Toussaint L'ouverture 1791

Given how universally condemned the institution of slavery is today, it is a wonder there is so little attention paid to the process which brought about its abolition. Americans, for their part, understandably associate the end of slavery with the American Civil War. And yet 70 years before Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, the most successful slave rebellion in history was taking place just off the American coast, in the French Sugar colony of Saint-Domingue; on the very same island where Columbus had first established a permanent colony some three centuries earlier.

Saint-Domingue had become a highly profitable, highly valuable piece of the French economy by the end of the 18th century. There were approximately half of a million slaves in the colony, vastly outnumbering the thirty thousand white colonists. Interestingly, there were also twenty five thousand free-people of color in the colony, who themselves owned around one third of the plantations, and about one quarter of the slaves.

But the ground shook in 1789, when the French Revolution unleashed a political watershed, gravely endangering this status quo (established order). The language of equality quickly permeated the air in France, and it did not take long for these ideas to migrate all the way across the ocean to the island of Saint-Domingue. Rumors of freedom began to circulate, and optimism entered the hearts and minds of slaves. Conversely, the level of anxiety among slaveholders began to rise.

Still, while the French revolutionaries had indeed broken bold new ground, with their codification of Universal Rights of Man in 1789, they would not always manage enough political consensus to live up to their own lofty ideals. Such was the case in 1790, when the National Assembly, balked on its own language of universal rights, in light of the economic importance of the sugar colonies. Despite objections from abolitionist members, the body concluded instead that they universal rights ought not apply to the colonies. Still, universal rights were nevertheless on the table in a way that they had never been before.

Throughout the French revolution, it would often be the case that as the legislative process became stymied at the top, ground-level activity would kickstart the halls of high politics back into action. On August 22 1791, around 10 o'clock at night, an indelible example of just such ground level agitation occurred.


Slaves met under cover of darkness at a predetermined location in northern San Domingue. Armed only with machetes and fire, bands of slaves went from plantation to plantation, setting fields of sugarcane aflame, wreaking havoc on the homes of plantation holders, killing whites, and smashing sugar mills. Their numbers grew, and by two weeks later, slaves had risen up in 23 of the 27 parishes of the northern province. By the end of September, the insurgent army had grown to at least 20,000. Insufficiently armed as they were, the army of slaves tended to avoid pitched battles, favoring guerilla style tactics, and retreating into the mountains when necessary.

In the very early stages of the revolt, a man named Boukman played a key organizational and perhaps spiritual leadership role. A Jamaican slave, he was brought to San Domengues after attempting to teach fellow slaves to read. However, Boukman was eventually encircled and killed in the early months of the revolt. In order to make an example out of him, it is said that the colonists put Boukman's head on display for the other rebels to see.

In time, another key leader by the name of Toussaint L'Ouverture emerged. L'Ouverture's acumen as a military commander would see the revolt through in the years that followed. So impressive was his leadership that he later came to be called "The Black Napoleon."

Toussaint L'Ouverture

Originally known as Toussaint Breda, he is thought to have been born a slave on the Breda plantation of San Domengues. Toussaint later added the appellation "L'Overture" ( "The Opening") taken from an anti-slavery passage written by French philosopher Guillame Raynal. To the extent that the details of L'Ouverture's earlier life are known, they are interesting. L'Ouverture was not in fact a slave at the time of the revolt. Rather, he had managed to achieve freedom in his adulthood, to amass some personal wealth, and even to acquired some slaves of his own for a time. However, by the time of the revolt, he returned as an employee to the Breda plantation where he had formerly been a slave.

Back in France

News of the rebellion did not hit Paris until two months later, in October 1791, right as the revolution in France was entering into a whirlwind of activity on its own front. An entirely new class of legislators had just been ushered in, and already the Assembly was contemplating national war with Austria. Over the next eighteen months, the French monarchy would unexpectedly fall and the creation of an entirely new Republic would be erected in its place. And that was not all. A near fatal invasion by the Prussian army was barely stemmed, the king was put to death, and France declared war with nearly all of the powers in Europe. This litany of events would occur alongside the developments in Saint-Domingue, significantly affecting the French response, both directly and indirectly.

The French Response

In the summer of 1792, France sent three commissioners to put down the rebellion and to restore order in the colony. One of the commissioners was a twenty-nine year old Leger-Felicite Sonthonax, who had been known to have abolitionist leanings. Santhonax was assigned to northern Saint-Domingue. He would prove to be most influential over the next few years, deftly threading the needle through a difficult and volatile situation. Adding to the difficulty, the Spanish and British both inserted themselves militarily on Saint-Domingue. Santhonax responded by unilaterally offering the promise of liberation to black rebels, in a desperate attempt to win them back to the French side.

Amazingly, by February 1794, Sonthonax had not only persuaded Paris that his actions had been necessary, but the legislature in Paris then officially abolished slavery and extended full citizenship to blacks throughout all French territories. Perhaps for this reason, T'oussaint L'overture broke with the Spanish and joined with Santhonax in May of 1794, causing a tipping point in the conflict. Warfare raged on for several more years, but by 1800, L'overture had emerged as the dominant military figure in Saint-Domingue. While continuing to assert French allegiance, L'ouverture oversaw the drafting of a separate Constitution for Saint Domingue, one which appointed him governor for life.

But just as the long, complicated conflict appeared to have reached its resolution, events flared up once again. The French Revolution, at this point, had come a very long way by 1800, and was now entering a dramatically new phase under Napoleon. Bonaparte showed himself to be driven by practicality more than the egalitarian ideas which had characterized the revolution at the outset.

Despite the continued French allegiance by Toussaint L'overture, Napoleon sent a giant force of soldiers to subdue L'overture and Saint-Domingue in 1802. Soon, Napolean would reinstate the slave trade in general. Brutal and bloody conflict ensued on the island over the next two years. Nevertheless, guerilla style tactics allowed the black population to remain elusive. Warfare and disease had claimed around forty thousand French lives, and the French army in particular suffered from yellow fever. The death toll among the black island population was even higher.

It was during this time that L'overture had been lured into laying down his arms. Under the pretense of negotiations and with assurances of safety, L'Ouverture was captured and sent back to France in chains. The great general was brought to a French prison, where he would die the following year.

After L'Ouverture

In his absence, the remaining black generals and troops fought on with a new level of determination and desperation. A long grinding battle of mutual attrition finally came to an end in 1803, when what was left of the French army finally withdrew in defeat.

It is said that the black general Jean-Jacques Dessaline unified the remaining insurgents under his command and ripped the white panel out from the center of the French flag, thereby creating what was to become the modern flag of Haiti. On Jan 1st 1804, General Dessaline led a ceremony to declare independence. The colony was renamed "Haiti", a TaĆ­no Indian name for Hispaniola. The political leaders established a dictatorship and a militarized state with problems of its own, but slavery did not return again. Haiti would be the first independent state in Latin America, and would serve as inspiration to the abolitionist movement in the years that followed.

Source: Desan, Suzanne M. University of Wisconsin-Madison. Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon. The Great Courses, 2013.

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