Toussaint L'Ouverture or Toussaint Bréda was the best-known leader of the Haitian Revolution. His military and political acumen saved the gains of the first Black insurrection in November 1791. He first fought for the Spanish against the French; then for France against Spain and Britain; and finally, for Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti)'s colonial sovereignty against Napoleonic France.
Toussaint L'Ouverture was a slave during the first three decades of Iris life. He was born on May 20, 1743 Saint-Domingue, Haiti. Very little is known about his childhood. His father, Gaou-Guinou, had been captured in West Africa and brought to the American continent as a slave to the Count de Breda, who was considered somewhat more humane than other slave-owners. Gaou-Guinou was an educated slave and a member of the Catholic Church who married and had eight children, the eldest of whom was François Dominique Toussaint.
Toussaint received a rudimentary education from a Jesuit missionary, but continued to speak in his father's native African tongue within the family. He read the works of Julius Caesar and other military leaders, and is believed to have developed his skill in strategic and tactical military planning at this time. As a slave, he worked his way from shepherd to coachman and later steward. During these early years he witnessed all the misery of slavery, including the beating and separation of families. As he grew older he became more distressed about the incompatibilitv that existed between Catholic teaching and the institution of slavery. Legallv freed bv his owner in 1777, he began his quest to liberate Haiti's slaves.
The French Revolution precipitated revolts by both blacks and mulattoes and conflicts among the whites in St. Domingue, France’s most prosperous colony. When the insurrections began. Toussaint remained faithful to his master, Monsieur Bayou, who had provided him with the opportunity to gain some education. He worked as a coachman and apparently also as a veterinarian.
After helping his master flee to the United States, Toussaint joined the slave insurgents under Jean-François, who had declared himself a royalist, fighting against the Republican forces. Toussaint rose quickly to the post of commander. He defeated French forces sent to capture him on November 17, 1792.
Toussaint held the post of military secretary to one of the two acknowledged leaders of the insurrectionist slaves, Biassou. He soon commanded a force of 4,0 blacks, training them with the help of French deserters in drill, weaponry, and discipline. With the acknowledged rank of colonel, he became elevated to a status of near equality with his erstwhile leaders, Jean-François and Biassou.
February 14, 1794, the French Republic abolished slavery, and accepted black and mulatto deputies from St. Domingue in the National Assembly. This apparently made a profound impression on Toussaint.
Under siege from Spanish forces and from the British, who had also invaded the island, the French governor Laveau began to engage in secret communications with Toussaint. Undoubtedly disappointed by restoration of slavery in the colony by both the Spanish and British, and promised promotion to general in the French Army. Toussaint made a volte-face and soon recaptured portions of the colony which were in Spanish hands.
Meanwhile, the British invaded Port-au-Prince. They were supported by white royalists bent on reestablishing slavery. Two mulatto generals. André Rigaud and Villatte, held the south of (he island and one of its major ports. Cap Haitien, while Toussaint was firmly in control of the center. With support of the black population fearing reenslavement by the Spanish and British, he soon moved against the mulatto general Villatte, who had imprisoned the French governor, marched to the governor’s rescue, and was given the title of lieutenant governor of the colony.
In May 1796 the French sent commissioners to try to reestablish their authority. Under Sonthonax, they expelled many mulatto leaders, including Villatte. Following consolidation of Sonthonax’s power, he and Toussaint were the two most powerful men in the colony, although the mulatto General Rigaud ran a virtually autonomous state in the South.
Toussaint, bearing the title of general-in-chief of the St. Domingue Army, and with alliances with former planters, émigrés, and royalists, marched on the Cap and forced Sonthonax to return to France. His replacement, Hédouville, had instructions to regain control over both Toussaint and Rigaud and to support both against the English, who still held Port-au-Prince and the western part of the island.
The English were routed in the West, and Toussaint encircled Port-au-Prince. The British general quickly agreed to evacuate peacefully if Toussaint would agree to a truce. Joining Rigaud, Toussaint was quickly able to rout the remaining British forces.
An insurrection broke out against Hédouville after rumors circulated that he intended to restore slavery, and he was forced to flee. Toussaint then defeated Rigaud and his mulattoes, and in February 1801 they marched into Spanish Santo Domingo and won control of all Hispaniola. Even though Haiti was, de facto, a sovereign nation, Toussaint refused to declare it independent from France.
Toussaint’s victory was short-lived. Napoleon Bonaparte soon launched an invasion of the colony, led by his brother-in-law. General Charles Leclerc. Assisted by Rigaud and other mulatto leaders, Leclerc landed 22,000 veteran troops on the island, gaining spectacular victories. Toussaint surrendered on May 5, 1802, after most of his lieutenants had joined the French. He was transported to France and imprisoned until his death.
Throughout his life, Toussaint was known as a devout Roman Catholic. Although Vodou was generally practiced on Saint-Domingue in combination with Catholicism, little is known for certain if Toussaint had any connection with it. Officially as ruler of Saint-Domingue, he discouraged it.
Historians have suggested that he was a member of high degree of the Masonic Lodge of Saint-Domingue, mostly based on a Masonic symbol he used in his signature. The membership of several free blacks and white men close to him has been confirmed.
In 1782, Toussaint married Suzanne Simone Baptiste Louverture, who is thought to have been his cousin or his godfather's daughter. Towards the end of his life, he told General Caffarelli that he had fathered 16 children, of whom 11 had predeceased him. Not all his children can be identified for certain, but his three legitimate sons are well known. The eldest, Placide, was probably adopted by Toussaint and is generally thought to be Suzanne's first child with a mulatto, Seraphim Le Clerc. The two sons born of his marriage with Suzanne were Isaac and Saint-Jean.