This fascinating, albeit short, collection of letters and other writings by Toussaint L’Ouverture reveals a surprising amount about the politics and character of the remarkable slave leader.
Toussaint joined a mass slave revolt in Saint Domingue, present-day Haiti, in 1791. The rebels, inspired by the 1789 French Revolution, rampaged through the country slaughtering slave owners and burning their properties.
Toussaint, who had been freed from slavery and taught to read and write, soon became leader of a rapidly expanding slave army. For the next 12 years, he led this army in victorious battles against the mighty French, Spanish and British armies. In 1804 “Haiti emerged as the first black republic” – described by Jean-Bertrand Aristide in an introduction that reveals as much about the politics of Haiti’s first democratically elected and twice overthrown president as it does about Toussaint.
Toussaint apparently wrote up to 300 letters a day and it is inspiring to read words written in the heat of such battles. In his proclamation of 29 August 1793, for instance, in which he announced his adoption of the name L’Ouverture, Toussaint wrote: “Equality cannot exist without liberty. And for liberty to exist, we must have unity.”
The letters show the military and political strategist at work, particularly in relation to people he was dealing with in France – itself going through dramatic revolutionary changes. They show he was a man of firm principles, but not the most radical of the rebels – a former slave who refused a joint British-US offer to make him king, but who passionately defended the sanctity of property, Catholicism and French law.
The letters also reveal Toussaint’s ruthlessness and arrogance, perhaps qualities necessary for the tasks he faced. In 1800 he ordered enforced labour. The same year he executed his adopted nephew Moyse who opposed this policy and had supported workers demanding land reform. In May 1801 he announced a constitution that would make him all-powerful army chief and head of state for life.
None of this detracts from the enormous achievements of Toussaint – the reason his story is so little taught in our schools. We know much more about Spartacus because he lost.
Toussaint died in miserable conditions in a French jail in 1803. His abduction and imprisonment sparked a ferocious response in St Domingue by the slave army, which drove the French out for good. Toussaint’s words after his abduction in 1802 were prophetic:
“In overthrowing me, you have cut in Saint Domingue only the trunk of the tree of liberty.
“It will spring up again by the roots for they are numerous and deep.”
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