The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Scale How Tuesdays.

by M. Rothera.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 349-357

III. Toussant L'Ouverture.

Among the West Indian Islands, Hayti, or San Domingo, is next in size to Cuba; this island was discovered by Columbus in 1492, and in little more than a generation the Spaniards had completely swept away the aborigines, whose place was filled by negro slaves. Then the Buccaneers made their appearance and ultimately succeeded in appropriating part of the island; being mostly French, this part, the western part of Hayti, was given to France in 1697. For a long time these marauders imported for their own use a vast number of African slaves. The mulattoes who grew up in the island gradually formed quite a separate caste, and in 1791, under the influence of the French Revolution, the three classes, white, black, and mixed, burst forth into the struggle which ultimately led to the downfall of the Europeans in the island and the independence of the coloured rebels.

This result was mainly due to the influence of a very remarkable negro, Toussaint L'Ouverture, and it is about this man that I want to speak. At the outset we must remember that he has left hardly one written line of his story. It is taken from the testimony of Britons, Frenchmen, and Spaniards--men who despised him as a negro and a slave, and hated him because he had beaten them in many a battle. All the materials for his biography are from the lips of his enemies.

Toussaint L'Ouverture was born at Breda, a property near Cape Town, in San Domingo, in 1743. His father and mother were both African slaves; so that if anything in his life excites our admiration, we must remember that the black race claims it all, we have no share in it at all. An old negro taught him to read, and his favourite books were Epictetus, Military Memoirs, and Plutarch; in the woods he learned some of the qualities of herbs, and became, for this reason, village doctor. On the estate, the highest place he ever reached was that of coachman. He gained the confidence of his master and was appointed to exercise a kind of superintendence over the other negroes.

In this position the Native Insurrection of 1791 found him. He took no part in the first stages of the insurrection and is said to have expressed himself violently against the perpetrators of the massacres of that year. From then until the proclamation of February 4th, 1794, which declared all slaves to be free, Toussaint was alike conspicuous for his zeal in the cause of the Catholic religion and of royalty. He first joined the native army as physician at fifty years of age, but soon exchanged this for a military appointment, becoming the aide-de-camp of Jean Francois, the native general. About the time he reached the camp of Francois, the army had been subjected to two insults. First, their commissioners, summoned to meet the French Committee, were ignominiously and insultingly dismissed; and when, afterwards, Francois was summoned to a second conference and went to it, accompanied by two officers, a young lieutenant who had known him as a slave, angered at seeing him in the uniform of an officer, raised his riding whip and struck him over the shoulders. If he had been the savage which the negro is painted to us, he had only to breathe the insult to his twenty-five thousand soldiers and they would have annihilated the Frenchmen in blood. But the indignant chief rode back in silence to his tent and it was not until twenty-four hours afterwards that his troops heard of this insult to their general. Then the word went forth, "Death to every white man!" They had taken fifteen hundred prisoners. Ranged in front of the camp, they were about to be shot, when Toussaint, who had a vein of religious fanaticism like most great leaders--he could preach as well as fight--mounting on a hillock and getting the ear of the crowd, exclaimed, "Brothers, this blood will not wipe out the insult to our chief; only the blood in yonder French camp can wipe it out; to shed that is courage; to shed this is cowardice and cruelty besides"; and he saved fifteen hundred lives.

After the proclamation abolishing slavery, Toussaint was so grateful that he joined the French, heart and soul, opening communications with General Laveaux. On receiving the assurance that he would be recognized as a General of Brigade, he set to work to establish French supremacy throughout the island and soon occupied the Spanish towns in his neighbourhood. This action naturally threw much confusion into the Spanish ranks. An exclamation of Laveaux, on learning the consequence of Toussaint's joining his standard--"Comment, mais cet homme fait l'ouverture partout!" ["How, but this man makes the opening everywhere" -- Google Translate] is said to have been the origin of the name Toussaint subsequently adopted.

Laveaux at first treated Toussaint with coldness and distrust, and the latter, to all appearances, had reached the close of his career: but in 1795 Laveaux was arrested at Cape Town, in consequence of a conspiracy among the mulatto chiefs. Toussaint assembled his negroes, found himself at the head of ten thousand men, marched upon the capital and released the governor. Laveaux, in the enthusiasm of his gratitude, proclaimed his deliverer to be the protector of the whites, and appointed him Commander-in-chief of the united forces, and Dictator of the whole island.

When the peace between France and Spain was concluded in 1801, Jean Francois went to Madrid, leaving Toussaint the only powerful negro leader in San Domingo. He reduced the whole of the northern part of the Island to the dominion of France with the exception of one place, of which the English retained possession. He was the first person who succeeded in establishing discipline among the armed negroes and he did much to re-establish the plantations and set the colony on the way to recovery.

I cannot stop to give in detail every one of his efforts. Between the years 1795 and 1801 he achieved wonderful results. He had driven the Spaniard back into his own cities, conquered him there, and raised the French standard over every Spanish town, and for the first time and almost the last, the island obeyed one law. He had subdued the mulatto and had attacked the English General, defeated him in pitched battles and allowed him to retreat to Jamaica.

This was the work of six years. With whom is he to be compared? Macaulay says comparing Cromwell with Napoleon, that Cromwell showed the greater military genius, if we consider that he never saw an army till he was forty, while Napoleon was educated from a boy in the best military schools in Europe. Cromwell manufactured his own army. Napoleon, at the age of twenty-seven, was placed at the head of the best troops Europe ever saw. They were both successful, but, says Macaulay, with such disadvantages, the Englishman showed the greater genius. This, surely, is a fair mode of measurement. Let us now apply it to Toussaint. Cromwell never saw an army till he was forty; this man never saw a soldier till he was fifty. Cromwell manufactured his army out of Englishmen, out of the middle-class of Englishmen, the best men of the island; and with this army he conquered Englishmen, their equals. Toussaint manufactured his army out of what people call the despicable race of negroes, debased, demoralised by two hundred years of slavery, a hundred thousand of them imported into the island within four years, unable to speak a dialect intelligible even to each other; yet, out of this mixed mass he forged a thunderbolt and hurled it at what? At the Spaniard and sent him home conquered. At the French and forced them to acknowledge his superiority. At the English and they retired to Jamaica.

Now if Cromwell were a general, at least this man was a soldier. Further, Cromwell was at his best as a soldier; his fame stops there. But this man no sooner put his hand to state affairs than he began to show a statesmanship as wonderful as his military genius.

Historians say that the most statesmanlike act of Napoleon was his proclamation of 1802 at the peace of Amiens, when he said, "Frenchmen, come home, I pardon the crimes of the last twelve years; I blot out its parties; I found my throne on the hearts of all Frenchmen"; and twelve years of unclouded success showed how wisely he judged.

That was 1802. In 1800, this negro made a proclamation which ran thus, "Sons of San Domingo, come home; we never meant to take your houses, or your lands. The negro only asked the liberty which God gave him. Your houses wait for you, your lands are ready; come and cultivate them." And from Madrid and Paris, from Baltimore and New Orleans, the emigrant planters crowded home to enjoy their estates, under the pledged word, that was never broken, of a victorious slave.

Again, Carlyle has said, "The natural king is one who melts all wills into his own." Toussaint, at the close of the war, turned to his armies and said to them, "Go back and work on these estates you have conquered; for an empire can be founded only on order and industry, and you can learn the virtues only there." And they went. The French Admiral, who witnessed the scene, said that in a week his army had melted back into peasants.

In the matter of Free Trade, Europe waited until 1846 before the English adopted it. But in 1800, nearly fifty years before, Toussaint said to the committee who were drafting a constitution under his direction, "Put at the head of the chapter of commerce that the ports of San Domingo are open to the trade of the world."

At this very same time England was at war with herself on matters of religion. This man was a negro; he was uneducated, many say that makes a man narrow-minded; he was a Catholic, many say that is but another name for intolerance. And yet, negro, slave, Catholic, ill-educated, that he was, he said to his committee, "Make it the first line of my constitution that I know no difference between religious beliefs."

Toussaint was now at the height of his prosperity. He always preserved great simplicity in his own person, but surrounded himself with a brilliant staff. The island flourished under his rule; peace was in every household, lands were cultivated in every direction and the commerce of the world was represented in its harbours.

At this time, in 1801, Europe concluded the peace of Amiens and Napoleon took possession of the French throne. With a single stroke of his pen he reduced Cayenne and Martinique back into slavery. He then said to his Council, "What shall I do with San Domingo?" The slaveholders said, "Give it to us." But Colonel Vincent, who had been private secretary to Toussaint, said, in a letter to Napoleon, "Sire, leave it alone, it is the happiest spot in your dominions. God raised this man to govern; races melt under his hand. He has saved you this island, for I know of my own knowledge, that when the Republic could not have lifted a finger to prevent it, George III, offered him any title and any revenue if he would hold the island under the British crown. He refused and saved it for France."

Napoleon turned away from his Council and is said to have remarked, "I have sixty thousand idle troops, I must find them something to do." It seems likely that he wanted to have his troops occupied at some distance away that he might the more safely accomplish his wish to seize the French crown. It is further said that the satirists of Paris had christened Toussaint the Black Napoleon, and Bonaparte hated his black shadow. So, from one motive or another, from the prompting of ambition or dislike of this resemblance, Napoleon resolved to crush Toussaint.

They were very much alike; Napoleon could never bear the military uniform; he hated the restraint of his rank, he loved to put on the grey coat of the little Corporal and wander in the camp. Toussaint also never could bear a uniform; he wore a plain coat, and often the yellow Madras handkerchief of the slaves. Like Napoleon, he could fast many days, could dictate to three secretaries at once, could wear out four or five horses. Like Napoleon, no man ever guessed his purpose, or penetrated his plan. For instance, three attempts to assassinate him failed from not firing at the right spot. If they thought he was in the north in a carriage, he would be in the south on horseback; if they thought he was in the city in a house, he would be in the field in a tent. They once riddled his carriage with bullets; he was on horseback on the other side! The seven Frenchmen who did it were arrested; they expected to be shot. The next day was a saint's day and Toussaint ordered them to be placed before the high altar, and when the priest reached the prayer for forgiveness, came down from his high seat, repeated it with them and permitted them to go unpunished.

He had the wit common to all great commanders. When people came to him in great numbers for office, he is reported to have learned the first words of a Catholic prayer in Latin and repeating it would say, "Do you understand that?" "No sir!" "What! want an office and not know Latin? Go home and learn it!"

Then again he had confidence in his own power to rule men.

His bitterest enemies watched him and none of them charged him with love of money, sensuality, or cruel use of power.

The only instance in which his sternest critic has charged him with severity is this:--During a tumult a few white proprietors, who had returned, trusting his proclamation, were killed. His nephew, General Moise, was accused of indecision in quelling the riot. Toussaint assembled a court-martial, and on its verdict ordered his own nephew to be shot; he was sternly Roman in thus keeping his promise of protection to the whites.

Above the lust of gold, pure in private life, generous in the use of his power, it was against such a man that Napoleon sent his army, giving to General Leclerc thirty thousand of his best troops, with orders to reintroduce slavery.

When this army reached the island, Toussaint mounted his horse, rode to the eastern end of the island and looked on a sight such as no native had ever seen before. Sixty ships of the line crowded by the best soldiers of Europe were rounding the point. Toussaint looked a moment, counted the fleet, and turning to his General Christophe, exclaimed:--"All France is come to Hayti; they can only come to make us slaves and we are lost!" He then recognised the only mistake of his life, his confidence in Bonaparte which had led him to disband his army.

Returning to the hills he issued the only proclamation which bears his name and breathes vengeance:--"My children, France comes to make us slaves. God gave us liberty; France has no right to take it away. Burn the cities, destroy the harvests, tear up the roads with cannon, poison the wells, show the white man the hell he comes to make"--and he was obeyed.

When William of Orange saw Louis XIV. cover Holland with troops, he said: "Break down the dykes, give Holland back to the ocean."

When Alexander saw the armies of France descend upon Russia, he said: "Burn Moscow, starve back the invaders."

The Black saw all Europe marshalled to crush him and gave to his people the same heroic example of defiance.

Leclerc sent word to Christophe, one of Toussaint's generals, that he was about to land at Cape city. Christophe said, "Toussaint is governor of the island, I will send to him for permission. If without it a French soldier sets foot on shore, I will burn the town and fight over its ashes." Leclerc landed, Christophe took two thousand white men, women and children and carried them to the mountains in safety, then, with his own hand, set fire to the splendid palace which French architects had just finished for him, and in forty hours the place was in ashes. The battle was fought on its streets and the French were driven back to their boats. Wherever the French went they were met with fire and sword. Thus beaten in the field they tried double dealing. They issued a proclamation saying: "We do not come to make you slaves; this man Toussaint tells you lies. Join us and you shall have the rights you claim." They cheated every one of his officers, except three, and finally these also deserted him and Toussaint was left alone. He then sent word to Leclerc: "I will submit, I could continue the struggle for years, could prevent a single Frenchmen from safely quitting your camp, but I hate bloodshed. I have fought only for the liberty of my race. Guarantee that and I will submit and come in." He took the oath of a faithful citizen and on the same crucifix Leclerc swore that he should be faithfully protected, and that the island should be free. As the French General glanced along the line of his splendidly equipped troops, and saw opposite Toussaint's ragged ill-armed followers, he said to him: --"L'Ouverture, had you continued the war, where could you have got arms?" "I would have taken yours!" was the Spartan reply.

He was sent down to his house in peace, but shortly afterwards Leclerc, fearing his power, summoned him to attend a council.

Toussaint, "the purest soul God ever put into a body," as the Spanish General said of him, probably reasoned thus, on receiving the summons: --"If I go willingly, I shall be treated accordingly," and he went. The moment he entered the room, the officers drew their swords, and told him he was a prisoner; and one young lieutenant who was present says: --"He was not at all surprised, but seemed very sad." Thus this man, truthful as a knight of old, who could not be taken by fair means, was taken by treachery. They put him on board ship and set sail for France. As the island faded from his sight, he turned to the captain and said:--"You think you have rooted up the tree of liberty, but I am only a branch. I have planted the tree so deep that all France can never root it up." Arriving in Paris, he was put into gaol, but after a short time he was sent to the Castle of St. Joux, to a dungeon, twelve feet by twenty, built wholly of stone, with a narrow window high up on the side, looking out on the snows of Switzerland.

In winter, ice covers the floor; in summer, it is damp and wet. In this living tomb, this native of the tropics was left to die. From this dungeon he wrote two letters to Napoleon. One of them ran thus:--"Sire, I am a French citizen. I never broke a law. By the grace of God, I have saved for you the best island of your realm. Sire, of your mercy, grant me justice." Napoleon never answered the letters. The governor allowed Toussaint five francs a day for food and fuel. Napoleon heard of it and reduced the sum to three, but still Toussaint did not die quick enough. Finally the governor was told to go into Switzerland, to carry the keys of the dungeon and to stay four days. When he returned, Toussaint was found starved to death.

Wordsworth has written a sonnet to him:--

      "Toussaint, the most unhappy man of men!
      Whether the whistling rustic tend his plough
      Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
      Pillowed in some deep dungeon's earless den:
      O miserable chieftain! where and when
      Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not! do thou
      Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
      Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
      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."

AUTHORITIES.--Encyclopedia; Story of the Nations; West Indies; Wendell Phillips' lecture on Toussaint L'Ouverture. Since writing this I have heard of Miss Martineau's The Hour and The Man.

Typed by Melissa Wielenga, August, 2023; Proofread by LNL, August, 2023