Knowledge Session : Who Was Toussaint L’Ouverture?

Général_Toussaint_LouvertureKnown to his con­tem­por­ar­ies as “The Black Napo­leon,” Tous­saint L’Ouverture was a former slave who rose to become the lead­er of the only suc­cess­ful slave revolt in mod­ern his­tory, the Haitian Revolu­tion.

Born into slavery on May 20, 1743 in the French colony of Saint Domin­que, L’Ouverture was the eld­est son of Gaou Guinon, an Afric­an prince who was cap­tured by slavers.  At a time when revi­sions to the French Code Noir (Black Code) leg­al­ized the harsh treat­ment of slaves as prop­erty, young L’ Over­ture instead inspired kind­ness from those in author­ity over him.  His god­fath­er, the priest Simon Bap­tiste, for example, taught him to read and write.  Impressed by L’Ouverture, Bay­on de Liber­tad, the man­ager of the Breda plant­a­tion on which L’Ouverture was born, allowed him unlim­ited access to his per­son­al lib­rary.

By the time he was twenty, the well-read and tri-lin­gual L’Ouverture—he spoke French, Creole, and some Latin—had also gained a repu­ta­tion as a skilled horse­man and for his know­ledge of medi­cin­al plants and herbs.  More import­antly, L’Ouverture had secured his free­dom from de Liber­tad even as he con­tin­ued to man­age his former owner’s house­hold per­son­nel and to act as his coach­man.  Over the course of the next 18 years, L’Ouverture settled into life on the Breda plant­a­tion mar­ry­ing fel­low Cath­ol­ic Suz­anne Simon and par­ent­ing two sons, Isaac and Saint-Jean. The events of August 22, 1791, the “Night of Fire” in which slaves revol­ted by set­ting fire to plant­a­tion houses and fields and killing whites, con­vinced the 48-year-old L’Ouverture that he should join the grow­ing insur­gency, although not before secur­ing the safety of his wife and chil­dren in the Span­ish-con­trolled east­ern half of the island (Santo Domin­go) and assur­ing that Bay­on de Liber­tad and his wife were safely onboard a ship bound for the United States.

Inspired by French Revolu­tion­ary ideo­logy and angered by gen­er­a­tions of abuse at the hands of white plant­ers, the ini­tial slave upris­ing was quelled with­in sev­er­al days, but ongo­ing fight­ing between the slaves, free blacks, and plant­ers con­tin­ued.  Although he was free, L’Ouverture joined the slave insur­gency and quickly developed a repu­ta­tion first as a cap­able sol­dier and then as mil­it­ary sec­ret­ary to Georges Bias­sou, one of the insurgency’s lead­ers.  When the insurgency’s lead­er­ship chose to ally itself with Spain against France, L’Ouverture fol­lowed.  Threatened by Spain and Britain’s attempts to con­trol the island, the French Nation­al Con­ven­tion acted to pre­serve its colo­ni­al rule in 1794 by secur­ing the loy­alty of the black pop­u­la­tion; France gran­ted cit­izen­ship rights and free­dom to all blacks with­in the empire.


Fol­low­ing France’s decision to eman­cip­ate the slaves, L’Ouverture allied with France against Spain, and from 1794 to 1802, he was the dom­in­ant polit­ic­al and mil­it­ary lead­er in the French colony.  Oper­at­ing under the self-assumed title of Gen­er­al-in-Chief of the Army, L’Ouverture led the French in oust­ing the Brit­ish and then in cap­tur­ing the Span­ish con­trolled half of the island.  By 1801, although Saint Domin­que remained ostens­ibly a French colony, L’Ouverture was rul­ing it as an inde­pend­ent state.  He draf­ted a con­sti­tu­tion in which he reit­er­ated the 1794 abol­i­tion of slavery and appoin­ted him­self gov­ernor for “the rest of his glor­i­ous life.”  L’Ouverture’s actions even­tu­ally aroused the ire of Napo­leon Bona­parte.  In 1802 Napo­leon dis­patched his broth­er-in-law, Charles Leclerc, to cap­ture L’Ouverture and return the island to slavery under French con­trol.  Cap­tured and imprisoned at Fort de Joux in France, L’Ouverture died of pneu­mo­nia on April 7, 1803.  Inde­pend­ence for Saint Domin­que would fol­low one year later under the lead­er­ship of Jean-Jacques Des­salines, one of L’Ouverture’s gen­er­als.


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Watch Tous­saint Loverture’s power­ful story here:


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Rishma Dhaliwal

Rishma Dhaliwal

Edit­or / PR Con­sult­ant at No Bounds
Rishma Dhali­w­al has extens­ive exper­i­ence study­ing and work­ing in the music and media industry. Hav­ing writ­ten a thes­is on how Hip Hop acts as a social move­ment, she has spent years research­ing and con­nect­ing with artists who use the art form as a tool for bring­ing a voice to the voice­less. Cur­rently work­ing in TV, Rishma brings her PR and media know­ledge to I am Hip Hop and oth­er pro­jects by No Bounds.

About Rishma Dhaliwal

Rishma Dhaliwal
Rishma Dhaliwal has extensive experience studying and working in the music and media industry. Having written a thesis on how Hip Hop acts as a social movement, she has spent years researching and connecting with artists who use the art form as a tool for bringing a voice to the voiceless. Currently working in TV, Rishma brings her PR and media knowledge to I am Hip Hop and other projects by No Bounds.

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