Paul Foot

Toussaint L’Ouverture and
the great Haitian slave revolt

(24 January 2004)

From Socialist Worker, No.1885, 24 January 2004.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

This month saw the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Caribbean republic of Haiti after a revolutionary uprising against slavery.

Who abolished slavery? Children are taught in school that the Tory MP and factory owner William Wilberforce did in the 19th century. Does Wilberforce deserve all the credit? To find out we can start with another question – who discovered America?

Christopher Columbus “discovered” America, though several hundred thousand people living there at the time discovered it before him. He also “discovered” Hispaniola, the largest island in what later became known as the West Indies, with around a million inhabitants.

Columbus bequeathed the island to the Spanish Empire, which within 250 years managed to exterminate the entire native population. The exterminators, to continue their trade, came to rely increasingly on slaves taken from Africa to work their plantations.

By 1789 Hispaniola had been divided and renamed. The eastern half, Santo Domingo, destitute and desolate, was still governed from Spain. The western half, St Domingue, was run by France. It was heavily populated.

In 1789 there were 30,000 whites in St Domingue, 40,000 mulattos of mixed race, and half a million black African slaves.

St Domingue is now known as Haiti, and is one of the poorest places on earth. In 1789 St Domingue was the richest place on earth, producing sugar, coffee, cotton, indigo and tobacco. The value of its exports made up two thirds of the gross national produce of all France. The whole of this vast surplus was entirely dependent on slave labour.

The slaves were allowed no education, no independent thought, no rights. This was a savage, brutalised society, held together by fear and sadism.

The French Revolution which began in 1789 started to change all this. Many of the people who took office in the early stages of the revolution were merchants who hated slavery in principle, but benefited from it in practice.

So the revolutionary French Assembly made a compromise. It decreed that all of the 500,000 black slaves must stay slaves. French citizenship was extended to any mulattos who could show that their father and mother were born in France – just 400 people.

No one was satisfied. It infuriated the planters, patronised the mulattos and ignored the slaves. But the concessions opened a chink of light, paving the way to the great revolt which broke out in St Domingue on 14 August 1791.

In a great wave of savagery, slaves slaughtered their masters and burnt their mansions – and were slaughtered in return. By the end of the year a huge slave army had established itself.

It was joined by a coachman called Toussaint. Unlike almost all his fellow slaves he could read and write. Very quickly he became the acknowledged leader of the slave army, and remained in charge for 12 years of war.

His first enemies were the French planters. Toussaint signed treaties with Spain, which gave him arms in the hope that he might defeat the French and hand the whole island to them.

Within months Toussaint’s army had captured all the ports on the north of the island. Very quickly he realised that negotiations with the planters were useless. Messengers sent to negotiate with the planters were executed before they could speak. The result was the slogan which dominated the entire slave campaign, “Liberty or death”.

The slave revolt was inextricably intertwined with the French Revolution.

In September 1792, as the revolution in France shifted to the left, the new revolutionary convention sent three commissioners and a new general, Laveaux, to St Domingue. Laveaux hated the royalist planters and tried to persuade Toussaint to throw in his lot with revolutionary France.

Toussaint remained suspicious even when, in August 1793, the commissioners, on their own initiative, issued a decree abolishing slavery.

In 1794, for two reasons, he changed sides. First came the news of a further shift in the French Revolution, with the coming to power of the revolutionaries known as Jacobins. And on 3 February 1794 three delegates from St Domingue took their place in the French Convention, now controlled by the working people of the cities. The delegates were a freed black slave, a mulatto and a white man. The very sight of the black and “yellow” man sent the Convention into prolonged applause.

It was carried without discussion that the “aristocracy of the skin” should be tolerated no longer and that slavery should be abolished.

This historic news reached Toussaint (who had taken a second name, L’Ouverture, “the opening” to liberty) in spring 1794. Now he knew that not all Frenchmen were racists.

At the same time a British expedition of 6,000 men arrived in St Domingue. Britain’s rulers thought there was a chance that the French might be dislodged by a slave revolt and that the British might seize St Domingue.

The British war lasted four years-from 1794 to 1798. The British lost 80,000 men in St Domingue. It was one of the greatest military disasters in British history. In April 1798 Toussaint led his victorious army into the capital, Port-au-Prince, and the British never returned.

By now the revolutionary tide had rolled back in France and the new rulers were weighing up the prospects of restoring slavery in St Domingue. A new commissioner, Hedouville, bribed the mulatto generals, who had fought valiantly for the slaves against the British, to fight against Toussaint.

A bloody civil war ended in 1801, when Toussaint marked his triumph by marching into the Spanish half of the island and conquering it. But the slave army now faced a new threat from yet another ruler of France, Napoleon Bonaparte.

The British offered their enemy, Napoleon, a short peace so that he could devote his attention to Toussaint L’Ouverture. Napoleon sent a huge expedition. But in the first six months of 1802 the French lost 10,000 men-half to disease, half to the enemy.

The French soldiers were confused. As they attacked the black army they were greeted with familiar songs – the Marseillaise, the Ça Ira, the very revolutionary hymns to whose strains they had conquered most of Europe.

On 7 June 1802 the beleaguered French generals offered Toussaint a treaty if he would appear in person to discuss it. He did so, and was captured, taken to France and banged up in a freezing prison.

To French astonishment the slave army in St Domingue fought with even greater ferocity without their leader. In a matter of months the French were driven out of the island, never to return.

This is perhaps one of the most remarkable stories in all human history, but because it turns history upside down it is not told in history books. What happens in real life is not determined by what great men or gods think.

Slavery could have gone on for countless decades if the slaves had not fought for their freedom with the most implacable violence. The emancipation of the slaves was fought for and won by the slaves themselves.

When in 1803 the British poet William Wordsworth, his own revolutionary enthusiasms already in decline, heard that Toussaint had died of pneumonia in prison he dedicated to the dead slave leader perhaps his finest sonnet – and one that will certainly not be taught by rote at school since it is not about daffodils:

Live and take comfort, thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies
And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.

Read the classic account of the slave revolt and Toussaint L’Ouverture, The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James (Penguin, £10.99). For a detailed account of the wider battle against slavery read The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery by Robin Blackburn (Verso, £17).

Last updated on 10 May 2010