In This Article Toussaint Louverture

  • Introduction
  • Louverture’s Memoir(s)
  • Anthologies of Essays
  • Television, Movies, and Fiction

Atlantic History Toussaint Louverture
by
Philippe Girard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0208

Introduction

Toussaint Louverture (b. c. 1743–d. 1803), also known as Toussaint Bréda and Toussaint L’Ouverture, was a slave, planter, revolutionary, general, and statesman from the French colony of Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti). He was born in bondage on the Bréda plantation in Haut-du-Cap c. 1743; both his parents had been imported from modern-day Benin as part of the Atlantic slave trade. Louverture was a prominent slave who cared for the plantation’s cattle and horses and who developed a close relationship with the Bréda plantation’s owners and overseers. After he was emancipated in the 1770s, he became a small-scale planter in the area of Cap-Français (modern-day Cap-Haïtien) and acquired at least one slave. He joined the Haitian Revolution when it began, in 1791, serving first with the rebel army of Georges Biassou and Jean-François Papillon, in 1791–1793, then with the Spanish army in Santo Domingo (modern-day Dominican Republic), in 1793–1794, and, subsequently, the French republican army, in 1794–1802, in which he eventually attained the rank of division general. After eliminating domestic and foreign rivals, he became the leading political figure in Hispaniola and proclaimed himself governor general for life in an 1801 constitution. But, First Consul Napoléon Bonaparte, convinced that Louverture might declare independence, sent an expedition to depose him in 1801–1802. After he was captured, in June 1802, Louverture was deported to France, where he died in captivity on 7 April 1803. Louverture was a secretive and controversial figure in his time, and historians continue to disagree on his political views. At one extreme, he was long portrayed as a heroic, idealistic figure whose lifelong goals were the emancipation of his fellow slaves, black pride, and independence for Haiti. Yet, other scholars have emphasized Louverture’s equivocations on the issue of free labor, his interest in white mores, and his deep ties to France. The idealist vision still tends to dominate popular interpretations of Louverture, but most late-20th- and early-21st-century scholarly works incorporate the revisionist approach, at least to some extent. Many aspects of Louverture’s life have not been adequately researched, however, so the scholarship remains in flux and may further evolve in the years to come.

General Overviews

Three distinct periods can be distinguished in the historiography on Louverture. Early French authors often vilified him for his brutality toward whites and treacherousness toward France, in an effort to justify Napoléon Bonaparte’s decision to remove him from office, whereas early Haitian authors saw him as unduly harsh toward his mixed-race rivals. But, after the mid-19th century, most authors, whether British, US, French, or Haitian, lionized Louverture as an apostle of freedom and a proud example of the potential of the black race. Groundbreaking articles published since the late 1970s, however, have shown that Louverture did not consistently oppose forced labor and the plantation system, so more recent biographies tend to emphasize his complexity, though a few popular works continue to embrace the heroic interpretations of years past.

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