The Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804, mostly led by Toussaint Louverture, may well have been the most important single event in the history of New World slavery. Despite the revolution’s relatively small scale, its historical influence for some sixty or seventy years can even be compared to that of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Yet the subject still receives scant attention in most history textbooks.

In 1789, at the start of the French Revolution, the small French colony of Saint Domingue, on the western side of Hispaniola, produced greater riches—in the form of sugar, coffee, cotton, and indigo—than any other colony in the hemisphere. Indeed, by 1789 Saint Domingue exported about half the world’s coffee and nearly as much sugar as Jamaica, Cuba, and Brazil combined. The colony, almost as small as Vermont and even more mountainous, accounted for some 40 percent of the value of all French foreign trade and “the livelihood of as many as a million of the 25 million inhabitants of France depended directly on the colonial trade,” centered in Saint Domingue.1

This extraordinary productivity depended on the brutally coerced labor of some half a million slaves, many quite recently imported from Africa. Surprisingly, while the colony’s 30,000 free people of color, virtually all mulattoes (termed gens de couleur), suffered from galling legal and social discriminations, many owned coffee plantations in the West and South Provinces as well as a total of some one hundred thousand black slaves. Saint Domingue’s 40,000 whites included many professional managers of the larger sugar plantations, especially in the North Province, which were owned by rich absentees in France or by great merchant houses in France’s port cities. Most owners of smaller plantations, wealthy merchants, and government officials on the island belonged to the class of grands blancs, as distinct from the petits blancs, the white sailors, traders, artisans, market-women, fortune-seekers, and prostitutes in Saint Domingue’s rapidly expanding port towns, who were much more receptive then the grands blancs to the revolutionary Jacobin ideology imported from France.

Although Saint Domingue had historically been far more stable and free from slave revolts than neighboring British Jamaica, the astounding developments of the French Revolution had an immense impact on its highly imbalanced society. Most of the grands blancs were convinced that loyalty to the French royalist regime was essential for preserving the colonial slave system. They sought to mobilize the gens de couleur (often their own descendants) against the radical white townspeople whose celebration of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man had little effect in moderating their long-term contempt for and hatred of the free coloreds. While the gens de couleur (as well as a few free blacks like Toussaint Louverture) initially supported the slave regime, in which they had a major stake, they rejoiced over the news of the French Revolution and adapted its doctrines to their struggle for racial equality.

Madison Smartt Bell, a distinguished novelist and author of a fictional trilogy on the Haitian Revolution, has now written a brilliant and truly gripping biography of Toussaint Louverture. He agrees with a number of historians who argue that if the grands blancs had initially extended full citizenship to the gens de couleur, the slave revolt could have been repressed. But the French National Assembly, under pressure from resident planters as well as free mulatto and abolitionist groups, passed a series of contradictory measures that both aggravated the white colonists’ racism and gave the Dominguan gens de couleur first a sense of hope and then betrayal. On May 15, 1791, the Assembly granted civil rights and the vote to gens de couleur born of free parents, but four months later they passed another law abrogating the previous measure and leaving the matter of mulatto rights up to the white colonists. Finally, on April 4, 1792, the Assembly granted full equal rights to all free mulattoes and blacks in the colonies, but even if the decree had been enforced, it came at least a year too late to have much effect on events in Saint Domingue.

Beginning on August 22, 1791, nearly two thousand slaves on the sugar-rich Northern Plain launched a well-planned campaign to attack and burn plantations while also indiscriminately killing the whites who could not escape:

The fire, which they spread to the sugarcane, to all the buildings, to their houses and ajoupas [huts], covered the sky with churning clouds of smoke during the day, and at night lit up the horizon with aurora borealis that projected far away the reflection of so many volcanoes, and gave all objects a livid tint of blood.2

Soon whites were arming groups of mulattoes and even slaves to combat the rebels, but the mulattoes, especially, often changed sides. By the fall of 1791, when the middle-aged Toussaint first emerged as a hardly visible leader, the growing number of insurgents had freed tens of thousands of slaves and had destroyed a large number of the plantations in the North Province. But thousands of rebels had also been killed. Bitter fighting and repeated episodes of mass slaughter continued until December 1803, when the final withdrawal of Napoleon’s large army of veteran troops opened the way for Haiti’s declaration of independence as Latin America’s first independent state and as the world’s first nation created by liberated slaves.


As Bell makes clear, the preceding twelve years presented anything but a linear path to this astonishing outcome, or even to the earlier abolition of Dominguan slavery. After war broke out between France and much of the rest of Europe in 1792–1793, both Spain and England launched major invasions of Saint Domingue, hoping to repress the insurrection and prevent it from spreading to their own slave colonies. Toussaint, a highly educated liberated slave and a master of both strategy and tactics, ultimately defeated and expelled both foreign armies. He then overcame, with help from the United States, a large force including many gens de couleur, led by the mulatto general André Rigaud, who opposed Toussaint’s efforts to achieve more autonomy from France. President John Adams and his secretary of state, Timothy Pickering, supported Toussaint because they were intent on preventing France from regaining power in the New World.

In 1801, a time of relative peace in Saint Domingue, Toussaint distributed a constitution that abolished slavery forever, prohibited distinctions according to color, and affirmed equal protection of the law (measures that were appended to the US Constitution in compromised form only after the Civil War). Finally, in early 1802, after extremely bloody warfare, Toussaint and his lieutenants were able to defend their positions against tens of thousands of Napoleon’s troops, who had been sent to restore the slave regime and French control. This prepared the way for the final French defeat in 1803, some nineteen months after General Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc (Napoleon’s brother-in-law) had captured Toussaint by a ruse and shipped him off to die—also in 1803—in a cold dungeon high in France’s Jura mountains.

One momentous early consequence of the humiliating French defeat was Napoleon’s decision to abandon dreams of another New World empire, based in the Caribbean and supplied by Louisiana instead of the United States. Having lost from 50,000 to 65,000 men in Saint Domingue, many to disease, which the insurgents were able to exploit, Napoleon reluctantly decided to sell the vast, largely unknown Louisiana Territory to the United States, which instantly doubled the size of the country and gave America full control of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

Other important consequences of the Haitian Revolution included the influence of refugees and the encouragement of slave revolts. In the early 1790s tens of thousands of white Dominguan refugees, many accompanied by household slaves, streamed westward to Cuba and Jamaica and northward to Louisiana and the Atlantic port cities and towns of the United States. These fugitives circulated vivid accounts of rape and mass slaughter that undercut the complacent conviction of many slaveholders that most black “servants” were happy and content with their place in a paternalistic world. The very words “Santo Domingo,” which English-speakers used to refer to Saint Domingue, came to evoke alarm and terror in the minds of slaveholders throughout the hemisphere. Like the Hiroshima bomb, the revolution’s meaning could be rationalized or repressed but never really forgotten since it demonstrated the possible fate of every slaveholding society in the New World.

Nonwhite sailors and migrants also transmitted the basic facts about the Haitian Revolution to various groups of slaves and to free blacks in the American North.3 For the latter oppressed people, who by the 1820s began celebrating the anniversary of Haitian independence, this first mass emancipation of black slaves gave assurance, in the words of James Forten, Philadelphia’s prosperous black sailmaker and entrepreneur, that other African-Americans “could not always be detained in their present bondage.” By 1893 the great Frederick Douglass could proclaim at the Chicago World’s Fair that when “the black sons of Haiti …struck for freedom…they struck for the freedom of every black man in the world.”4 Meanwhile, whites found convincing evidence of Haitian influence on slave conspiracies and revolts in such far-flung places as Virginia, Cuba, South Carolina, Venezuela, Barbados, and Colombia.

While the effects of the Haitian Revolution on slavery itself were ambiguous—and the destruction of Saint Domingue’s productivity gave an immense stimulus to other producers of sugar and coffee and thus to the Atlantic slave trade5—the slaves’ victory had a profound bearing on the way American slaveholders, in particular, viewed any antislavery agitation. Bryan Edwards, a white British West Indian and then MP who had personally witnessed an early stage of the revolt, popularized the conviction that it had been the Amis des Noirs, or French abolitionists, who were wholly responsible for igniting the insurrection. When three enormous slave revolts in the British West Indies seemed to have been set off by the unceasingly vocal British antislavery movement, Southern US leaders began exaggerating the threat and power of abolitionists in the North (who were accused, for example, of inciting Nat Turner’s bloody uprising of 1831 in Virginia). In other words, the specter of Haiti led Southerners to overreact to an originally feeble antislavery movement in the North and thus contributed to the deepening sectionalism that led to America’s Civil War.6


As for Toussaint Louverture himself, historians and biographers long accepted the public image he eagerly tried to convey—that he had been a lowly slave until the revolution redefined him as one of the tens and then hundreds of thousands of black nouveaux libres. But in recent decades we have learned that in 1791 Toussaint Bréda (he changed his name only in 1793) was an ancien libre who had been free for seventeen years, that he was married and had fathered eleven children (eight out of wedlock), and that he was the owner of slaves as well as far-flung holdings of land.

Born sometime between 1739 and 1746, Toussaint was the son of an Arada prince who had been baptized with the name of Hyppolite after being shipped as a slave from the Gold Coast of Africa to Saint Domingue. He was not only literate but amazingly well read. He could cite Machiavelli and had deeply internalized the passage in a famous work by the pro-revolutionary Abbé Raynal calling for a black Spartacus to lead a huge slave revolt to overcome the greed and avarice of Europeans in the New World. No less important, Toussaint was a devout Catholic and high-degree member of a Freemason lodge, where he met socially with grands blancs, including his beloved former master, Bayon de Libertat, who managed the Bréda plantation, close to Cap Français, the elegant French city on the northern coast. Despite his own activities as entrepreneur, Toussaint continued to live near the Bréda plantation, where as a slave he had cared for livestock, developed skill in veterinary medicine, and as a coachman had transported and delivered messages for Bayon de Libertat, with whom he later developed a close and genuine friendship.

During the early years of the revolution, various white observers, including some of the blacks’ long-held prisoners, who had an opportunity to study the insurgents’ behavior at close range, claimed that the original slave insurrection had been incited by elite white royalists who were desperate to check and overcome the revolutionary tidal waves coming from France. The petits blancs, who supported the revolution, had taken control of the Colonial Assembly. In response, according to Bell, the plan of grands blancs, “wild though it seems, was that a manufactured and secretly controlled uprising of the slaves on the Northern Plain could frighten the petits blanc faction back into submission.”

As Bell shows in some detail, there was much circumstantial evidence to support this view. The slaves themselves would have been receptive to royalism, and to the uprising on its behalf, since they had been trained to respect the authority of African kings and in the first years of revolt actually professed to be fighting for the king of France (or Spain), whose liberating or ameliorating edicts had supposedly been repressed and blocked by the planters. Moreover, Léger Félicité Sonthonax, the radical French Jacobin commissioner who in 1793 took control of the main French army in Saint Domingue, was by no means alone in accusing Toussaint himself of having orchestrated the August 1791 insurrection, acting as the principal agent for such counterrevolutionary grands blancs as Bayon de Libertat and his brother-in-law, Colonel Cambefort, the commander of the French forces in the north.

Unlike most historians in the past few decades, Bell cautiously accepts this view. At the outset of the revolution, he writes, Toussaint’s economic and social interests were close to those of the grands blancs. He succeeded not only in protecting his former master and his wife but

was able to remain quietly and calmly unmolested at Bréda during the first several weeks of the insurrection, when all the surrounding plantations had been burned to ash; the several pell-mell rebel assaults on Cap Français that occurred during these weeks had to pass directly in front of Bréda’s gates.

No less surprising, only twenty-two of Bréda’s 318 slaves, long managed in part by Toussaint as a sword-bearing commandeur, or enforcer of the slaveholder’s authority, left the plantation in the early days of the uprising. The theory of a royalist conspiracy would also help explain why, despite the desire of many slave insurgents for bloody vengeance, the leaders’ original goals even in the fall of 1791 were limited to a negotiated prohibition of whipping and a shorter work week for slaves, coupled with the emancipation of as few as fifty leaders. Toussaint seems to have brought the latter number down from a few hundred while also preventing the slaughter of white prisoners. Nevertheless, even if the royalist whites had been instrumental in encouraging the original slave revolt, Bell convincingly points out that the slaves took matters into their own hands—especially with respect to killing and destruction—in less than twenty-four hours. This may help to explain the conflicting reports on what the insurgents really desired and demanded and why the ruling whites contemptuously rejected the modest proposals of the main black leaders.

It is notable that in the early fall of 1791 when Toussaint joined the top leaders of the rebellion, Boukman Dutty, Georges Biassou, and Jean-François Papillon, he seemed to be treated as an equal even though he initially served as a secretary and doctor. Even if he had not been involved in the planning of the revolt, his age and experience would probably have made him appear as a respected “father” to the group. Though Toussaint avoided publicity and remained in the shadows until August 1793, he became committed to the revolutionary goals of liberty and equality while hoping to draw on his own experience in devising a way to combine free wage labor with the productivity of the plantation system. His longer-term vision included a semi-autonomous Saint Domingue that would somehow attract and make use of the knowledge and skills of whites like Bayon de Libertat while maintaining racial equality.

According to what Bell describes as “a wonderfully eloquent” and “extraordinarily sophisticated” letter, the leaders of the insurgency had totally changed their demands by July 1792 and had completely mastered the radical ideology of the French Revolution. This letter, purportedly signed by Biassou, Papillon, and a fourteen-year-old nephew of Toussaint, was addressed to the colonial and French governments and delivered to Colonel Cambefort, who headed the military campaign against the insurgents. Since the long letter, most of it quoted by Bell, shows “detailed knowledge of the rhetoric of both the American and French revolutions,” a familiarity with the French “Constitution and Declaration of the Rights of Man,” and “a thorough knowledge of the various levels of the French government,” Bell concludes that it must have been written by a committee, aided by captured white clerks or priests, or by Toussaint. But I am far more persuaded by David P. Geggus, one of the leading experts on the Haitian Revolution, who observes:

The language of the text has a suspiciously inauthentic look. Its combination of sophisticated vocabulary and rhetoric with simplistic errors of spelling and grammar makes it unlike any other surviving text from this milieu. It was probably a fraud, concocted by the royalist de Cambefort.7

As Geggus shows, Colonel Cambefort was then “the target of increasingly frequent charges of counterrevolutionary influence on the slave revolt.” The letter was a way of striking back at the radicals by proving that they, and not the royalists, were responsible for the devastating revolution. It should be added that while Toussaint became committed to the principle of natural human rights, as Bell emphasizes, Biassou and Papillon, the alleged writers of the letter, ended up selling large numbers of blacks, including some of Toussaint’s followers, to Spanish slave traders.

The insurgents’ prolonged ties with the Spaniards who occupied at different times the eastern part of the island—later the Dominican Republic—underscore the fact that an understanding of Toussaint’s goals and brilliant leadership requires some consideration of the diverse groups he dealt with: the Spaniards, who sought to undermine the French but who had no desire to abolish slavery; the incoming French officials, whose mission changed as the French and Haitian revolutions progressed; the grands blancs, some of whom favored independence from France, especially after the execution of King Louis XVI, and who welcomed the British invasion in 1793; the English themselves, who intended to suppress the slave revolt and prevent it from spreading to Jamaica; the newly freed slaves or nouveaux libres, who could look with distrust on an ancien libre like Toussaint, who, like many gens de couleur, had long participated in the oppressive slave system; and finally, the free and often privileged mulattoes.

Almost from the outset, the Spanish from the eastern part of the island sought to weaken French authority by supplying arms to the insurgents. With the coming of war, Spanish troops crossed the border and made leaders like Toussaint auxiliaries in the Spanish army. When Toussaint first issued a proclamation, in August 1793, adopting the name Louverture (“the opening”) and calling for “Liberty and Equality to reign in Saint Domingue,” he referred to himself as a general in the armies of the king of Spain. It was on this same day, probably not by coincidence, that Léger Félicité Sonthonax, the French commissioner who led the very forces that Toussaint opposed, felt compelled for military reasons to issue a general edict of slave emancipation.

It was not until May 1794 that Toussaint dramatically switched sides and led his black and mulatto forces over to the French side. This momentous decision, which may have been influenced by knowledge that the French National Convention had abolished slavery in all French territory three months earlier, was one of the key turning points of the Haitian Revolution. Before long Toussaint had attacked and defeated his former allies, Biassou and Papillon.

While Toussaint remained officially and even emotionally loyal to revolutionary France for the rest of his life, he continually clashed with French officials from Sonthonax to General Joseph d’Hédouville, who arrived in 1798, and who, like Sonthonax, Toussaint finally succeeded in expelling back to France. During Sonthonax’s second stay in Saint Domingue, the two actually cooperated for a time, and after Toussaint’s defeat of the British, Sonthonax promoted him to commander in chief of the entire French army in Saint Domingue. The most serious conflicts with both Sonthonax and Hédouville arose from Toussaint’s close ties with the grands blancs and his partly successful efforts to encourage the safe return of white plantation managers and owners, including Bayon de Libertat, who had fled to the United States after the sacking and burning of Cap Français in 1793.

Toussaint’s goal of utilizing the knowledge and managerial skills of such whites, contrary to French law, also raised suspicions and hostility among white radicals and some freed slaves. Though there was much support for Toussaint’s objective of reforming the plantation system with supervised free wage labor, it was the grand blanc planters who expressed delight in November 1798 when Toussaint, Bell writes,

issued a proclamation requiring all the able-bodied blacks in the colony who were not attached to the army to return to work for wages on the plantations (generally the same plantations where they had formerly been slaves).

As for the newly freed slaves, well over half of whom had come from Africa, Toussaint could speak Fon, the African language of his ancestors, and he won fame as an orator in the domestic Créole. Bell argues that though Toussaint was a devoted Catholic, he had also internalized many of the beliefs of Vodou, which provided a cultural link with African slaves, many of them Ibos from what is now a part of Nigeria. When beginning a civil war with General Rigaud and the gens de couleur in 1799, Toussaint courted his “black base” by promoting

several days of festival that brought swarms of blacks into Port-au-Prince from the outlying area, and in the gallery of the government house he joined in Ibo warrior dances, to help whip up enthusiasm for the battles which were sure to come.

One can hardly imagine a more amazing contrast to this Ibo dancing than the image of Toussaint dining with General Thomas Maitland, the commander of the defeated British army. When arranging the complex evacuation of British troops in 1798, Maitland helped Toussaint to undermine the authority of his rival, General d’Hédouville, the civil authority. He did so, Bell writes, by signing with Toussaint a secret

nonaggression pact and trade deal which lifted the British blockade from Toussaint’s Saint Domingue, and gave him a free hand within its borders so long as he honored a promise not to export the black revolution to the British Caribbean colonies. (Toussaint kept his end of the bargain a year later by betraying a conspiracy to raise a slave revolt in Jamaica.)

Following this amicable deal, which would have outraged the French government, “the white general treated the black one to a festive dinner, and afterward gave Toussaint the elaborate silver service used at the meal, with the compliments of the king of England.”

Toussaint’s many contradictions and diverse skills in appealing to all sides can at times become ethically disturbing. One admires accounts of his tactical genius and lightning-quick movements through Saint Domingue’s mountainous terrain. It is a bit more troubling to read that he became “notorious for secretly instigating popular uprisings which only his authority could subdue.” Reports that he repeatedly prevented the wholesale slaughter of prisoners stand in striking contrast to the torture and mass killings of his second-in-command and ultimate successor, the former slave General Jean-Jacques Dessalines. But in Bell’s most shocking admission,

while one considers the forbearance and moderation [Toussaint] mainly exercised, one must also recall that many of the atrocities Dessalines committed under Toussaint’s rule were probably done with Toussaint’s tacit approval, if not on his secret order.

In an intriguing and subtle argument, Bell contends that “the extremes of ruthlessness or beneficence” that Toussaint displayed under different circumstances “are most easily resolved in the terms of Vodou, where the individual ego can disappear altogether, ceding control of the person and his actions to an angry or a gentle spirit.” Bell develops this theme in some detail, but it is somewhat difficult to reconcile with Toussaint’s attacks on Vodou and his ultimate prohibition of Vodou assemblies and ceremonies.

Regardless of one’s conclusions, Toussaint’s unique personality enabled him to pilot the Haitian Revolution through tumultuous events and to achieve by early 1801 what Bell terms “the apogee of his military and political success; he looked to be invincible.” In a masterpiece of biography, Bell manages to present a balanced picture, including the negative aspects of a man he calls “the highest-achieving African-American hero of all time.” After defeating major Spanish, British, and French attempts to gain control and reinstitute slavery in the richest colony of the New World, Toussaint was able to stand off Napoleon himself in their final confrontation. A great question left open by Bell is whether the subsequent tragic history of Haiti might have been different if Toussaint had not been taken prisoner and had been able to continue as a leader of the revolution.

In one of the supreme ironies of New World history, after Napoleon himself had been captured and exiled to Saint Helena, he wrote that he had made a major mistake in opposing the revolution in Saint Domingue:

I have to reproach myself for the attempt at the colony during the Consulate; it was a great mistake to have wanted to subdue it by force; I should have contented myself to govern it through the intermediary of Toussaint.

When we consider Haiti’s bleak history of misrule and perpetual poverty, it is interesting to speculate on what might have happened if Napoleon had accepted slave emancipation and had chosen to govern Saint Domingue through the semi-autonomous agency of Toussaint Louverture. In reality it was the brutal ex-slave Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who, after he led the final defeat of the French, proclaimed the independence of Haiti in 1804 and then his own authority as emperor. In 1805 he ordered the extermination of most of the remaining whites. A pact between Napoleon and Toussaint would have prevented this bloody history of black revenge as well as the ghastly aspects of the last confrontation between the genocidal French and rebellious blacks.

If Toussaint had stayed in power, his extraordinary abilities to deal with highly divergent groups, such as the freed slaves and the grands blancs, might well have led to some success in solving a perennial problem in Haitian history. That problem is conflict between a reformed plantation system, with continuing agricultural exports, and the move of many Haitians to subsistence farming, leading to the conditions of deep and continuing poverty that exist today. Toussaint would have faced strong opposition from former slaves as he continued to use wages, force, and the skills of white managers to restore plantation agriculture with its high output. Britain, one should recall, for all its claims to having a free citizenry, still used legal force to prevent factory workers from leaving their jobs.

Still, Toussaint was an expert at persuasion and manipulation. If his followers had been able to shape events, Haiti (really still Saint Domingue) would no doubt have escaped the punitive US naval embargo on its trade, to say nothing of the devastating burden of paying reparations in the 1820s in exchange for French recognition. Since Saint Domingue had long been a model of prosperity and growth as a slave colony, it is at least conceivable that it could have become a model of productivity and increasing racial equality for the post-emancipation Caribbean.

This Issue

May 31, 2007