It was a cruel irony to take this great leader from his Caribbean island and incarcerate him through a freezing winter.
Born a slave around 1743, Toussaint enjoyed a degree of privilege as a house slave and coachman and was taught to read and write. At 33 he was given his freedom and adopted the name L’Ouverture (“opening”). Like others he must have anticipated that the French Revolution of 1789 would liberate the slaves. Instead wealthy planters remained in control of an island vital to the French economy.
When the slaves rose under Dutty Boukman in August 1791, Toussaint hesitated at first. Then in 1792 the French Assembly acknowledged the rights of a minority of free blacks and mixed-race mulattoes in exchange for their defence of French interests against the British and Spanish. Toussaint had joined the Spaniards after the 1791 revolt and rose quickly to high rank.
The situation changed as the French Revolution reached its high point. In 1793 any slave who bore arms for France was declared free and in 1794 slavery was formally abolished. Toussaint joined the French army.
By 1797 Toussaint was military commander of the colony. Black officers now ran the plantations and Toussaint was imposing a regime to revive the economy. The new constitution of 1801 vested absolute power in him. Then Napoleon sent his brother in law, Charles Leclerc, to recapture the island and restore slavery. Toussaint fought back with an army of 20,000, but remained afraid the island would not survive without the link to France. Britain and the US traded with Toussaint, but fearful of the impact of the rebellion on their own slaves, they would give no support.
Toussaint was a great revolutionary leader. Yet as CLR James suggests in his wonderful book The Black Jacobins, he hesitated to rely on the capacity of a people in arms to make a revolution. Instead he turned to Napoleon, who first humiliated and then betrayed him.
However, Napoleon’s bid to hold on to the island failed. On 1 January 1804 Toussaint’s lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, declared Haiti independent.
Haiti coverage in this month’s Socialist Review:
Haiti – the making of a catastrophe, by Mike Gonzalez
The taking of Haiti, by John Pilger
Haiti – Repression and Resistance, by Mike Gonzalez
Haiti – who are the real looters?, by Patrick Acureuil and Pepijn Brandon
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