L'Ouverture: the Slave who Defeated Napoleon
was one of the greatest generals who ever lived. But at the end
of the 18th century a self-educated slave with no military training
drove Napoleon out of Haiti and led his country to independence.
The remarkable leader
of this slave revolt was Toussaint Breda (later called Toussaint
L'Ouverture, and sometimes the “black Napoleon”). Slave
revolts from this time normally ended in executions and failure
– this story is the exception.
began in 1791 in the French colony of Saint Dominique (later Haiti).
Though born a slave in Saint Dominique, Toussaint learned of Africa
from his father, who had been born a free man there. He learned
that he was more than a slave, that he was a man with brains and
dignity. He was fortunate in having a liberal master who had him
trained as a house servant and allowed him to learn to read and
write. Toussaint took full advantage of this, reading every book
he could get his hands on. He particularly admired the writings
of the French Enlightenment philosophers, who spoke of individual
rights and equality.
1789 the French Revolution rocked France. The sugar plantations
of Saint Dominique, though far away, would never be the same. Spurred
on by such Enlightenment thinkers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the
early moderate revolutionaries considered seriously the question
of slavery. Those moderate revolutionaries were not willing to end
slavery but they did apply the "Rights of Man" to all
Frenchmen, including free blacks and mulattoes (those of mixed race).
Plantation owners in the colonies were furious and fought the measure.
Finally the revolutionaries gave in and retracted the measure in
news of this betrayal triggered mass slave revolts in Saint Dominique,
and Toussaint became the leader of the slave rebellion. He became
known as Toussaint L'Ouverture (the one who finds an opening) and
brilliantly led his rag-tag slave army. He successfully fought the
French (who helped by succumbing to yellow fever in large numbers)
as well as invading Spanish and British.
1793, the revolution in France was in the hands of the Jacobins,
the most radical of the revolutionary groups. This group, led by
Maximilian Robespierre, was responsible for the Reign
of Terror, a campaign to rid France of “enemies of the revolution.”
Though the Jacobins brought indiscriminate death to France, they
were also idealists who wanted to take the revolution as far as
it could go. So they again considered the issue of “equality”
and voted to end slavery in the French colonies, including what
was now known as Haiti.
was jubilation among the blacks in Haiti, and Toussaint agreed to
help the French army eject the British and Spanish. Toussaint proved
to be a brilliant general, winning 7 battles in 7 days. He became
a de facto governor of the colony.
France the Jacobins lost power. People finally tired of blood flowing
in the streets and sent Maximilian Robespierre, the leader of the
Jacobins, to the guillotine, ending the Reign of Terror. A reaction
set in. The French people wanted to get back to business. More moderate
leaders came and went, eventually replaced by Napoleon, who ruled
France with dictatorial powers. He responded to the pleas of the
by reinstating slavery in the French colonies, once again plunging
Haiti into war.
1803 Napoleon was ready to get Haiti off his back: he and Toussaint
agreed to terms of peace. Napoleon agreed to recognize
and Toussaint agreed to retire from public life. A few months later,
the French invited Toussaint to come to a negotiating meeting will
full safe conduct. When he arrived, the French (at Napoleon's orders)
betrayed the safe conduct and arrested him, putting him on a ship
headed for France. Napoleon ordered that Toussaint be placed in
a prison dungeon in the mountains, and murdered by means of cold,
starvation, and neglect. Toussaint died in prison, but others carried
on the fight for freedom.
months later, Napoleon decided to give up his possessions in the
New World. He was busy in Europe and these far-away possessions
were more trouble than they were worth. He abandoned Haiti to independence
and sold the French territory in North America to the United States
(the Louisiana purchase).
later, in exile at St. Helena, when asked about his dishonorable
treatment of Toussaint, Napoleon merely remarked, "What could
the death of one wretched Negro mean to me?"
Hero or Tyrant exhibit
in the French Revolution