In honor of the current events in Haiti, “Legends” will carry the stories of the men who fought the French and won its independence at the end of the 18th century–beginning with Toussaint L’Ouverture.
by Yussuf J. Simmonds
“He led the Haitian Revolt making Haiti the first Black independent country in the Western Hemisphere”
Toussaint L’Ouverture was the apex of the triumvirate that included Jean Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe. They literally ran Napoleon’s army out of Haiti making that country the first black independent nation in the Western Hemisphere during the end of the 18th century and the turn of the 19th century. Haiti today is a footnote on the scale of developing nations; its people are at the bottom of the “food chain” and the conditions in the country are a scandal on the world stage. “How did this happened” became one of the great tragedies of human history.
Born Francois Dominique Toussaint, he gained historical recognition as “Toussaint L’Ouverture”–the “L’Ouverture” part of his name was bestowed upon him as a result of his freedom-fighting exploits later in his life. He was a self-educated slave who joined other slaves to fight for their common goal–their freedom and the establishment of a free country. He had no military training, or formal education but he possessed a passion for freedom, and an innate ability to organize. He was born on the island of Hispaniola on the Breda plantation between 1743 and 1746 having descended from the Arrada people of the Dahomey Coast, Africa. Toussaint was the oldest son of a slave brought to the French colony of Santo Domingo located on the eastern part of the island. At that time, the island was called “Hispaniola;” the name “Haiti” came later on. It was Toussaint who eventually brought Haiti into being as an independent country. His slave-master was one Count de Breda who originally named him Toussaint Breda. The master also encouraged young Toussaint to learn to read and write, a rarity for a slave-master.
Over the centuries, many European powers have fought over Hispaniola–the French, the Spanish and the British but it was the U.S. that eventually moved in and took over without firing a single shot. The other colonial powers had been worn out by the stubborn resistance that started since the days of Toussaint and continued on throughout future generations. In addition to learning the rudiments of the basic language (French), Toussaint also possessed an extensive knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs, which he learned from his father. (His father also taught him to hate the degradation of slavery). He became a steward to the Breda estate, a position usually held by whites. With the combination of being literate, knowing medicinal herbs and being a steward, Toussaint was relatively well off when compared to the average slave. According to colonial records, he was granted his freedom, given 13 slaves and 15 acres of land and allowed to grow coffee and sugar cane, as a surrogate plantation owner.
However, Toussaint preferred the simple life and as a devout Catholic, he got married to Suzan Simone. They had a son, Placide. Around 1789, while he was getting on with his life, the French Revolution was raging in France. It reverberated all the way across the Atlantic to Hispaniola where the French wanted to maintain its colonial stronghold. But the message of “liberty, equality and brotherhood” espoused in France could not be held back from the Black slaves in Hispaniola. When this declaration of the rights of all men was denied to the slave population, they revolted and in 1791, the rebellion swept the northern part of the island like a massive tidal wave. Toussaint then joined the rebellion and with his organizational abilities, skills and leadership, he became their leader.
At first, Toussaint was fighting the British and the Spanish who considered the sugar and coffee plantations on the Caribbean colonies, their “sugar shacks” and “money trees.” European ports were laden with ships from the Caribbean and the colonizers were determined to maintain Europe’s way of life on the backs of the slaves in their Caribbean colonies. But Toussaint saw the power and the wealth that rested on plantations and slaves, and the appalling cruelty that combination generated. By 1793, the movement in France appeared to favor the end of slavery in the French colonies and Toussaint agreed to help the French army eject the British and the Spanish. He became a brilliant tactician winning several battles while aligning with the French. But the French proved to be treacherous and cunning, and the relationship was short-lived.
t was because of Toussaint’s assistance, the French were victorious against the British and the Spanish forces, yet the French were not willing to grant freedom to the slaves, which was the primary reason that Toussaint had lent his expertise to them. His series of military campaigns became known as “L’Ouverture” or “the opening,” because he exploited openings in the defenses of the opposition. And Francois Dominique Toussaint then became known as “Toussaint L’Ouverture.” In addition to their treachery and deception, France sent more regiments to the island in furtherance their scheme to renege on the moderate terms of peace and freedom that were promised to Toussaint and his men. The French were contemptuous and they boldly proclaimed, “Did Toussaint think that they had brought half a million African slaves to the New World to make them French citizens?”
Ouverture’s leadership stood in the way of France’s colonial ambitions in the Caribbean and the Americas. Retreating from the French, the Spanish allied with the British and occupied the eastern part of the island called Santo Domingo. L’Ouverture, with the help of two Black generals, Jean Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe, then took on the French. With their assistance, he was able to capture most of the island by 1798 and secure the complete withdrawal of the British. Then in 1801, L’Ouverture moved in and took over Santo Domingo, which had been ceded to France by the British and the Spanish left when they left.
By then, the island became known as Haiti, and L’Ouverture reigned, ruled, and offered stubborn resistance to the French. In an effort to return their former slaves to servitude and save face at the same time, the French sold their largest land possessions to the United States (the Louisiana Purchase of approximately 828,000 square miles of land or about one-third of the eventual size of the U. S.) just to concentrate militarily on one small island of about 29, 500 square miles that they would eventually lose.
Haiti became the first and the only Black nation to be formed from a successful slave rebellion.
As leader of the nation, L’Ouverture organized a structured government and instituted public improvements. He was widely renowned, revered by Blacks and detested by Whites–the French and the Americans. L’Ouverture’s activities did not go unnoticed by the U.S., a country that was prospering off slaves and their free labor. In his book “In the Matter of Color,” author and noted jurist, A. Leon Higginbotham noted a French historian and politician who at that time wrote, “Thus it is that in the U.S., the prejudice rejecting the negroes seems to increase in proportion to their emancipation.” (These events apparently propelled Nat Turner’s rebellion as he attempted to follow the footsteps of L’Ouverture in Virginia).
L’Ouverture was appreciated for helping to restore the economy on the island but he still believed in hard work. The former slaves were no longer whipped because they were free men, and under L’Ouverture’s rule, they shared in the profits of the restored plantations. Though he preached reconciliation, he sought to learn the lessons of labor from the White slave-masters, minus the whips and the harsh treatment.
In L’Ouverture’s government structure, he dictated a constitution that made no room for any French official. And he made that absolutely clear. However, he considered himself a Frenchman since he spoke their language and had attained their culture. But the French government was not satisfied with him, and vowed to get rid of him. He was an obstacle to their restoration of Haiti as a profitable slave colony. So the French again sent troops to engage L’Ouverture and to take back the island. His troops fought the French, but some of his officers reportedly defected to the French and others went to his rivals, Dessalines and Christophe. L’Ouverture eventually signed a treaty with the French general, who gave him the assurance that there would be no return to slavery and he retired with his family to their farm.
Three weeks later, the French raided L’Ouverture’s farm, took him prisoner and shipped him to France on suspicion of plotting an uprising. Once in France, it was all over for L’Ouverture. He was imprisoned and aggressively interrogated. There, with failing healing, malnourishment and mistreatment, he died of pneumonia in 1803.
Later on the island was divided into two countries: Haiti and the Dominican Republic.