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The Slave Who Defeated Napoleon- the haitian revolution napoleon

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The Slave Who Defeated Napoleon- THE HAITIAN REVOLUTION

Napoleon was one of the greatest generals who ever lived. But at the end of the 18th century a self-educated slave with no military training drove Napoleon out of Haiti and led his country to independence.

Toussaint L'Ouverture
The remarkable leader of this slave revolt was Toussaint Breda (later called Toussaint L'Ouverture, and sometimes the “black Napoleon”). Slave revolts from this time normally ended in executions and failure – this story is the exception.

By 1789, Haiti was a colony of France. The French planted sugar, coffee, cotton, and indigo in huge plantations, worked by African slaves that had been imported. French slavery was unspeakabl,y brutal, with torture and beatings common place. Though more than a million slaves had been imported by 1789, only 452,000 survived. In addition, 39,000 whites and 27,000 mulattoes completed the population.

This story begins in 1791 in the French colony of Saint Dominique (later Haiti). Though born a slave in Saint Dominique, Toussaint learned of Africa from his father, who had been born a free man there. He learned that he was more than a slave, that he was a man with brains and dignity. He was fortunate in having a liberal master who had him trained as a house servant and allowed him to learn to read and write. Toussaint took full advantage of this, reading every book he could get his hands on. He particularly admired the writings of the French Enlightenment philosophers, who spoke of individual rights and equality.

In 1789 the French Revolution rocked France. The sugar plantations of Saint Dominique, though far away, would never be the same. Spurred on by such Enlightenment thinkers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the early moderate revolutionaries considered seriously the question of slavery. Those moderate revolutionaries were not willing to end slavery but they did apply the "Rights of Man" to all Frenchmen, including free blacks and mulattoes (those of mixed race). Plantation owners in the colonies were furious and fought the measure. Finally the revolutionaries gave in and withdrew the measure in 1791.

The news of this betrayal triggered mass slave revolts in Saint Dominique, and Toussaint became the leader of the slave rebellion. He became known as Toussaint L'Ouverture (the one who finds an opening) and brilliantly led his rag-tag slave army. He successfully fought the French (who helped by succumbing to yellow fever in large numbers) as well as invading Spanish and British.

Maximilian Robespierre
By 1793, the revolution in France was in the hands of the Jacobins, the most radical of the revolutionary groups. This group, led by Maximilian Robespierre, was responsible for the Reign of Terror, a campaign to rid France of “enemies of the revolution.” Though the Jacobins brought indiscriminate death to France, they were also idealists who wanted to take the revolution as far as it could go. So they again considered the issue of “equality” and voted to end slavery in the French colonies, including what was now known as Haiti.

There was jubilation among the blacks in Haiti, and Toussaint agreed to help the French army eject the British and Spanish. Toussaint proved to be a brilliant general, winning 7 battles in 7 days. He became a defacto governor of the colony.

In France the Jacobins lost power. People finally tired of blood flowing in the streets and sent Maximilian Robespierre, the leader of the Jacobins, to the guillotine, ending the Reign of Terror. A reaction set in. The French people wanted to get back to business. More moderate leaders came and went, eventually replaced by Napoleon, who ruled France with dictatorial powers. He responded to the pleas of the plantation owners by reinstating slavery in the French colonies, once again plunging Haiti into war.


1.____ The original people of Haiti were blacks who were enslaved when the French arrived to their island

2. ____ The French Revolution had little influence on the fate of people in Haiti

Napoleon Bonaparte
By 1803 Napoleon was ready to get Haiti off his back: he and Toussaint agreed to terms of peace. Napoleon agreed to recognize Haitian independence and Toussaint agreed to retire from public life. A few months later, the French invited Toussaint to come to a negotiating meeting with full safety protection. When he arrived, the French (at Napoleon's orders) betrayed the safe conduct and arrested him, putting him on a ship headed for France. Napoleon ordered that Toussaint be placed in a prison dungeon in the mountains, and murdered by means of cold, starvation, and neglect. Toussaint died in prison, but others carried on the fight for freedom.

Six months later, Napoleon decided to give up his possessions in the New World. He was busy in Europe and these far-away possessions were more trouble than they were worth. He abandoned Haiti to independence and sold the French territory in North America to the United States (the Louisiana purchase).

Years later, in exile at St. Helena, when asked about his dishonorable treatment of Toussaint, Napoleon merely remarked, "What could the death of one wretched Negro mean to me?"

The war in Haiti, however, had taken ten years to fight and had left the country devastated. France refused to recognize Haiti as an independent nation until 1825. The United States, fearful that Haiti’s success would inspire slave revolts in America, imposed an economic embargo (refusal to trade) and refused to recognize Haiti as its own country until 1862.

Impoverished and alone in a world dominated by hostile white governments, Haiti still stood defiantly and proudly, black and independent.

3. _____ Based on Napoleon’s treatment of Toussaint, which word would best describe Napoleon’s character?

  1. Spirited

  2. Desperate

  3. Valiant

  4. Shameful

Why? ____________________________________________________________________________________________________

4. Today Haiti is one of poorest countries in the world. Eighty percent of its people live in severe poverty, many without consistent drinking water or medical care. Are there any events in Haiti’s history that might have contributed to its current struggles? (Note: Even before an earthquake devastated parts of Haiti just last year, the country was in a very similar state economically and politically).

What others have said about Toussaint Louverture:

"Toussaint is a Negro and in the jargon of war he is also called a brigand. But we would like to say that this Negro who was born to avenge the outrage to his race has proved that the character of a man has nothing to do with his colour." - The London Gazette, 1798 (Parkinson, p. 84)

"General Laveaux called him "the negro, the Spartacus, foretold by Raynal, whose destiny it was to avenge the wrongs committed on his race" (Rainsford)

"The role which the great Negro Toussaint, called L'Ouverture, played in the history of the United States has seldom been fully appreciated. Representing the age of revolution in America, he rose to leadership through a bloody terror, which contrived a Negro "problem" for the Western hemisphere, intensified and defined the anti-slavery movement, became one of the causes, and probably the prime one, which led Napoleon to sell Louisiana for a song; and, finally, through the interworking of all these effects, rendered more certain the final prohibition of the slave-trade by the United States in 1807" (Du Bois, p. 70).

"Without military knowledge he fought like one born in the camp. Without means he carried on the war. He beat his enemies in battle, and turned their own weapons against them. He laid the foundation for the emancipation of his race and the independence of the island." (Wells Brown p. 104)

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