Toussaint Louverture: Biography of the Liberator of Haiti

French-Haitian military leader and statesman Toussaint Louverture played a key role in the 1791–1802 Haitian Revolution. Even though he started out as a slave, his perseverance and numerous military victories ultimately made him a symbol and national hero of Haiti.

Early in his life, Toussaint, a child slave on the estate of Bréda in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (later Haiti), saw the brutality of his master. After being set free in 1776, he took over a coffee plantation and employed a staff of twelve. Toussaint Bréda, despite being black and having been a slave, rose to prominence in Saint-Domingue. Black slaves began their uprising for liberation in August 1791 with the voodoo ritual at Bois-Caïman. It was then that Toussaint decided to side with the rebels and fight the colonists. He adopted the moniker “Louverture” after becoming enamored with the European military tactics he studied and saw rewarded with victory.

Toussaint Louverture, who had support from the Spanish at the outset of the war but ultimately opted to side with France, benefitted from their assistance. In 1795, he was promoted to brigadier general; in 1796, to lieutenant governor of Saint-Domingue; and in 1797, to commander-in-chief of the army. He first secured the English surrender and subsequently that of the Spanish, ending the island’s civil war. However, Paris began to see Toussaint Louverture as a threat as his power grew.

The year 1801 saw the launch of an expedition with the express purpose of putting a stop to his actions and retaking the island. After being defeated and captured in 1802, Toussaint Louverture was exiled and imprisoned in France, where he died in 1803 at the age of 60. To this day, many people remember him as the personification of the Haitian Revolution and the pioneering effort to end slavery throughout France’s colonial holdings. He passed away before seeing his home island of Haiti become independent under the leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines in 1804.

The role of Toussaint Louverture during the Haitian Revolution

In the wake of the first slave revolts in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, and especially the Bois-Caïman ceremony of 1791, Toussaint Louverture became close with the revolt’s leaders like Georges Biassou. Because of his expertise in botany, he began his career as a physician, but he ultimately proved to be an exceptional military strategist and an admired leader of troops. In 1793, having broken through enemy lines with relative ease, he decided to change his slave name, Bréda, to “Louverture.” As a result of his efforts, all slaves who joined the French camp were freed that summer of 1793.

In 1794, this ruling was implemented across all of the colonies. The allure of France’s benefits led Toussaint Louverture to abandon his allegiance to the Spanish and instead join the abolitionist movement. Ultimately, he sided with Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, a civil commissioner, and Étienne Maynaud de Bizefranc de Lavaux, a brigadier general.

Though he accomplished much, his ambition and certain agreements that favored Great Britain caused him to lose the support of some of his supporters. In 1798, a war broke out on the island between blacks and mulattoes who supported opposing leaders: Toussaint Louverture in the North and General André Rigaud in the South. By 1800, the “war of the knives” had come to a close, with the side supporting the freed people of Bréda emerging victorious.

France was concerned because of how quickly this rise had occurred. The idea that Santo Domingo’s colony could depend on a leader as powerful and unpredictable as Toussaint Louverture was not something that many people in the larger cities understood. This was the situation with Napoleon Bonaparte, who became First Consul after the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire (November 9, 1799) and was very skeptical of the former slave who was now the colony’s captain-general, a position similar to that of a general in chief. To make matters worse, in his proposed constitution from 1801, Toussaint Louverture declared himself governor-general for life and called for the independence of the province of Santo Domingo from French rule.

That was all it took to persuade Bonaparte to launch a punitive expedition to remove the guy responsible for the chaos. The island was invaded by a force of 20,000 troops led by General Charles Victoire Emmanuel Leclerc. The Saint-Domingue revolutionaries commanded by Toussaint Louverture had a temporary edge in numbers, but they were eventually overwhelmed.

The latter was compelled to give up at the start of May 1802, and a few days later on May 20, 1802, slavery was reinstated by law. His own camp turned against him, and he was taken to Brest and incarcerated at Fort de Joux, where he died in 1803. One of Toussaint Louverture’s most trusted subordinates, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, led the revolt that led to the colony’s declaration of independence in 1804. He was the first Emperor of Haiti after his predecessor’s constitution was put into effect.

Slavery and Toussaint Louverture: An ambiguous relationship

Historians have generally had a favorable impression of Toussaint Louverture due to his position as a freed slave, as the driving force behind the Haitian Revolution, and as a champion of colonially oppressed peoples. A highly laudatory portrayal of the revolutionary commander was painted by politician Victor Schoelcher in his Life of Toussaint Louverture, which was published in 1848 and helped to bring about the ultimate abolition of slavery. Nonetheless, modern historians have painted a far more complicated picture of the liberator of Saint-Domingue, notably in regard to his position on slavery.

In the case of Toussaint Louverture, for instance, once he was freed from slavery, he bought slaves and used them to grow his own crops. According to Jacques de Caunas’ research, one of them was his former right-hand man, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, whose activities contributed to Haiti’s independence in 1804. Although Toussaint Louverture did not disagree with slavery in principle, he was able to capitalize on the situation by winning the allegiance of many people. In spite of his background, he was able to win over the hearts of both wealthy white plantation owners and poor black peasants and slaves with his practical outlook on life.

The fact that Toussaint Louverture personally created the Constitution of Santo Domingo in 1801 was another fact that partially stained his reputation. A former slave laid the groundwork for his perfect society, although there were some interesting inconsistencies. While slavery was legally abolished, Article 17 of the Constitution allowed for the slave trade to continue. There were a number of provisions that favored the big plantation owners and echoed the feudal system in important ways.

These included the assignment of employees to land that had been handed to them by the producers, the potential for forced labor, and other issues. Although slavery had been abolished, Toussaint Louverture’s proposed economic system, which mimicked the colonial model of the time, did not result in any substantive improvements to social conditions. This circumstance widened the gap between the wealthy and the poor in the years that followed, especially under the presidency of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and paved the way for the rise of a new oligarchy in Haiti that repeated the errors of the past.


August 29, 1793: Maroon slaves in Saint-Domingue rose up in revolt

On August 29, 1793, Toussaint Louverture declared himself the black leader of the Haitian Revolution. He was in charge of the uprising and tried to rally the black slaves around the common goal of breaking free. Because of the French Revolution‘s backing for the white royalists, Saint-Domingue was invaded by the British and the Spanish. Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, the civil commissioner present and a delegate of the National Convention, made the official proclamation of the colony’s abolition of slavery. On February 4, 1794, in Paris, the first abolition was announced that would apply to all republican territories.

April 7, 1803: Death of Toussaint Louverture

On April 7, 1803, Toussaint Louverture passed away at the fort of Joux, in the Doubs region of Franche-Comté. His death was shrouded in mystery, with some even speculating that he was murdered. However, it was widely speculated and likely that the former general of Saint-Domingue died of pneumonia or apoplexy.

Having grown up in a tropical and island setting, Toussaint Louverture’s health was probably exacerbated by his incarceration and the region’s hard winter and continental cold. His family was unharmed, including his wife, Suzanne Simone Baptiste Louverture, and their children. King Louis XVIII of France, during the Restoration, would bestow upon them the highest honors and titles available. In 1998, a memorial plaque honoring Toussaint Louverture was unveiled in the Pantheon, although the fate of his bones remained unknown.

November 18, 1803: French troops are defeated in Saint-Domingue

After almost two years of the War of Independence and the devastation caused by yellow fever, Commander Donatien-Marie-Joseph de Vimeur and his soldiers surrendered to the revolutionaries of Saint-Domingue. After the successive capitulation of Napoleonic garrisons around the island on January 1, 1804, the independence of the island was declared under the leadership of General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Toussaint Louverture’s successor as the head of the rebels. As a result, Saint-Domingue reverted to using its original name, Haiti, which had been given to the island by its original inhabitants, the Arawak Indians, who had been decimated and enslaved by Europeans after 1492.


  1. M. Degros, Création des postes diplomatiques et consulaires, Revue d’histoire diplomatique, 1986; in French
  2.  Jeremy D. Popkin, A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution (2011), p. 51
  3.  Independent Haiti, Library of Congress Country Studies.
  4. J-F. Brière, Haïti et la France, 1804–1848: le rêve brisé, Paris, Karthala 2008; in French
  5. Girard, Philippe (2009). “Rebelles with a Cause: Women in the Haitian War of Independence, 1802–1804”. Gender and History21 (1): 60–85. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0424.2009.01535.x. S2CID 55603536.
  6. Dubois, Laurent (2012). Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. New York: Henry Holt and Company. p. 151. ISBN 978-0-8050-9335-3.

By Bertie Atkinson

Bertie Atkinson is a history writer at Malevus. He writes about diverse subjects in history, from ancient civilizations to world wars. In his free time, he enjoys reading, watching Netflix, and playing chess.