Slave Who Defeated Napoleon
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
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
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 1791.
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
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 defacto 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 plantation owners
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