Caribbean Sea, Haiti, Island Nations

Haiti – The Slave Who Defeated Napoleon

Haiti banknote, featuring Toussaint Louverture, hero of the Haitian Revolution

Toussaint Louverture is a hero of Haiti’s independence.  He’s been called “the Slave who Defeated Napoleon”, in a fine article here.

Haiti was second state in the Americas to gain independence.  Haiti’s revolution against France began in 1791, just 8 years after the end of its northern neighbor’s war for independence.

The Haitian Revolution was essentially a slave revolt.  It consisted of a series of conflicts, from 1791 through 1804.  It consisted of shifting alliances of Haitian slaves, and conflicts with colonists and French and British troops.  During its course, slavery was abolished; and, in 1804, national independence was secured.   It has been considered the most successful slave revolt in history, and the only one leading to the founding of an independent state.

*******

Haiti’s present day population is, almost entirely, descended from African slaves.  The indigenous population was reduced to about 30,000 souls, within 2 decades following the island’s 1492 sighting by Columbus, due to European diseases, and, the brutal working conditions imposed by the Spaniards in their rapid exploitation of the island’s gold resources.  By the end of the 1500s, during which French pirates began to firmly entrench themselves in the territory, the indigenous peoples had virtually vanished.

As permanent settlements and plantations began to develop on the island, colonial landowners began importing slaves from Africa.  In the mid 1600s, the French West Indies Corporation took control of the area, and in 1697, the region was formally ceded to France from Spain.  As the sugar industry flourished, so did the slave importation industry, or, it should be said, as the slave industry flourished, so did the sugar industry.  There were about 5,000 slaves by the end of the 1600s.  By the end of the 1700s, when the revolution began, there were about 500,000 slaves. 

The colony’s population and economic output grew rapidly during the 1700s.  It became France’s most prosperous New World possession, exporting sugar and smaller amounts of coffee, cacao, indigo, and cotton. By the 1780s nearly two-thirds of France’s foreign investments were based on Saint-Domingue, Franc’s name for the island, and the number of stopovers by oceangoing vessels sometimes exceeded 700 per year.  In 1789, the year the French Revolution began, the Haitian Revolution began two years later.

*******

detail from banknote

Toussaint began as a slave, was partially educated by his godfather, and then self educated in the Greek philosophers, Machiavelli, and especially the writings of the French Enlightenment.  The French Revolution, with its calls for liberty and equality, influenced Toussaint.  He was a renowned horseman and became a leader in the Haitian battles.  By 1793, he had adopted the surname Louverture, from the French word meaning “opening” or “the one who opened the way”.  A standard explanation is that it refers to his ability to create openings in battle, and it is sometimes attributed to French commissioner Polverel’s exclamation: “That man makes an opening everywhere”.

On 29 August 1793 he made his famous declaration of Camp Turel to the blacks of St Domingue:
Brothers and friends, I am Toussaint Louverture; perhaps my name has made itself known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want Liberty and Equality to reign in St Domingue. I am working to make that happen. Unite yourselves to us, brothers and fight with us for the same cause.

Motto: In Union is Strength, detail from back of banknote

Your very humble and obedient servant, Toussaint Louverture,

 

detail from back of banknote, Phrygian Cap – symbol of liberty, mounted above a Royal Palm.

He gave nominal allegiance to France while pursuing his own political and military designs, initially seeking better lives for slaves, but soon afterwards seeking full abolition and independence.  As the French revolution raged on, slavery was abolished by French decree, but was resisted by the French island colonists.  Continuing revolts were led by Tourissant and, in May 1801, he had had become “governor-general for life.” With the conclusion of the French Revolution, Napoléon Bonaparte came to power and attempted to regain control over the colony including the reinstitution of slavery.   Toussaint continued the resistance, and, by 1803, Napoleon, preoccupied with Europe, was ready to surrender Haiti.  Napoleon and Toussaint agreed to terms of peace; Napoleon agreeing to recognize Haitian independence and Toussaint agreeing to retire from public life.  But Napoleon betrayed him, captured him and had him executed in exile in 1803.  Others continued the struggle, and Haiti achieved independence the following year, 1804.

*******

From Wikipedia, more here:

“On August 29, 1954, the Haitian ambassador to France, Léon Thébaud, inaugurated a stone cross memorial for Toussaint Louverture at the foot of the fort. Years afterward, the French government ceremoniously presented a shovelful of soil from the grounds of Fort-de-Joux to the Haitian government as a symbolic transfer of Toussaint Louverture’s remains. An inscription in his memory, installed in 1998, can be found on the wall of the Panthéon in Paris, inscribed with the following description:

Combattant de la liberté, artisan de l’abolition de l’esclavage, héros haïtien mort déporté au Fort-de-Joux en 1803.
(Combatant for liberty, artisan of the abolition of slavery, Haitian hero died in deportation at Fort-de-Joux in 1803.)

Toussaint Louverture influenced John Brown to invade Harpers Ferry. John Brown and his band captured citizens, and for a small time the federal armory and arsenal. Brown’s goal was that the local slave population would join the raid. But things did not go as planned. He was eventually captured and put on trial, and was hanged on December 2, 1859. Brown and his band of brothers shows the devotion to the violent tactics of the Haitian Revolution. During the 19th century African Americans used Toussaint Louverture as an example of how to reach freedom.”

A interesting graphic, illustrating the magnitude of the slavery of the era, can be found illustrated here, an interactive designed and built by Andrew Kahn, and published in Slate Magazine.

 

For stories from other Island Nations on this website, click here.

For story tags, see bottom of this page.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.