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[vid] The Slave who Defeated Napoleon

Toussaint Louverture was born a slave. He defeated Napoleon and liberated a nation. This is his story.


In December 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte sent 20,000 French soldiers on a disturbing mission to the once-wealthy sugar colony of Saint Domingue, modern-day Haiti. They had one objective: to reintroduce slavery.

But, to execute this horrific act, the French would need to get rid of the man standing in their way: Toussaint Louverture. Since 1791, Toussaint, born a slave, had been a—and then the—leading figure in history’s only successful slave revolt. It was his tenacious fight for human freedom that had forced France’s revolutionary government to abolish slavery in the colonies, seven years earlier.

But now Napoleon was in charge, and he saw things differently. He was intent on putting hundreds of thousands of people back in chains, and Toussaint was, for now, the only obstacle.

This is his story.


This is Hispaniola, 1745: a Caribbean island split in half and claimed by two European powers. The east is known as Santo-Domingo and is owned by Spain, while the French own the west, which they call, you guessed it, Saint-Domingue.[1]

It is the crown jewel of French colonies — or perhaps just the cash cow — because nowhere else in the world produces sugar like Saint-Domingue, thanks to its unique climate, geography, and soil…and the massive slave population.[2]

While many were stolen from freedom in Africa and brought to toil in chains on the island’s sugar plantations until they died, Toussaint Louverture was born a slave. He would not, however, die a slave.

In fact, by the time he was about 30 years old, around 1776, Toussaint received his freedom, a reward for some especially vital work. Soon enough, he earned enough money to rent some land…along with some slaves to work it.[3]

You see, the social structure in Saint-Domingue was…complicated. While all slaves were Black, some Black people managed to acquire their freedom. In turn, they participated in the economic life of the colony in much the same way as their former owners did. Similarly, the island’s White population could be divided into “great” whites and “small” whit es: the wealthy landowners…and the rest.

While the small whites resented the greats for their wealth and power, they reserved their most profound hatred for the free Blacks, whose success was especially offensive.[4]

This was the world that Toussaint entered, the one that ultimately, he would play a crucial role in transforming.

And by 1789, that world was already changing. On July 14, a mob in Paris stormed and captured the Bastille prison. The French Revolution had most definitely begun, and Saint-Domingue would not escape the impact of its radical ideas: those of liberty, equality, and brotherhood.

Yet for now, those ideals didn’t apply to the enslaved, at least according to the authors. In August of 1791, however, those slaves—who made up 500 of the colony’s 560,000 inhabitants[5]— had had enough. Half the northern province—home to most of the sugar plantations—went up in flames.[6] Within a few weeks—maybe sooner—Toussaint had joined the fight, waging a bloody insurgency against the slaveholders and landowners.[7] The combat was brutal, and it continued for several months, before each side began settling into their respective positions.[8]

While Toussaint was ultimately just one insurgent among tens of thousands, his talent for leadership was obvious from the start. Unlike most of his peers, he could read, and he’d educated himself in European combat techniques: knowledge he passed down, along with guerilla tactics, to the insurgents he trained.[9] Indeed, it was Toussaint who was responsible for a number of early victories, earning him a reputation as one of the most capable Black military leaders. He wasn’t yet the living avatar of the Haitian revolution, but he was on his way.[10]

To achieve that status, Toussaint needed a vision; the revolution needed a vision. But he didn’t seem to have one yet. In fact, as the rebellion settled into a stalemate, some of its leaders, including Toussaint, proposed a truce with the colonial government, on the condition of their own freedom. The rank-and-file, however, would return to slavery.[11] Moreover, a number of leaders even kidnapped slaves from plantations and sold them across the border to the Spanish for guns and food.[12]

In other words, the leaders of the insurgency were fighting, first and foremost, for themselves, without any apparent broader vision of emancipation.

And while Toussaint, too, fell into this category, he began to differentiate himself and his vision. Evidence suggests that while he endorsed the truce proposal, he did work to improve its terms for the rank-and-file.[13] He also refused to participate in the slave trading that others did, and he even intervened to protect white prisoners, ensuring their right to some degree of due process.[14]

It was this developing political morality—of humanity towards one’s enemies and solidarity in the fight for freedom—that would both set Toussaint apart from his peers and eventually become, if sometimes more in word than deed, the conscience of the Haitian revolution.

Fortunately, that truce never came to pass, as the insurgents found eager support from the Spanish, who by 1793 were at war with revolutionary France. Spain offered the combatants—all of them, not just the leaders— emancipation in exchange for their loyalty to the crown. Toussaint, and all the others, accepted.[15]

Saint-Domingue’s colonial government on the other hand—expecting such a ploy by the Spanish and being influenced by the principles of the revolution back in France—issued their own emancipation decree in August. Its limited language was not, however, enough to sway Toussaint or the other officers.[16]

But when Paris, at this stage of the revolution growing more radical by the month, learned of the decree, they decided to take things a step further. In plain, unambiguous terms, on February 4th, 1794, France abolished slavery in its colonies and extended equal political rights to all.[17]

For Toussaint, this was enough. His political vision, once formless, even absent, had developed into a republican ideology that saw every man as equal—and not just that, but capable of participating, arm in arm, as brothers, in a free multiracial society. As he saw it, revolutionary France was now on the way to making that vision a reality, and Toussaint wanted to contribute.

In May, he defected from the Spanish and the insurgency, bringing with him almost 4,000 men and a string of key forts, nearly doubling the strength of the struggling colonial government. In one move, he’d become the linchpin of their strategy for maintaining control of the colony.[18]

By 1795, the Spanish were knocked out of the war with France, costing the insurgency its biggest benefactor, and its leaders, never offering a vision for the fight, fled the island, leaving behind the men who’d fought for them.[19]

Toussaint, meanwhile, was on the rise, securing successive promotions for his valiant service to the colonial government and attaining the military rank of general in 1795 and political title of lieutenant governor in 1796, making him Saint-Domingue’s number two man. By 1799, the colony was his.[20]

But Saint-Domingue, ravaged by three years of brutal conflict, was in bad shape. Toussaint knew that without prosperity, his political vision would be an impossibility, so he and the French government sought to return former slaves to the plantations, to restart production. They’d be paid, with more time off, and would toil under less brutal conditions, but Toussaint and the rest weren’t exactly asking—they were ordering.[21]

And back in France, things weren’t so different, as the revolutionary government, weakened by a decade of coups, street violence, terror, and corruption, was on the verge of collapse. In 1799, weak and unpopular, it was overthrown by a general as ambitious, intelligent, and skilled as Toussaint: Napoleon Bonaparte.[22]

Bonaparte was, in so many ways, like Toussaint. His beginnings were, of course, hardly comparable, but they were far humbler than Europe’s monarchs. He’d proven his military genius over the course of a revolution and, like Toussaint, became increasingly indispensable to the weak government he served. Both men had developed radical political ideologies in their early careers, but both, dismayed by the increasing chaos of revolution, came to value order as a necessity.[23]

Yet as Napoleon’s star was rising, Toussaint’s light began to fade.

Neither the whites nor the freedmen—most of whom were mixed-race, unlike Toussaint—had much interest helping a Black superior manage the colony’s plantations, just as the Black laborers forced once more to work on them also grew cold on Toussaint.[24]

Napoleon, too, was growing impatient. War, after all, is expensive, Napoleon was doing a lot of war, and Saint-Domingue just wasn’t the cash cow it once was, not without slavery.[25]

So, in 1801, when Toussaint, desperate to rescue his reputation, promulgated a colonial constitution without the First Consul’s approval, Napoleon’s patience ran out.[26] He dispatched his brother-in-law to arrest Toussaint and prepare the colony for the restoration of slavery.[27]

When the expedition arrived in 1802, Toussaint attempted to rally the colony in resistance, but early successes gave way to defeats, as his supporters—once loyal, now resentful—defected from his cause. In 1802, he was captured and deported to France. Within a year, imprisoned high in the Alps, Toussaint died: a prisoner, yes, but a slave to no man.[28]

So, Toussaint didn’t defeat Napoleon himself—a frustrating and upsetting ending to his remarkable life story. But that isn’t really the end of Toussaint’s story. His lieutenant, a man who was once his slave, Jean-Jacques Dessaline, succeeded him in the struggle, defeating two waves of Napoleon’s forces over the next few years, securing Black emancipation costing Bonaparte his prize possession.[29]

While Dessaline achieved the victory Toussaint was unable to grasp, he did it bearing Toussaint’s torch: a victory inconceivable without his unique and profound vision. And Dessalines was indeed, half the visionary Toussaint was: outwardly authoritarian and disinterested in racial reconciliation. Within a month of Haiti’s declaration of independence in 1804, he ordered the remaining white population killed.[30] Dessalines himself was assassinated shortly thereafter, living and dying by the sword.[31]

Toward the end of his own life, Napoleon, reflecting on his career, concluded that challenging Toussaint was his “greatest mistake.”[32] Indeed, Toussaint Louverture was one of those rare great men of history, capable of moving nations and peoples against the tide. But he was far from perfect, and neither could he fully overcome the forces that ultimately tore Saint-Domingue apart: its internal contradictions and the crushing might of the colonial project that sought to deny him and those who looked like him their humanity. Over the last two centuries, Haiti has suffered internal violence and external meddling, today worse than it’s been in decades. But there and elsewhere, Toussaint’s vision—of liberty, equality, and brotherhood, in the truest sense—still holds hope.

  1. Jeremy D. Popkin, A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 11-12. ↩︎

  2. Ibid., 2. ↩︎

  3. Sudhir Hazareesingh, Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture (Farrar, Strous, and Giroux, 2021). No page number available from .epub format. ↩︎

  4. C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, 2nd ed. (Random House, 1963), 33-44. ↩︎

  5. Popkin, 2. ↩︎

  6. Ibid., 36-38. ↩︎

  7. James, 90; Popkin, 43; Hazareesingh. Toussaint’s entry into the Haitian Revolution is a subject of considerable historical debate. Some go so far as to theorize that he collaborated with white planters to provoke the event. Others suggest that he was present at one of the first gatherings of the slaves who plotted the revolt in the Northern Province. The Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James asserts that Toussaint was in contact with other leaders, but was conservative and cautious enough to wait to join the revolt until it was under way. ↩︎

  8. Popkin, 45. ↩︎

  9. James, 116-117; Madison Smartt Bell, Toussaint Louverture: A Biography (Vintage, 2008). .epub format, page numbers N A. ↩︎

  10. James, 131-132. ↩︎

  11. Popkin, 44. ↩︎

  12. Ibid., 49. ↩︎

  13. Ibid., 44. ↩︎

  14. Ibid., 44, 49. ↩︎

  15. Ibid., 55. ↩︎

  16. Ibid., 59. ↩︎

  17. Ibid., 66. ↩︎

  18. James, 132, 143-144. ↩︎

  19. Popkin, 75. ↩︎

  20. Ibid., 76, 78; James, 186-187. ↩︎

  21. Popkin, 83-89, 99. ↩︎

  22. Popkin, 105. ↩︎

  23. Consider Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life, (Penguin, 2015). ↩︎

  24. Popkin, 90, 96-100, 112; James, 276-277. ↩︎

  25. Popkin, 117. ↩︎

  26. Ibid., 118. ↩︎

  27. Ibid., 118-119. ↩︎

  28. Ibid., 121-127. ↩︎

  29. Ibid., 130-133. ↩︎

  30. Ibid., 137. ↩︎

  31. Ibid., 144-145. ↩︎

  32. Gaspar Gourgaud, Sainte-Hélène. Journal inédit de 1815 à 1818, ed. le Vicomte de Grouchy & Antoine Guillois. Two volumes, Paris: Ernest Flammarion, 1899, 402. ↩︎


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