Toussaint L’Ouverture was born Pierre Dominique Toussaint in the French colony of St. Dominique, the western third of the island of Hispaniola. (Today, the island is divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.) Though he was born and brought up as a slave, L’Ouverture experienced a fairly benevolent upbringing. His master, Bayon de Libertad, educated him in French, Latin, geometry and religion.
Despite this good treatment, L’Ouverture eagerly joined the massive slave revolt that broke out in August 1791 that devastated the sugar plantations of the island. By 1793, L’Ouverture had become the foremost leader of the revolt and was known as “Father Toussaint’’ by his fol¬ lowers. The name “L’Ouverture” (meaning “opening”) was given to him at this time; it sig¬ nified his astute diplo¬ macy in the battles that developed between the slaves, British, French and Spanish troops.
France declared war on both Britain and Spain in 1793. In the warfare that fol¬ lowed, L’Ouverture first joined the Spanish army in Santo Domingo. He learned much of his guerrilla warfare tactics from the Spanish.
In 1794, when Revolutionary France outlawed the further practice of slavery, L’Ouverture switched sides and joined the French. He soon recaptured much of the area the Spanish had gained. In recognition of his services, L’Ouverture was named brigadier general. He later rose to lieu- tenant-governor and major general.
After France and Spain made peace in 1793, L’Ouverture fought the British. He forced the surrender of the main body of British troops in 1798. L’Ouverture reached the pinnacle of success in 1800, when peace was declared between France, Britain and Spain.
He entered Santo Domingo on January 24, 1801, proclaimed himself “First of the Blacks,” and with the help of nine compatri¬ ots, drafted the first constitution for Haiti. L’Ouverture corresponded with First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte of the French army (see no. 67), who initially confirmed his position as major general and ruler of the island.
Napoleon changed his mind in 1802. He dispatched 35,000 French troops and 80 warships to subdue Haiti — the largest expeditionary force France ever sent across the Atlantic.
The French met with disas¬ ter in Haiti. The dreaded yellow fever struck and killed at least half the French soldiers within one year. L’Ouverture and the free blacks resisted fiercely. In June 1802, L’Ouverture was abducted during a negotia¬ tion. Still wearing the uniform of a French general,L’Ouverture was taken to France on the ship Heros.
He was brought first to Paris, then to the remote Fort Joux in the Jura mountain range. L’Ouverture’s health had already been broken by years of guerrilla warfare, but it seems likely that his spirit was broken by his circumstances and the apparent failure of his people to win their freedom. He died and was buried within the walls of Fort Joux.
L’Ouverture had inspired and led the first truly successful slave revolution in history.