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He spent his life fighting for a liberty he would not survive to enjoy. Yet because of his bravery and determination, millions remain free.
As the 18th century came to a close, the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue, known as Haiti by the indigenous islanders, was the richest colony in the world. It produced 60% of the world's coffee and 40% of its sugar. But its wealth was fed by the blood, sweat, and tears of the people enslaved and worked to death on the disease-ridden plantations of the island's white masters.
Toussaint Bréda was one such slave. He was born on a plantation, but as an adult was able to earn his freedom. At that time, one in 12 slaves managed to buy their way out of slavery. These were les gens de couleur libres, or free men of color. Ironically, once free, they were at liberty to perpetuate their society’s social conventions, which is to say, they too could own slaves. This created a precarious social caste system on the island the white slavers were happy to exploit.
Toussaint received an education, likely with the help of his family. As a free man, he eventually bought a small coffee plantation. It was worked by about a dozen slaves. But Toussaint knew that owning other humans was wrong. Events would soon lead him to turn this understanding into action.
It was 1791, and France was in tumult. Two years before, in 1789, the country exploded into revolution. The then 800-year-old monarchy, the Ancien regime, had been toppled and replaced with a constitutional government that preached liberty and equality. But when the new government failed to extend this promise to its colonies, the slaves of Saint-Domingue grew impatient. On August 14, 1791, many gathered in a secret meeting during a thunderstorm. The next day, thousands of armed slaves set their plantations alight. Crops burned. The Haitian Revolution had begun.
Soon thousands were dead as slavers viciously fought slaves. Terrified, the French Governor of Saint-Domingue abolished slavery on the island in an attempt to restore order. The decision was quickly ratified by the new French Republic. But, to avoid losing their lifestyle of fortune, white plantation owners colluded with Britain to invade the island and restore slavery. Tempted by greed for Haitian sugar and coffee, armies of redcoats occupied the capital of Port-au-Prince.
That's when Toussaint joined the rebellion, and when he gave himself the name " L'Ouverture," meaning "to open the way." When the French governor was captured by a small group of gens de couleur libres, Toussaint, a loyal patriot of France, rescued him and restored him to office. The grateful governor declared Toussaint to be the rightful leader of the slave armies.
He proved a natural. Unlike many gens de couleur libres, Toussaint treated the enslaved as his equal. He knew they would make great soldiers. And indeed, in 1797, Toussaint's slave forces attacked the British Army at Fort Churchill. While the assault failed, the British were astonished to encounter a disciplined brigade of black slaves. They charged their guns with the determination and skill of a professional army. Realizing they would never break the will of military opponents fighting for their freedom, the British withdrew early in 1798, having wasted four million pounds and tens of thousands of lives in the Haitian war.
The resulting peace treaty made Toussaint the ruler of Saint-Domingue. But back in France, Napoleon Bonaparte had formed a dictatorship, killing the French experiment in Republican rule. Suspecting that Napoleon planned to restore slavery in the colonies to fund his wars in Europe, Toussaint convened a Constitutional Convention to confirm his leadership and declare that all people in Saint-Domingue "are born, live and die free and French."
Napoleon, furious, gathered an army of 20,000 soldiers to invade the island. Toussaint was promised that if he surrendered, his personal fortune and freedom would be guaranteed. Not to be taken in, Toussaint set fire to the plantations and prepared his forces for an apocalyptic confrontation. Napoleon's soldiers expected an easy victory. Instead, they met ferocious black troops who charged their lines and fought them to the death.
Napoleon's casualties mounted, but he would not back down. So, after months of fighting, Toussaint finally agreed to surrender his office on the condition that Napoleon never restore slavery in Saint-Domingue. Toussaint retired, hoping to live out the rest of his life in peace. But he was soon betrayed and handed over to Napoleon's men. They shipped him off to France in chains.
He arrived exhausted and malnourished, in a state where many would succumb to the will of a ruthless dictator. But Toussaint stood up to him until the end, stating that while Napoleon may have cut the trunk of the tree of liberty, "it will spring up again from the roots." He died in prison in April, 1803. In November of that year, his successor and one of his generals, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, finally defeated the French Army. In 1804, Haiti became the first independent black republic in the New World.
Toussaint L'Ouverture's leadership and military savvy transformed a slave society into the first free colony in history to reject race as the basis of social ranking. It helped pave the way for Haitian independence from France and had a large influence on ending slavery in the British Empire. That is why he's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero and why we honor him this Black History Month 2018.