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Toussaint Louverture: History's Unsung Hero Toussaint Louverture's "Firsts"
By Milton B. Beckerman
1. The Louisiana Purchase may not have been made had it not been for Toussaint Louverture.
2. Louverture freed the slaves of Haiti in the only permanently successful slave revolt in history.
3. He developed the idea of dominion status for Haiti as part of France. Rejected by Napoleon, the idea subsequently was used by Great Britain 66 years later on July 1, 1862, when Canada became the first dominion.
4. He wrote the first constitution for Haiti. It was the second constitution for a republic in the Western Hemisphere.
5. He was the greatest Black general in history, except for Hannibal 2000 years earlier.
6. He was the most outstanding Black statesman in history.
7. He possessed outstanding ability as a civil administrator.
8. He set up the first legal code for Haiti.
9. He devised the first universal school system for Black people.
10. He dealt with the first five presidents of the United States or their representatives, either when they were in that office or when they were Secretary of State.
11. He was the first Black man to be the subject of poems by two of America's leading poets.
12. He was the only Black general to defeat three of the world's biggest armies: French, British and Spanish.
13. He declared emancipation for slaves 61 years before U.S. president Abraham Lincoln did so.
14. He devised a plan for how slaves could gain economic freedom, before those rights were granted in any other country.
15. By bringing the freedom of slaves to the world's attention, Louverture' example helped other worldwide liberation movements develop (women's right to vote and other women's issues, child labor laws, environmental movements and others).
16. He caused European governments for the first time to deal with the aspirations of Black colonial people. His example was followed by Simon Bolivar in South America, Russians with serfs, British in India, and Boers in South Africa (due to Gandhi's leadership).
17. Set up the first new and simplified tax code. 2
18. He got rid of corrupt French tax collectors in Haiti. Substituted clear-cut tax rules.
19. He promulgated and administered new laws with justice (unique for colonials).
20. He improved the quality of slaves' lives measurably. Gave them pride as members of society. 3
21. He was the "First one who brought guerrilla warfare to he notice of military historians. He used strict discipline and precision with athletic prowess." 4
2. Slaves Who Freed Haiti, Katherine Scherman, 1954, pg 121
3. The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James, 1963, pag 265
4. This Guilded African, Toussaint L'Ouverture, Wenda Parkinson, 1978 pg. 31
©Milton B. Beckerman
Liberator of Haiti
AKA François-Dominique Toussaint
Executive summary: Led the 1791 Slave Rebellion
Wife: Suzanne Simone Baptiste (d. May-1816)
Son: Placide (stepson, d. 1843)
Son: Isaac (d. 1850)
Son: Saint Jean
by Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
At one point in time, the island of Haiti was jointly owned by Spain and France, each claiming one half of the island as its colony. The climate there proved ideal for the growing of sugar cane, and soon the white people established large plantations. Originally, they utilized the forced labor of the natives. But these native peoples were soon wiped out by the new diseases unintentionally brought by the French and Spanish. Thus, Africans were imported to do the labor instead. But little was the world aware that this pattern of life in Haiti was soon to change. Soon after the birth of a child named Toussaint L’Ouverture, Haiti’s future was forever altered.
Francois-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture was likely born on November 1, 1743, though this date has been disputed. He was born into slavery on a plantation under the ownership of Count de Breda. Toussaint’s father, an African named Gaou-Guinou and probably a member of the Arrada tribe, had been deported from his native country and brought to the island of Haiti to labor as a slave on the lucrative sugar plantations of the white men. Toussaint was the oldest the eight children—five of which were boys and three of which were girls. However, in his formative years, Toussaint was allowed by the plantation overseer the rare privilege of learning to read and write. He soon began reading everything available to him. Authors of these books included Plutarch, Epictetus, Caesar, Saxe, and, especially influential in Toussaint’s life, Abbé Raynal. In addition, Toussaint was raised in the beliefs of Roman Catholicism, the official religion of the island. Throughout the rest of his life, his faith played an important roll in shaping both his actions and his personality. Toussaint possessed an innate skill for leadership, and this talent combined with his calm, but persistent, nature to create one of the greatest leaders of all time. Compared to most other slaves in the region, Toussaint was well off, serving as a coachman and house servant instead of toiling in the fields. Yet, good conditions or poor, he was still a slave, another man’s property.
But later on, Toussaint’s life changed drastically. By the age of approximately 33 Toussaint had gained his freedom, and just in time. For shortly thereafter, on October 30 in the year of 1791, the slaves of Haiti staged a massive revolt against the whites of the island. Believing that God wished slavery to be abolished and had called him to lead Haiti out of enslavement, Toussaint did engage in the revolt. But he acted as the doctor for the black army instead of joining the others in their ruthless massacre of the whites. In addition, before the insurrection, he helped his master’s family to escape the country safely. However, the revolt was eventually subdued and the slaves were once again subjugated to their former status. After the uprising was defeated, Toussaint remained in the French portion of the island, even though most of the other black leaders of the revolt fled to the Spanish side of Haiti and were given high-ranking posts. It was not until France turned from a monarchy into a republic that Toussaint is reported to have averted to the Spanish to help them in their conquest against the French. Toussaint experienced incredible success as a general, and soon, France desired him to return. And due to the February 4, 1794 abolishment of slavery by the National Assembly, Toussaint did return to the French’s aide. Having done so, Napoleon designated him Commander-in-Chief of the colony.
Upon his return to the French, he found several tasks awaiting him. First, the Spaniards were still attempting to gain control over the French portion of Haiti. So Toussaint, gathering an army supplied by the French Governor Polvenel, defeated the Spanish. The Treaty of Basel forced Spain to relinquish its holdings in Haiti, but promised peace between the two countries. Toussaint next set out to work against the internal discord of the country that divided the French peoples of different races and colors. In addition, Toussaint mustered another army and advanced against the British who had been encroaching upon French’s territory in Haiti. Leaving the British general Sir Thomas Brisbane safely trapped in Fort St. Nicholas, Toussaint began implementing a plan to replace the French white men who held political offices in Haiti with blacks by creating subtle excuses to send the white officials on assignments to France. Finally, even the governor had left, and Toussaint replaced him with a black man by the name of Raymond.
With peace now established and the entire island now under control, though only for a brief time, Toussaint began implementing social reforms and improving the country’s infrastructure. Racial discrimination was non-existent in Toussaint’s choices of advisors and governmental personal. He based his decisions solely upon a person’s ability to perform a needed task. Toussaint constructed roads, repaired forts, enhanced agriculture, restructured the country’s armed forces, built schools for the black children, and declared free trade throughout the country. However, in an effort to keep Haiti economically stable and prosperous, Toussaint invited the former plantation owners to return to the country and ensured them that the blacks would again work for them, but only for payment. Yet this was not satisfactory to the Africans and soon his people rose up against him, led by his own nephew. After he finished subduing this outburst, the island’s mulatto population (those of mixed blood) revolted under General Rigaud. Toussaint then turned to the United Sates for assistance, promising President John Adams that if the US would support him against the mulattoes, he would deny France the use of Haiti as a platform for maneuvers in North America. With the aid of American forces, the insurrection was soon defeated, and in 1800, Rigaud and his remaining men fled the country.
These social upheavals were again followed by a short time of peace, in which Toussaint undertook the writing and establishment of the country’s constitution. This constitution ensured liberty and equality for all peoples regardless of race or color. It also named Toussaint as governor of the country for life and provided him the right to choose his successor. However, this did not settle well with the now jealous French commander Napoleon. Enraged, in January of 1802 Napoleon sent an army of approximately 20,000 men under the command of general Leclerc against Toussaint, but did so under a pretext of peace. Toussaint, however, saw through these deceptions and gathered an army from among the Haitians. War ensued, and the death toll climbed high. But in the French camp this was more often due to the deadly smallpox disease which many of the soldiers contracted. Yet, eventually, Toussaint’s forces were utterly exhausted and on May 5, 1802 he accepted a peace treaty with Leclerc which ensured Haiti’s independence and allowed Toussaint to retire to his estates in peace, provided that the fighting ceased. But treachery was afoot. Leclerc, under Napoleons orders, later invited Toussaint to a meeting where, despite Leclerc’s promise of safe conduct, the general had him captured, bound hand and foot, and put aboard a waiting ship. Toussaint was then transported to France and thrown into the dungeon of Fort de Joux in the Jura Mountains. And on April 7, 1803, Toussaint L’Ouverture died of apoplexy, pneumonia, and starvation.
After Toussaint’s death, Haiti was restored to French domination and slavery was re-implemented. Toussaint’s life seemed a failure—ineffective and useless. But as history now reveals, this was far from the case. The taste of freedom that Toussaint had enabled the Haitians to feel was not in vain. Just six months later, Napoleon, preoccupied with wars in Europe, relinquished his holdings in the New World. Having already lost thousands of soldiers in Haiti alone, the colonies proved too much work to be worth their keeping. So Napoleon allowed Haiti its independence and sold his possession of the western North American continent to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. Haiti’s independence is owed to Toussaint’s workings for freedom of both slaves and the country. Toussaint obviously had his own faults, and his life was not without mistakes and questionable regulations. Yet despite this, Toussaint’s life clearly was not lived in vain. His accomplishments remain visible even today. On the day of Toussaint’s birth, the world had no idea what kind of a man had been brought into being; but now this man will never be forgotten.
Straker, D. Augustus, Reflections on the Life and Times of Toussaint L'Overture,
the Negro Haytien, Commander-In-Chief, of the Army, Ruler Under the Dominion of France, and Author of The Independence of Hayti. (Columbia, S.C.: Charles A. Calvo, Jr., Printer and Bookbinder, 1886). Available at: <http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/straker/straker.html> December 18, 2004
J. A. Rogers, Great People of Color. (Soul School Institute), available at: <http://www.marcusgarvey.com/wmview.php?ArtID=523&page=1> December 18, 2004
Jennifer Brainard, “The Slave Who Defeated Napoleon”. 2003. HistoryWiz. <http://www.historywiz.com/toussaint.htm> December 18, 2004
U.S. Library of Congress, “Toussaint Louverture”. Available at: <http://www.travelinghaiti.com/history_of_haiti/toussaint_louverture.asp> December 18, 2004
Beard, J. R., Toussaint L'Ouverture: A Biography and Autobiography. (Boston:
James Redpath, Publisher, 221 Washington street, 1863.) Available at: <http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/beard63/beard63.html> December 18, 2004
Image of Toussaint
Although there is a large body of visual materials depicting the Haitian revolution, there are no existing portraits drawn from life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the hero of the revolution. The first known representations of Toussaint were included in a book by British admirer Marcus Rainsford, who published An Historical Account of the Black Empire in Hayti in 1805.
Engravings in Rainsford's book were based on his sketches, or, as in the case of Toussaint's portrait, on his oral description: "Every part of his conduct was marked by judgement and benevolence... in person, Toussaint was of a manly form, above the middle stature, with a countenance bold and striking, yet full of the most prepossessing suavity -- terrible to an enemy, but inviting to the objects of his friendship or his love."
Unlike Rainsford, the French considered Toussaint "a villain... this serpent which France has warmed in her bosom," and representations of him by French artists reflected this perspective. In 1832, a new image lithographed by Nicolas Eustache Maurin appeared inIconographie des contemporains, with a facsimile of Toussaint's signature below. No doubt influenced by three decades of vilification of Toussaint, the portrait's ape-like profile was widely accepted as an authentic likeness, and it became the the most frequently reproduced image of Toussaint.
A Hell on Earth
San Domingo was a chain of gruesome prison camps where half a million captive Africans slaved under tropical sun and the eyes of armed guards. The slaves were literally treated like animals--forced to live in long houses that were little more than stalls. They were so overworked that they commonly chewed their starvation rations raw, before falling into an exhausted sleep.
At the other extreme of this hateful society were the elite sons of France's bankrupt aristocracy--exported by their fathers to rebuild family fortunes. They formed a population of only about 20,000 planters and hangers-on. Unwilling to shave or dress themselves without slaves, they usually left the administration of the plantations to others--and lived parasitic lives of extreme decadence and inactivity.
For slave women, rape was a constant part of their lives. Over decades the children of this brutality gave rise to a thin stratum of Mulattos--roughly equal in number to the whites. Some Mulattos themselves became slaveowners--but they were viciously suppressed by the ruling whites. Meanwhile, by 1751, at least 3,000 runaway slaves lived in fierce armed farming communities of "maroons" deep in Haiti's backcountry.
This society was deeply marked by the constant violence of enforced slavery. The people were whipped for the smallest infractions. Those caught eating sugar cane were forced to wear tin masks in the heat of the fields. Women slaves suspected of aborting pregnancies were half strangled by tight metal collars until they finally gave birth. It was common to chop off limbs, ears or genitals. One observer described sitting at a dinner table and hearing the lady of the house casually order that the cook be thrown into the oven--death for an unsatisfactory meal.
Planters calculated that it was often cheaper to buy a new slave off the boat than raise a young slave from birth. They deliberately worked the slaves to death and then joked, "The Ivory Coast is a good mother." In 1789, still more than two-thirds of the slaves had been born free in Africa--and, despite the efforts of their masters, they were far from broken.
C.L.R. James, author of Black Jacobins,
a history of Haiti's slave revolution
Revolution in the Mother Country
"Materialist dialectics holds that external causes are the condition of change and internal causes are the basis of change and that external causes become operative through internal causes."
On July 14, 1789--far from Haiti's plantations--the masses of Paris stormed the Bastille prison. The French revolution had started--and it would lead to the overthrow of feudalism. This revolution was embraced by the slaveowning class of Haiti. The old government of France had loaded Haiti with taxes and restrictions--infuriating the French planters on the island. Like their Anglo-American counterparts George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, many Haitian planters dreamed of independence. Haiti's Mulatto slaveowners dreamed of equality with the whites. The talk of liberty and equality made them want a closerunion with the French mother country and its revolution.
None of these forces--not the white or Mulatto slaveowners of Haiti, not the bourgeois revolutionaries of France--seriously thought that "the rights of man" meant an end to slavery. The slave trade was a backbone of the French merchant capitalist class. The French revolution upheld the right to property--and African slaves were considered property. In the colony of Haiti, intense and complex fighting broke out --between royalists and "patriots," between whites and Mulattos. It raged for two years, while the slaves watched closely.
When the Night Skies Turn Bright With Flame
"Eh! Eh! Bomba! Heu! Heu!
Cango, bafio t�!
Canga, moun� de l�!
Canga, do ki la! Canga li!
[translation: We swear to destroy the whites and all they possess; let us die rather than fail to keep this vow.]
Song of Haiti's slave quarters
When the Night Skies Turn Bright With Flame
Mao Tsetung's report on
a violent peasant uprising
in China, 1927
The heart of Haiti's slave country was the northern plain--about 50 miles long and 15 miles from the sea to the mountains. The main harbor, Le Cap, was just a village of docks, warehouses and slave pens. But the plantations were large, and within easy sight of each other.
In 1791, a vast conspiracy bound the slaves together--spreading wherever the slaves gathered for their Voodoo ceremonies. The central organizer was the high priest Boukman. The plan was breathtakingly simple: On a central signal, slaves outside Le Cap would set their plantations on fire. Fire in the skies would signal slaves everywhere to kill their masters and join the revolt. The uprising would continue until all the whites were dead, and the island was in the hands of the slaves.
August 22, slave leaders met in the thick forests of Morne Rouge overlooking Le Cap and launched the uprising. On plantation after plantation, the slaves rose up, killed their masters and burned everything to the ground. Their weapons were whatever they could find or seize--farming tools, sharpened sticks, a few swords, pistols and fire. The rebels formed in large crowds and simply swarmed over any opponents--dying in large numbers as they swept their enemies away.
The slaves destroyed everything that fell into their hands--like prisoners burning their cell blocks. They hated the plantations and wanted to leave no trace of these hellholes or their masters. For three weeks it was difficult to tell day from night. The skies were a continual wall of flame and black smoke, white ashes fell like snow, burning embers forced ships far out to sea.
The slaves had gotten nothing but the most extreme brutality, rape, killing, and torture from the French--and they answered with a harsh justice. In the beginning they killed all whites--with very few exceptions, like respected doctors.
After a few weeks, the movement paused. There had never been a strong central organization--and Boukman himself died in battle. The slaves formed scattered groupings, and started to clash with each other. And there, this rebellion might have peaked--like so many other slave revolts in history.
The slaveowners were regrouping their forces. Boukman's head was displayed in Le Cap, and dozens of captive rebels were publicly tortured to death in the town's main square every day. Sections of the ruling class offered the Mulatto population eventual equality with whites, if they would help suppress the slaves. A formidable counterrevolutionary force took shape for the bloody work of retaking the plantation lands. The arrogant slavemasters saw their own victory as inevitable.
A Black Spartacus
In fact, this revolt was not crushed. There were many positive factors in play: The colonial mother country itself was gripped by revolution. This slave society was isolated on an island where the slaves formed an overwhelming majority. The local ruling class there was deeply divided and incapable of agreeing on Mulatto equality. And, perhaps most decisive of all, a disciplined leadership emerged among the slaves with a plan and a vision for actually carrying through the revolution.
Toussaint L'Ouverture was born in slavery, the son of a captured African. He caught a glimpse of the outside world working as a coachman. He got the job (rare for a slave) of overseeing the plantation's livestock. A man of great self-discipline, Toussaint trained himself relentlessly--both physically and mentally. He spoke only Creole, but taught himself to read French and Latin--and studied Caesar's military writings and illegal revolutionary writings from France. When the slave revolt broke out, Toussaint was already 45--old for a slave in Haiti. He simply took over the plantation--and waited to see what would happen. After several weeks, he decided that there was a chance of something really lasting. He sent his own family into safety across the border in the Spanish colony, and rode into the surrounding rebel camps. Step by step, he set out to build a disciplined fighting force.
Toussaint arrived at the most dangerous moment of all. The rebel camps faced starvation. Their leaders had no plan for facing (or defeating) the regular troops. By November, the counterrevolutionary soldiers had started driving the rebel slaves off the plain, into the mountains. Key slave commanders lost heart, and secretly offered to surrender their forces to the slavemasters--asking amnesty for themselves. The slaveowners rudely rejected this--they were determined to punish the slaves with cold steel. Toussaint watched these negotiations closely and, from that moment on, understood that only the armed defeat of the slave system and its ruling class would liberate the slave. Throughout a life filled with flexible alliances and complex choices, he maintained a bulldog grip on that key contradiction of his time.
Toussaint set about forming a disciplined core and deliberately started small. He recruited a few hundred men and launched offensive actions against the advancing counterrevolutionary troops.
Early in 1793, the French commander suddenly received orders to return his troops to France to defend the revolution there against invading monarchists. The slave forces advanced back onto the North Plain--and among them was the new-born unit led by Toussaint. A new governor arrived from France, triggering new infighting among the whites. In that confusion, 10,000 slaves swept down from the hills into Le Cap, driving the French soldiers and planters into the sea. It was the end of centralized French domination on the island. Haiti was now a chaotic checkerboard of warring factions--flying many different flags.
From Rebellion to Revolution
Toussaint developed a distinctive military and political policy.
First, his units did not rush at regular troops like a mob. They lay in wait in dense woods and ambushed small groups by rushing in from the sides and overwhelmingly them quickly in hand-to-hand combat. Their method required a disciplined system of command. It enabled the fighters to win victories, arm themselves--and then attract new fighters from the surrounding rebel bands.
Second, Toussaint announced the startling slogan "No reprisals." He killed those who opposed the slaves with arms, but insisted on mercy for any who gave up the fight. Toussaint's slave army could win victories without suffering casualties--as cornered opponents became willing to surrender.
Toussaint linked his command closely with the rank-and-file fighters--he lived among them and repeatedly led them in key charges. He was wounded 17 times during the years of constant warfare.
Toussaint fought passivity among his commanders--urging them onto the offensive, and sharply criticizing them when they settled in or allowed the enemy peace. There was no hint of liberalism about him--he was stern, calculated, self-contained, sharp-tongued, and deeply trusted by his fighters.
Toussaint initiated a series of alliances with forces capable of providing him arms--starting with the Spanish colonialists. He insisted that such allies acknowledge the freedom of Haiti's slaves. But he understood that all outside forces--the Spanish, French or English ruling classes--were scheming to seize the wealth of Haiti. They all expected, sooner or later, to force Haiti's slaves back under the whip. At every point, Toussaint insisted on the independent command of his troops.
With Spanish support--his troops moved from fort to fort on Haiti's north shore. As the French and planter resistance crumbled, the British invaded--landing with an army of 7,000 in 1794 on the Central Coast of Haiti, and taking Port au Prince with the backing of the white Haitian planters.
By then the revolution in Paris was in its most radical days, and the new rulers hoped to keep Haiti by supporting the abolition of slavery (which had already been accomplished). They could provide no arms or aid, but Toussaint announced a new alliance with France--not the monarchist France of the old order, but the new Republic of the guillotine. With his small disciplined core in the lead, he drove the Spanish forces from the North and isolated those slave commanders who remained allied with them. He then turned south to face the British. Officially Toussaint was still a minor officer in the armies of others--but in reality, he headed an army of 4,000 slave fighters--the most disciplined force in the field. His army had a reputation for victory, flexibility and unwavering dedication to slave emancipation.
The Struggle for Production and A New Mode of Production
"Grasp revolution, promote production."
Mao Tsetung, during the
Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
The revolution started with the utter destruction of plantations. Yet, the revolution itself would collapse from famine unlesssome way was found for leading the free slaves back into the fields. Wherever his army held power, the slave soldiers enforced a new mode of production. Forced labor and whipping were strictly forbidden and punished. Nighttime work was abolished. The plantation lands were not broken up, but wages were paid for all labor--usually in the form of food, lodging and a quarter of the production.
While the revolution waged its armed struggle with the organized troops of counterrevolution--it also fought an internalstruggle, in the liberated areas, against the restoration of slavery. Sometimes the new order started to look like the old order. Former slaveowners or new leaders sometimes treated the people as slaves. There were cases of whippings imposed by commanders within the slave army. And there were repeated work stoppages in the liberated areas--as former slaves protested the work discipline or demanded the promised wages.
The minority of former slavemasters who survived and stayed were protected--but strictly forbidden to act as the owners of human beings. They were needed--since the slaves had very little experience with the organization of production or trade.
Revolution had radically changed life for the freed slaves. Meanwhile all those willing to accept the abolition of slavery were offered a place in the new society.
Toussaint maintained a network of horses and shelters so he could ride rapidly back and forth across the countryside, throughout those war years--investigating incidents, campaigning for production, learning from the masses, enforcing the revolutionary changes, and uncovering cases where disturbances were instigated by British agents. His statements became folk sayings that guided the freed slaves. "Toussaint says that unless we slaves plant, slavery will return." And he backed it all up with the armed force of the slave army. At large gatherings he would hold a rifle high and proclaim, "Here is your liberty!"
Unthinkable Victories Shake the World
"We have known how to face dangers to obtain our liberty, we shall know how to brave death to maintain it."
Toussaint L'Ouverture, to the
Directory ruling France, 1797
The British invaders expected to defeat a demoralized French force, but found themselves facing an army of freedom fighters. Toussaint's force fought with a conquering spirit that soared among the clouds and rainbows. When they ran out of food, they fought hungry. When they ran out of ammunition they fought with stones. When the British troops spread splintered glass on the battlefield, Toussaint's fighters advanced on bloody, lacerated feet. In January 1798, the slaves beat the British in seven battles over seven days and forced them from the island.
In 1800, his army defeated the Spanish army on the eastern half of the island. By then, Toussaint commanded an army of 55,000 veteran fighters. (George Washington never commanded more than 20,000.) In 1801, Haiti declared independence--a republic of self-emancipated slaves.
In France, Napoleon Bonaparte seized power, reversed many revolutionary verdicts and tried to build a French empire through war. He restored slavery in colonies under his command. Fresh from military victories in Italy, he sent huge armies to retake Haiti under his brother-in-law General Leclerc.
Toussaint boarded a French ship to negotiate and was treacherously taken captive. Toussaint L'Ouverture, one of history's greatest revolutionary leaders, died far from Haiti in a cold cell high in the French Alps. The revolution continued under his lieutenants, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe. They delivered the first military defeat to Napoleon in 1804 and forced the French to accept Haitian independence.
One by one, armies of oppressors had stepped forward, hoping to re-enslave Haiti's people. The slave army, forged by former coachman Toussaint L'Ouverture, defeated them one by one.
This Haitian revolution was an earthquake that triggered aftershocks throughout the slave colonies of the Americas. The slaveowners of the U.S. tried to suppress news from Haiti--and of course it did not work. The Haitians inspired the conspiracy of Denmark Vesey in 1822, the slave revolt of Nat Turner in 1831 and the militant abolitionists like John Brown. In the victory of Haiti--in the brilliance of its revolution and the endurance of its independence--slaves everywhere took heart, and the oppressors saw a foreshadowing of their defeat.
The Tragedy of Toussaint L’Ouverture
by BJÖRN KUMM
While the mass graves are being filled up in Haiti and international opinion devotes some fleeting moments of attention to this unhappy nation, all we hear about is misery, poverty, corruption, chaos. This of course was to be expected. Haiti is seen as simply another "failed state" one can only feel sorry for and which will need international intervention. Few people remember – if they ever knew – that Haiti has a glorious past. It was the people of Haiti who two hundred years ago made the first serious attempt to turn the lofty principles of the French into palpable reality.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Haiti, in those days Saint Domingue, was France´s richest colony. Haiti´s sugar-plantations and Haiti´s African slaves provided the economic backbone also of revolutionary France. After the fall of the Bastille, both Haiti´s white slave-owners and emancipated Haitian mulattoes sent representatives to the revolutionary convention in Paris. Haiti´s slave and plantation owners were relieved that the French monarchy and French commercial controls had collapsed which opened up an interesting new market in neighboring United States. Haiti´s mulattoes were enthralled by French revolutionary principles. A Haitian mulatto leader, Lacombe, insisted that freedom, brotherhood and equality were principles which ought to be observed also in Haiti. He was immediately hanged by irate French slave owners.
Haiti´s popular majority, hundreds of thousands of African slaves, sent no representatives to revolutionary Paris. Instead they organized themselves, using the cover of voodoo sessions, which were tolerated by French plantation owners who thought their slaves were merely gathering to dance and worship their African gods. But, says the foremost historian of the Haitian revolution, Trinidadian author C.L.R. James, Haiti´s slaves were already a modern proletariat, collectivized by their work on the big plantations. And they too heard the rumors from France and the signals of the revolution.
The first Haitian slave rebellion took place in the month of August 1791. Twelve thousand slaves in the northern parts of Saint Domingue rose up, ransacked the plantations and hanged their oppressors from the nearest palm trees. And this is where Toussaint L´Ouverture, Haiti´s revolutionary leader, enters world history. He was a literate, black supervisor on a plantation where his French master seems to have been fairly tolerant and was protected by Toussaint against rebellious slaves. For a while Toussaint was seen as a benign Uncle Tom, but he had read his Julius Caesar and realized that the slaves needed military organization. He raised a black army and had the satisfaction of defeating two European invasions, first the troops sent out by revolutionary France to quell the slave rebellion, after that one hundred thousand British soldiers, dispatched by prime minister William Pitt the younger. The invaders were thoroughly beaten by Haiti´s African defenders and by yellow fever.
In France, especially the Jacobins showed a great deal of sympathy for revolutionary Haiti, and in 1793 slavery was banned. However, after assuming power, the First Consul, Napoléon Bonaparte, decided to reintroduce slavery and, as he put it, "rip the epaulettes off the shoulders of the Negroes". Napoléon sent new invasion forces. Haiti did survive as an independent nation but was under perpetual pressure from France, England, the United States and Spain. Toussaint L´Ouverture died in a French dungeon.
Haiti, it could truly be said, drew the ultimate consequences of the French revolution. In the United States and in France freedom was born for white people. In Haiti freedom was born for everybody.
But why did everything later go wrong? C.L.R. James in his marvellous The Black Jacobins, published in 1938, suggests that Toussaint L´Ouverture in fact remained too much of a loyal French citizen. He wanted the formerly enslaved Haitians to become exemplary Frenchmen. He wanted to show the world that black men could build a civilized state. French should be spoken as correctly in Port au Prince as in Paris. And he intervened brutally against his own followers, who began wondering if they would have to go on slaving for French plantation owners, white and mulattoes, who had been invited back to Haiti by Toussaint L`Ouverture.
C.L.R. James sadly concludes that Toussaint L´Ouverture, Haiti´s revolutionary leader, was in fact a Black Jacobin, a Caribbean Robespierre, radical but authoritarian, not inclined to listen to his people. Instead of mobilizing the population of Haiti to claim their rights, Toussaint first of all wished to be accepted by the contemporary international establishment and be seen as a reliable upholder of the colonial economy. After Toussaint, the leaders of Haiti turned out to be less respectful – concerning the ruthless Dessalines C.L.R. James famously comments: "His ties to French civilization were of the slenderest". But they successfully fought Napoleon´s forces and in 1804 declared independence. However. in order to be accepted by what has sometimes been called the civilized world, independent Haiti had to pay damages to France and to the white slave-owners who had already made gigantic profits from France´s richest colony. In order to pay, Haiti had to borrow enormous sums from French banks. Haiti remained in the hock for more than a hundred years, with sad consequences for the Haitian economy. The final payment to France was made in 1947.
We now hear Barack Obama talk about the common history that joins Haiti with the United States. Am I the only one who sees a certain resemblance between Toussaint L´Ouverture, struggling for respectability, and the current US president who is so overly respectful in his relations with Wall Street and other rulers of the world? I suggest Obama, in addition to Eduardo Galeano´s The open veins of Latin America, handed to him by Hugo Chavez a few months ago, should also read C.L.R. James The Black Jacobins to remind him how lofty ideals were once translated into reality.
BJÖRN KUMM is a journalist living in Malmö, Sweden. He can be reached at email@example.com
“I was born a slave, but nature gave me a soul of a free man….”
“In overthrowing me, you have done no more than cut down the trunk of the tree of the black liberty in St-Domingue-it will spring back form the roots, for they are numerous and deep.”
“My decision to destroy the authority of the blacks in Saint Domingue (Haiti) is not so much based on considerations of commerce and money, as on the need to block for ever the march of the blacks in the world.”
“Toussaint is a Negro and in the jargon of war has been called a brigand. But according to all accounts he is a Negro born to vindicate the claims of this species and to show that the character of men is independent of color”
December 12, 1798
“Whatever defamation of character my enemies are spreading about me, I do not feel the need to justify myself toward them. While discretion obliges me to remain silent, my duty compels me to prevent them from doing any more harm.”
“But the prejudice of race alone blinded the American people for the debt they owed to the desperate courage of 500,000 Haitian Negroes who would not be enslaved.”
America’s foremost Historian of the 18th and 19th centuries
“One of the most remarkable men in an age rich with remarkable men, Toussaint Louverture’s political performance was such that, in a wider sphere, Napoleon appears to have imitated him.”
“Toussaint was a giant. He had an array of talents equaled by few men. He had intelligence intuition and vision.”
“Toussaint had a driving vision to create a society in which people of all races would be equal before the law and could rise according to their abilities.”
“Toussaint’s vision for Haiti projected a society embracing equal opportunity for all with social leveling through education and hard work.”
Wendell Phillips on Toussaint Louverture
1861 | New York and Boston
A lecture delivered by Wendell Phillips
December 1861, in New York and Boston
I have been requested to offer you a sketch made some years since, of one of the most remarkable men of the last generation-the great St. Domingo chief, Toussaint l'Ouverture, an unmixed Negro, with no drop of white blood in his veins. My sketch is at once a biography and an argument-a biography, of course very brief, of a Negro soldier and statesman, which I offer you as an argument in behalf of the race from which he sprung. I am about to compare and weigh races indeed, I am engaged tonight in what you will think the absurd effort to convince you that the Negro race, instead of being that object of pity or contempt which we usually consider it, is entitled, judged by the facts of history, to a place close by the side of the Saxon. Now races love to be judged in two ways-by the great men they produce, and by the average merit of the mass of the race. We Saxons are proud of Bacon, Shakespeare, Hampden, Washington, Franklin, the stars we have lent to the galaxy of history; and then we turn with equal pride to the average merit of Saxon blood, since it streamed from its German home. So, again, there are three tests by which races love to be tried. The first, the basis of all, is courage-the element which says, here and today, "This continent is mine, from the Lakes to the Gulf: let him beware who seeks to divide it!" And the second is the recognition that force is doubled by purpose; liberty regulated by law is the secret of Saxon progress. And the third element is persistency, endurance; first a purpose, then death or success. Of these three elements is made that Saxon pluck which has placed our race in the van of modern civilization.
In the hours you lend me tonight, I attempt the Quixotic effort to convince you that the Negro blood, instead of standing at the bottom of the list, is entitled, if judged either by its great men or its masses, either by its courage, its purpose, or its endurance, to a place as near ours as any other blood known in history. And, for the purpose of my argument, I take an island, St. Domingo, about the size of South Carolina, the third spot in America upon which Columbus places his foot. Charmed by the magnificence of its scenery and fertility of its soil, he gave it the fondest of all names, Hispaniola, Little Spain. His successor, more pious, rebaptized it from St. Dominic, St. Domingo; and when the blacks, in 1803, drove our white blood from its surface, they drove our names with us, and began the year 1804 under the old name, Hayti, the land of mountains. It was originally tenanted by filibusters, French and Spanish, of the early commercial epoch, the pirates of that day as of ours. The Spanish took the eastern tow thirds, the French the western third of the island, and they gradually settled into colonies. The French, to whom my story belongs, be-came the pet colony of the motherland. Guarded by peculiar privileges, enriched by the scions of wealthy houses, aided by the unmatched fertility of the soil, it soon was the richest gem in the Bourbon crown; and at the period to which I call your attention, about the era of our Constitution, 1789, its wealth was almost incredible. The effeminacy of the white race rivaled that of the Sybarite of antiquity, while the splendor of their private life outshone Versailles, and their luxury found no mate but in the mad prodigality of the Caesars.
At this time the island held about thirty thousand whites, twenty or thirty thousand mulattoes, and five hundred thousand slaves. The slave trade was active. About twenty-five thousand slaves were imported annually; and this only sufficed to fill the gap which the murderous culture of sugar annually produced. The mulattoes, as with us, were children of the slaveholders, but, unlike us, the French slaveholder never forgot his child by a bondwoman. He gave him everything but his name-wealth, rich plantations, gangs of slaves; sent him to Paris for his education, summoned the best culture of France for the instruction of his daughters, so that in 1790 the mulatto race held one third of the real estate and one quarter of the personal estate of the island. But though educated and rich, he bowed under the same yoke as with us. Subjected to special taxes, he could hold no public office, and, if convicted of any crime, was punished with double severity. His son might not sit on the same seat at school with a white boy; he might not enter a church where a white man was worshipping; if he reached a town of horseback, he must dismount and lead his horse by the bridle; and when he died, even his dust could not rest in the same soil with a white body. Such was the white race and the mulatto-the thin film of civilization beneath which surged the dark mass of five hundred thousand slaves.
It was over such a population-the white man melted in sensuality; the mulatto feeling all the more keenly his degradation from the very wealth and culture he enjoyed; the slave, sullen and indifferent, heeding not the quarrels or the changes of the upper air-it was over this population that there burst, in 1789, the thunder-storm of the French Revolution. The first words which reached the island were the motto of the Jacobin Club-"Liberty, Equality." The white man heard then aghast. He had read the streets of Paris running blood. The slave heard them with indifference; it was a quarrel in the upper air, between other races, which did not concern him. The mulatto heard them with a welcome which no dread of other classes could quell. Hastily gathered into conventions, they sent to Paris a committee of the whole body, laid at the feet of the National Convention the free gift of six millions of francs, pledged one fifth of their annual rental toward the payment of the national debt, and only asked in return that this yoke of civil and social contempt should be lifted from their shoulders.
You may easily imagine the temper in which Mirabeau and Lafayette welcomed his munificent gift of the free mulattoes of the West Indies, and in which the petition for equal civil rights was received by a body which had just resolved that all men were equal. The Convention hastened to express its gratitude, and issued a decree which commences thus: "All freeborn French citizens are equal before the law." Oge was selected-the friend of Lafayette, a lieutenant-colonel in the Dutch service, the son of a wealthy mulatto woman, educated in Paris, the comrade of all the leading French Republicans-to carry the decree and the message of the French Democracy to the island. He landed. The decree of the National Convention was laid on the table of the General Assembly of the island. One old planter seized it, tore it in fragments, and trampled it under his feet, swearing by all the saints in the calendar that the island might sink before they would share their rights with bastards. They took an old mulatto, worth a million, who had simply asked for his rights under that decree, and hung him. A white lawyer of seventy, who drafted the petition, they hung at his side.
They took Oge, broke him on the wheel, ordered him to be drawn and quartered, and one quarter of his body to be hung up in each of the four principal cities of the island; and then they adjourned. You can conceive better than I can describe the mood in which Mirabeau and Danton received the news that their decree had been torn in pieces and trampled under foot by the petty legislature of an island colony, and their comrade drawn and quartered by the orders of its Governor. Robespierre rushed to the tribune and shouted, "Perish the colonies rather than sacrifice one iota of our principles!" The Convention reaffirmed their decree, and sent it out a second time to be executed.
But it was not then as now, when steam has married the continents. It took months to communicate; and while this news of the death of Oge and the defiance of the National Convention was going to France, and the answer returning, great events had taken place in the island itself. The Spanish or the eastern section, perceiving these divisions, invaded the towns of the western and conquered many of its cities. One half of the slaveholders were Republicans, in love with the new constellation which had just gone up in our Northern sky, seeking to be admitted a State in this Republic, plotting for annexation. The other half were loyalists, anxious, deserted as they supposed themselves by the Bourbons, to make alliance with George III. The sent to Jamaica, and entreated its Governor to assist them in their intrigue. At first, he lent them only a few hundred soldiers. Some time later, General Howe and Admiral Parker were sent with several thousand men, and finally, the English government entering more seriously into the plot, General Maitland landed with four thousand Englishmen on the north side of the island, and gained many successes. The mulattoes were in the mountains, awaiting events. They distrusted the government, which a few years before they had assisted to put down an insurrection of the whites, and which had forfeited its promise to grant them civil privileges. Deserted by both sections, Blanchelande, the Governor, had left the capital, and fled for refuge to a neighboring city.
In this state of affairs, the second decree reached the island. The whites forgot their quarrel, sought out Blanchelande, and obliged him to promise that he never would publish the decree. Affrighted, the Governor consented to that course, and they left him. He then began to reflect that in reality he was deposed, that the Bourbons had lost the scepter of the island. He remembered his successful appeal to the mulattoes, five years before, to put down an insurrection. Deserted now by the whites and by the mulattoes, only one force was left him in the island-that was blacks: they had always remembered with gratitude the code noir, black code, of Louis XIV, the first interference of any power in their behalf. To the blacks Blanchelande appealed. He sent a deputation to the slaves. He was aided by the agents of Count d'Artois, afterward Charles X, who was seeking to do in St. Domingo what Charles II did in Virginia, (whence its name of Old Dominion,) institute a reaction against the rebellion at home. The two joined forces, and sent first to Toussaint. Nature made him a Metternich, a diplomatist. He probably wished to avail himself of this offer, forseeing advantage to his race, but to avail himself of it so cautiously as to provide against failure, risking as little as possible till the intentions of the other party had been tested, and so managing as to be able to go on or withdraw as the best interest of his race demanded. He had practiced well the Greek rule, "Know thyself," and thoroughly studied his own part.
Later in life, when criticizing his great mulatto rival, Rigaud, he showed how well he knew himself. "I know Rigaud," he said; "he drops the bridle when he gallops, he shows his arm when he strikes. For me, I gallop also, but know where to stop: when I strike I am felt, not seen. Rigaud works only by blood and massacre. I know how to put the people in movement: but when I appear, all must be calm." He said therefore, to the envoys, "Where are you credentials?" "We have none." "I will have nothing to do with you." They then sought Francois and Biassou, two other slaves of strong passions, considerable intellect, and great influence over their fellow-slaves, and said, "Arm, assist the government, put down the English on the one hand, and the Spanish on the other"; and on the 21st of August, 1791, fifteen thousand blacks, led by Francois and Biassou, supplied with the arms from the arsenal of the government, appeared in the midst of the colony. It is believed that Toussaint, unwilling himself to head the movement, was still desirous that it would result in benefit to his race. He is supposed to have advised Francois in his course-saving himself for a more momentous hour. This is what Edward Everett calls the Insurrection of St. Domingo. It bore for its motto on one side of its banner, "Long live the King"; and on the other, "We claim the Old Laws." Singular mottoes for a rebellion! In fact, it was the posse comitatus; it was the only French army on the island; it was the only force that had the right to bear arms; and what it undertook, it achieved. It put Blanchelande in his seat; it put the island beneath his rule. When it was done, the blacks said to the Governor they had created, "Now, grant us one day in the seven; give us one day's labor; we will buy another, and with the two by a third,"-the favorite method of emancipation at that time. Like the Blanchelande of five years before, he refused. He said, "Disarm! Disperse!" and the blacks answered, "The right hand that has saved you, the right had that has saved the island for the Bourbons, may perchance clutch some of our own rights"; and they stood still. This it the first insurrection, if any such there were in St. Domingo-the first determined purpose on the part of the Negro, having saved the government, to save himself. Now let me stop a moment to remind you of one thing. I am about to open to you a chapter of bloody history-no doubt of it. Who set the example? Who dug up from its grave of a hundred years the hideous punishment of the wheel, and broke Oge, every bone, a living man? Who flared in the face of indignant and astonished Europe the forgotten barbarity of quartering the yet palpitating body? Our race. And if the black man learned the lesson but too well, it does not lie in our lips to complain. During this whole struggle, the record is-written, mark you, by the white man-the whole picture from the pencil of the white race-that for one life the negro took the battle, in hot and bloody fight, the white race took, in the cook malignity of revenge, three to answer for it. Notice, also, that up to this moment the slave had taken no part in the struggle, except at the bidding of the government; and even then, not for himself, but only to sustain the laws.
At this moment, then, the island stands thus: The Spaniard is on the east triumphant; the Englishman is on the northwest in trenched; the mulattoes are in the mountains waiting; the blacks are in the valleys victorious; one half of the French slaveholding element is republican, the other half royalist; the white race against the mulatto and the black; the black against both; the Frenchman against the English and Spaniard; the Spaniard against both. It is a war of races and a war of nations. At such a moment Toussaint l'Ouverture appeared. He had been born a slave on a plantation in the north of the island-and unmixed negro- his father stolen from Africa. If anything, therefore, that I say of him tonight moves your admiration, remember, the black race claims it all-we have no part nor lot in it. He was fifty years old at this time. An old negro had taught him to read. His favorite books were Epictetus, Raynal, Military Memoirs, Plutarch. In the woods, he learned some of the qualities of herbs, and was village doctor. On the estate, the highest place he ever reached was that of the coachman. At fifty, he joined the army as physician. Before he went, he places his mater and mistress on shipboard, freighted and vessel with a cargo of sugar and coffee, and sent them to Baltimore, and never afterward did he forget to send them, year-by-year, ample means of support. And I might add, that, of all the leading negro generals, each one saved the man under whose roof he was born, and protected the family.
Let me add another thing. If I stood here tonight to tell the story of Napoleon, I should take it from the lips of Frenchmen, who find no language rich enough to paint the great captain of the nineteenth century. Were I here to tell you the story of Washington, I should take it from your hearts-you, who think no marble white enough on which to carve the name of the Father of his Country. I am about to tell you the story of a negro who has left hardly one written line. I am to glean it from the reluctant testimony of Britons, Frenchmen, Spaniards-men who despised him as a negro and a slave, and hated him because he had beaten them in many a battle. All the materials for his biography are from the lips of his enemies.
The second story told of him is this. About the time he reached the camp, the army had been subjected to two insults. First, their commissioners, summoned to meet the French Committee, were ignominiously and insultingly dismissed; and when, afterward, Francois, their general, was summoned to a second conference, and went to it on horseback, accompanied by two officers, a young lieutenant, who had know him as a slave, angered at seeing him in the uniform of an officer, raised his riding whip and struck him over the shoulders. If he had been the savage which the negro painted to us, he had only to breathe the insult to his twenty-five thousand soldiers, and they would have trodden out the Frenchmen in blood. But the indignant chief rode back in silence to his tent, and it was twenty-four hours before his troops heard of this insult to their general. Then the word went forth, "Death to every white man!" They had fifteen hundred prisoners. Ranged in front of the camp, they were about to be shot. Toussaint, who had a vein of religious fanaticism, like most great leaders-like Mohammed, like Napoleon, like Cromwell, like John Brown-he could preach as well as fight-mounting a hillock, and getting the ear of the crowd, exclaimed: "Brothers, this blood in yonder French camp can wipe it out. To shed that is courage; to shed this is cowardice and cruelty beside",--and he saved fifteen hundred lives.
I cannot stop to give in detail every one of his efforts. This was in 1793. Leap with me over seven years; come to 1800; what has he achieved? He has driven the Spaniard back into his own cities, conquered him there, and put the French banner over every Spanish town; and for the first time, and almost the last, the island obeys one law. He had put the mulatto under his feet. He has attacked Maitland, defeated him in pitched battles, and permitted him to retreat to Jamaica; and when the French army rose upon Laveaux, their general, and put him in chains, Toussaint defeated them, took Laveaux out of prison, and put him at the head of his own troops. The grateful French in return named him General-in-Chief, Cet homme fait l'ouverture partout, said one-"This man makes an opening everywhere,"-hence his soldiers name him l'Ouverture, the opening.
This was the work of seven years. Let us pause a moment, and find something to measure him by. You remember Macaulay says, comparing Cromwell with Napoleon, that Cromwell showed the greater military genius, if we consider that he never saw an army till he was forty; while Napoleon was educated from a boy in the best military schools in Europe. Cromwell manufactured his own army; Napoleon at the age of twenty-seven was placed at the head of the best troops Europe ever saw. They were both successful; but, says Macaulay, with such disadvantages, the Englishman showed the greater genius. Whether you allow the inference or not, you will at least grant that it is a fair mode of measurement. Apply it to Toussaint. Cromwell never saw an army till he was forty; this man never saw a soldier till he was fifty. Cromwell manufactured his own army-out of what? Englishmen-the best blood in Europe. Out of the middle class of English-men-the best blood of the island. And with it he conquered what? Englishmen-their equals. This man manufactured his army out of what? Out of what you call the despicable race of Negroes, debased, demoralized by two hundred years of slavery, one hundred thousand of them imported into the island within four years, unable to speak the dialect intelligible even to each other. Yet out of this mixed, and, as you say, despicable mass, he forged a thunderbolt and hurled it at what? At the proudest blood in Europe, the Spaniard, and sent him home conquered; at the most warlike blood in Europe, the French, and put them under his feet; at the pluckiest blood in Europe, the English, and they skulked home to Jamaica. Now if Cromwell was a general, at least this man was a soldier. I know it was a small territory; it was not as large as the continent; but it was as large as that Attica, which, with Athens for a capital, has filled the earth with its fame for two thousand years. We measure genius by quality, not by quantity.
Further-Cromwell was only a soldier; his fame stops there. Not one line in the statute book of Britain can be traced to Cromwell; not one step in the social life of England finds its motive power in his brain. The state he founded went down with him to his grave. But this man no sooner put his hand on the helm of state, than the ship steadied with an upright keel, and he began to evince a statesmanship as marvelous as his military genius. History says that the most statesmanlike act of Napoleon was his proclamation of 1802, at the peace of Amiens, when, believing that the indelible loyalty of a native-born heart is always a sufficient basis on which to found an empire, he said: "Frenchmen, come home. I pardon the crimes of the last twelve years; I blot out its parties; I found my throne on the hearts of all Frenchmen,"-and twelve years of unclouded success showed how wisely he judged. That was in 1802. In 1800 this negro made a proclamation; it runs thus: "Sons of St. Domingo, come home. We never meant to take your houses or your lands. The negro only asked that liberty which God gave him. Your houses wait for you; your lands are ready; come and cultivate them";--and from Madrid and Paris, from Baltimore and New Orleans, the emigrant planters crowded home to enjoy their estates, under the pledged word that was never broken of a victorious slave.
Again, Carlyle has said, "The natural king is one who melts all wills into his own." At this moment he turned to his armies-poor, ill-clad, and half-starved-and said to them: Go back and work on these estates you have conquered; for an empire can be founded only on order and industry, and you can learn these virtues only there. And they went. The French Admiral, who witnessed the scene, said that in a week his army melted back into peasants. It was 1800. The world waited fifty years before, in 1846, Robert Peel dared to venture, as a matter of practical statesmanship, the theory of free trade. Adam Smith theorized, the French statesmen dreamed, but no man at the head of affairs had ever dared to risk it as a practical measure. Europe waited till 1846 before the most practical intellect in the world, the English, adopted the great economic formula of unfettered trade. But in 1800 this black, with the instinct of statesmanship, said to the committee who were drafting for him a Constitution: "Put at the head of the chapter of commerce that the ports of St. Domingo are open to the trade of the world." With lofty indifference to race, superior to all envy or prejudice, Toussaint had formed this committee of eight white proprietors and one mulatto-not a soldier nor a negro on the list, although Haytian history proves that, with the exception of Rigaud, the rarest genius has always been shown by pure Negroes.
Again, it was 1800, at a time when England was poisoned on every page of her statute-book with religious intolerance, when a man could not enter the House of Commons without taking an Episcopal communion, when every State in the Union, except Rhode Island, was full of the intensest religious bigotry. This man was a negro. You say that it is a superstitious blood. He was uneducated. You say that makes a man narrow-minded. He was a Catholic. May say that is but another name for intolerance. And yet-negro, Catholic, slave-he took his place by the side of Roger Williams, and said to his committee: "Make it the first line of my Constitution that I know no difference between religious beliefs."
Now, blue-eyed Saxons, proud of your race, go back with me to the commencement of the century, and select what statesman you please. Let him be either American or European; let him have a brain the result of six generations of culture; let him have the ripest training of university routine; let him add to it the better education of practical life; crown his temples with the silver of seventy years; and show me the man of Saxon Lineage for whom his most sanguine admirer will wreathe a laurel rich as embittered foes have places on the brow of this negro-rare military skill, profound knowledge of human nature, content to blot out all party distinctions, and trust a state to the blood of its sons-anticipating Sir Robert Peel fifty years, and taking his station by the side of Roger Williams before any Englishman or American had won the right;--and yet this is the record which the history of rival states makes up for this inspired black of St. Domingo.
It was 1801. The Frenchmen who lingered on the island described it prosperity and order as almost incredible. You might trust a child with a bad of gold to go from Samana to Port-au-Prince without risk. Peace was in every household; the valleys laughed with fertility; culture climbed the mountains; the commerce of the world was represented in its harbors. At this time Europe concluded the Peace of Amiens, and Napoleon took his seat on the throne of France. He glanced his eyes across the Atlantic, and, with a single stroke of his pen, reduced Cayenne and Martinique back into chains. He then said to his Council, "What shall I do with St. Domingo?" The slaveholders said, "Give it to us." Napoleon turned to the Abbe Gregoire, "What is your opinion?" "I think those men would change their opinions, if they changed their skins." Colonel Vincent, who had been private secretary to Toussaint, wrote a letter to Napoleon, in which he said: "Sire, leave it alone; it is the happiest spot in your dominions; God raised this man to govern; races melt under his hand. He has saved you this island; for I know of my own knowledge that, when the Republic could not have lifted a finger to prevent it, George III offered him any title and any revenue if he would hold the island under the British crown. He refused, and saved it for France." Napoleon turned away from his Council, and is said to have remarked, "I have sixty thousand idle troops; I must find them something to do." He meant to say, "I am about to seize the crown; I dare not do it in the faces of sixty thousand republican soldiers: I must give them work at a distance to do." The gossip of Paris gives another reason for his expedition against St. Domingo. It is said that the satirists of Paris had christened Toussaint, the black Napoleon; and Bonaparte hated his black shadow. Toussaint had unfortunately once addressed him a letter, "The first of the blacks to the first of the whites." He did not like the comparison. You would think it too slight a motive. But let me remind you of the present Napoleon, that when the epigrammatists of Paris christened his wasteful and tasteless expense at Versailles, Soulouquerie, from the name of Soulouque, the Black Emperor, he designed to issue a specific order forbidding the use of the word. The Napoleon blood is very sensitive. So Napoleon resolved to crush Toussaint from one motive or another, from the prompting of ambition, or dislike of this resemblance-which was very close. If either imitated the other, it must have been the white, since the negro preceded him by several years. They were very much alike, and they were French-French even in vanity, common to both. You remember Bonaparte's vainglorious words to his soldiers at the Pyramids: "Forty centuries look down upon us." In the same mood, Toussaint said to the French captain who urged him to go to France in his frigate, "Sir, your ship is not large enough to carry me." Napoleon, you know, could never bear the military uniform. He hated the restraint of his rank; he loved to put on the gray coat of the Little Corporal, and wander in camp. Toussaint also never could bear a uniform. He wore a plain coat, and often the yellow Madras handkerchief of the slaves. A French lieutenant once called him a maggot in a yellow handkerchief. Toussaint took him prisoner next day, and sent him home to his mother. Like Napoleon, he could fast many days; could dictate to three secretaries at once; could wear out four or five horses. Like Napoleon, no man ever divined his purpose or penetrated his plan. He was only a negro, and so, in him, they called it hypocrisy. In Bonaparte we style it diplomacy. For instance, three attempts made to assassinate him all failed, from not firing at the right spot. If they thought he was in the north in a carriage, he would be in the south on horseback; if they thought he was in the city in a house, he would be in the field in a tent.
They once riddled his carriage with bullets; he was on horseback on the other side. The seven Frenchmen who did it were arrested. They expected to be shot.
The next day was some saint's day; he ordered them to be placed before the high altar, and, when the priest reached the prayer for forgiveness, came down from his high seat, repeated it with him, and permitted them to go unpunished. He had that wit common to all great commanders, which makes its way in a camp. His soldiers getting disheartened, he filled a large vase with powder, and, scattering six grains of white rice in it, shook them up, and said: "See, there is a white, there is a black; what are you afraid of?" So when people came to him in great numbers for office, as it is reported they do sometimes even in Washington, he learned the first words of a Catholic prayer in Latin, and repeating it, would say, "Do you understand that?" "No, sir." "What! Want an office, and not know Latin? Go home and learn it!"
Then, again, like Napoleon-like genius always-he had confidence in his power to rule men. You remember when Bonaparte returned from Elba, and Louis XVIII sent an army against him, Bonaparte descended from his carriage, opened his coat, offering his breast to their muskets, and saying, "Frenchmen, it is the Emperor!" and they ranged themselves behind him, his soldiers, shouting, "Vive! l'Empereur!" That was in 1815. Twelve years before, Toussaint, finding that four of his regiments had deserted and gone to Leclerc, drew his sword, flung it on the grass, went across the field to them, folded his arms, and said, "Children, can you point a bayonet at me?" The blacks fell on their knees, praying his pardon. His bitterest enemies watched him, and none of them charge him with love of money, sensuality, or cruel use of power. The only instance in which his sternest critic has charged him with severity is this. During a tumult, a few white proprietors who had returned, trusting his proclamation, were killed. His nephew, General Moise, was accused of indecision in quelling the riot. He assembled a court-martial, and, on its verdict, ordered his own nephew to be shot, sternly Roman in thus keeping his promise of protection to the whites. Above the lust of gold, pure in private life, generous in the use of his power, it was against such a man that Napoleon sent his army, giving to General Leclerc, the husband of his beautiful sister Pauline, thirty thousand of his best troops, with orders to reintroduce slavery. Among these soldiers came all of Toussaint's old mulatto rivals and foes.
Holland lent sixty ships. England promised by special message to be neutral; and you know neutrality means sneering at freedom, and sending arms to tyrants. England promised neutrality, and the black looked out on the whole civilized world marshaled against him. America, full of slaves, of course was hostile. Only the Yankee sold him poor muskets at a very high price. Mounting his horse, and riding to the eastern end of the island, Samana, he looked out on a sight such as no native had ever see before. Sixty ships of the line, crowded by the best soldiers of Europe, rounded the point. They were soldiers who had never yet met an equal, whose tread, like Caesar's, had shaken Europe-soldiers who had scaled the Pyramids, and planted the French banners on the walls of Rome.
He looked a moment, counted the flotilla, let the reins fall on the neck of his horse, and, turning to Christophe, exclaimed: "All France is come to Hayti; they can only come to make us slaves; and we are lost!" He then recognized the only mistake of his life-his confidence in Bonaparte, which had led him to disband his army. Returning to the hills he issued the only proclamation which bears his name and breathes vengeance: "My children, France comes to make us slaves. God gave us liberty; France has no right to take it away. Burn the cities, destroy the harvests, tear up the roads with cannon, poison the wells, show the white man the hell he comes to make"-and he was obeyed. When the great William of Orange saw Louis XIV cover Holland with troops, he said, "Break down the dikes, give Holland back to ocean"; and Europe aid, "Sublime!" When Alexander saw the armies of France descend upon Russia, he said, "Burn Moscow, starve back the invaders"; and Europe said, "Sublime!" This black saw all Europe marshaled to crush him, and gave to his people the same heroic example of defiance.
It is true, the scene grows bloodier as we proceed. But, remember, the white man fitly accompanied his infamous attempt to reduce freemen to slavery with every bloody and cruel device that bitter and shameless hate could invent. Aristocracy is always cruel. The black man met the attempt, as every such attempt should be met, with war to the hilt. In his first struggle to gain freedom, he had been generous and merciful, save lives and pardoned enemies, ad the people in every age and clime have always done when rising against aristocrats. Now, to save his liberty, the negro exhausted every means, seized every weapon, and turned back the hateful invaders with a vengeance as terrible as their own, though even now he refused to be cruel.
Leclerc sent word to Christophe that he was about to land at Cape City. Christophe said, "Toussaint is governor of the island. I will send to him for permission. If without it a French soldier sets foot on sore, I will burn the town, and fight over its ashes." Leclerc landed. Christophe took two thousand white men, women, and children, and carried them to the mountains in safety, then with his own hands set fire to the splendid palace which French architects had just finished for him, and in forty hours the place was in ashes. The battle was fought in its streets, and the French driven back to their boats. Wherever they went, they were met with fire and sword. Once, resisting an attack, the blacks, Frenchmen born, shouted the Marseilles Hymn, and the French soldiers stood still; they could not fight the Marseillaise. And it was not till their officers sabred them on that they advanced, and they were beaten. Beaten in the field, the French then took to lies. They issued proclamations, saying, "We do not come to make you slaves; this man Toussaint tells you lies. Join us, and you shall have the rights you claim." They cheated every one of his officers, except Christophe and Dessalines, and his own brother Pierre, and finally these also deserted him, and he was left alone. He then sent word to Leclerc, "I will submit. I could continue the struggle for years-could you prevent a single Frenchman from safely quitting your camp. But I hate bloodshed. I have fought only for the liberty of my race. Guarantee that, I will submit and come in." He tood the oath to be a faithful citizen; and on the same crucifix Leclerc swore that he should be faithfully protected, and that the island should be free.
As the French general glanced along the line of his splendidly equipped troops, and saw, opposite, Toussaint's ragged, ill-armed followers, he said to him, "l'Overture, had you continued the war, where could you have got arms?" "I would have taken yours," was the Spartan reply. He went down to his house in peace; it was summer. Leclerc remembered that the fever months were coming, when his army would be in hospitals, and when one motion of that royal hand would sweep his troops into the sea. He was too dangerous to be left at large. So they summoned him to attend a council; and here is the only charge made against him-the only charge. They say he was fool enough to go. Grant it; what was the record? The white man lies shrewdly to cheat the negro. Knight-errantry was truth. The foulest insult you can offer a man since the Crusades is, you lie. Of Toussaint, Hermona, the Spanish general, who knew him well, said, "He was the purest soul God ever put into a body." Of him history bears witness, "He never broke his word." Maitland was traveling in the depths of the woods to meet Toussaint, when he was met by a messenger, and told that he was betrayed. He went on, and me Toussaint, who showed him two letters-one from the French general, offering him any rank if he would put Maitland in his power, and the other his reply. It was, "Sir, I have promised the Englishman that he shall go back." Let it stand, therefore, that the negro, truthful as a knight of old, was cheated by his lying foe. Which race has reason to be proud of such record?
But he was not cheated. He was under espionage. Suppose he had refused: the government would have doubted him-would have found some cause to arrest him. He probably reasoned thus: "If I go willingly, I shall be treated accordingly"; and he went. The moment he entered the room, the officers drew their swords, and told him he was prisoner; and one young lieutenant who was present says, "he was not at all surprised, but seemed very sad." They put him on shipboard, and weighed anchor for France. As the island faded from his sight, he turned to the captain, and said, "You think you have rooted up the tree of liberty, but I am only a branch; I have planted the tree so deep that all of France can never root it up." Arrived in Paris, he was flung into jail, and Napoleon sent his secretary, Caffarelli, to him, supposing he had buried large treasures. He listened awhile, then replied, "Young man, it is true I have lost treasures, but they are not such as you come to seek." He was then sent to the Castle of St. Joux, to a dungeon twelve feet by twenty, built wholly of stone, with a narrow window, high up on the side, looking out on the snows of Switzerland. In winter, ice covers the floor; in summer, it is damp and wet. In this living tomb the child of the sunny tropic was left to die. From this dungeon he wrote two letters to Napoleon. One of then ran thus:-- "Sire, I am a French citizen. I never broke a law. By the grace of God, I have saved for you the best island of your realm Sire, of your mercy grant me justice." Napoleon never answered the letters. The commandment allowed him five francs a day for food and fuel. Napoleon heard of it, and reduced the sum to three. The luxurious usurper, who complained that the English government was stingy because it allowed him only six thousand dollars a month, stooped from his throne to cut down a dollar to a half, and still Toussaint did not die quick enough.
This dungeon was a tomb. The story told that, in Josephine's time, a young French marquis was placed there, and the girl to whom he was betrothed went to the Empress and prayed for his release.
Said Josephine to her, "Have a model of it made, and bring it to me." Josephine placed it near Napoleon. He said, "Take it away-it is horrible!" She put it on his footstool, and he kicked it from his. She held it to him the third time, and said, "Sire, in this horrible dungeon you have put a man to die." "Take him out," said Napoleon, and the girl saved her lover. In this tomb Toussaint was buried, but he did not die fast enough. Finally, the commandment was told to go into Switzerland, to carry the keys of the dungeon with him, and to stay four days; when he returned, Toussaint was found starved to death. That imperial assassin was taken twelve years after to his prison at St. Helena, planned for a tome, as he had planned that of Toussaint, and there he whined away his dying hours in pitiful complaints of curtains and titles, of dishes and rides. God grant that when some future Plutarch shall weigh the great men of our epoch, the whites against the blacks, he do not put that whining child of St. Helena into one scale, and into the other the negro meeting death like a Roman, without a murmur, in the solitude of his icy dungeon!
From the moment he was betrayed, the Negroes began to doubt the French, and rushed to arms. Soon every negro but Maurepas deserted the French. Leclerc summoned Maurepas to his side. He came, loyally bringing with him five hundred soldiers. Leclerc spiked his epaulettes to his shoulders, shot him, and flung him into the sea. He took his five hundred soldiers on shore, shot then on the edge of a pit, and tumbled then in. Dessalines from the mountain saw it, and, selecting five hundred French officers from his prisons, hung then on separate trees in sigh of Leclerc's camp; and born, as I was, not far from Bunker Hill, I have yet found no reason to think he did wrong. They murdered Pierre Toussaint's wife at his own door, and after such treatment that it was mercy when they killed her. The maddened husband, who had but a year before saved the lives of twelve hundred white men, carried his next thousand prisoners and sacrificed them on her grave.
The French exhausted every form of torture. The Negroes were bound together and thrown into the sea; any one who floated was shot-others sunk with cannon balls tied to their feet; some smothered with sulphur fumes-others strangled, scourged to death, gibbeted; sixteen of Toussaint's officers were chained to rocks in desert islands-others in marshes, and left to be devoured by poisonous reptiles and insects. Rochambeau sent to Cuba from bloodhounds. When they arrived, the young girls went down to the wharf, decked the hounds with ribbons and flowers, kissed their necks, and, seated in the amphitheatre, the women clapped their hands to see the negro thrown to these dogs, previously starved to rage. But the Negroes besieged this very city so closely that these same girls, in their misery, at the very hounds they had welcomed.
Then flashed forth that defying courage and sublime endurance which show how alike all races are when tried in the same furnace. The Roman wife, whose husband faltered when Nero ordered him to kill himself, seized the dagger, and, mortally wounding her own body, cried, "Poetus, it is not hard to die." The world records it with proud tears. Just in the same spirit, when a negro colonel was ordered to execution, and trembled, his wife seized his sword, and, giving herself a death-wound, said, "Husband, death is sweet when liberty is gone."
The war went on. Napoleon sent over thirty thousand more soldiers. But disaster still followed his efforts. What the sword did not devour, the fever ate up. Leclerc died. Pauline carried his body back to France. Napoleon met her at Bordeaux, saying, "Sister, I gave you an army-you bring me back ashes." Rochambeau-the Rochambeau of our history-left in command of eight thousand troops, sent word to Dessalines: "When I take you, I will not shoot you like a soldier, or hang you like a white man; I will whip you to death like a slave." Dessalines chased him from the battlefield, from fort to fort, and finally shut him up in Samana. Heating cannon balls to destroy his fleet, Dessalines learned that Rochambeau had begged of the British admiral to cover his troops with the English flag, and the generous negro suffered the boaster to embark undisturbed.
Some doubt the courage of the negro. Go to Hayti, and stand on those fifty thousand graves of the best soldiers France ever had, and ask them what they think of the negro's sword. And if that does not satisfy you, go to France, to the splendid mausoleum of the Counts of Rochambeau, and to the eight thousand graves of Frenchmen who skulked home under the English flag, and ask them. And if that does not satisfy you, come home, and if it had been October, 1859, you might have come by way of quaking Virginia, and asked her what she thought of negro courage.
You may also remember this-that we Saxons were slaves about four hundred years, sold with the land, and our fathers never raised a finger to end that slavery. They waited till Christianity and civilization, till commerce and the discovery of America, melted away their chains. Spartacus in Italy led the slaves of Rome against the Empress of the world. She murdered him, and crucified them. There never was a slave rebellion successful but once, and that was in St. Domingo. Every race has been, sometime or other, in chains. But there never was a race that, weakened and degraded by such chattel slavery, unaided, tore off its own fetters, forged them into swords, and won its liberty on the battlefield, but one, and that was the black government may avert that necessity from our land-may raise into peaceful liberty the four million committed to our care, and show under democratic institutions as statesmanship as farsighted as that of England, as brave as the negro of Hayti!
So much for the courage of the negro. Now look at his endurance. In 1805 he said to the white men, "This island is ours; not a white fool shall touch it." Side by side with him stood the South American republics, planted by the best blood of the countrymen of Lope de Vega and Cervantes. They topple over so often that you could no more daguerreotype their crumbling fragments than you could the waves of the ocean. And yet, at their side, the negro has kept his island sacredly to himself. It is said that at first, with rare patriotism, the Haytian government ordered the destruction of all the sugar plantations remaining, and discouraged its culture, deeming that the temptation which lured the French back again to attempt their enslavement. Burn over New York tonight, fill up her canals, sink every ship, destroy her railroads, blot out every remnant of education from her sons, let her be ignorant and penniless, with nothing but her hands to begin the world again-how much could she do in sixty years? And Europe, too, would lend you money, but she will not lend Hayti a dollar.
Hayti, from the ruins of her colonial dependence, is become a civilized state, the seventh nation in the catalogue of commerce with this country, inferior in morals and education to none of the West Indian isles. Foreign merchants trust her courts as willingly as they do our own. Thus far, she has foiled the ambition of Spain, the greed of England, and the malicious statesmanship of Calhoun. Toussaint made her what she is. In this work there was grouped around him a score of men, mostly of pure negro blood, who ably seconded his efforts.
They were able in war and skillful in civil affairs, but not, like him, remarkable for that rare mingling of high qualities which alone makes true greatness, and insures a man leadership among those otherwise almost his equals. Toussaint was indisputably their chief. Courage, purpose, endurance-these are the tests. He did plant a state so deep that all the world has not been able to root it up.
I would call him Napoleon, but Napoleon made his way to empire over broken oaths and through a sea of blood. This man never broke his word. "No RETALIATION" was his great motto and the rule of his life; and the last words uttered to his son in France were these: "My boy, you will one day go back to St. Domingo; forget that France murdered your father." I would call him Cromwell, but Cromwell was the only soldier, and the state he founded went down with him into his grave. I would call him Washington, but the great Virginian held slaves. This man risked his empire rather than permit the slave trade in the humblest village of his dominions.
You think me a fanatic tonight, for you read history, not with your eyes, but with your prejudices. But fifty years hence, when Truth gets a hearing, the Muse of History will put Phocion of the Greek, and Brutus for the Roman, Hampden for England, Fayette for France, choose Washington as the bright, consummate flower of our earlier civilization, and John Brown the ripe fruit of our noonday, then, dipping her pen in the sunlight, will write in the clear blue, above them all, the name of the soldier, the statesman, the martyr, Toussaint l'Ouverture.