Social historian James G. Leyburn has said of Toussaint Louverture that “what he did is more easily told than what he was.” Although some of Toussaint’s correspondence and papers remain, they reveal little of his deepest motivations in the struggle for Haitian autonomy. Born sometime between 1743 and 1746 in Saint-Domingue, Toussaint belonged to the small, fortunate class of slaves employed by humane masters as personal servants. While serving as a house servant and coachman, Toussaint received the tutelage that helped him become one of the few literate black revolutionary leaders. Upon hearing of the slave uprising, Toussaint took pains to secure safe expatriation of his master’s family. It was only then that he joined Biassou’s forces, where his intelligence, skill in strategic and tactical planning (based partly on his reading of works by Julius Caesar and others), and innate leadership ability brought him quickly to prominence.
Le Cap fell to French forces, who were reinforced by thousands of blacks in April 1793. Black forces had joined the French against the royalists on the promise of freedom. Indeed, in August Commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax abolished slavery in the colony.
Two black leaders who warily refused to commit their forces to France, however, were Jean-François and Biassou. Believing allegiance to a king would be more secure than allegiance to a republic, these leaders accepted commissions from Spain. The Spanish deployed forces in coordination with these indigenous blacks to take the north of Saint-Domingue. Toussaint, who had taken up the Spanish banner in February 1793, came to command his own forces independently of Biassou’s army. By the year’s end, Toussaint had cut a swath through the north, had swung south to Gonaïves, and effectively controlled north-central Saint- Domingue.
Some historians believe that Spain and Britain had reached an informal arrangement to divide the French colony between them– Britain to take the south and Spain, the north. British forces landed at Jérémie and Môle Saint-Nicolas (the Môle). They besieged Port-au-Prince (or Port Républicain, as it was known under the Republic) and took it in June 1794. The Spanish had launched a two-pronged offensive from the east. French forces checked Spanish progress toward Port-au-Prince in the south, but the Spanish pushed rapidly through the north, most of which they occupied by 1794. Spain and Britain were poised to seize Saint- Domingue, but several factors foiled their grand design. One factor was illness. The British in particular fell victim to tropical disease, which thinned their ranks far more quickly than combat against the French. Southern forces led by Rigaud and northern forces led by another mulatto commander, Villatte, also forestalled a complete victory by the foreign forces. These uncertain conditions positioned Toussaint’s centrally located forces as the key to victory or defeat. On May 6, 1794, Toussaint made a decision that sealed the fate of a nation.
After arranging for his family to flee from the city of Santo Domingo, Toussaint pledged his support to France. Confirmation of the National Assembly’s decision on February 4, 1794, to abolish slavery appears to have been the strongest influence over Toussaint’s actions. Although the Spanish had promised emancipation, they showed no signs of keeping their word in the territories that they controlled, and the British had reinstated slavery in the areas they occupied. If emancipation was Toussaint’s goal, he had no choice but to cast his lot with the French.
In several raids against his former allies, Toussaint took the Artibonite region and retired briefly to Mirebalais. As Rigaud’s forces achieved more limited success in the south, the tide clearly swung in favor of the French Republicans. Perhaps the key event at this point was the July 22, 1794, peace agreement between France and Spain. The agreement was not finalized until the signing of the Treaty of Basel the following year. The accord directed Spain to cede its holdings on Hispaniola to France. The move effectively denied supplies, funding, and avenues of retreat to combatants under the Spanish aegis. The armies of Jean-François and Biassou disbanded, and many flocked to the standard of Toussaint, the remaining black commander of stature.
In March 1796, Toussaint rescued the French commander, General Etienne-Maynard Laveaux, from a mulatto-led effort to depose him as the primary colonial authority. To express his gratitude, Laveaux appointed Toussaint lieutenant governor of Saint-Domingue. With this much power over the affairs of his homeland, Toussaint was in a position to gain more. Toussaint distrusted the intentions of all foreign parties–as well as those of the mulattoes–regarding the future of slavery; he believed that only black leadership could assure the continuation of an autonomous Saint-Domingue. He set out to consolidate his political and military positions, and he undercut the positions of the French and the resentful gens de couleur.
A new group of French commissioners appointed Toussaint commander in chief of all French forces on the island. From this position of strength, he resolved to move quickly and decisively to establish an autonomous state under black rule. He expelled Sonthonax, the leading French commissioner, who had proclaimed the abolition of slavery, and concluded an agreement to end hostilities with Britain. He sought to secure Rigaud’s allegiance and thus to incorporate the majority of mulattoes into his national project, but his plan was thwarted by the French, who saw in Rigaud their last opportunity to retain dominion over the colony.
Once again, racial animosity drove events in Saint-Domingue, as Toussaint’s predominantly black forces clashed with Rigaud’s mulatto army. Foreign intrigue and manipulation prevailed on both sides of the conflict. Toussaint, in correspondence with United States president John Adams, pledged that in exchange for support he would deny the French the use of Saint-Domingue as a base for operations in North America. Adams, the leader of an independent, but still insecure, nation, found the arrangement desirable and dispatched arms and ships that greatly aided black forces in what is sometimes referred to as the War of the Castes. Rigaud, with his forces and ambitions crushed, fled the colony in late 1800.
After securing the port of Santo Domingo in May 1800, Toussaint held sway over the whole of Hispaniola. This position gave him an opportunity to concentrate on restoring domestic order and productivity. Like Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri (Henry) Christophe, Toussaint saw that the survival of his homeland depended on an export-oriented economy. He therefore reimposed the plantation system and utilized nonslaves, but he still essentially relied on forced labor to produce the sugar, coffee, and other commodities needed to support economic progress. He directed this process through his military dictatorship, the form of government that he judged most efficacious under the circumstances. A constitution, approved in 1801 by the then still-extant Colonial Assembly, granted Toussaint, as Governor-general-for-life, all effective power as well as the privilege of choosing his successor.
Toussaint’s interval of freedom from foreign confrontation was unfortunately brief. Toussaint never severed the formal bond with France, but his de facto independence and autonomy rankled the leaders of the mother country and concerned the governments of slave-holding nations, such as Britain and the United States. French first consul Napoléon Bonaparte resented the temerity of the former slaves who planned to govern a nation on their own. Moreover, Bonaparte regarded Saint-Domingue as essential to potential French exploitation of the Louisiana Territory.
Taking advantage of a temporary halt in the wars in Europe, Bonaparte dispatched to Saint-Domingue forces led by his brother-in-law, General Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc. These forces, numbering between 16,000 and 20,000–about the same size as Toussaint’s army–landed at several points on the north coast in January 1802. With the help of white colonists and mulatto forces commanded by Pétion and others, the French outmatched, outmaneuvered, and wore down the black army. Two of Toussaint’s chief lieutenants, Dessalines and Christophe, recognized their untenable situation, held separate parleys with the invaders, and agreed to transfer their allegiance. Recognizing his weak position, Toussaint surrendered to Leclerc on May 5, 1802. The French assured Toussaint that he would be allowed to retire quietly, but a month later, they seized him and transported him to France, where he died of neglect in the frigid dungeon of Fort de Joux in the Jura Mountains on April 7, 1803.
The betrayal of Toussaint and Bonaparte’s restoration of slavery in Martinique undermined the collaboration of leaders such as Dessalines, Christophe, and Pétion. Convinced that the same fate lay in store for Saint-Domingue, these commanders and others once again battled Leclerc and his disease-riddled army. Leclerc himself died of yellow fever in November 1802, about two months after he had requested reinforcements to quash the renewed resistance. Leclerc’s replacement, General Donatien Rochambeau, waged a bloody campaign against the insurgents, but events beyond the shores of Saint-Domingue doomed the campaign to failure.
By 1803 war had resumed between France and Britain, and Bonaparte once again concentrated his energies on the struggle in Europe. In April of that year, Bonaparte signed a treaty that allowed the purchase of Louisiana by the United States and ended French ambitions in the Western Hemisphere. Rochambeau’s reinforcements and supplies never arrived in sufficient numbers. The general fled to Jamaica in November 1803, where he surrendered to British authorities rather than face the retribution of the rebel leadership. The era of French colonial rule in Haiti had ended.