Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution

An engraving of Toussaint Louverture public domain

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy.

Katie Lambert: And Haiti has been on everyone's minds lately since that huge earthquake hit Port-au-Prince.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. And there's been an interesting sort of moral tone to a lot of the discussions and commentary about Haiti. Katie, you actually blogged about this recently!

Katie Lambert: Right. I was blogging about Port Royal in Jamaica, which was the Sodom of its day, and it completely sank into the ocean. And rather than being compassionate about it, a lot of people simply assumed it was divine punishment and they deserved what they got.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. So there's a precedent for this, kind of bizarre seeming, moral judgment in relation to a natural disaster! But when it's tied to Haiti, specifically, it seems to focus on their revolution, and that's what we're gonna talk about today.

Katie Lambert: Right. So to give you a little Haiti history, we've got the island of Hispaniola, which today is divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but it was settled by the Spanish and the French, the Spanish first, thanks to Christopher Columbus. And the Spanish side was called Santo Domingo, and the French side Saint-Domingue.

Sarah Dowdy: And Saint-Domingue made so much money for the French. The money mostly came from sugar, but there's also coffee and cocoa and indigo. In the 1780s, Saint-Domingue equals a fourth of France's trade overseas.

Katie Lambert: And in the 1790s, there were about 30,000 white people, 24,000 free people of color who were either black or of mixed race, known as the gens de couleur, and 450,000 black slaves. So notice the disparity there in numbers. It's the minority who has the power, but they're scared of the majority, which is the slaves. And they should be, as we will find out shortly.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. And this free people of color group, the gens de couleur, are - are an important aspect of this divide that will come eventually. They often owned slaves and plantations themselves, but they're not full citizens. So they're considered somewhere in between whites and slaves as far as their social class goes.

Katie Lambert: Possibly the most important figure in the Haitian Revolution was a man named Francois-Dominique Toussaint, who was born into this society around 1743 as a slave on the Brada Plantation.

Sarah Dowdy: And it's fairly notable that he is actually born on the island. He's not African, or he was not born in Africa. And in a country where there were so many more slave deaths than births, that's pretty notable.

Katie Lambert: Right. And he was a privileged slave, as was his father. He had some education. He knew some French and some Latin, which was unusual. And later in life, he was freed, and he became a Catholic and married with children. And as far as his personal attributes go, he was a vegetarian, which I thought was a little unusual, and he was also very short, much like Napoleon Bonaparte. This will come up a little bit later. And we don't know what he looked like, but he's never described as handsome.

Sarah Dowdy: So we're gonna set the stage with the French Revolution taking place, and suddenly, we have Liberte, a Galatian fraternity, as a battle cry. And it is resonating all the way to France's colonies.

Katie Lambert: Right. The local assemblies are now allowed in the colonies, like Saint-Domingue, and the gens de couleur plan to take advantage of these new rights. They demand the full rights of citizenship, but you know, guess how France and the rich white people of Saint-Domingue felt about this. I'll give you a hint: not great.

Sarah Dowdy: Well, and we have lots of factions going on here, too, because we have whites who have taken the battle cry of the revolution to heart as well. And they're thinking it's the perfect time to have their own revolution.

Katie Lambert: Yes. Independence.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. Become independent of France because obviously, if France is not in control, maybe they could make more money. So the whites are divided between Royalists and Republican, so there was so much going on here.

Katie Lambert: And so, that brings us to a rebellion. There's a small rebellion in 1790, let by Vincent Oge, who's a free man of color. And it's stomped out and he's executed, but that is not the end. That is just the beginning, especially because around 100,000 new slaves arrived in Saint-Domingue between 1788 and 1791, so our numbers are even higher.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. So this is this slaves' major entry into - into the picture at his point.

Katie Lambert: And we'd like to add that in this area of the world was pretty much the worst place to be a slave.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: Treatment here was notoriously cruel.

Sarah Dowdy: And the climate is horrible. The - most of the French white people moved to the island and try to get - get back to France as quickly as they can. So the climate is not hospitable to new arrivals.

Katie Lambert: And escape Yellow Fever at the same time. So up until this point, it's mainly been skirmishes between the free people of color and the white people on the island, but this is when the slaves get into it and there will be blood, as I wrote in my outline and also vengeance. In August 1791, under the leadership of a guy named Duddy Bookman, who was a voodoo priest, the slaves rose up and killed thousands and thousands of people and burned the plantations as they went. There were mutilations and other atrocities at the time. This wasn't just about independence. This was about getting back.

Sarah Dowdy: And just kind of a side note here, we'd like to add that Haitian voodoo isn't what you would think of when you think of voodoo.

Katie Lambert: No.

Sarah Dowdy: It's not the little trinkets you can buy in New Orleans. It's a combination of West African and Catholic beliefs, so it's a lot more complex than the little voodoo doll.

Katie Lambert: Yeah. So keep that in mind, please, when you're learning about Haitian voodoo. So the revolution is on at this point, and when the revolution breaks out, our guy, Toussaint, is not involved. He's not killing anyone. He's not burning anything. He even helps his master escape. And he supports the Royalists until they decided to ask the British to help them, and then he's pretty much done with that side.

Sarah Dowdy: He's done at that point, yeah.

Katie Lambert: Right. He's done being the good slave, quote, unquote, and he joins the fight.

Sarah Dowdy: And surprise, surprise, he's really good at being a leader.

Katie Lambert: Oh, he's absolutely brilliant.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. He - he's - the rebel leaders aren't - haven't been the best up to this point, but Toussaint is an amazing, amazing leader of the forces.

Katie Lambert: Right. It was a very ill-organized movement before that, so he organizes everyone, gets his own kind of people together, and then teaches them all guerilla warfare. And they know that island better than anyone else, so it's gonna be a hard hit for the French. He also takes over when - when Bookman dies.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, along with Jean-Jacques Dessalines.

Katie Lambert: So under Toussaint and Dessalines' leadership, the slaves gain control of a large part of the island and around 1793, Toussaint takes on the last name, L'Ouverture, and he becomes known as Toussaint L'Ouverture for the rest of this. It means, "The opening."

Sarah Dowdy: And it's still just the people on the island versus France at this point. France is definitely losing, and they give rights to free men of color, just because they have to. They're losing this - this fight.

Katie Lambert: But they also send in their own fighters because they don't want to lose this incredibly wealthy colony that they have. But it gets a little bit more complicated because around 1793 France is at war with both Spain and Great Britain.

Sarah Dowdy: So Europe's gonna get involved in this whole mess.

Katie Lambert: Oh, yes. And the French want to regain control of their island, but the Brits and the Spanish see an opportunity. This is their chance to take over and get a piece of the pie. Spain would love to have the rest of the island.

Sarah Dowdy: And the slave owners on the island also see an opportunity to ally themselves with Great Britain, which supports slavery, and of course, the slave owners are trying to return things to the status quo, the - the way of life that was making them so much money before.

Katie Lambert: So Toussaint and the others are fighting with Spain at this point. France is completely outnumbered, and in 1794, they abolish slavery in the colonies, so a huge win for Toussaint and his group.

Sarah Dowdy: But something else surprising happens in 1794. L'Ouverture joins up with his old enemy, France, because the national convention ahs declared emancipation in the colonies, and Great Britain and Spain have not. So he's seeing an ally now in his former enemy.

Katie Lambert: Right. Because that is his goal, to abolish slavery, period, so if you're going to go along with that, then he's going to go along with you. And his switching sides does not go well for Great Britain and Spain because, of course, he's fought with them. He knows who's leading them. He knows what kind of strategies and tactics they'll do, and also, he's really good.

Sarah Dowdy: He's good at playing them all off against each other, too, France, Spain, and Great Britain. And it's interesting to think of - of all these world powerhouses meeting with the rebellion leader.

Katie Lambert: Right. And it's cool to me, too. He was, I think, around 50 when the revolution started, and all he'd really done his life was -

Sarah Dowdy: Be a slave.

Katie Lambert: - be a slave. And this was his moment to shine.

Sarah Dowdy: But while L'Ouverture is messing with the great European powers, they're also messing with him. And France sets him up as Lieutenant Governor, and they're trying to set up other leaders to rebel against him. So everybody has multiple games going on at once.

Katie Lambert: Right. But as far as public opinion at the time goes, people on the island, the slaves, of course, love him, but surprisingly, also the Europeans and the gens de couleur on the island like him, too. Because they like what he's doing for the economy. He's letting the planters come back out of exile.

Sarah Dowdy: Which we were saying for the French Revolution that was not something that happened.

Katie Lambert: No.

Sarah Dowdy: If you were a French aristocrat, you were living in London still.

Katie Lambert: You were gone and you better stay gone.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: But he let them come back and even forced the freed slaves to work the plantations because he needed that so he could trade so he could get money so he could fight.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. I like - Katie called this militant agriculture when she was talking about it with me earlier.

Katie Lambert: Right.

Sarah Dowdy: And that - that really helped it make sense, just it's not quite slavery, but you're still being forced to work on a plantation.

Katie Lambert: So he made them work but he wouldn't let them be whipped. He limited their hours and he gave them, I believe, a share of the produce as well. But still, clearly, they didn't want to go back to their old lives, and he made them do it.

Sarah Dowdy: So in the meantime, as far as the battle goes, he's still trampling the Brits, and they start to negotiate with him secretly. They actually withdraw in 1798 or 1799.

Katie Lambert: And part of this secret agreement is a trade agreement. Saint Domingue starts up trade again with Great Britain and the United States. They get arms in return for sugar, and Toussaint also makes a deal, that he won't invade Jamaica or the American South, and the Brits say, "Hey. You know, we could make you king of an independent Haiti," but he doesn't trust them. And he still hates the fact that they have not abolished slavery for themselves. So he says no.

Sarah Dowdy: But he does declare himself Governor General for Life of Saint-Domingue and basically sets up a military dictatorship with a new constitution.

Katie Lambert: And some of this - I think I'd read somewhere, maybe in the Smithsonian that he'd had advice from Alexander Hamilton about doing this very thing, which we thought was a pretty cool side note.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: But he sets up courts. He tries to set up a tax system, and more importantly to him, impart his ideas of equality and tolerance, along with his ideal of hard work. He thought people were basically lazy and -

Sarah Dowdy: Militant agriculture.

Katie Lambert: - you had to coerce them into working.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, but he has trouble administering a government. He's a great leader, but he's a wartime leader.

Katie Lambert: Right.

Sarah Dowdy: And it's a different kind of job, and a lot of people have died in the revolution, too. It's been at war. Europe has always been plotting against him, so there's a - there are wounds, basically, for his new country.

Katie Lambert: And there's still racial tension, too, because the white people and the mixed races people think - some of them are hoping that France will come back in, and again, bring things back to the old ways. And of course, as we mentioned, the ex-slaves don't want to be working these plantations that they're being forced to work. And there are some black people on the island who want to get rid of all the planters and split up the plantations among themselves. Toussaint's nephew is one of these, and he leads a revolt but Toussaint had him executed.

Sarah Dowdy: We can't forget about the other side of the island, though, Santo Domingo. It's the same island, but they have slaves on that side. So that's gotta be driving Toussaint kind of crazy, having these slaves right on the other side.

Katie Lambert: It did, in fact, drive him completely crazy. And in 1801, he takes over that side of the island as well, even though one Napoleon Bonaparte tells him specifically not to. And L'Ouverture frees the slaves.

Sarah Dowdy: And L'Ouverture has told Napoleon he's a Frenchman. He doesn't need to worry, but he's clearly going way against Napoleon's command.

Katie Lambert: Oh, absolutely .

Sarah Dowdy: He writes to him talking about his loyalty and all the good he's done for the island, but this power relationship where you have Napoleon ostensibly in control - Saint-Domingue is still part of France - is really skewed if you have Toussaint going and invading another part of the island.

Katie Lambert: And completely - and especially if you're thinking about their motives, which are completely at odds with one another. Napoleon wants to get France's colony completely back under control. And he's also -

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, under white control.

Katie Lambert: Right. He's seriously a racist, and Toussaint knows this. And he knows that Napoleon would just bring slavery back if he only had just an inch, you know, to get his foot in the door that it's going to happen. Toussaint, on the other hand, wants to go to Africa and free all the slaves of the world, so we're talking about two people who have pretty much nothing in common.

Sarah Dowdy: Well, so Napoleon sends General Victor Leclerc to the island, along with several thousand soldiers. We've seen numbers about 20,000 to 40,000, so a bit of discrepancy there, but it's way more than Toussaint is expecting.

Katie Lambert: And the white people of the island and the free people of color side with Leclerc, whereas the blacks of the island fight against him. But eventually, many end up on Leclerc's side because there's not much of a choice after a while they've been fighting. And Toussaint finally surrendered on the condition that Leclerc not being slavery back to the island, so Toussaint retires to his own plantation. But the French think that he's probably still scheming to take control, which is -

Sarah Dowdy: Like they were.

Katie Lambert: - to be fair, he might have been. And they trick him into coming to a meeting where they arrest him and send him to France.

Sarah Dowdy: And he's taken to Joux in the mountains and kept in a cold, damp castle, and the French are basically just waiting for him to die in this castle, and he does on April 7, 1803. And we don't know what happened to his family, whether they stayed on the island or went to France.

Katie Lambert: Some accounts have some of them going on the boat with him, and then, there's no record of them after they get to France. So I'm assuming their fate couldn't have been wonderful. But after he dies, the fighting in Saint-Domingue went on and on January 1, 1804, Saint-Domingue became the independent nation of Haiti. And if you'd like to read a little bit more about the revolution than we've talked about in this podcast, I did a blog on it not too long ago, as we mentioned, so go to and look for Stuff You Missed in History Class.

Sarah Dowdy: It generated lots of discussion.

Katie Lambert: It did, controversial discussion. And we're going to end on a little bit of a lighter note and go to listener mail. Today's emails are both about our podcast on Saint Paul's Cathedral during the blitz, and our first one is from Katie, who recently moved to New York City. And she thanked us for helping her pass a test in English, which made me really happy. That's my favorite subject. They read the short story, The Destructors, by Graham Green. And she ended up being able to talk about symbolism in Saint Paul's in her essay, so Katie, I'm glad we were able to help.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. We also got another email from Lattis Love in Ontario. And when we talked about Saint Paul's, we mentioned how a few of the biggest bombs that struck nearby, or even struck the cathedral, didn't explode and how lucky that was for not only Saint Paul's and the Saint Paul's watch but the whole neighborhood. And Lattis Love pointed out that those bombs failing to detonate was not an accident. Czech female laborers who were forced to work in arms factories by the occupying Nazis would sometimes sabotage the bombs by leaving out the crucial metal ring that could help the bomb explode when it hit the ground. And it's sort of a sad story but because the Nazis were so careful to check for any of these rings being snuck out in pockets or aprons, the laborers would often have to ingest them, which would tear up their intestines when they were being passed through, but still, what a courageous other side of this story.

Katie Lambert: And a really cool fact, so thanks to Lattis Love for that one. And if you'd like to email us, it's And we also started a Twitter if you would like to follow us. The name is Missed in History, so come find us.

Sarah Dowdy: And you can find all of this on our homepage at

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