François Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture

François Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture (1743-1803) was an outstanding Haltian military leader who controlled virtually all of Hispaniola for the French before Haitian independence.

Born into slavery on Plantation Bréda near Cap-Français (now Cap-Haitien), François Toussaint L'Ouverture was fortunate in having a kindly master who recognized his superior intelligence, taught him French, and gave him duties which allowed him to educate himself through extensive reading. Supposedly his favorite subjects were the military campaigns of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. Toussaint was already approaching his fiftieth birthday when the great slave revolt broke out in August 1791 near Plantation Bréda. After helping his master escape the slaughter, Toussaint entered the turbulent events of strife-torn Hispaniola, first by making a military reputation for himself.

With 600 black soldiers—former slaves—Toussaint crossed over to the eastern, and Spanish, part of Hispaniola, where he served with distinction in the Spanish colonial army, taking part in its campaigns against the French. During this time, his forces, organized and officered by French regulars who had deserted, steadily grew to a disciplined force of 4, 000 men. By mid-1794 Toussaint was ready for a crucial move.

The British, ever ready to harass France, had tried to take advantage of the confusion in Saint-Domingue (western Hispaniola) by sending troops to put down the slave revolt. Furthermore, they were concerned that the desire for freedom might spread to their nearby colony of Jamaica. At this juncture, Toussaint abandoned his Spanish allies and returned to Cap-Français, affording crucial strength to the beleaguered French garrison against besieging British forces. Toussaint defeated the British forces, freed the imprisoned French governor general, and with the help of Gen. Rigaud, an outstanding Haitian mulatto general, drove the English from Saint-Domingue.


Height of Power

By 1796 Toussaint was the dominant figure in the colony. Hero to his victorious soldiers and to all former slaves, he was respected as well by the resident French authorities. Toussaint now showed that his political instincts were on a par with his military abilities. Even at this date was evident the black-mulatto rift which is one of the chief characteristics of Haitian history. Though the mulattoes, led by Gen. Rigaud, had cooperated with the blacks against the British, many of the mulattoes really wished to reimpose slavery. Before 1791 they had been free and in many cases were substantial slaveholders in their own right. Their desire was to participate with the French in governing Saint-Domingue.

In a series of deft military campaigns and political moves, Toussaint completed the task of eliminating his opposition. First, Rigaud and the mulattoes were defeated. Toussaint then arranged for his nominal French superiors to be sent to Paris as colonial representatives to the French Assembly. Early in 1801 his army captured Santo Domingo, capital of the Spanish part of Hispaniola. Thus the whole island passed under Toussaint's control.

Toussaint also turned his energies to rebuilding the plantation economy, shattered as it was by a decade of strife. Ironically, forced labor was the only way. Many former planters returned as contract administrators, and by 1801 the colony again knew a brief period of prosperity. Nevertheless, Toussaint's days were numbered. The "First of the Blacks" was about to meet in Napoleon his equal in cunning and ambition.


Enmity of Napoleon

Napoleon's objections to Toussaint were both political and personal. Toussaint had used his friendship with the United States to loosen dependence on France and to negotiate with England. Furthermore, although Toussaint wanted to keep France at arm's length, Napoleon had ambitious plans to rebuild the French Empire. Louisiana was again passing from Spanish to French control, and a secure base in Saint-Domingue was the key to success.

In early 1802, Napoleon sent an army under Gen. Leclerc, his brother-in-law, to subdue Toussaint, deport him and his principal collaborators to France, and return the colony to slavery. Napoleon wrote to Toussaint, flattering him, asking him to assist Leclerc with his counsels, influence, and talents. Napoleon assured Toussaint that the French would not take away the freedom won by the former slaves and, further, drew up a proclamation to be published on Leclerc's arrival: "If you are told these forces are destined to ravish your liberty, answer: The Republic had given us liberty. The Republic will not suffer it to be taken from us."


War of Independence

In January 1802 Leclerc arrived off Cap-Français. He had hoped to be received without hostilities, but his desires were thwarted as Gen. Henri Christophe, Toussaint's local commander, put the city to the torch and retreated inland. Thus began the true Haitian War of Independence.

In spite of the presence in Leclerc's army of many hardened veterans of European campaigns, Toussaint initially performed well against these forces. But the coastal centers soon fell to the French, often with the complicity of their garrison commanders. A notable exception was Gen. Jean Jacques Dessalines. His strong support allowed Toussaint to retire inland with the bulk of his army intact. Finally, at Crête-à-Pierrot in March 1802 Leclerc's regulars overwhelmed Toussaint's forces, which had been handpicked and were led by Dessalines. In the north Christophe had surrendered to the French. By May Toussaint and Dessalines had also capitulated.

The end for Toussaint was fast approaching. Lured to Leclerc's headquarters by a dinner invitation, he was kidnaped and hustled aboard a waiting French warship; he died of cold and starvation in the fortress of Doubs, high in the Jura Mountains of eastern France, on April 7, 1803. In Haiti the revolt continued, and the following year Haiti proclaimed its independence.


Further Reading on François Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture

The best studies of Toussaint are Percy Waxman, The Black Napoléon (1930), and Stephen Alexis, Black Liberator (1949). An excellent source of information on Haiti is James G. Leyburn, The Haitian People (1955; rev. ed. 1966). Other useful works include C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins (1938); Selden Rodman, Haiti: The Black Republic (1954; rev. ed. 1961); and Charles Moran, Black Triumvirate: A Study of L'Ouverture, Dessalines, Christophe (1957).