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Napoleon & Empire

François-Dominique Toussaint-Louverture


Arms of François-Dominique Toussaint, a.k.a. Toussaint-Louverture (1743-1803)

François-Dominique Toussaint-Louverture was born in Saint-Domingue on May 20, 1743, to a mother and father who were both slaves. He was put to work at a young age and started out as a cattle herder, then a coachman, and finally a plantation overseer. During this time, he received some basic education and obtained his private manumission in 1776.

In 1791, he participated in the slave revolt against the French colonists by recruiting a company of black soldiers, with whom he fought in the Spanish army (who at the time controlled the eastern half of the island). Toussaint was appointed a general by the Spanish and during this period, he earned his nickname "Louverture".

After the French National Convention abolished slavery and granted political equality to blacks in May 1794, Toussaint joined the French service. Once the Treaty of Basel was signed on July 22, 1795, which gave France full possession of the entire island, the Directory appointed Toussaint-Louverture as a brigadier general (1795), then as a divisional general (1796), and finally as the commander-in-chief of the troops stationed in Saint-Domingue. During these years and until 1801, Toussaint achieved significant military successes, driving out the English and occupying the part of the island that had until then remained, despite the treaties, in the hands of the Spanish.

However, Toussaint did not neglect politics. After ousting the representatives of the metropolis, he massacred the mixed-race people (1799-1800) and had an assembly he dominated vote for an autonomous constitution that declared him the lifelong governor-general of Saint-Domingue (July 8, 1801). The legislation he then put in place practically reinstated slavery by instituting mandatory agricultural labor on the plantations. Toussaint sought to rely on the large planters, which some of his lieutenants bitterly reproached him for.

But some white factions of the population, in favor of the reinstatement of slavery, found an effective spokesperson in Joséphine Bonaparte, who had interests in the island. She knew how to stir up her husband's anger against the Constitution proclaimed by Toussaint and, in October 1801, the First Consul appointed his brother-in-law, General Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc, to lead an expeditionary force of 20,000 men to regain control of Saint-Domingue and reinstate slavery.

Leclerc's army landed in Saint-Domingue in February 1802. Toussaint-Louverture, conceding the coast to the attackers, then withdrew into the interior of the island where he led a guerrilla war. But his supporters, tired of his authoritarianism, gradually rallied to the Republic, and soon Louverture had nothing left but to negotiate his own surrender. On May 7, 1802, he signed an agreement with Leclerc. However, the latter, by offering Toussaint a peaceful retirement and assuring him that slavery would not be reinstated, proved to be entirely insincere. One month later, on June 7, Toussaint was arrested with his entire family and sent to France.

Louverture was first interned at the Temple prison in Paris, where Caffarelli, one of the aides-de-camp of the First Consul, visited him several times with the sole purpose of making him reveal the hiding place where he had secured his treasures. Toussaint, having remained silent, was then sent to the Fort de Joux   (a military stronghold) on August 25, 1802. He was held in secret and underwent a very harsh captivity which resulted in his death from pneumonia on April 7, 1803.

"The nickname "Louverture" refers to Toussaint's ability to take advantage of every opening in his enemies' defenses.

"Toussaint-Louverture", Nineteenth Century engraving.

"Toussaint-Louverture", Nineteenth Century engraving.

Other portraits

François-Dominique Toussaint, a.k.a. Toussaint-Louverture (1743-1803)
"Toussaint-Louverture", Nineteenth Century engraving.