How Toussaint Louverture, born into bondage in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and enslaved for more than half of his life, came to lead the most successful slave revolt history and help precipitate the fall of European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere?
Santo Domingo at the end of the 18the century flourished as the richest colony in the Americas. Its sugar, coffee, indigo and cotton plantations brought in money, supplied by a vast enslaved labor force. A French colony since 1697, it occupied the western half of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, while the Spaniards had colonized the eastern part, called Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic).
In 1791, a revolution formed among the island’s brutally enslaved majority, inspired in part by the egalitarian ideals behind France’s recent revolution. As the island’s slave laborers organized to burn down the plantations and kill many landowners, Toussaint initially kept a low profile. Free for fifteen years, he operates his own plot in the north of the island, while continuing to monitor the plantation of his former owner. Finally, mastering African and Creole medicinal techniques, he entered the war as a doctor. But he quickly distinguished himself as a savvy tactician and a strategic and charismatic leader.
As a general, Toussaint led his forces to victory over the planter class and thousands of invading French troops. But that was just the start. Navigating the complex and ever-changing politics of dueling colonial powers, he successfully repelled aggressions from Europe’s most powerful nations (France, Spain and England), using his diplomatic cunning to artfully play them against each other. others. He conquered the Spanish side of Hispaniola, uniting the island and establishing himself as governor. In this role, he worked to quell widespread domestic unrest and restore the island’s war-ravaged economy. And with an education steeped in Enlightenment philosophy, he relied on these humanist ideals to create a constitution that would abolish slavery forever.
Although Toussaint died in a French prison a year before Santo Domingo achieved full independence (and renamed itself Haiti) in 1804, his countless efforts paved the way for the establishment of the second sovereign nation of the Western hemisphere after America – and the world’s first sovereign black state. Here is how he did it.
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He played Empire against Empire
In 1792, France was in a delicate situation. It had recently become a republic, stoking the wrath of European monarchies. Moreover, the sustained rebellion of the slaves of Santo Domingo had put the richest French colony in the Americas in danger of falling under the control of its enemies, England and Spain. Thus, the same year, French commissioners arrived in Santo Domingo in an apparent spirit of compromise. Rebel leaders, including Toussaint, refused the opening, choosing instead to fight with the 6,000-strong fleet that France had also sent.
Toussaint was aware of his regiment’s lack of training, but he was also aware of France’s desperate position in the face of Spanish and British hostility. So, when it suited his needs, he joined forces with the enemies of France.
Feigning indignation at the execution of King Louis XVI in 1793, he concluded an alliance with his neighbor Saint-Domingue, taking command of a Spanish auxiliary force to reconquer part of the territory of Saint-Domingue. He refused to negotiate with the French commissioners until 1794, when France formally abolished slavery on its territories. Toussaint then joined the French forces, pushed back the Spaniards and began his sustained campaign against the British, who had their own designs on Santo Domingo.
His army ousted the British forces in 1798, causing them to lose over 15,000 men and 10 million pounds in the process. Nonetheless, Toussaint continued to hold up the prospect of British influence in Santo Domingo as a check on French complacency and to stimulate trade with the neighboring British colony of Jamaica. Toussaint struck a secret deal with the British Army that relaxed the naval blockade on imported goods.
He went further in 1799, opening diplomatic talks with the Americans to renew trade relations that would benefit both economies – a major coup for Toussaint. In just two years, US exports to the colony increased by more than 260%, to reach $ 7.1 million. The alliance with the Americans also offered naval protection on merchant ships bound for Santo Domingo, an important buffer against British aggression.
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He played on several bases
To revitalize a local economy torn by conflict, Toussaint had to use his considerable political skills to reconcile the conflicting interests of the racial, class, religious and cultural orders of Santo Domingo. Deeming the resources of the merchant classes and planters essential to the reconstruction of Santo Domingo, Toussaint extended generous policies of restitution in the name of the republican fraternity, going so far as to punish any act of retaliation against the former slavers. This has ensured it a staunch base of allies who have made its offer regionally and internationally. Under his leadership, Santo Domingo launched a solid civic overhaul and public works projects that created roads, widened canals, and improved public sanitation.
This widespread leniency towards white citizens, along with his increasingly autocratic measures to force black citizens to work on the plantations, has eroded his position among the black majority. Yet for much of his tenure as governor, he worked vigorously to protect their interests and ensure that they were now paid for their work. He has traveled extensively to appease internal unrest, drawing on his deep cultural ties and Afro-spiritualist clues to bolster his image as a defender. Under his leadership, thanks in large part to the efforts of the black masses, the island’s agricultural culture was restored to two-thirds of what it was before the uprisings of 1791, according to Toussaint biographer CLR James.
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He cultivated his legend
The secret of Toussaint’s impact also lay in the trait common to history’s greatest heroes – the forging of a character close to the superhuman. James writes that Toussaint saw himself in the role of avenger described by Enlightenment thinker Abbé Raynal: as a figure rising to eradicate human slavery. Toussaint led charges in combat and survived numerous encounters with death, endowing him with a supernatural aura that he cultivated to delight his followers and enemies.
His legend grew. A French official in Santo Domingo attributed Toussaint’s ability to be in several places both to his vitality and his unparalleled understanding of the terrain. And after Napoleon sent 20,000 French troops in 1802 to regain control of Santo Domingo, an expedition secretary described Toussaint as a tiger: visible where he was not and invisible where he was. In time, for his unprecedented accomplishments, he would be hailed as Black George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte of the Caribbean.
But these honorary titles fail to capture the measure of Toussaint Louverture and his far-reaching impact. He was a singular leader who helped create an extraordinary revolution in his insistence that any declaration of “inalienable freedoms” rings hollow when constrained by notions of color or creed. It was a revolution that had much broader geopolitical implications: historians give it credit for having frightened France from further colonial attempts in the hemisphere and for having inspired Napoleon to unload the territory of Louisiana. in the United States, thus doubling the size of the young republic.
Toussaint would not live to see the eventual independence of his country. Captured during Napoleon’s 1802 expedition to subdue the colony, he was transported to a French prison, where he died a year later. While it was his radical deputy, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who survived the French assault and declared Haiti’s independence in 1804, it was Toussaint’s leadership that laid the foundations for this extraordinary achievement.