Monday, January 01, 2007

Toussaint L'Ouverture

by Caroline Colebrook

TOUSSAINT L’Ouverture was born as a slave in the 18th century on theCaribbean island St Dominique, also known as Hispaniola, who led the people in a long and complex struggle for emancipation from slavery and from colonial rule.
Their struggles took place against a background of contending colonial powers: France, Britain, Spain and the newly independent United States. Vast fortunes were being made from the production of sugar, coffee and other commodities in the slave plantations of the Caribbean.
Toussaint was a self-educated man who challenged the idealists and intellectuals of the French revolution to extend the principles of Liberté, egalité and fraternité to the black slaves of France’s colonies. He was also a military genius who took on and defeated the armies of the colonial powers, including Napoleon.
Napoleon did not forgive him and tricked him with a false peace treaty to come to France, where he was seized and thrown into prison where he died of starvation and neglect. But his legacy lived on. He had proved to the world that black people are just as capable as white people of being great intellectuals, military leaders and political tacticians.
Today the island of Hispaniola is divided into the Dominican Republic and Haiti – the first autonomous black state in the western hemisphere.
He was born Toussaint Bréda at some time around 1743 on All Saints Day(either 20th May or 1st November) hence the name Toussaint; the name Bréda came from his owner. He later acquired the name L’Ouverture, meaning one who finds an opening.
Toussaint’s father, Gaou-Guinou, was born a free man in Africa. He isbelieved to have been from the Arrada people of the Dahomey coast but was brought by slave traders to St Dominique and sold to the Count de Bréda.
De Bréda was relatively humane and happy to encourage Toussaint to learn to read and write. He became a coachman of the count and was already a notedhorse rider and herbalist before his subsequent military and political career. A free black priest, Pierre Baptiste, taught him to read.
Toussaint married a woman named Suzan Simone and they had a son, named Placide.
Though it was not widely known during his lifetime, Toussaint was in fact afree man by the time of the great slave uprising he would eventually help lead. He was freed from slavery at about the age of 33, and colonial records show that he leased a field of about 15 hectares with 13 slaves to grow coffee.
As a young man he engrossed himself in the works of the French philosophers whose ideas helped to spark the French Revolution. But he also read a great deal about military tactics and became an admirer of Julius Caesar in this respect.
In 1789 the French Revolution rocked France and its colonies. The sugar plantations of St Dominique, though far away, would never be the same. Spurred on by such Enlightenment thinkers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the early revolutionaries considered seriously the question of slavery. Those revolutionaries were not willing to end slavery but they did apply the Rights of Man, as proclaimed by Thomas Paine, to all Frenchmen, including free blacks and mulattoes (those of mixed race). Plantation owners in the colonies were furious and fought the measure. Finally the revolutionaries gave in and retracted the measure in 1791.
The news of this betrayal triggered mass slave revolts in St Dominique,under the leadership of Georges Biassou. Toussaint joined their ranks as a medic. But first he took pains to see that his former master’s family were able to leave St Dominique safely. Toussaint’s knowledge of strategic and tactical planning and leadership abilities quickly brought him to prominence. He became an aide to Biassou after the Night of Fire.
Le Cap fell to French republican forces, who were reinforced by thousands of blacks in April 1793. Black forces had joined the French against the royalists on the promise of freedom. Indeed, in August Commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax abolished slavery in the colony.
Two black leaders, Jean-François and Biassou, had little confidence in the French Republic and preferred to commit their allegiance to a king. So they accepted commissions from Spain. The Spanish deployed forces in coordination with these indigenous blacks to take the north of St Dominique.
Toussaint, who had taken up the Spanish banner in February 1793, came to command his own forces independently of Biassou’s army. By the year’s end,Toussaint had cut a swath through the north, had swung south to Gonaïves,and effectively controlled north-central St Dominique. It was at this time he acquired the nickname L’Ouverture (opening) because he exploited openings in the defences of the opposition.
Some historians believe that Spain and Britain had reached an informal arrangement to divide the French colony between them – Britain to take the south and Spain the north. British forces landed at Jérémie and Môle St Nicholas (the Môle). They besieged Port-au-Prince (or Port Républicain, as it was known under the Republic) and took it in June 1794.
The Spanish had launched a two-pronged offensive from the east. French forces checked Spanish progress toward Port-au-Prince in the south, but theSpanish pushed rapidly through the north, most of which they occupied by1794. Spain and Britain were poised to seize St Dominique, but severalfactors foiled their grand design.
One factor was illness. The British in particular fell victim to tropical disease, which thinned their ranks far more quickly than combat against theFrench. Southern forces led by Rigaud and northern forces led by another mulatto commander, Villatte, also forestalled a complete victory by the foreign forces. These uncertain conditions positioned Toussaint’s centrallylocated forces as the key to victory or defeat.
On 6th May 1794, Toussaint made a crucial decision, influenced by events inFrance. The Republic was now in the hands of the Jacobins, led by Maximilian Robespierre, who did honour the principles of Liberté, egalité and fraternité; they abolished slavery on 4th February 1794.
The Spanish had promised emancipation but they showed no signs of keeping their word in the territories that they controlled, and the British had reinstated slavery in the areas they occupied. Toussaint’s priority was emancipation so he had no choice but to cast his lot with the French.
In several raids against his former allies, Toussaint took the Artibonite region and retired briefly to Mirebalais. Toussaintproved to be a brilliant general, winning seven battles in seven days. As Rigaud’s forces achieved more limited success in the south, the tide clearlyswung in favour of the French Republicans.
A major turning point at this point was the 22nd July 1794 peace agreement between France and Spain. The agreement was not finalised until the signing of the Treaty of Basel the following year. The accord directed Spain to cedeits holdings on Hispaniola to France. The move effectively denied supplies,funding, and avenues of retreat to combatants under the Spanish aegis.
The armies of Jean-François and Biassou disbanded, and many flocked to the standard of Toussaint, the remaining black commander of stature.
In March 1796, Toussaint rescued the French commander, General Etienne-Maynard Laveaux, from a mulatto-led effort to depose him as the primary colonial authority. To express his gratitude, Laveaux appointed Toussaint lieutenant governor of St Dominique.
Toussaint used this position to increase his power within his homeland. He distrusted the intentions of all foreign parties – as well as those of the mulattoes – regarding the future of slavery; he believed that only black leadership could assure the continuation of an autonomous St Dominique. Heset out to consolidate his political and military positions, and he undercutthe positions of the French and the rebel mulattoes.
A new group of French commissioners appointed Toussaint Général de Division (commander in chief of all French forces on the island). From this positionof strength, he resolved to move quickly and decisively to establish an autonomous state under black rule. He expelled Sonthonax, the leading French commissioner and concluded an agreement to end hostilities with Britain.
Toussaint tried to secure allegiance of the mulatto leader André Rigaud andthus to incorporate the majority of mulattoes into his national project, but his plan was thwarted by the French, who saw in Rigaud their last opportunity to retain dominion over the colony.
There followed a clash, sometimes referred to as the War of the Castes, between Toussaint’s predominantly black forces and Rigaud’s mulatto army.The contending colonial powers were engaged in intrigue and manipulation on both sides of the conflict. Toussaint, in correspondence with United States president John Adams, pledged that in exchange for support he would deny theFrench the use of St Dominique as a base for operations in North America.Adams, the leader of an independent, but still insecure, United States, found the arrangement desirable and dispatched arms and ships that greatly aided black forces. Later President Thomas Jefferson reversed the friendly American policy.
Rigaud’s army and ambitions were crushed and he fled the island in late1800. Toussaint secured the port of Santo Domingo in May 1800, Toussaint held sway over the whole of Hispaniola. This position gave him anopportunity to concentrate on restoring domestic order and productivity.
He realised that the survival of the island depended on an export-orientedeconomy. He therefore re-introduced the plantation system, employing paid labourers rather than slaves to produce the sugar, coffee, and other commodities needed to support economic progress.
A constitution, approved in 1801 by the then still surviving ColonialAssembly, granted Toussaint, as Governor-general-for-life, all effective power as well as the privilege of choosing his successor.
But this period of autonomous black rule was brief. Toussaint had always distrusted France and his de facto independence and autonomy rankled withthe French leaders and concerned the governments of slave-holding nations, such as Britain and the United States.
When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in France, he began to work withcolonists to return France’s Caribbean territories to their earlier profitability as plantation colonies. Moreover, Bonaparte regarded St Dominique as essential to potential French exploitation of the Louisiana Territory. Taking advantage of a temporary halt in the wars in Europe,Bonaparte dispatched to St Dominique forces led by his brother-in-law,General Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc.
Leclerc denied that he was trying to reinstate slavery. He landed inJanuary 1802 with between 16,000 and 20,000 troops aided by white colonists and some mulattos – about the same size as Toussaint’s army – at severalpoints on the north coast.
Over the following months, Toussaint’s troops fought against the French but two of his officers, Dessalines and Christophe, defected to join Leclerc. On7th May 1802, Toussaint signed a treaty with the French in Cap-Haïtien, on condition that there was no return to slavery, and retired to his farm in Ennery.
But Leclerc sent troops to seize Toussaint and his family, shipping them to France on board a warship. They arrived in France on 2nd July. On 25th August 25, 1802, Toussaint was imprisoned in the castle Fort-de-Joux in Doubs. He died of pneumonia while imprisoned.
But the struggle did not end there. The betrayal of Toussaint and Bonaparte’s restoration of slavery in Martinique undermined the collaboration of leaders such as Dessalines, Christophe, and Pétion.Convinced that the same fate lay in store for St Dominique, these commanders and others once again battled Leclerc and his disease-riddled army. Leclerc himself died of yellow fever in November 1802, about two months after he hadrequested reinforcements to quash the renewed resistance.
Leclerc’s replacement, General Donatien Rochambeau, waged a bloody campaign against the insurgents, but events beyond the shores of St Dominique doomedthe campaign to failure.
Dessalines led a successful campaign against Rochambeau in what proved tobe a very bloody war of attrition.
By 1803 war had resumed between France and Britain, and Bonaparte once again concentrated his energies on the struggle in Europe. In April of thatyear, Bonaparte signed a treaty that allowed the purchase of Louisiana bythe United States and ended French ambitions in the western hemisphere.
Rochambeau’s reinforcements and supplies never arrived in sufficient numbers. The general fled to Jamaica in November 1803, where he surrenderedto British authorities rather than face the retribution of the rebel leadership. The era of French colonial rule in Haiti had ended.
The success of Dessalines had an impact throughout the slave-owningCaribbean islands and in the southern states of the US. Believing themselvesto be kind and paternal and the slaves to be child-like and grateful, white slave owners suddenly became aware of the tinderbox that they were sittingon. Although slave owners would publicly declare that slaves were, in fact, happy being slaves, in reality they knew otherwise.
All throughout the southern United States, white slave owners began to build “slave shelters” to hide in, should the slaves revolt. Many of them regularly occupied these shelters whenever they feared a slave revolt. Guns became bedside companions and fear became the rule of the day.
The successful Haitian revolution had an impact around the world. In Britain the poet Wordsworth – at that time a political progressive – wrote a poem about L’Ouverture. Many songs and stories have been written in hishonour and a Hollywood film is currently in production.
The history of Haiti since then has been mixed, with imperialist powers using economic pressure to recolonise it. This had led to serious povertyand hardship for most of the population. But the people continue to resist US imperialist interference and the imposition of puppet rulers.