Toussaint Louverture: The Founding Father of Haiti

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Toussaint Louverture

Portrait of Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution

Source:The Nation

Who was Toussaint Louverture?

Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803) was the son of a prince, but born into slavery. He rose to prominence when he led the Haitian Revolution, which was the only successful slave rebellion in history. For over a decade, French soldiers and rebels fought bitter and brutal battles, leaving thousands dead. 

In this article, the Zero Theft Movement will take a look at one of the founding fathers of the Haitian Revolution: Toussaint Louverture. His vision of an independent country with free citizens galvanized many in the fight against exploitative colonial rule. At the end, find out how Toussaint Louverture and the plight of the slaves relate to the U.S. economy today.

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Royalty Enslaved

The eldest son of captive prince Gaou Guinon, Toussaint Louverture was born a slave on the Breda plantation in the French colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti). Revisions to one of France’s decrees known as Code Noir (‘Black Code’) enabled the widespread mistreatment and abuse of slaves. But very few slave systems proved as harsh (and profitable) as Saint-Domingue’s.


Toussaint, sometime in 1792–93, changed his surname from Guinon to Louverture supposedly from the French word for “opening” or “the one who opened the way.” Many believe the surname referenced his ability to manufacture openings in combat, but others theorize the name referred to the gap between his front teeth.

Louverture, while a slave, escaped much of the brutality. Perhaps, in part, due to good fortune, but also because of his interest in learning. For instance, Bayon de Libertad, the manager of the Bred plantation, granted Louverture complete access to his library. Louverture, a well-read, knowledgeable twenty-year-old, purchased his freedom from de Libertad but continued to work for his former owner. 

He lived as a free man for eighteen years, building wealth, marrying a Catholic woman, and fathering two sons. According to historical documents, he managed to build a small business empire of properties and slaves.

Code Noir

Source: Mediamatic

The Revolution Begins

In 1789, freed slaves in the colony began to push back against the colonists. France’s major upheaval, led by the Third Estate (commoners), served as inspiration for those in Saint-Domingue. Not for those still enslaved initially, but mainly for the freed slaves who wanted to expand the rights that France had afforded to black citizens.

The full Haitian Revolution did not start until the stormy “Night of Fire” on August 22, 1971. Freed slaves gathered for the Voodoo ceremony at Bois Caiman in the north of the colony. This gathering sparked the slave rebellion, which quickly spread through the surrounding areas.

Carribean National Weekly

Source: Carribean National Weekly

Toussaint Louverture actually was not present at the beginning of the revolution, opting to send his family to the neighboring Santo Domingo and help colleagues from the Breda plantation evacuate. He eventually served Georges Biassou and his forces as a doctor, strategist, and leader.

Toussaint Louverture Forces France’s Hand

Britain and Spain, aware of the growing unrest in France’s most profitable colony, forged an alliance and invaded Saint-Domingue. Spain offered land, privileges, and the abolition of slavery to win over the slave rebels. In 1793, the revolutionaries decided to join forces with France’s Atlantic rivals, who provided weapons, provisions, and other support. Through numerous battles, Toussaint Louverture built a reputation for his sophisticated guerilla tactics

August 29, 1793, however, marked a turning point in the revolution. Toussaint Louverture made the following declaration at Camp Turel to the rebels:

“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.”

On that very same day, the French emissary Léger-Félicité Sonthonax believed that only the emancipation of the slaves would win the slaves back and allow France to remain in Saint-Domingue. He declared all slaves free. Louverture and his generals remained skeptical, however, as they knew Sonthonax did not have the power to officially ratify his declaration. He stayed in contact with the French general Étienne Maynaud de Bizefranc de Laveau, who gave him updates about potential legislative reform.  It wasn’t until 4 February, 1794 that the revolutionary government in the motherland had passed a decree abolishing slavery in all of its colonies.

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The Short Louverture Era

After the abolition of slavery, Toussaint Louverture decided to ally with French, pushing out tbe Spanish and British forces. He led the slave rebels and French troops for eight years (1794-1802) as the political and military leader of the colony. He appointed himself the General-in-Chief of the Army and extended the campaign to the Spanish-controlled side of the island Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic). 

By 1801, Louverture had grown emboldened by his many successes. Saint-Domingue, although officially a French colony, actually stood alone as an independent state. Hubris, perhaps, became his downfall, when he issued a constitution in 1801 appointing himself governor for “the rest of his glorious life.” In the document, he claimed allegiance to France while also declaring Saint-Domingue’s sovereignty. 

Bonaparte’s Ire

Napoleon Bonaparte took this as an act of defiance, and sent his brother-in-law, Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc, to regain control over the colony and enslave the black citizens of Saint Domingue once more. 

Leclerc traveled with 30,000 soldiers to the colony and eventually wore down the rebels. Henri Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe, two of Louverture’s generals, surrendered one by one, accepting a deal to retain their rank but fight under France’s flag. Leclerc offered the same deal to Louverture, but he went back on it as he did not trust the rebel leader. Louverture was shipped off to a prison at Fort-de-Joux in the Jura mountains. He died in his prison cell in 1803. 

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“In overthrowing me, you have done no more than cut down the trunk of the tree of the black liberty in St-Domingue-it will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and deep.”

Toussaint Louverture

The main drive behind slavery is greed. The violence, the mistreatment, all play into this excessive desire for profit. Toussaint Louverture recognized how corrupt the system was and fought to oust France. While the U.S. has its own checked history, the current problem could transcend race. Corrupt corporations and individuals could be using their money and connections to get Congress to sell out. A major consequence of this is that these powerful entities can make undue profits off of citizens.

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