Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803) - Biography

Toussaint louverture is a complex figure often considered today as the founder of the Haitian nation. Herald of the abolition of slavery and organizer of forced labor in sugar plantations, staunch supporter of freedom and initiator of a constitution which gave him quasi-monarchical power, claiming to be in the French sphere of influence but s 'arming with the English, beginning his career in the service of Spain before turning against his former allies ... A figure that should be known as she can be recovered for sometimes political ends because Toussaint sometimes appears as the Che of the early 19th century ...

Toussaint Louverture, a privileged slave

François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture is a black slave from Haiti born in 1743, the grandson of a small African chief from New Guinea. Compared to other slaves Toussaint enjoyed a somewhat privileged position since his freed godfather taught him the basics of medicine, reading and writing (all in all phonetics). As an adult, he is part of the minority of "grand case negroes" in the personal service of the owner or, where applicable, of his manager, Mr Bayon de Libertat who manages Bréda, a sugar refinery near Cap-Français. Toussaint serves as his master's coachman and enjoys what is called "freedom of the savannah", a de facto freedom authorized in the private sector but not formalized.

General Spanish, then French

In 1791 the wind of the French Revolution hit the Haitian coast and the slaves in the north of the island rose up. Toussaint joined them as a doctor and took part in the peace negotiations which failed in December due to the colonial assembly refusing to pardon the insurgents. Toussaint takes back the lead in the slave revolt by forming a small troop that he takes care of training.

On August 29, 1793, Spain, which owns half the island, declares war on the French Republic. The enemies of his enemies are his friends, Toussaint joins the Spaniards who appoint him general. He reinforced his troop with, among others, White defectors. At the end of the year he embarked on a victorious offensive which allowed the Spaniards to control almost all of the north of the island. Toussaint Louverture then feels the soul of the liberator and openly advocates the abolition of slavery! But suddenly the situation changes: Commissioner Sonthonax, representing the Convention, proclaims the abolition of slavery!

Toussaint finds himself in the paradoxical situation of fighting the French abolitionists alongside the Spanish and the English (who have just landed) slavers… He changes sides and rallies to General Laveaux. In 1796, becoming a division general, he became general-in-chief of the French army in Saint-Domingue. A brilliant strategist, he waged war against the English who were thrown into the sea in 1798.

The Potentate

At the end of 1799, envoys from the First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte came to confirm Toussaint Louverture in his command of the Saint Domingue army. They find that the whites have more or less rallied to Toussaint (without great conviction) and that the blacks do not generally recognize the officials of the metropolis. On the spot, those close to Toussaint never cease to brandish the danger of a massacre of white populations, a way of presenting him as the only bulwark capable of channeling his colleagues.

By persuasion, pressure or violence he dismisses the representatives of the metropolis.

Alone master, he launched out in the complete reconquest of the island and led a bloody campaign against the half-breeds of General Rigaud who could represent a threat. This campaign is marked by numerous summary executions. In 1801, under the threat of a massacre of the Whites, he pushed Roume de Saint-Laurent to sign an invasion authorization and he occupied the Spanish part and made himself sole master of the island. Although this invasion respects the Treaty of Basel of 1795, it could not but worry the metropolis, which saw the power grow in the hands of one man. By the time the information arrived in metropolitan France, the French and Spanish governments had agreed that this invasion would not take place ... It is too late. Roume was imprisoned by Toussaint who wrote to Napoleon: " Whatever slander my enemies have hurled against me in writing to you, I will refrain from any justification. »

Toussaint beats iron while it is hot, he knows that it is during this war that he will be able to forge his power with military force and a territorial base. He confiscated part of the income from the plantations to buy arms from the British and the United States. He confiscates abandoned plantations and hands them over to his lieutenants, creating around him a new elite out of slavery. However, if he fought well against slavery, Toussaint did not fail to immediately replace it with the forced labor of his black colleagues on the plantations. In 1800 the slavery lobbying tried to push Napoleon to restore slavery, but the latter was perfectly satisfied with this state of affairs, the question of the slave did not matter to him, as he wrote to the Council of State on August 16 :

« The question is not whether it is good to abolish slavery […]. I am convinced that this island would be for the English if the negroes were not attached to us for the sake of their freedom. They will make less sugar, perhaps; but they will do it for us, and they will serve us as soldiers, if necessary. If we have one less candy, we will also have a citadel occupied by friendly soldiers »

Potentate of Santo Domingo he established trade treaties with England and the United States and restored the economy of the island. He refuses General Michel who had been sent to serve as his second, the latter returns to France and remains measured towards Toussaint. He even asks Napoleon to write him a letter to rally him completely.

On July 8, 1801 he went even further by publishing a constitution which appointed him Governor General for life with the possibility of appointing his successor. Toussaint’s goal is to openly proclaim his membership in the French sphere and the abolitionist cause, while calling for a free hand and to establish personal power. In metropolitan France this can only be seen as a secessionist movement. Napoleon, could not allow this general to make Santo Domingo his private property, nor question his authority when peace with England perhaps left him with hope of re-establishing a colonial empire.

The Napoleonic counterattack

Napoleon launched an expedition on Saint-Domingue commanded by General Leclerc, his own brother-in-law. Leclerc goes to sea with 20,000 men and his mission is to bring Toussaint back into the fold of French interests, to maintain the abolition of slavery in the French part and to allow the return of the servile economy in the Spanish part. Moreover, Leclerc's expedition wants to be above all a force of intimidation, he has little interest in engaging in combat because he is outnumbered or at least in a fairly equivalent balance of power but on a ground to the advantage of the opponent. This expedition is viewed favorably by the British who are still afraid of independence movements in the colonies. Napoleon sends a letter to Toussaint where he flatters him and invites him to return to the right path:

« Assist the captain-general with your advice, your influence and your talents. What can you desire? Black freedom? You know that, in all the countries where we have been, we have given it to the peoples who did not have it. Consideration, honors, fortune? It is not after the services that you have rendered, that you can render in this circumstance, with the special feelings that we have for you, that you should be uncertain about your consideration, your fortune and the honors which await you [... ]. Rely on our esteem, and conduct yourself as one of the leading citizens of the greatest nation in the world should. »

Arriving in sight of the island (January 29, 1802) Leclerc made the daring choice to land his troops at several points on the island, thus dividing his forces but opposing Toussaint to various fronts in the event of a confrontation. Black generals like Christophe oppose his landing, the latter setting fire to Cap-Français before withdrawing. Once on dry land Leclerc wrote to Toussaint to come "enlighten" his army, receiving no response he declared him outlawed. General Rochambeau defeated Toussaint at the Battle of Ravine-à-Couleuvres and General Noir's army took refuge in the mountains to lead a guerrilla war coupled with a scorched earth policy. They hope in this way to wear down the Napoleonic army, which is severely weakened by tropical diseases (around 2,000 deaths from diseases in the first three months of the expedition). Leclerc must establish strict hygiene within the army so as not to see its troops melt like snow in the sun:

« The walks must be done with freshness when the circumstances allow it ... The man who feels uncomfortable must rest every other day, go on a diet and drink lemonade made up of water, lemon, sugar and sugar. 'a fifth of wine ... Avoid drinking pure spring water, always mix vinegar ... The anxiety and the disease of the country aggravate all the others here ... The gaiety, the activity, the he idea of ​​being useful to his country are the preservatives ... Refreshing drinks drunk in large quantities weaken; brandy and tafia drunk in excess cause fatal intoxication ... The fruits of the palmachristi castor oil plant and the mancenillier apples are violent poisons ... Excesses with women have the most disastrous consequences here; venereal diseases are almost incurable there. »

His letters also report the abuses committed by his adversary:

« You cannot imagine the horrors committed in this country. More than 1,000 whites, blacks or mulattoes were slaughtered by the orders of Toussaint, Dessalines and Christophe. In our expeditions we found more than 6,000 men, women and children whom they had taken with them into the woods and whom they were preparing to assassinate. »

While there is certainly a justification for intervening by denouncing the crimes of the enemy (with a probable element of subjectivity), these letters have the merit of giving an idea of ​​the atrocities committed.

Defeated in each confrontation Toussaint Louverture was forced to surrender on May 6, 1802. Leclerc chose to reinstate the Black generals in their previous functions. This decision allows Leclerc to calm things down with the Black officers (himself and his army being very weak) and to separate them from their leader, who must first withdraw to his plantation before being transferred to France.

The fall of Toussaint Louverture

He is on board the Hero. It was then that he would have said the famous phrase: " By knocking me down, you have only cut down the trunk of the tree of freedom of Santo Domingo; its roots will grow again, for they are many and deep ". This sentence was sometimes seen as a prophecy because it was so far-sighted. In August 1802, Napoleon re-established slavery and General Leclerc had to face a new uprising from the former companions of Toussaint Louverture. General Leclerc is totally disappointed: he who never ceased to assert the freedom of blacks finds himself forced to go back on his word, he finds himself in a veritable quagmire, an atrocious guerrilla war, moreover in a tropical climate. Taken by yellow fever he succumbs on November 2, 1802, giving way to General Rochambeau who, unlike his predecessor, did not hesitate to make widespread use of terror to achieve his ends: torture, packs of dogs trained for hunting. Black, summary executions and collective drownings which are reminiscent of the behavior of the Republic towards the Vendée troops in 1793. The result did not live up to his expectations however, the Whites ended up dissociating themselves from him, aware that 'such behavior jeopardized any future reconciliation, and when war resumed with England, Santo Domingo fell like ripe fruit.

As for Toussaint Louverture, he arrived in Brest on July 23, 1802: he was degraded and deported to France at Fort Joux (Doubs) in a climate that was not very hospitable to the man of the Caribbean. Badly heated, malnourished and poorly cared for, the one considered at the time as a traitor who never ceased to change sides died on April 7, 1803.

Through his struggle and his political control over Santo Domingo, Toussaint Louverture is today considered the father of the Haitian nation. His ashes were officially handed over by the French government to the Haitian government in 1983.


- Collective, Toussaint Louverture and the independence of Haiti, Editions Jacques de Cauna, 2004.

- Foix Alain, Toussaint Louverture, Folio biographies, 2007.

- Lentz Thierry, Consular policy in the Antilles, online article from the Fondation Napoléon.

- Mézière Henri, The Saint-Domingue expedition. Land operations (February-June 1802), Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien, n ° 440, April-May 2002.

Video: Toussaint L Ouverture (January 2022).