoir in which he defended his actions.

At the time of his capture, Louverture had prophesied that the French would be unable to force the Black population back into slavery.  As French troops succumbed to yellow fever, his former lieutenants resumed the struggle against them.  Under Jean-Jacques Dessalines’s leadership, they defeated the French and proclaimed the independence of Haiti at the beginning of 1804.  The saga of the one-time slave who had fought for freedom for his fellow Blacks and defied Napoleon captured the imagination of the outside world; by 1865, more than a hundred books about Louverture had been published.  In Haiti itself, he has often been criticized for his willingness to compromise with the white colonists, for his authoritarian policies, and for his failure to defeat the Leclerc expedition.  Nevertheless, the name of Toussaint Louverture is indissolubly linked to the story of the Haitian Revolution.  If he did not succeed in leading the country to independence, the period of his dominance unquestionably gave the Black population the experience and the confidence that enabled them to defeat Napoleon’s troops.

Published in june 2023
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