Biography of Toussaint Louverture, Haitian Revolution Leader

Statue of Toussaint Louverture in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
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François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture (May 20, 1743–April 7, 1803) led the only victorious slave revolt in modern history, resulting in Haiti's independence in 1804. Toussaint emancipated the slaves and negotiated for Haiti, then called Saint-Domingue, to be governed briefly by black former slaves as a French protectorate. Institutional racism, political corruption, poverty, and natural disasters have left Haiti in crisis for many of the succeeding years, but Toussaint remains a hero to Haitians and others throughout the African diaspora.

Fast Facts: François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture

  • Known For: Led a successful slave rebellion in Haiti
  • Also Known As: François-Dominique Toussaint, Toussaint L'Ouverture, Toussaint Bréda, Napoléon Noir, Black Spartacus
  • Born: May 20, 1743 on the Breda plantation near Cap-Français, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti)
  • Father: Hippolyte, or Gaou Guinou
  • Died: April 7, 1803 at Fort-de-Joux, France
  • Spouse: Suzanne Simone Baptiste
  • Children: Isaac, Saint-Jean, multiple illegitimate children
  • Notable Quote: "We are free today because we are the stronger; we will be slaves again when the government becomes the stronger."

Early Years

Little is known about François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture before his role in the Haitian Revolution. According to Philippe Girard's "Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life," his family came from the Allada kingdom of West Africa. His father Hippolyte, or Gaou Guinou, was an aristocrat, but around 1740, the Dahomey Empire, another West African kingdom in what is now Benin, captured his family and sold them as slaves. Hippolyte was sold for 300 pounds of cowrie shells.

His family now owned by European colonists in the New World, Toussaint was born on May 20, 1743, on the Breda plantation near Cap-Français, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), a French territory. Toussaint's gifts with horses and mules impressed his overseer, Bayon de Libertat, and he was trained in veterinary medicine, soon becoming the plantation’s chief steward. Toussaint was fortunate to be owned by somewhat enlightened masters who allowed him to learn reading and writing. He read the classics and political philosophers and became devoted to Catholicism.

Toussaint was freed in 1776 when he was around 33 but continued to work for his former owner. The next year he married Suzanne Simone Baptiste, who was born in Agen, France. She is believed to have been his godfather's daughter but may have been his cousin. They had two sons, Issac and Saint-Jean, and each had children from other relationships.

Contradictory Personal Traits

Biographers describe Toussaint as full of contradictions. He ultimately led a slave insurrection but didn't take part in smaller revolts in Haiti prior to the revolution. He was a Freemason who practiced Catholicism devoutly but also secretly engaged in voodoo. His Catholicism might have factored into his decision not to participate in voodoo-inspired insurrections in Haiti before the revolution.

After Toussaint was granted freedom, he owned slaves himself. Some historians have criticized him for this, but he may have owned slaves to free his family members from bondage. As the New Republic explains, freeing slaves required money, and money required slaves. Touissant remained a victim of the same exploitative system he'd joined to free his family. But as he returned to the Bréda plantation, abolitionists began gaining ground, convincing King Louis the XVI to give slaves the right to appeal if their overlords subjected them to brutality.

Before the Revolution

Before the slaves rose in revolt, Haiti was one of the most profitable slave colonies in the world. About 500,000 slaves worked on its sugar and coffee plantations, which produced a significant percentage of the world's crops.

The colonists had a reputation for being cruel and engaging in debauchery. The planter Jean-Baptiste de Caradeux, for example, is said to have entertained guests by letting them shoot oranges off the tops of slaves' heads. Prostitution was reportedly rampant on the island.

Rebellion

After widespread discontent, slaves mobilized for liberty in November 1791, seeing an opportunity to rebel against colonial rule during the throes of the French Revolution. Toussaint at first was uncommitted to the uprising, but, after hesitating a few weeks, he helped his former master escape and then joined the black forces fighting the Europeans.

Toussaint's comrade Georges Biassou, who was leading the rebels, became the self-appointed viceroy and named Toussaint general of the royal army-in-exile. Toussaint taught himself military strategies and organized the Haitians into troops. He also enlisted deserters from the French military to help train his men. His army included radical whites and mixed-race Haitians as well as blacks, whom he trained in guerrilla warfare.

As Adam Hochschild described in The New York Times, Toussaint "used his legendary horsemanship to rush from one corner of the colony to another, cajoling, threatening, making and breaking alliances with a bewildering array of factions and warlords, and commanding his troops in one brilliant assault, feint or ambush after another." During the uprising he took on the name "Louverture," which means "the opening," to emphasize his role.

The slaves fought the British, who wanted control over the crop-rich colony, and French colonizers who'd subjected them to bondage. French and British soldiers left journals expressing their surprise that the rebel slaves were so skilled. The rebels also had dealings with agents of the Spanish Empire. Haitians had to confront internal conflicts that sprang from mixed-race islanders, who were known as gens de couleur, and black insurgents.

Victory

By 1795 Toussaint was widely renowned, loved by blacks and appreciated by most Europeans and mulattoes because of his efforts to restore the economy. He allowed many planters to return and used military discipline to force former slaves to work, a system that was virtually the same as the slavery he had criticized but ensured that the nation had sufficient crops to exchange for military supplies. Historians say he maintained his abolitionist principles while doing what was necessary to keep Haiti secure, intending to free the laborers and let them profit from Haiti's achievements.

By 1796 Toussaint was the leading political and military figure in the colonies, having made peace with the Europeans. He turned his attention to putting down a domestic rebellion and then set to work bringing the entire island of Hispaniola under his control. He wrote a constitution that gave him the power to be a lifelong leader, much like the European monarchs he despised, and to choose his successor.

Death

France's Napoleon objected to Toussaint's expansion of his control and sent troops to oppose him. In 1802, Toussaint was lured into peace talks with one of Napoleon’s generals, resulting in his capture and removal from Haiti to France. His immediate family members, including his wife, were captured as well. Abroad, Toussaint was isolated and starved in a fortress in the Jura mountains, where he died on April 7, 1803, at Fort-de-Joux, France. His wife lived until 1816.

Legacy

Despite his capture and death, Toussaint's biographers describe him as far savvier than either Napoleon, who ignored his attempts at diplomacy, or Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner who sought to see Toussaint fail by alienating him economically. “If I were white I would receive only praise,” Toussaint said of how he'd been slighted in world politics, “But I actually deserve even more as a black man.” 

After his death, Haitian revolutionaries, including Toussaint's lieutenant Jean-Jacques Dessalines, continued to fight for independence. They finally won freedom in January 1804, two years after Toussaint's death, when Haiti became a sovereign nation.

The revolution Toussaint led is said to have been an inspiration to abolitionists such as John Brown, who attempted a violent overthrow of the American system of slavery, and to many Africans who fought for independence for their countries in the mid-20th century.

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