Liberator of Haitiby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
At one point in time, the island of Haiti was jointly owned by Spain and France, each claiming one half of the island as its colony. The climate there proved ideal for the growing of sugar cane, and soon the white people established large plantations. Originally, they utilized the forced labor of the natives. But these native peoples were soon wiped out by the new diseases unintentionally brought by the French and Spanish. Thus, Africans were imported to do the labor instead. But little was the world aware that this pattern of life in Haiti was soon to change. Soon after the birth of a child named Toussaint L’Ouverture, Haiti’s future was forever altered.
Francois-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture was likely born on November 1, 1743, though this date has been disputed. He was born into slavery on a plantation under the ownership of Count de Breda. Toussaint’s father, an African named Gaou-Guinou and probably a member of the Arrada tribe, had been deported from his native country and brought to the island of Haiti to labor as a slave on the lucrative sugar plantations of the white men. Toussaint was the oldest the eight children—five of which were boys and three of which were girls. However, in his formative years, Toussaint was allowed by the plantation overseer the rare privilege of learning to read and write. He soon began reading everything available to him. Authors of these books included Plutarch, Epictetus, Caesar, Saxe, and, especially influential in Toussaint’s life, Abbé Raynal. In addition, Toussaint was raised in the beliefs of Roman Catholicism, the official religion of the island. Throughout the rest of his life, his faith played an important roll in shaping both his actions and his personality. Toussaint possessed an innate skill for leadership, and this talent combined with his calm, but persistent, nature to create one of the greatest leaders of all time. Compared to most other slaves in the region, Toussaint was well off, serving as a coachman and house servant instead of toiling in the fields. Yet, good conditions or poor, he was still a slave, another man’s property.
But later on, Toussaint’s life changed drastically. By the age of approximately 33 Toussaint had gained his freedom, and just in time. For shortly thereafter, on October 30 in the year of 1791, the slaves of Haiti staged a massive revolt against the whites of the island. Believing that God wished slavery to be abolished and had called him to lead Haiti out of enslavement, Toussaint did engage in the revolt. But he acted as the doctor for the black army instead of joining the others in their ruthless massacre of the whites. In addition, before the insurrection, he helped his master’s family to escape the country safely. However, the revolt was eventually subdued and the slaves were once again subjugated to their former status. After the uprising was defeated, Toussaint remained in the French portion of the island, even though most of the other black leaders of the revolt fled to the Spanish side of Haiti and were given high-ranking posts. It was not until France turned from a monarchy into a republic that Toussaint is reported to have averted to the Spanish to help them in their conquest against the French. Toussaint experienced incredible success as a general, and soon, France desired him to return. And due to the February 4, 1794 abolishment of slavery by the National Assembly, Toussaint did return to the French’s aide. Having done so, Napoleon designated him Commander-in-Chief of the colony.
Upon his return to the French, he found several tasks awaiting him. First, the Spaniards were still attempting to gain control over the French portion of Haiti. So Toussaint, gathering an army supplied by the French Governor Polvenel, defeated the Spanish. The Treaty of Basel forced Spain to relinquish its holdings in Haiti, but promised peace between the two countries. Toussaint next set out to work against the internal discord of the country that divided the French peoples of different races and colors. In addition, Toussaint mustered another army and advanced against the British who had been encroaching upon French’s territory in Haiti. Leaving the British general Sir Thomas Brisbane safely trapped in Fort St. Nicholas, Toussaint began implementing a plan to replace the French white men who held political offices in Haiti with blacks by creating subtle excuses to send the white officials on assignments to France. Finally, even the governor had left, and Toussaint replaced him with a black man by the name of Raymond.
With peace now established and the entire island now under control, though only for a brief time, Toussaint began implementing social reforms and improving the country’s infrastructure. Racial discrimination was non-existent in Toussaint’s choices of advisors and governmental personal. He based his decisions solely upon a person’s ability to perform a needed task. Toussaint constructed roads, repaired forts, enhanced agriculture, restructured the country’s armed forces, built schools for the black children, and declared free trade throughout the country. However, in an effort to keep Haiti economically stable and prosperous, Toussaint invited the former plantation owners to return to the country and ensured them that the blacks would again work for them, but only for payment. Yet this was not satisfactory to the Africans and soon his people rose up against him, led by his own nephew. After he finished subduing this outburst, the island’s mulatto population (those of mixed blood) revolted under General Rigaud. Toussaint then turned to the United Sates for assistance, promising President John Adams that if the US would support him against the mulattoes, he would deny France the use of Haiti as a platform for maneuvers in North America. With the aid of American forces, the insurrection was soon defeated, and in 1800, Rigaud and his remaining men fled the country.
These social upheavals were again followed by a short time of peace, in which Toussaint undertook the writing and establishment of the country’s constitution. This constitution ensured liberty and equality for all peoples regardless of race or color. It also named Toussaint as governor of the country for life and provided him the right to choose his successor. However, this did not settle well with the now jealous French commander Napoleon. Enraged, in January of 1802 Napoleon sent an army of approximately 20,000 men under the command of general Leclerc against Toussaint, but did so under a pretext of peace. Toussaint, however, saw through these deceptions and gathered an army from among the Haitians. War ensued, and the death toll climbed high. But in the French camp this was more often due to the deadly yellow fever disease which many of the soldiers contracted. Yet, eventually, Toussaint’s forces were utterly exhausted and on May 5, 1802 he accepted a peace treaty with Leclerc which ensured Haiti’s independence and allowed Toussaint to retire to his estates in peace, provided that the fighting ceased. But treachery was afoot. Leclerc, under Napoleons orders, later invited Toussaint to a meeting where, despite Leclerc’s promise of safe conduct, the general had him captured, bound hand and foot, and put aboard a waiting ship. Toussaint was then transported to France and thrown into the dungeon of Fort de Joux in the Jura Mountains. And on April 7, 1803, Toussaint L’Ouverture died of apoplexy, pneumonia, and starvation.
After Toussaint’s death, Haiti was restored to French domination and slavery was re-implemented. Toussaint’s life seemed a failure—ineffective and useless. But as history now reveals, this was far from the case. The taste of freedom that Toussaint had enabled the Haitians to feel was not in vain. Just six months later, Napoleon, preoccupied with wars in Europe, relinquished his holdings in the New World. Having already lost thousands of soldiers in Haiti alone, the colonies proved too much work to be worth their keeping. So Napoleon allowed Haiti its independence and sold his possession of the western North American continent to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. Haiti’s independence is owed to Toussaint’s workings for freedom of both slaves and the country. Toussaint obviously had his own faults, and his life was not without mistakes and questionable regulations. Yet despite this, Toussaint’s life clearly was not lived in vain. His accomplishments remain visible even today. On the day of Toussaint’s birth, the world had no idea what kind of a man had been brought into being; but now this man will never be forgotten.
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J. A. Rogers, Great People of Color. (Soul School Institute), available at: <http://www.marcusgarvey.com/wmview.php?ArtID=523&page=1> December 18, 2004
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James Redpath, Publisher, 221 Washington street, 1863.) Available at: <http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/beard63/beard63.html> December 18, 2004