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Toussaint Louverture
(20 May 1743 – 7 April 1803 )
François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture

Toussaint Louverture 20 May 1743 – 7 April 1803), was the leader of the Haitian Revolution.

Born François Dominique Toussaint Bréda, Toussaint Louverture was the preeminent figure of the Haitian Revolution. A former slave, he became a brilliant general and capable administrator, defeating British, Spanish, and French troops, emancipating the slave population, and overseeing the country's initial attempts at reforming its political and social structure. His extraordinary efforts at reaching across lines of race and class set him apart from his contemporaries, and his vision of a race-blind, independent country of equals was ahead of his time. As skilled as he was on the battlefield, Toussaint was equally at ease manipulating the machinery of politics and diplomacy. Wise, intelligent, tireless, ascetic, pragmatic, opportunistic, fond of aesthetic pleasures, the man many called "Papa Toussaint" grew up taking care of plants and animals, and the theme of Toussaint as "father" or "caretaker" runs throughout his life story.

Toussaint's true life story is a enigma, the details lost, disputed, or never recorded. Indeed, even in life, Toussaint cultivated an air of mystery, the better to keep his allies on their toes and his enemies off their guard. Simplistic descriptions of his motivations or desires never seem to do the man justice, as his aims seemed to evolve along with a rapidly changing political situation. True to his chosen name, he continued throughout his life to find openings to advance the cause of the citizens of Saint-Domingue. He never, it seems, beat a straight course, but tacked back and forth to use the currents of history to his advantage.

Early life and education

Born into slavery in 1743, Toussaint grew up on Bréda Plantation, near Le Cap in the north of Saint-Domingue. As a boy, he was called Fatras Bâton, or "Walking Stick". Though skinny and undersized, he was strong and energetic. He had a natural affinity for animals and became a master horseman. He would also develop a keen knowledge of horticulture. There exists no definitive portrait of Toussaint, but he is widely reported to have been far from handsome, yet possessing of an irresistible charisma.

There is a legend that Toussaint's father was Gaou-Ginou, an African chieftan of the Arada tribe from Dahomey (the current Bénin), and Toussaint is reported to have spoken at least some Aradas. However, it is probable that, as Toussaint claimed, his father was the man who many have written was his godfather, Pierre Baptiste Simon, an educated black slave. Regardless, Toussaint was blessed with an informal education and a kind master, leaving him somewhat sheltered from the horrific treatment that most black slaves received in Saint-Domingue.

Toussaint is believed to have been well educated by his godfather Pierre Baptiste. Historians have speculated as to Toussaint's intellectual background. His extant letters demonstrate a command of French in addition to Creole patois; he was familiar with Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher who had lived as a slave; and his public speeches as well as his life's work, according to his biographers, show a familiarity with Machiavelli. Some cite Abbé Raynal, who wrote against slavery, as a possible influence: The wording of proclamation issued by then rebel slave leader Toussaint on August 29, 1793, which may have been the first time he publicly used the moniker "Louverture", seems to refer to an anti-slavery passage in Abbé Raynal's "A Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies."

He may also have attained some education from Jesuit missionaries. His medical knowledge is attributed to familiarity with African herbal-medical techniques as well those techniques commonly found in Jesuit-administered hospitals. A few legal documents signed on Toussaint's behalf between 1778 and 1781 raise the possibility that he could not write at that time. Throughout his military and political career, he made use of secretaries for most of his correspondence. A few surviving documents in his own hand confirm that he could write, though his spelling in the French language was "strictly phonetic", as is the spelling of Haitian Creole (Kreyol).

At age 33, Toussaint was given his freedom. Toussaint married Suzanne Simone Baptiste Louverture and had two children with her. A few years later, he would rent a plot of land, to which were attached 13 slaves. Toussaint owned at least one slave himself, and would later give him his freedom.


Toussaint may have been involved in the planning of the Boukman Rebellion of 1791, but what is certain is that he joined the army officially very shortly after the initial revolt. First working as a doctor, Toussaint soon became a military commander, and his skill in battle would become legendary. He was both feared and respected by allies and enemies alike. Toussaint would maintain the highest moral and ethical standards throughout his campaigns.

Toussaint was not immune to the racial pressures of his day, though he did more than most in his time to promote equality. Indeed, he took extraordinary measures throughout his military and political life to treat all races equally and fairly, and the trust this engendered helped him solidify his control of the colony. However, when a regiment of mulattos defected to the enemy, causing him to lose a battle with the British at St. Marc, he vowed to never truly trust them again.

In August 1793, Toussaint used the name L'Ouverture, or, "The Opener of the way," in a document for the first time. The origins of the name are unclear, and several hypotheses seem plausible. One is that he was given the name for his uncanny ability to find and exploit openings on the battlefield. He might have given himself the name for similar reasons, or it may have started as a friendly taunt, referring to the gap in his teeth courtesy of a spent bullet. Whatever the origin, Toussaint dropped the apostrophe in short order and became simply Toussaint Louverture.

Having consolidated his control of the colony by (1799?), Toussaint set about securing its long term independence. He proposed a constitution that ensured equal treatment for all races (and made him governor-for-life). He negotiated informal trade agreements with Britain and the United States, and instituted forced labor policies intended to keep the colony's productivity high. It was during this period of relative peace and prosperity that Toussaint's power began to wane.

Toussaint was the Governor General of Saint-Domingue from April 1, 1797 to May 5, 1802.
In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte sent his brother-in-law General Leclerc with an expedition of 20,000 soldiers and secret orders to retake control of the colony and to reinstitute slavery. Toussaint's rebel forces put up fierce resistance, ultimately causing Napoleon to commit 40,000 additional troops. Eventually, though, critical hesitations along with defections and betrayals within his officer corps led to Toussaint's surrender. Though allowed to retire from the field and return to civilian life, Toussaint was eventually betrayed, kidnapped, and taken to a prison in the French Alps. Upon leaving Saint-Domingue, Toussaint remarked to Daniel Savary, a French captain, : "In overthrowing me, you have cut down in Saint-Domingue only the trunk of the tree of liberty. It will spring up again by the roots, for they are numerous." He never saw his country again.

Personal life

In 1782, Toussaint married Suzanne Simone Baptiste Louverture, who is thought to have been his cousin or his godfather's daughter. Towards the end of his life, he told General Cafarelli that he had fathered 16 children, of whom 11 had predeceased him. Not all his children can be identified for certain, but his three legitimate sons are well known. The eldest, Placide, was probably adopted by Toussaint and is generally thought to be Suzanne's first child with a mulatto, Seraphim Le Clerc. The two sons born of his marriage with Suzanne were Isaac and Saint-Jean.

Death and legacy

Toussaint Louverture died in Fort de Joux on 7 April 1803, unaware that his army would rally behind the leadership of his former general, Jean Jacques Dessalines, to win the colony's independence for good. After many hard-fought battles – the last of which was the Battle of Vertières – the newly liberated Haiti declared independence on 1 January 1804.

In 2003 the international airport in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince was renamed Toussaint Louverture Airport.

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Toussaint Louverture
OCCUPATION: Politician
BORN: 20 May 1743
BIRTHPLACE: Saint-Domingue (later Haiti)
DIED: 7 April 1803 (aged 69)
DEATHPLACE: Fort-de-Joux
Leader of the Haitian Revolution (1 January 1791 - 6 May 1802)
Governor-General for Life of Haiti (7 July 1801 - 6 May 1802)
Haiti Haiti
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