Toussaint Louverture: The Life of the Leader of the Haitian Revolution

Toussaint Louverture: The Life of the Leader of the Haitian Revolution

Toussaint Louverture is best known for his significant leadership role in the Haitian Revolution which would result in the complete independence of Haiti and the disconnection with its former French owner. Toussaint’s life is recorded primarily through documents kept while he was a prominent political leader before and during the twelve-year Haitian Revolution. Despite his well recorded political existence, as a private man, Toussaint purposely withheld information about his past and sometimes even altered the truth in order to maintain his distinguished persona. However, through personal accounts and memoirs of his close associates and family, glimpses into Toussaint’s formative years allows us to better understand the motives behind his actions as a revolutionary figure.

An engraving of Toussaint Louverture depicted on horseback in 1802.

An engraving of Toussaint Louverture depicted on horseback in 1802.

Born in c. 1743 in Saint Dominique (modern day Haiti, a French-occupied island in the Caribbean), Toussaint’s early life consisted of enslavement. Glimpses into Toussaint’s childhood are provided by his son and other prominent figures in his life through memoirs and archives. In relation to his parents, Toussaint’s father was captured and enslaved in modern day Benin, and there is speculation as to whether his father was a part of one of Benin’s noble families. Once shipped to the Caribbean, where a large percentage of African slaves were taken and sold, Toussaint's father married an enslaved woman named Pauline and they had several children together. The origins of Toussaint’s mother are largely unknown.

Toussaint was given a basic education that allowed him to fall into a unique position on what is speculated to be the Bréda Plantation at Haut de Cap in Saint Dominique. He was relatively close with his overseers and he performed tasks unlike the hard labor of other slaves. He was even able to travel around Saint Dominique much more freely than others in his position. Enslaved until adulthood, Toussaint married a free woman named Cécile and they had three children together. He would later leave his family and remarry an enslaved woman named Suzanne Simone-Baptiste with whom he had several more children. By the end of his life, Toussaint confessed that he fathered sixteen children, many of which died in infancy.

A J. R. Beard engraving depicting Touissant Louverture departing from his wife and children.

A J. R. Beard engraving depicting Touissant Louverture departing from his wife and children.

Toussaint Louverture was emancipated in the early 1770’s when he was approximately twenty-seven years of age. After liberation, he took advantage of the education from his upbringing to gather information and connections within the island of Saint Dominique slowly becoming the prominent revolutionary he is now known as. In the two decades preceding the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint bought a piece of land where he farmed and leased slaves of his own. However, it is theorized that Toussaint utilized his superior position as a free black landowner on the island to exploit slave-dealers, as there are several accounts of him emancipating his slaves almost immediately after purchasing them.

Certain parts of his life, like his previous marriage and his alleged ownership of slaves, were the primary aspects that he wanted to conceal about his formative years. Toussaint was exceedingly private and was known to change certain facts about his past in order to gain a more distinguished persona. For instance, Toussaint wrote into the proposed Haitian Constitution that divorce was to be illegal on the island. Even though he was never formally divorced from his first wife, he would lose credibility as a leader if his audience knew of the secret marriage in the days of his enslavement. Likewise, while Toussaint was a previous owner of slaves, his enslaved supporters may have lost trust in a man who participated in the institution they were fighting to destroy.

A painting of General Touissant Louverture wearing his military uniform.

A painting of General Touissant Louverture wearing his military uniform.

Saint Dominique was French occupied before the Revolution, and much of the population consisted of Creole and Bossale slaves; the latter were born on the island to African parents and the former were born in Africa. Toussaint wanted to support this majority, and he sought independence from the now unstable France. By the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, the island was quickly becoming a player in this prominent European event. Simultaneously, a class war sparked between the grand Blancs (wealthy French) and the petit Blancs (poor French) as the conflict between free and enslaved blacks on Saint Dominique happened. Similar to this complex dichotomy of events, the details of the Haitian Revolution and its beginnings are difficult to outline. Nonetheless, being the first successful slave revolt in the Americas, the Revolution would grant Toussaint the leadership role that he would be known for in the future an influential Creole leader.

A painting of Touissant Louverture in Nantes between 1804 and 1805. Painting by Girardin

A painting of Touissant Louverture in Nantes between 1804 and 1805. Painting by Girardin

While Toussaint was being overseen by the public during the revolution, he kept a strict persona associating heavily with his Haitian ethnicity and his Catholic faith. He also steered away from the ‘barbaric’ African lineage with which his parents identified. He conformed to European culture in order to appeal to both the white French as well as the enslaved revolutionaries on the island. However, there are many speculations as to whether he was actually Catholic, and many scholars believe that he secretly practiced Vodun, an African religion brought to the Caribbean on slave ships in the height of the Atlantic Slave Trade. While Toussaint manipulated his admirers during his military career, his past was a mystery and ultimately remained unknown until after his death. When his carefully crafted life came to an end its end, Toussaint was known to be a great slave-rebel, an intellectual who defied the odds of class and race, and who played the system to achieve his victories. 

Toussaint never saw the independence of Haiti, as he died in captivity in France only one year prior to the conclusion of the Revolution in 1804. As the second country to become independent from Europe on the western hemisphere following the United States, Toussaint and his contemporaries led a revolution that would change the way slavery was seen by the close of the eighteenth century. While historians have only recently been able to find out about his peculiar life, a new mode of studying history shows its importance with how the past is interpreted. While Toussaint is known as a great general who led an oppressed group of people to freedom, it is essential for his admirers to acknowledge his formative years in order to more sufficiently understand the motives behind his actions in the last quarter of his life.

An 1805 engraving of Touissant Louverture.

An 1805 engraving of Touissant Louverture.

About the Author: Jasmine H.

Jasmine has been interested in history since childhood, and is intrigued with the endless possibilities of study within that field. She is currently pursuing a degree in history and enjoys reading and writing in her spare time. Her interest sparked when she was a child after her parents introduced her to early Hollywood movies and mid-twentieth century rock and roll. From then on, Jasmine has been endlessly fascinated with the infinite subjects within this vast field, and main goal in her writing is to debunk the fallacies that have been misinterpreted within the study of history. 

References

Forsdick, Charles, and Christian Høgsbjerg. "Toussaint Unchained: C. 1743–91." In Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions, 14-31. London: Pluto Press, 2017.

Philippe R. Girard, and Jean-Louis Donnadieu. "Toussaint before Louverture: New Archival Findings on the Early Life of Toussaint Louverture." The William and Mary Quarterly 70, no. 1 (2013): 41-78. doi:10.5309/willmaryquar.70.1.0041.

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