Skip to main content


The Soul of a Free Man


By Caroline Kim | HUMANITIES, November/December 2003 | Volume 24, Number 6

Toussaint-Louverture had been a general for two years when he experienced a vision. On a hill in Haiti in 1793, a black Madonna appeared before him on a cloud, scattering roses. There was the sound of trumpets and then the voice of the Madonna saying, “You are the Spartacus of the Negroes. . . . You shall revenge the evil that has been done unto the people of your race.”

The man who led the first successful slave revolt and created the first Haitian Constitution was, for most of his life, a slave. Toussaint was the eldest son of Gaou-Guinou, a slave who was said to be the descendant of a West African king. Converted to Catholicism by the Jesuits, he instilled a lifelong devotion to the Church in his son. They lived on the sugar plantation of Count de Bréda, a humane man, and Toussaint was allowed to receive a little education--an acquaintance with French, a smattering of Latin and geometry. As a boy, he indulged his love of reading while tending the herd. He read Caesar’s Commentaries, Epicetus, Herodotus, Des Claison’s History of Alexander and Caesar, Guishard’s Military Memoirs of the Greeks and Romans. He also read Abbot Raynal, who wrote with horror about the practice of slavery and predicted the coming of a savior among the slaves: “He will appear, doubt it not; he will come forth, and raise the sacred standard of liberty.”

Toussaint thought himself to be that savior.

Between 1791 and 1802 in Haiti, he defeated the powerful European forces of Spain, England, and France. As governor general, he united the island. Originally named François Dominque Toussaint, he took on the name l’ouverture--the opening--announcing to his people that he would open the door to a better future. “I was born a slave,” he wrote, “but received from nature the soul of a free man.”

A biography and autobiography of this remarkable man was published by John Relly Beard in 1853, and can be found in its entirety on the website “North American Slave Narratives, Beginnings to 1920,” an electronic text project created by the Academic Affairs Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with support from the NEH. According to project director Patricia Dominguez, slave narratives--some of which are out of print and in fragile condition--have a high circulation. “One of the things that all of us have been concerned about is that a lot of materials are being digitized, but by commercial firms,” says Dominguez. “They’re available to people who are rich enough to pay for them but that often leaves out inner city and rural schools.”

With the help of William Andrews, an English professor at Chapel Hill who had already begun a bibliography of North American slave narratives, the goal of the project became to create a complete library of all slave narratives in English. To date, there are more than two hundred on the site.

Originally written to support the anti-slavery cause, the narratives represent “the only perspective on slavery from the point of view of the slave,” according to Dominguez. “Everything else is from the plantation owners’ perspective, the white majority’s perspective.”

The history of Haiti has been a history of slaves. When Columbus landed on the island he named Hispaniola, it was populated by Arawak Indians. “They are lovable, tractable, peaceful, gentle, decorous,” wrote Columbus. “They bear no arms, and are very cowardly, so that a thousand would not face three; and so they are fit to be ordered about and made to work.”

Many Indians perished in the search for gold under brutal Spanish hands. The rest were killed by smallpox. A Spanish census in 1508 counted 60,000 Indians; in 1550, there were only a hundred and fifty.

Sugar cultivation began on the island in the sixteenth century. A new slave force was required. African slaves, noirs, arrived on Hispaniola as early as 1500. “Besides the fact that a black can do more work than six Indians,” wrote Père Charlevoix, an eighteenth-century French chronicler, “he accustoms himself to slavery, for which he seems to have been created; he is uncomplaining, contents himself with little to eat, and, even on bad food, stays strong and robust. He has a bit of natural pride, but, in order to tame him, a few lashes will suffice to remind him that he has a Master.”

In 1659, although Spain retained ownership of the eastern two-thirds of Hispaniola under the name Santo Domingo, the French assumed governance of the western third and called it Saint-Domingue. By the time of the slave insurrections Saint-Domingue had become the “Jewel of the Antilles” for France, making Frenchman wealthy through the cultivation of sugar, coffee, indigo, and cotton.

By the late eighteenth century, African slaves outnumbered whites and mulâtres, or mulattos, by a large majority. The census of 1791 shows the population of black slaves at 700,000 as opposed to 40,000 whites and 28,000 mulâtres. Given the numbers, white planters were concerned about a possible uprising. One planter, the Marquis du Rouvray, said of the danger, “This colony of slaves is like a city under the imminence of attack; we are treading on loaded barrels of gunpowder.” History proved him right. Eight years later, Saint-Domingue would ignite.

The quarrel was initially between the white planters and the mulâtres. Under the Code Noir established by Louis XIV to regularize slavery, masters could free individual slaves. Once liberated, the freedman--affranchi--enjoyed “the same rights, privileges, and immunities of persons born a free.” The class who most benefited was that of the mulâtres, often the offspring of French white planters and African slaves. Many were as rich as the whites. They owned land and slaves; they sent their children to be educated in France. As the number of affranchis rose, they were kept from enjoying their freedom. Whites and affranchis could not marry. They were barred from carrying arms, not allowed to eat at the same table as whites, prevented from holding public office, and excluded from the professions of law, medicine, pharmacy, teaching, and the priesthood.

Fueled by the revolutionary events in France, including the fall of the Bastille in 1789, a group of mulâtres went to Paris to demand their rights. In October of 1789, the National Assembly passed the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” which in its first article proclaimed, “All men are born and live free and equal in their rights.” Two weeks later, they accepted a petition of rights for “free citizens of color.” There was as yet no mention of freedom for slaves.

When the mulâtres returned to Saint-Domingue, the whites refused the rights acknowledged to them in France and promptly tortured and killed two of the mulâtre leaders, severing their heads and putting them on stakes. Though the mulâtres did not want to inflame the slaves--for they feared the noirs as much as the white planters did and had as much to lose--their desire for vengeance won out.

The slaves were only waiting to strike. On the night of August 22, 1791, the struggle for Haitian independence burst forth. Torching houses and fields and killing the masters who had enslaved them, the slaves moved from one plantation to the next. “Those rich houses, those superb factories, were in ruins,” writes Beard. “Conflagration raged everywhere. The mountains, covered with smoke and burning fragments, borne upwards by the wind, looked like volcanoes. ”

Toussaint did not join the fighting immediately. Favored by the overseer, Bayou de Libertas, he had lived a comparatively easy, tranquil life. Unlike most slaves, he was allowed by Bayou to choose his own wife, and the two were given their own land to cultivate. About this peaceful time, Toussaint writes, “We went to labor in the fields, my wife and I, hand in hand. Scarcely were we conscious of the fatigues of the day. Heaven always blessed our toil. Not only we swam in abundance, but we had the pleasure of giving food to blacks who needed it.”

Toussaint repaid his overseer’s kindness by helping him to escape, his family and valuables intact. He personally drove them to the coast from which they left for America. Only then did Toussaint join his fellow noirs.

The blacks made a ragtag army. According to Beard, “The infantry were all but naked, and destitute of experience; their weapons were sticks pointed with iron, broken or blunted swords, pieces of iron hoop, and some wretched guns and pistols.”

Toussaint was expert at using guerilla tactics and avoiding direct attacks. He trained squads of ten to twelve men to creep close to the ground. Preceding them were groups of women and children, dancing and singing loudly, who would suddenly grow silent and disappear into the undergrowth. Then Toussaint’s men would begin attacking from all sides.

When the French retaliated against their former slaves, Toussaint joined the Spanish, whose goal was to rule the entire island. But fearing that the Spanish would never abolish slavery, he switched back to the French, who decreed the liberation of slaves on Saint-Domingue in 1793.

He always considered himself a French citizen, and when the British suggested he become King of Haiti under their protection, he refused. Instead, in 1801 he proclaimed himself gouverneur-général-à-vie, or governor general for life.

Though Toussaint’s rule can only be called a dictatorship, he did much to revitalize his country. Saint-Domingue was devastated by years of fighting. The treasury was bankrupt, the fields were fallow, cities had to be rebuilt. Toussaint understood that an agricultural system had to be reinstated. He instituted the system of fermage, in which the state took over the abandoned plantations and leased them out. A quarter of the revenue was paid to the workers, who were also fed, housed, and clothed. The tenant took a fixed share of the profits and the government the rest.

To those he considered shirkers, he could be fierce. “Remember,” he said, “there is but one Toussaint-Louverture in Saint-Domingue, and at his name, all must tremble.”

There was one man who refused to tremble: Napoleon Bonaparte, who had been busy consolidating his power. About Toussaint, he is reported to have said, “He is a revolted slave whom we must punish; the honor of France is outraged.”

Napoleon saw Saint-Domingue as a possible stepping stone to further the borders of France into the New World. From the island, he could fight the British in Jamaica and then on to America where France had a foothold in the Louisiana Territory. But to the British, he said, “My decision to destroy the authority of the blacks in Haiti is not so much based on considerations of commerce and money, as on the need to block forever the march of the blacks in the world.”

For the task of reasserting French control over Haiti, Napoleon gave the command to his brother-in-law, General Victoire-Emmanuel Leclerc.

Charles-Humbert-Marie de Vincent, a colonel who had earlier been sent to Haiti as a peace commissioner, tried in vain to stop Napoleon. “At the head of so many resources is a man the most active and indefatigable that can possibly be imagined,” he wrote to the First Consul. “No man of the present day has acquired over an ignorant mass the boundless power obtained by General Toussaint over his brethren in Saint Domingo; he is the absolute master of the island.”

For his trouble, Vincent was banished to the island of Elba, where years later he was on hand to greet Napoleon.

In early December 1801, Leclerc, his wife Pauline--who was Napoleon’s sister--and 35,000 French, Spanish, and Dutch troops sailed from Brest, Rochefort, Lorient, Toulon, and Cádiz. As Toussaint stood on the heights of Samana Bay watching the fleet arrive, he lost his usual nerve. “Friends,” he said, “we are doomed. All France has come to Saint-Domingue.”

For the next several months, heavy fighting devastated Haiti. Though little is known about Toussaint’s movements, his generals had been ordered to burn entire cities rather than surrender them to the French.

Toussaint knew that he could not hold out against France’s superior power forever, but he hoped to survive until the spring, when yellow fever might attack Napoleon’s troops more effectively than he could. However, before that happened, Leclerc successfully won over Toussaint’s generals. Toussaint discovered their betrayal and had no choice but to give up.

He was taken to the frigate La Créole, and from there to the ship Héros. His wife, sons, and a niece were also arrested and taken aboard the ship, although they were not allowed to see him. “Now they have felled the trunk of the Negroes’ tree of liberty,” he said as he looked upon Haiti for the last time. “However, new shoots will sprout because the roots are deep and many.”

Toussaint landed in Brest on July 12, 1802. He was taken to the ninth-century Fort de Joux where he was was confined to a dungeon cell twelve feet by twenty feet. The imposing fort appeared to have been built on sheer rock, placed as it was on top of a fifteen-hundred-foot mountain; behind it towered peaks covered with snow nine months out of the year.

While in prison, he wrote a series of letters to Napoleon in which he begged for a fair trial. None was answered.

In less than a year, physically ill, heart-broken, and depressed at being separated from his family, the liberator of Haiti died.

Toussaint was prescient about his fellow countrymen’s love for liberty. Assuming correctly that Leclerc planned to reinstate slavery in Haiti, Toussaint’s former generals banded together and turned against the Frenchman. At the same time, the disease Toussaint had been waiting for blazed through the French forces. Yellow fever killed more men than had died during the fighting.

On All Saint’s Day, 1803, Leclerc died of the disease himself. In his last letter to Napoleon, he wrote, “Here is my opinion. You will have to exterminate all the blacks in the mountains, women as well as men, except for children under twelve. Wipe out half the population of the lowlands, and do not leave in the colony a single black who has worn an epaulet. . . . Send 12,000 replacements immediately, and 10 million francs in cash, or Saint-Domingue is lost forever.”

The French held on for another year but their troops had been devastated. Finally, on December 4, 1803, the last of the French troops departed and on January 1, 1804, Toussaint’s former generals proclaimed the Free Black Republic of Haiti.

Napoleon, banished to St. Helena a decade later, regretted having invaded Haiti. To his secretary, Emanuel Las Cases, said, “My greatest mistake was to try to subdue Haiti by force of arms. I should have let Toussaint-Louverture rule it."

About the Author

Caroline Kim is a writer in San Francisco.

Funding Information

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has received $111,000 in NEH support for the website “North American Slave Narratives, Beginnings to 1920,”