the “black Napoleon”

The 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 independence.

Toussaint L'Ouverture
Toussaint L’Ouverture

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.

It 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.

In 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.

The 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.


Toussaint Louverture

orig. François Dominique Toussaint(born c. 1743, Bréda, near Cap-Français, Saint-Domingue—died April 7, 1803, Fort-de-Joux, Fr.) Leader of the Haitian independence movement during the French Revolution. Born a slave, he was freed in 1777. In 1791 he joined a slave rebellion and soon assembled an army of his own, which he trained in guerrilla warfare. When France and Spain went to war in 1793, he and other black commanders joined the Spaniards, but in 1794 he switched his allegiance to the French because France, unlike Spain, had recently abolished slavery. His revolt created the first independent nation in Latin America. He rose from lieutenant governor to governor-general of Saint-Domingue and gradually rid himself of nominal French superiors. Treaties with the British secured their withdrawal, and he began trade with them and the U.S. In 1801 he turned his attention to Santo Domingo, the Spanish-controlled portion of Hispaniola, driving out the Spanish and freeing the slaves there. He made himself governor-general for life. He was deposed by the French in 1802 and died in custody in France

France officially commemorates the bicentennial of the death of a black French general, as Napoleon’s prisoner, on April 7th, 1803.

The Chateau de Joux, high in the mountainous region of Franche-Comté close to the Swiss border, was one of the great state prisons of France, along with the Bastille and the Chateau d’If (described by Dumas in The Count of Monte-Cristo). The huge fortress dates back nearly 1,000 years, its medieval walls augmented by Charles V, Vauban and finally by the young Joffre as engineer officer.

It was in this icy castle that, in 1802,  Napoleon ordered that another French general, Toussaint Louverture, recently  snatched from the heat of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, where he had lived all his life, should be incarcerated. Locked in his cell (which he never again left) on August 24th, 1802, he died alone on April 7th, 1803.

Now, 200 years after, his death is to be marked in France by ‘a great national commemoration, supported by the ministry of culture, sponsored by UNESCO, supported by many Caribbean and African countries and personalities’, much of which will be centred on the château. Some 18 million euros will be spent to position the château as a ‘site-symbol of the fight for liberty’.

Toussaint Louverture is central to this project, though other notable figures were also imprisoned at Joux – Protestants after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Mirabeau (for personal rather than political reasons), chouans after the Vendée, the German patriot-poet von Kleist, as well as mulatto generals, contemporaries of Toussaint.

Toussaint is celebrated as ‘the first black general of the French army’, having been made general de brigade in 1794, the year in which the National Convention abolished slavery. In that year too the black father of Alexandre Dumas was raised to the same rank, commanding troops in Flanders. Later, Toussaint was general de division.

He was ‘the first black governor of a colony’ – Saint-Domingue, the western third of Hispaniola, today’s Haiti; and also the ‘first leader of a victorious slave revolution, father of the independence of the “first black colony to achieve this, going on to become the world’s first  black republic”‘.

Born a black slave, he can be seen as a precursor of the abolition of slavery, of colonial freedom, and (as those in charge of the château today suggest) of such men as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Patrice Lumumba or Nelson Mandela.

He was in fact something more than any of these. He was, as Lamartine said, the black Napoleon. Lamartine wrote a tragedy, Toussaint-Louverture, in 1850, two years after an Act of the 1848 French provisional government of which he had been a member finally abolished slavery. Another member of that government had been Victor Schoelcher, ‘the French Wilberforce’, whose life was devoted to the black cause, and whose biography of Toussaint brings out all his greatness.

But Toussaint had something even greater than Napoleon: magnanimity. Not for him the pettiness of soul of the then First Consul, who put a sixty-year-old man from the tropics into a glacial prison, stripped him of his uniform, his rank and his attendant, allowing him to see no one. This was in character with the racism of Napoleon, who re-established black slavery in the remaining French sugar colonies , and spoke of blacks with contempt.

Toussaint was born, probably in 1743, on the plantation of Breda in the north of today’s Haiti. His father, a chief’s son from present-day Benin, had been taken in a local battle and sold to the plantation’s owner, a French count who, it is said, recognising a fellow aristocrat, granted him privileged status. Toussaint, very unusually for a slave, was taught to read French.

Of the language he eventually became a master – though when he himself put pen to paper it was in phonetic creole. As commander, general and head of government, he, like Napoleon, would have a team of secretaries, each of whom he exhausted in turn with his dispatches, letters and state documents, all bearing a consistent stamp of authorship and authority.

On the plantation he became the coachman of the cousin of the count, who now ran the estate, was in charge of the stables and the stock. In 1791, as the tide of the revolution in France rose, the first slave rebellion broke out. Many of the rebels were fresh from Africa, had been warriors, with fighting in the blood.

Toussaint protected his owners, getting them away to the United States. He then joined the insurrection, and soon, in August 1793, he was proclaiming: ‘I am Toussaint Louverture. My name has perhaps become known to you. I am bent on vengeance. I desire the establishment of Liberty and Equality in St-Domingue. I strive to bring them into being. Unite with us, brothers… in the common cause.’

As a commander he had  genius (he earned the name ‘L’ouverture’ because he always found an opening in the enemy’s defences). By 1798 he had defeated his opponents (including a British army), had been appointed by Paris as the C-in-C of the army, ran the government, and began to restore prosperity, inviting back the former plantation proprietors to run the plantations on a contractual basis, enforced by his govern-ment on their former slaves.

After the Peace of Amiens in 1802, the French navy could again sail the seas. Napoleon wanted the riches and the absolute control of  the sugar colonies. An expedition was fitted out for St-Domingue with assurances that liberty would remain intact, though secret instructions to Leclerc, Napoleon’s captain-general and brother-in-law, indicated the contrary. The struggle broke out again, to end with the temporary integration of the black army with that sent from France.

Leclerc kidnapped Toussaint and pushed him and his family on a warship to France. As he stepped on board, Toussaint declared: ‘In overthrowing me, you have cut down only the trunk of the tree of black liberty: it will spring up again by the roots, they are deep and many.’

Wordsworth, learning of his plight, wrote a sonnet, published in The Morning Post in February 1803:

…Thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep
dungeon’s earless den;
…There’s not a breathing of
the common wind
That will forget thee.

After Toussaint’s death, his homeland’s struggle with France resumed: the French were expelled and independence was proclaimed on January 1st, 1804.

The present initiative centred on the Château de Joux will help to re-establish the greatness of Toussaint in the wider world, francophone and anglophone, in Europe, the Americas and Africa.

Victor Schoelcher should have the last word. Pouring scorn on Napoleon (who, on St Helena, said that the expedition to St Domingue was a great mistake, and he should have left Toussaint in place), he ended his chapter on Toussaint’s death by approvingly quoting a letter from Liberia giving an African’s view on the recent killing of the Prince Imperial in South Africa in 1879:

‘We here look upon it as a singular co-incidence, that the dynasty founded by him who treated so basely and so cruelly that great man of Africa, Toussaint-Louverture, has now found its end, on black soil, and at the hand of brave Zulus.’

Graham Gendall Norton


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