François-Dominique Toussaint l'Ouverture was born circa 1743 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (which would later become Haiti) to an educated slave named Gaou-Guinou, who was probably a member of the African Arrada tribe. According to biographer D. Augustus Straker (1908), "So remarkable were [l'Ouverture's] traits of character that the superintendent on the plantation where Toussaint worked as a slave granted him, it is said, unusual privileges, among these the opportunity to learn to read and write, which he did, making also fair progress in arithmetic."
He was a dedicated Roman Catholic, which was the official religion of Haiti, and purportedly did not believe in vodou, a popular Creole religion. Clever, hard-working, and smart, as well as calm and level-headed, he won the respect of the plantation manager, and became a livestock handler, healer, coachman and steward. He was declared legally free in 1776 but continued to work at the plantation, presumably as a salaried employee.
As Nick Lake depicts in In Darkness, Toussaint had a tremendous amount of energy. He slept very little but was tireless in his concentrated efforts to do whatever he deemed necessary to do - and becoming the leader of history's largest slave revolt was necessary!
In August of 1791, a slave revolt occurred in the northern part of Saint-Domingue and Toussaint was, at first, unsure of his position on the event. He eventually helped his former master escape safely, but then joined the black forces as a doctor, rather than a soldier, because he did not support the mass killing of white people. Soon after assessing the strength and intelligence of the revolt leaders and finding them lacking, Toussaint founded an army of his own and trained them in guerrilla warfare.
At the time, Saint-Domingue was divided into two warring parts - one controlled by France and the other by Spain. Initially, Toussaint positioned himself as a negotiator between the rebel slaves and the French leaders. But after France rejected various terms (such as the abolition of the whip and having one day off per week) he eventually created an alliance with the Spanish. However, when France decided to abolish slavery on February 4, 1794 in the hopes of gaining the loyalty (and force) of black troops, he switched allegiances and returned, once again, to the French. He was then appointed by Napoleon as the Commander-in-Chief of the colony.
While fighting under the French flag, l'Ouverture worked to protect France from both the Spanish and the British, while simultaneously implementing social reforms within the colony. His advisers were chosen strictly for their experience and ability and were racially non-discriminatory. He built schools, fixed roads, improved agriculture and created free trade. Eventually he wrote and established Haiti's constitution.
Although slavery was re-introduced to Haiti for a time after his death, Toussaint was an extraordinary leader. He was able to see the big picture and imparted a sense of pragmatic strategies, gaining the adoration of former slaves and the respect of Europeans.
For more information, click here for an in-depth timeline of the events in Haiti's revolutionary history.
This article was originally published in February 2012, and has been updated for the
January 2014 paperback release.
Click here to go to this issue.
This article is available to non-members for a limited time. You can also read these articles for free. For full access become a member today.
Discover your next great read here
Don't join the book burners...
Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!
Solve this clue:
and be entered to win..
Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.
Your guide toexceptional books
BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.