In terms of historic merit, the achievements of Haitian Revolution leader Toussaint L’Ouverture (pictured) are noteworthy but also highlight a complex and sweeping story. In many historic accounts, it has been written that L’Ouverture was a slave, but some writings prove he may have been born free. What historians across the board do agree on is that L’Ouverture led a rebellion to rid the country — now known as Haiti — of slavery. NewsOne celebrates the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, who was born on this day in 1743.
L’Ouverture was born Francois Dominique Toussaint on the plantation of Bréda at Haut de Cap in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). It was thought that L’Ouverture was taught to read and write by his godfather, Pierre Baptiste, and later from Jesuit missionaries.
According to various documents, L’Ouverture was freed from slavery in 1776 and remained a worker on the Breda plantation as an employee.
Saint-Domingue was an especially volatile colony, considering White planters, free people of color, and slaves all had differing aims in regards to the abolishment of slavery in the French colony. Inspired by the French Revolution of 1789, citizens of Saint-Domingue wanted the same opportunity to impart their independence from Revolutionary France; plantation slaves wanted to be treated equal as well.
The tensions among the groups inspired France to become involved from afar, and the country sent officials to the colony to stave off the impending revolt.
Georges Biassou was an early leader and general of the slave rebels, and Toussaint joined his forces in 1791 as a doctor and junior commander. General Biassou, like many other slave rebel leaders, fought alongside the Spanish forces based in Santo-Domingo (now Dominican Republic) in beating back the French forces. The following year, Toussaint changed his named to L’Ouverture (French for “opening”), which some writers say originated from his ability to make openings in the French military’s front lines.
L’Ouverture first believed that the French government should gradually lesson slavery in the colony as a fair approach, but because of the French Revolution and its results, L’Ouverture ended up fighting for the immediate ending of the practice.
French politician Léger-Félicité Sonthonax traveled to the island nation in a bid to stave off the revolution in Saint-Domingue, but later inconspicuously ended slavery in the colony to get the ex-slaves to fight for him and extend his control of rich lands held there.
Under pressure by the masses and the loss of life on either side, France ended slavery in February 1794, mostly due to the leadership of L’Ouverture.
Months later, Spanish forces were wary of L’Ouverture’s control and allegiance with the French. Consequently, many began to break away from his leadership despite its effectiveness, and L’Ouverture switched his allegiance to the French largely because he believed France was ending slavery based on his fighting for the country. L’Ouverture began fighting against his former allies, namely Biassou, who fought exclusively for the Black Spanish forces and was soundly defeated.
By 1795, L’Ouverture was seen as the reason slavery ended on the island.
Even with British forces trying to maintain their small hold, L’Ouverture was able to also push back their forces as France defeated Spain that same year thus leading to a peace treaty.
Many political machinations were afoot during this war, and L’Ouverture’s focus remained on restoring order in Saint-Domingue, even though many ex-slaves feared a return to their former treatment and began small skirmishes that disrupted progress.
Between 1796 and 1797, British forces that held coastal towns and land began to attack, but their forces were largely depleted due to an outbreak of yellow fever. L’Ouverture’s forces easily overtook them as a result, and by 1798, he commanded all of French Saint-Domingue aside from one state held by mulatto general André Rigaud. L’Ouverture clashed with the general in 1799, although his lieutenant Jean-Jacques Dessalines carried out the brutal assault against Rigaud and oversaw the slaughter of mulatto captive soldiers and citizens.
Napoleon Bonaparte, a military leader who came to power in 1799, created new laws for the colonies. Many feared a return to slavery but Napoleon promised to uphold French law so long as L’Ouverture would not invade Santo Domingo.
L’Ouverture proceeded anyway, defeating the small Spanish forces there, gaining control of the entire island.
General Charles Leclerc, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, ordered Napoleon’s troops to the island to strike a diplomatic deal to rule the island, although a secret plot to deport Black officers was in place.
A clash broke out between Napoleon and L’Ouverture forces, which led to a peace talk and eventual treaty in On May 6, 1802. L’Ouverture negotiated amnesty for his generals and agreed to retire to his plantation home. Shortly after, Leclerc betrayed the agreement and had L’Ouverture arrested and later deported. Leclerc originally asked Lieutenant General Dessalines to arrest L’Ouverture who later refused; the seizure of L’Ouverture was carried out by another general who pretended to be an ally.
Dessalines became the leader of L’Ouverture’s army and led the Haitian rebels to victory, beating Napoleon’s forces in 1803. That same year, L’Ouverture died in a mountain prison in France and warned his captors they would not be successful in silencing the revolution in Saint-Domingue.
Although Toussaint L’Ouverture’s life was often turbulent, he took necessary risks in seeking the emancipation of his people.
L’Ouverture’s fight for equal rights was instrumental in Haiti, with the island gaining its independence from France, proving that togetherness for a common cause is the only way change can truly be achieved.