Toussaint L'Overture

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BLACK REVOLUTIONARY — Liberator of the Haitian Slaves.

The impassable mountains of Saint Domingue (Haiti). cut the island in two parts. The Spaniards occupied one part: the French took possession of tile We3tern part in 1630. With the use of Black Slave labour France made this colony the richest and most envied of all the other imperialist nations.

During the 17th Century there were 2,000,000 black slaves in Saint Domingue who toiled under the yoke of slavery, and their cruel slave masters to keep up a steady flow of "Sugar", cotton and Indigo to France and increase the wealth of the plantation owners and France. The cruel treatment by the white made the slaves more determined to free themselves from slavery.

Many slaves were escaping and using various means of taking revenge on the the whites — some used poisons, others tried to wreck the economy by burning the crops and killing the most valuable slaves. Macandal, a slave who had escaped and had succeeded in poisoning several slave masters, was caught and ordered to be burnt alive on a January afternoon in 1758. A boy of 15, Toussaint, watched Macandal twisting and writhing in the flames. At the same time the white people laughed, joked and mocked at Macandal’s agony. The slaves looked on in horror. This sight filled Toussaint with one ambition: to rid Saint Domingue of slavery and free his black brothers and sisters.

Toussaint Breda, as he was then called, was born on the night of May 20th, 1743 in Cap Francis. He was the son of two slaves who toiled on a plantation in Cap Francis. Toussaint was a sickly child but as he grew up his body hardened with the harshness of slavery. He was taught arithmetic, how to read and write French and Latin. His father taught him the Arada language and how to use herbs for medicine. Toussaint was aware of the importance of his African ancestry by the stories his mother and father told him about Africa and the tactics that were employed in war by the various African Kings, and warriors.

When Toussaint was old enough to take up duties as a slave he was put in charge of the cattle. He did his work well but was saddened at the menial mechanical jobs the Blacks were given. Daily he would watch his fellow slaves working on the sugar plantations, laboring under the lash of the whip. Toussaint was very clever, he hid his feelings: he smiled at the overseers and gave the impression that he was happy and contented; but always the sight of Macandal twisting in agony lingered in his memory, and the promise he made to free his people.

At the age of 12 Toussaint could jump on a horse at full speed and make it perform anything he wished. He could also swim across a dangerous river without being in danger of drowning. By the time Toussaint was 21 be had read quite a lot on military art, economics, and politics.

Slavery usually dulls the intelligence of a slave and degrades his character, but as we will see Toussaint was not dulled or marred by slavery in any way.

The enslavement of the Black people continued cruel and harsh as ever. Toussaint was growing old — he was in his forties when the Bastille in France fell in 1789. The Blacks in Saint Dorningue became ever more restless with a greater desire for freedom. During the night the slaves would beat out the messages on the torn-toms informing each other of their planned uprising.

In the late hours of August 1, 1789, Bouknian a voodoo high priest and runaway slave who had followed the political situation of Haiti closely, held a meeting of leaders. Old Toussaint, as he was later referred to, attended the meeting. On August 9, eight days after that meeting, the tom-toms could be heard over he entire 2000 miles of French territory. This was the signal. The blacks moved as one body and put to the torch everything that belonged to the white people, at the same time killing every white person they could find. The solidarity of the slaves was such that the planned revolt was not discovered until it actually broke out. The French forces put an end to the revolt, but not before the slaves had successfully burnt 6000 coffee estates and over 200 sugar plantation. Boukman was killed. Toussaint took over; he was then 45 years old.

The defeat of the first rebellion was foreseen by Toussaint, but he was not disappointed. He gathered up six hundred hand picked men and formed them into a revolutionary army. These 600 men became his "elite guard". They were so well trained that once when they had run out of ammunition they fought with stones. Toussaint surprised the French army with his understanding of the art of war and the well trained and disciplined manner of his troops.

About the time of the Boukman rebellion France had declared war on Spain, so Toussaint followed the Arab proverb "he who is the enemy of my enemy is my friend", so he joined with the Spaniards to fight the French. The Spaniards armed the slaves who attacked the French forces from all angles. With the aid of the Spanish, Toussaint drove out the French. France sent in another 3,000 soldiers, but Toussaint and his troops defeated them. Toussaint’s second in command was Jacques Dessalines, a strong and robust African who was brought to Haiti when he was a boy. France realized that Toussaint could not be defeated, so they abolished slavery in Saint Domingue.

Toussaint and Dessalines were interested only in the complete freedom of their people. The Spaniards were abandoned and the French were routed by Toussaint’s forces in every town. Toussaint abandoned the Spaniards because he saw clearly that tIme Spaniards had no desire to end slavery and would enslave his people once more. It was at this time when Toussaint was joined by another valiant fighter, Henri Christophe, a slave who was born in Grenada in 1767 and was sold in Haiti when he was still a boy. Within a few months he rose to the rank of General.

A French officer heard that Toussaint had gained another victory where it seemed impossible. On hearing the news the French officer remarked, "This Toussaint seems to be able to force an opening for himself anywhere!... "  From that day Toussaint adopted the name L’Ouverture, which means the opening.

With great skill Toussaint used a combination of guerilla warfare and orthodox fighting to beat his enemies. He had the full support of all the slaves in Haiti whom he rallied to his side with the slogan "Liberty for all". He told the slaves: ". . . Brothers and friends I am Toussaint L’Ouverture. My name is perhaps known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want liberty and equality to reign in Saint Domingue."

I work to bring them into existence. Unite ourselves to us, brothers, and fight with us for the same cause..."

The British saw a chance of gaining Saint Domingue, so they sent 60,000 soldiers to that colony. Toussaint used them to help him fight the Spanish. As soon as the Spaniards were defeated he turned on the British, because he knew that if Britain had gained possession of Saint Domingue, slavery would be restored. The British were so severely beaten by Toussaint that the full story was hidden for over a century.

Toussaint was victorious because of the way in which he combined military superiority with propaganda. and also the discipline of the army dedicated to freeing the poor blacks in that colony. His military skill was such that in seven days he won seven battles. In another battle he was surrounded by enemy troops. Although he was outnumbered he managed to ambush his enemy and kill quite a number of them. The battle that followed lasted from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Toussaint lost 6 men.

When Toussaint took over as Governor-General of Saint Domingue, he set the borders with the Spanish which have been unchanged even to this day. He set up law courts, appeal courts and supreme courts. The Old regime's complicated system was done away with. He established a uniform value for the local unit of money. He was never lenient with any official who had committed an offence. An outstanding feature about this great man was the way in which he had full control of his body and mind.

He could go for days on only two bananas and a glass of water, and sleep for only two hours a night. He was wounded seventeen times in 10 years. Where speed was necessary he persuaded his soldiers to cover 40 miles a day. They moved so fast they had to wait for the cavalry.

Many times the Blacks were scared about having to return to slavery. They came to Toussaint with the problem. He took up a glass vase and filled it with black maize, a few grains of white maize would be added. He would then turn to the troubled blacks and say: ". . . You are the black maize, the whites, grains of white maize. . . ." The glass would then be shaken and shown to them. Toussaint loved his people. What he did for them was not for personal gain, but came naturally to him. At no time was he afraid of the Blacks he bought 30,000 rifles and armed the laborers with them.

Meanwhile Napoleon was conquering all Europe. He wanted to regain France's former rich colony. He held a low opinion of Toussaint and was so determined to regain Saint Domingue that he sent 23,000 soldiers and 54 ships to suppress the Black revolution.

On arrival the French attacked; Henri Christophe and his men put up a superb fight. The Captain-General of the French forces realized that it was useless in gaining a military victory over the blacks as they were determined never to return to slavery. Dessalines and Christophe were made generals in the French army. Toussaint L’Ouverture was retired with honor. But the French General was dishonest. He plotted to kill Dessalines, who managed to escape. Toussaint was sent to France where he was imprisoned and tortured to death. When the Blacks heard of Toussaint's treatment they rose up against the French and drove them out, declaring Saint Domingue a republic with Dessalines as Governor. The new republic was given the Indian name of Haiti.

The struggle which Toussaint waged for freedom lasted 12 years —he defeated the local whites, the soldiers of France, a Spanish invasion, a British force of 60,000 men, and a similar size sent once again by the French. The revolt led by Toussaint L’Ouverture is the only successful slave revolt in history. Between the years 1789 to 1815 there was no other singular figure who appeared on the historical stage with such talent than the man who was a slave until he was 45 years old.

Toussaint died on April 6, 1803 — his body might have been destroyed, but his work lived on.


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