How he forced the abolition of slavery and built the first black republic
by Aidan Kiernander
In forcing the abolition of slavery in Saint-Domingue, and paving the way for an independent Haiti, Toussaint Louverture came to embody the very ideal of black heroism. He has been variously described as the Black Spartacus, an accolade he appreciated, the black George Washington and, ironically, the Bonaparte of the Caribbean. Latin American revolutionaries, South African anti-apartheid activists, US civil rights campaigners, and other anti-colonial activists saw him as an icon of liberation. His most authoritative biography casts him as “the first black superhero of the modern age”, and his influence endures. The Black Lives Matter movement argues, in a Louverturian vein, that racism is structural and systemic, and does not merely concern people’s views.
To its indigenous Taino people, the island of Toussaint Louverture’s birth was called ‘Ayti, the land of high mountains. Claimed for Spain in 1492 by a disoriented Columbus, Europe’s first colony in the Caribbean was renamed Hispaniola. In 1697, the western third of the island was ceded to France, and rechristened Saint-Domingue. By the late eighteenth century, this first port of call for ships arriving from Europe and the Americas, had become the jewel in the French imperial crown. Known as the “Pearl of the Antilles”, it was the most profitable slave colony in the world and, as the largest producer of coffee and sugar, it was more valuable than all British West Indian possessions combined. Bordeaux, Dieppe, Marseille, and France’s largest slave trading port, Nantes, were fabulously enriched by the strongest export economy of the Americas, and its freight of cotton, indigo and cacao.
The human cost of these luxuries was immense. With their existences circumscribed by the draconian Code Noir laws, which amounted to state terror, half a million enslaved African people laboured for 40,000 colons, the white settlers. Mortality rates on plantations soared, and the demand for fresh imports of human cargo was insatiable. At the Bréda estate, where Toussaint was born into slavery in about 1740, the life expectancy was just 37. However, Toussaint grew up in a revolutionary culture, and as a teenager witnessed the first major black revolt firsthand. In later life, he would cultivate an image of himself that echoed the enigmatic rebel leader, François Makandal, whose martyrdom had brought him immortality in the Vodou pantheon.
Battle lines were drawn in the Colonial Assembly between defenders of the Ancien Régime and champions of liberty, equality, and fraternity. All moral and political authority of colonial rule dissolved, however, when the distant Paris revolutionaries, faced with both trade lobbies and intransigent colons, failed to effect change in Saint-Domingue.
Toussaint was taught to read and write in French by Jesuit missionaries, who were uniquely trusted by the enslaved population. He was immersed in the West African Allada culture of his parents, and spoke kreyol, as well as fluent French. He embraced both Catholicism and the emerging Vodou religion, and this broad schooling, combined with conspicuous intellect and recall, set him apart as a youth, and drew divergent followers to him in adulthood. The adolescent Toussaint was an unequalled athlete and horseman, and was entrusted with the privileged position of coachman to his estate manager. Travelling the colony freely, acting in his master’s name as an effective right-hand man, Toussaint acquired a comprehensive knowledge of the island’s varied topography, and his signature self-assuredness.
The French Revolution shook the very foundations of Saint-Domingue’s established order. Battle lines were drawn in the Colonial Assembly between defenders of the Ancien Régime and champions of liberty, equality, and fraternity. All moral and political authority of colonial rule dissolved, however, when the distant Paris revolutionaries, faced with both trade lobbies and intransigent colons, failed to effect change in Saint-Domingue. Toussaint had been formally emancipated in about 1775, on the intervention of his avuncular estate manager, but was instrumental in the massive slave insurrection that erupted in indignation in 1791. Toussaint quickly emerged as a key figure in the rebel leadership. He inspired a fraternal esprit de corps in his military force, preaching enlightenment virtues and maintaining strict discipline. While massacres and executions were the hallmark of other commanders, Toussaint’s name became synonymous with magnanimity and restraint, even as far away as London and Paris. He prohibited pillage, and demanded scrupulous conduct towards captives, especially the colons – this despite thousands fleeing and working against the uprising from overseas. Toussaint’s unshakable belief was that the fates of whites and blacks were tied together inextricably, and that their prosperity was mutually dependent.
Slavery had finally been abolished by France in 1794, but upon seizing Martinique, St. Lucia and Guadeloupe the British had reinstated the plantation slave system immediately.
The execution of Louis XVI in 1793 was the casus belli that the slave owning classes of Britain and Spain needed to justify involvement in Saint-Domingue’s civil war. They had long coveted the colony, and were terrified the revolt might spread to their own. Spanish agents had assisted the slave uprising from the start, and initially Toussaint joined their auxiliary forces as a general, and captured significant territory from the French. His rapprochement only began once the British entered the fray. Toussaint had consistently advocated the abolition of slavery, and in his war against the British he and his multiethnic military inner circle intended to protect his population from re-enslavement. Slavery had finally been abolished by France in 1794, but upon seizing Martinique, St. Lucia and Guadeloupe the British had reinstated the plantation slave system immediately.
Toussaint waged a relentless campaign against the invading British forces. The daring, self-taught commander emboldened his troops by leading charges even when injured, and engaging the enemy hand-to-hand. Toussaint had dozens of horses killed under him, and was wounded seriously in battle 17 times. Lacking weapons and supplies, he displayed originality as a military strategist, relying heavily on surprise and psychological warfare. Incessant drumming, and attacks launched during thunderstorms, repeatedly sent British troops fleeing. Despite great privations, such as going without food for days, or having to fight completely naked, Toussaint’s forces frequently turned great victories from positions of numerical or tactical disadvantage. Forced to use ammunition sparingly, they often resorted to pelting the enemy with stones. After five years, Toussaint finally forced the British (who had lost 15,000 men, and spent £10 million) to sign a humiliating armistice, and evacuate all positions on the island.
The commander-in-chief was an optimist and a pragmatist, believing that with time, education, and stability, his dream of a multiracial republic could be realised. Having secured Saint-Domingue, he compromised with the remaining colons, and sought a broad coalition to reverse the economic ruin of the civil war. He developed Masonic, charitable, and religious networks across the colony to compliment the municipal institutions. He provided primary schools, and free education for eight-to-fifteen-year-olds, as well as approving popular democratic assemblies, and a female brigade of supporters. Economically, he steered farming from subsistence to commodity crops, and banned the export of mahogany to prevent overlogging. Having wooed American traders who recognised the colony’s potential, Toussaint believed it would even be possible to set a different relationship with France.
Last year, Haiti’s GDP shrank by four per cent, and its Human Development Index ranking was 170 out of 189 countries. It is difficult not to attribute Haiti’s recurrent episodes of institutional and political instability to the legacy of colonialism.
Toussaint’s undoing was his disastrous relationship with Napoleon Bonaparte, who was now First Consul. Napoleon’s suspicions that Toussaint intended to secede were assuaged by his supporters in Paris, who maintained that he was by far the most ardent defender of French interests in the colony. However, Napoleon was determined to reestablish the lucrative slave plantation system, and when Toussaint invaded the Spanish western two-thirds of the island, freeing its enslaved population, Napoleon deployed 20,000 troops. After four months of hard fighting, Toussaint agreed to a ceasefire, but was betrayed, captured, and deported to France, and Napoleon restored slavery in Martinique, Tobago, St. Lucia, Guadeloupe, and Guyana. Toussaint died eight months into his imprisonment, in 1802. He did not live to witness the French final defeat and evacuation the following year, or the proclamation of the new state of Haiti in 1804.
Today Haiti is a virtual byword for disaster and misfortune as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. With tacit support of the other imperial powers, France forced the newly independent Haiti to compensate its former slave owners for their losses — a crippling burden of debt that lasted a hundred years. Last year, Haiti’s GDP shrank by four per cent, and its Human Development Index ranking was 170 out of 189 countries. It is difficult not to attribute Haiti’s recurrent episodes of institutional and political instability to the legacy of colonialism. Such is the plight of Haiti, as the earliest, most bountiful European colony in the Caribbean, that it should be at the forefront of Western minds, informing discourse when considering our moral responsibilities in the world, whether it be aid or reparations.
Aidan Kiernander is a historical biographer and independent researcher. More info at kiernander.com