Haitian Revolutionary Toussaint Louverture Dies

Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution credited for ending slavery on Haiti, died on this day in 1803.

Born into slavery in 1743 on Saint-Domingue, Louverture was the self-educated son of an educated slave. He was freed in 1777 and soon after participated in a slave revolt that engulfed Haiti. After the revolt was put down, Louverture collected an army of his own, training them in tactics of guerilla warfare. Louverture demonstrated extraordinary military prowess as a general, leading his ragtag army to victory against French and British forces on Haiti.

In May 1794, however, Louverture joined the French effort, citing the National Assembly’s abolishment of slavery earlier that year. As such, Napoleon designated him Commander-in-Chief of the colony of Haiti. Though some criticized the move as duplicitous, Louverture was generally hailed as a hero. He helped restore the Haitian economy, allowed émigré planters to return, coaxed former slaves to work, and preached reconciliation between blacks, Europeans, and those of mixed-race.

In a few years’ time, Louverture had secured control of all of Saint-Domingue and ignoring commands by Napoleon, overran Spanish-controlled Santo Domingo in January 1801, freeing slaves there. Now in control of the entire island, Louverture drafted a constitution naming himself governor general for life with near absolute powers, declaring Catholicism the state religion, and sanctioning many revolutionary principles. Above all, Louverture’s greatest goal was to prevent a restoration of slavery. He knew Napoleon would want to regain control of Haiti, reinstitute slavery, and make Saint-Domingue a profitable colony once again upon making peace with England. So Louverture prepared for battle.

He trained a huge army, stored supplies for battle, and trusted no one. In January 1802 the French army invaded, as Louverture feared, under General Charles Leclerc. Many Europeans and mixed-race people immediately defected to him and after several weeks of furious fighting, so did many blacks. Finally, in May, Louverture agreed to lay down his arms in exchange for Leclerc’s promise not to reinstate slavery. Toussaint honourably retired to a plantation. Several weeks later Leclerc sent troops to the plantation to seize Louverture and his family, claiming he suspected the revolutionary leader of plotting another uprising. It was during this time that Louverture famously said, “In overthrowing me you have cut down in Saint Domingue only the trunk of the tree of liberty; it will spring up again from the roots, for they are many and they are deep.”

Louverture was then imprisoned and interrogated in France. He died on 7 April 1803 of pneumonia. Louverture is a hero in Haiti, hailed as the father of the Haitian Revolution and renowned for ending slavery on the island.