William Wordsworth wrote of Toussaint L'Ouverture:
"There is not a breathing of the common wind that will forget thee;
thou hast great allies;
thy friends are exultation,
agonies and love,
and man's unconquerable mind."
(published in the Morning Post, 2 February 1803)
Pierre Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture - his surname possibly deriving from his bravery in battle where he once made a breach in the ranks of the enemy, was born a slave on Breda plantation, St. Domingue (Haiti), in 1746. It is said that he came from noble stock, in that he was the grandson of an African king, King Goau-Guinou of the Aradas. He was taught to read and write by Pierre Baptiste, a free black. It would appear that his father was highly regarded by the master of L'Habitation Breda, the Comte de Noé, who, upon his marriage to a slave Pauline, granted him 'liberté de savanne', a partial freedom that allowed the slave, although still the property of his master, freedom within the confines of the estate to live his own life.
"Toussaint's father was also granted a parcel of land and five slaves of his own to work for him," wrote Wenda Parkinson in an account of the life of Toussaint, entitled "The gilded African". There were five children born to the marriage, Pierre, the eldest, became a colonel in the army of the king of Spain; Paul served as a general in the French colonial army, Marie Jean, the only girl, married a colonel. There was a boy who died young named Goau-Guinou after his royal grandfather, and then there was Toussaint.
Philip Sherlock wrote of him:
"Toussaint had a quick mind, he learnt quickly, learnt from his father the use of healing herbs; learnt the ancient stories of his people, and above all learnt to hate the degradation of slavery."
The Comte de Noé was a man of the enlightenment and recognised in this family a natural intelligence. Being kindly, he lent the boys books.
St. Domingue, the futile, prosperous colony that it was, groaned beneath the weight of slavery. Toussaint saw men and women treated not as human beings, but as things. As a youth, tall, thin, a trifle frail, he was called 'fatras baton' - the thrashing stick. He tested his strength swimming the fast-flowing rivers, climbed to the hilltops alone and crawled up the rocky crags on the mountains above Breda. He saw the schooners and sloops setting out from Haitian ports for France, laden with such quantities of sugar, coffee, indigo and cotton that all of Europe marvelled. He saw the production of sugar grow and then grow even more to the stage when Haiti in 1789 was producing one third more sugar than all the British colonies in the Caribbean.
His father, the coachman to the Comte de Noé, would take him along when the Comte attended the affairs of the nobility. He saw the wealth that flowed into the estates, the finery from Paris, the opulence of absolute ownership. He knew that all this power and wealth rested on the basis of plantation slavery and was witness to the appalling cruelty so revolting that it would sicken you if it were to be recalled in detail.
Beneath this power, this wealth, beneath the crushing heel, there was a rising anger, swelling like some vast tide. As an explosion it came in 1791 when 100,000 Africans rose in revolt and swept the north of St. Domingue with fire and sword.
Toussaint joined the rebels. At first, he was suspect. They had won the hard-fought battles; they had put the fire, and they had faced the fire. But his determination was relentless and his skill in war obvious. By sheer power of his leadership he came to be regarded as their best general.
Regiments from France arrived and the colonists by and large refused the moderate terms of peace that were asked by Toussaint and the rebels. The colonists were contemptuous. "Did Toussaint think that they had brought half a million African slaves to the New World to make them French citizens?" they asked.
Now came the heroic moment in Toussaint's life: should he take the easy road and return to Breda, or the difficult road that meant years of war, perhaps even defeat? As a learned man, he may have remembered the words of Pericles, spoken in Athens over the Athenians who had given their lives for their country: "Life was dear, but they held their honour dearer, and so when the hour came it brought not terror but glory."
With that decision, a rebellion without a clear purpose became a war of liberation.
The hounds of war howled over the island and behind came the horsemen of the apocalypse, bringing disease, starvation and death. Toussaint first fought the French, then the Spaniards in the eastern half of the island (now the Dominican Republic). Then he fought against Maitland and his English army. His tattered army victorious, he now ruled all the island which Christopher Columbus had named Hispaniola, both what was once French and what was once Spanish.
In France, the French Revolution had swept the monarchy from the throne and had beheaded the aristocracy. Out of that new reality came Napoleon Bonaparte. The shadow of the Corsican dictator fell over all Europe. In Haiti, Toussaint strove to create a free African state. Napoleon saw quite clearly the real meaning of the Haitian revolution. He knew that the successful slave revolt in that island was a turning point in the history of the New World. He himself told his minister Talleyrand to inform England that "the freedom of the Negroes, if recognised in St. Domingue and legalised by France, would at all times be a rallying point for freedom-seekers of the New World".
Napoleon sent an armada of 46 ships to Haiti's harbours, carrying an army of 46,000 men to subdue Toussaint and his people. At first, the Haitian was overwhelmed and dismayed at the vastness of Napoleon's army. Turning of a strategy of "burnt earth", he summoned his best general Jean-Jacques Dessalines and instructed him:
"Remember that this soil nourished on our blood and sweat must not yield a crumb of food to our enemies. Keep all roads under constant fire. Throw the bodies of horses and men into all wells and springs, destroy everything, burn everything."
The three terrible allies Toussaint, yellow fever and dysentery reduced Napoleon's army to a shambles. In the end, having lost 60,000 men, Napoleon withdrew from the New World and gave up his designs on Haiti and Louisiana.
Toussaint had secured the freedom of Haiti. His actions were of direct benefit to the infant Federation of the United States, to whom Napoleon sold Louisiana. Toussaint, however, did not see the end. Betrayed by one of his friends, French General Brunet, he was kidnapped and taken to France. As the ship sailed into the rolling Atlantic swells, Haiti hardly more than a memory hovering on the horizon, Toussaint said:
"In overthrowing me, you have cut down in Haiti only the trunk of the tree of liberty. It will spring up again by the roots, for they are numerous and deep."
Toussaint L'Ouverture died ten months later in a fortress in the bleak and wintry Jura mountains, but the roots of the tree sprouted again and in 1804 Haiti was finally free.