Historical Tales: 3—Spanish American - Charles Morris

Toussaint L'ouverture and the Revolution in Hayti

The people of Europe have not stood alone in settling and ruling America, for the blacks of Africa, brought to the New World as slaves, have made themselves masters of one of the largest and most fertile islands of the West Indies, that attractive gem of the tropics which, under the name of Hispaniola, was the pioneer among Spanish dominions on American soil.

Hispaniola has had a strange and cruel history. The Spaniards enslaved its original inhabitants and treated them so ruthlessly that they were soon annihilated. Then the island was filled with negro slaves. About 1630 the buccaneers, or hunters of wild bulls, made it their haunt, and as these were mostly French, the western part of the island was ceded to France in 1697. During the century that followed Africans were brought over in multitudes, until there were nearly half a million blacks in Hayti,—the Indian name of the island,—while there were less than forty thousand whites and thirty thousand mulattoes, the latter being neither citizens nor slaves. These facts are given as a necessary introduction to the story we are about to tell.

It was the white revolution in France that brought about the black revolution in Hayti. In 1789 the States-General met in France and overturned the ancient system of oppression in that land. Liberty for all was the tocsin of its members, and it was proclaimed that not only the whites of France and her colonies, but the blacks also, were entitled to freedom and a voice in the government. The news of this decree created a ferment of passion in Hayti. The white planters of the island, who had long controlled everything, burst into fury, forswore all allegiance to France, and trampled the national flag under foot in their rage.

But they had others than the French Assembly to deal with. The mulattoes, or free people of color, rose in arms for the rights of which they had been deprived. They were soon put down, but in the following year (1791) a much more terrible outbreak took place, that of the slaves. There followed a reign of terror as sanguinary in type as that of France. The revolt began on the night of August 21, on the plantation of No, near Cape Haytien. The long-oppressed and savage blacks mercilessly killed all the whites who fell into their hands. Down from the mountains they poured on every side, their routes marked by blood and devastation. Hills and plains were swept with fire and sword, atrocities of the most horrible kinds were committed, and nearly all the residents on the plantations, more than two thousand in number, were brutally slaughtered, while a thousand sugar and coffee estates were swept by fire.

In the first revolution the mulattoes aided the whites of the cities to repel the blacks, but later, believing themselves betrayed by the whites, they joined the blacks, and the revolt became a war of extermination. It did not end until the negroes became masters of all the country districts, and gained a control of the mountainous interior of the island which, except for a brief interval, they have ever since retained.

This success was in great part due to the famous leader of the blacks, the renowned Toussaint L' Ouverture, a man who proved himself one of the greatest and noblest of his race. Born in Hayti, of negro parents, he was descended from an African prince, and, slave though he was in condition, had himself the soul of a prince. He taught himself to read and write, and also something of mathematics and of Latin, and was taken from the fields to become coachman for the overseer of the estate of his master, the Count de Breda.

When the negro revolt began, and the furious blacks were seeking victims on all sides, Toussaint concealed the overseer and his family in the forest, took them food at the risk of his own life, and finally led them to the coast, where they took ship for the United States.

While he was thus engaged, the negroes, led by a gigantic black named Bouckman, and subsequently by three others, were continuing their course of butchery and devastation. Toussaint joined them after the escape of the overseer, and quickly gained an influence over them, largely from his knowledge of medicinal plants and a degree of skill in surgery. This influence enabled him to put himself at their head and to mitigate the ferocity of their actions. His ascendency was due not only to his knowledge, but also to his valor, and from his courage in opening a breach in the ranks of the enemy he became known as L' Ouverture, or the opener.

Under their new leader the revolted slaves held their own against their enemies, declaring in favor of the king, Louis XVI., and against the revolutionists. On the other hand, the English came to the aid of the whites, and the island was thrown into a state of horrible confusion, increased by the interference of the Spaniards, who held the eastern section of the island.

In 1794, after the Convention in Paris had issued a decree demanding the liberation of the slaves, Toussaint and his followers joined the revolutionary cause, and aided the French general Laveaux to expel the British and Spanish invaders. In this campaign he won a number of victories, and showed such military skill and ability as to prove him a leader of the highest qualities. Beard says of him, "His energy and his prowess made him the idol of his troops. . . . In his deeds and war-like achievements he equalled the great captains of ancient and modern times."

Native hut


One example of the risks which he ran in battle occurred in his efforts to put down an insurrection of the mulattoes. In this contest he fell into an ambush in the mountains near Port de Paix, a shower of bullets sweeping his ranks. His private physician fell dead by his side and a plume of feathers in his hat was shot away, but he remained unharmed. The same was the case soon after when, in a narrow pass, his coachman was shot down. The negro leader seemed, like Napoleon, to bear a charmed life.

Declaring himself lieutenant-general of the colony, he wrote to the Directory in Paris, guaranteeing to be responsible for the orderly behavior of the blacks and their good will to France. He sent at the same time his two elder sons to Paris to be educated, making them practically hostages for his honor and good faith.

In 1798 the war, which had lasted for years, came to an end, the British being expelled from the island and the rebellious mulattoes put down. Peace prevailed, and the negro conqueror now devoted himself to the complete pacification of the people. Agriculture was encouraged, the churches were reopened, schools were established, and law and justice were made equal for all. At the same time the army was kept in excellent training and a rigid discipline exacted.

As is usual in such cases, there were abundant applications among the negroes for official positions, and Toussaint was sorely put to it to dispose of these ignorant aspirers after high places without giving offence. He seems, however, to have been well versed in political management, and is said to have disposed of one unlearned applicant for a judicial position with the words, "Ah, yes; you would make an excellent magistrate. Of course you understand Latin.—No?—Why, that is very unfortunate, for you know that Latin is absolutely necessary."

There is another evidence of his wisdom in dealing with his people that is worth repeating. As has been said, when the revolution began Hayti had about half a million of blacks to seventy thousand whites and mulattoes. Toussaint adopted an original method of making the force of this fact evident to his followers. He would fill a glass with black grains of corn and throw upon them a few grains of white. "You are the black grains," he would say; "your enemies are the white." Then he would shake the glass. "Where are the white grains now? You see they have disappeared."

The authorities in France could not but recognize the ability and the moderation of the black leader, and in 1796 he was appointed commander-in-chief in the island, a commission which was confirmed by Bonaparte about December, 1799. All classes and colors regarded him as a general benefactor and a wise and judicious ruler. Order and prosperity were restored, and his government was conducted with moderation and humanity. It looked as though peace and good will might continue in Hayti as long as this able governor lived, but unluckily he had to deal with a man in whom ambition and pride of place overruled all conceptions of justice. This was Napoleon Bonaparte, who had now risen to the supreme power in France.

Bonaparte seems to have been angered by two letters which Toussaint sent him, after having completely pacified the island. These were addressed, "The First of the Blacks to the First of the Whites." The assumed equality seems to have touched the pride of the conqueror, for he disdained to answer the letters of the Haytian ruler. Early in 1800 a republican constitution was drafted under the auspices of Toussaint, which made Hayti virtually independent, though under the guardianship of France. An election was held and the liberator chosen president for life.

When the news of this action reached France in July, 1800, Napoleon was furious. He had just been made First Consul and would brook no equal. "He is a revolted slave, whom we must punish," he exclaimed; "the honor of France is outraged." Resolved to reduce the negroes again to slavery, he sent to Hayti a fleet of sixty ships and an army of about thirty-five thousand men, under General Leclerc, the husband of Pauline Bonaparte. Pauline accompanied him, and also several officers who had been former opponents of Toussaint.

Meanwhile, the Haytian president had not been idle. Having subdued the French portion of the island, he led his army into the Spanish portion, which was also reduced, San Domingo, its capital, being taken on January 2, 1801. When the keys of this city were handed to him by its governor, the negro conqueror said, solemnly, "I accept them in the name of the French Republic." Yet his conquests in the name of France did not soften the heart of the First Consul, who was bent on treating him as a daring rebel. The Peace of Amiens left the hands of Napoleon free in Europe, and the expedition under Leclerc reached the island about the end of 1801.

To oppose the strong army of Napoleon's veterans, men who had been trained to victory under his own eye, Toussaint had a force of blacks little more than half as strong. As he looked at the soldiers disembarking from the ships in the Bay of Samana he exclaimed in dismay, "We are lost! All France is coming to invade our poor island!"

The French made landings at several of the ports of Hayti, driving back their defenders. The city of San Domingo, held by Toussaint's brother, Paul, was taken. Cristophe, a daring negro who was to figure high in the subsequent history of the island, commanded at Cape Haytien, and when Leclerc summoned him to surrender, replied, "Go tell your general that the French shall march here only over ashes, and that the ground shall burn beneath their feet." This was not bombast, for when he found further defence impossible, he set fire to the city and retreated to the mountains, taking with him two thousand white prisoners. Grief and despair filled the soul of Toussaint when, marching to the relief of Cristophe, he saw the roads filled with fugitives and the city in ashes.

But though the French became masters of the ports, the army of the, blacks maintained itself in the mountain fastnesses, in which Toussaint defied all the efforts of his foes. After Leclerc had lost heavily, and began to despair of subduing his able opponent by force of arms, he had recourse to strategy. He had brought with him Toussaint's two sons. Napoleon had interviewed these boys before their departure from France, saying to them, "Your father is a great man, and has rendered good service to France. Tell him I say so, and bid him not to believe I have any hostile intention against the island. The troops I send are not designed to fight the natives, but to increase their strength, and the man I have appointed to command is my own brother-in-law."

Leclerc sent these boys to Toussaint, with the demand that he should submit or send his children back as hostages. An affecting interview took place between the boys and their father, and when they repeated to him Napoleon's words, he was at first inclined to yield, but fuller consideration induced him to refuse.

"I cannot accept your terms," he said. The First Consul offers me peace, but his general no sooner arrives than he begins a fierce war. No; my country demands my first consideration. Take back my sons."

In the continuation of the war a French force of twenty thousand men under Rochambeau marched against Toussaint, who was strongly intrenched at Crte Pierrot. In the contest that followed Toussaint at first outgeneralled Rochambeau and defeated him with severe loss. But the assistance he looked for from his subordinates failed to reach him, and at length he was forced to retreat.

The French, however, despite their superior numbers and the military experience of their leaders, found that they had no mean antagonist in the negro general, and Leclerc again resorted to negotiation, offering the blacks their freedom if they would submit. Toussaint, seeing that he was unable to hold his own against his powerful foe, and convinced that the terms offered would be advantageous to his country, now decided to accept them, saying, "I accept everything which is favorable for the people and for the army; as for myself, I wish to live in retirement."

The negro liberator trusted his enemies too much. The pride of Napoleon had not yet digested the affront of Toussaint's message, "From the First of the Blacks to the First of the Whites," and he sent orders to Leclerc to arrest and send him to France. In June, 1802, a force was sent secretly at night to Toussaint's home, where he was dwelling in peace and quiet. The house was surrounded, two blacks that sought to defend him were killed on the spot, and he was dragged from his bed and taken to the coast. Here he was placed on board a man-of-war, which at once set sail for France.

Napoleon's treatment of Toussaint was one of the dark deeds in his career. Reaching France, the captive was separated from his wife and children and confined in the dungeon of a dreary frontier castle. Here, one morning in April, 1803, Toussaint L' Ouverture, the negro liberator, was found dead. He had been starved to death, if we may accept the belief of some authors.

The Haytien patriot died in poverty, though he might easily have accumulated vast wealth. In his official position he had maintained a degree of magnificence, and Napoleon believed that he had concealed great riches somewhere in the island. He sent spies to question him, but Toussaint's only reply was, "No, the treasures you seek are not those I have lost." The lost ones were his wife, his children, and his liberty.

Treachery is often an error, and Napoleon was soon to find that he had made a fatal mistake in his treatment of the leader of the blacks. Alarmed at his seizure, and having no one to control them, the negroes flew to arms, and soon the revolt spread over the whole island. Yellow fever came to the aid of the blacks, raging in Leclerc's army until thousands of soldiers and fifteen hundred officers found graves in the land they had invaded. In the end Leclerc himself died, and Pauline was taken back to France. When Napoleon heard the story of the fate of his expedition, he exclaimed in dismay,—

"Here, then, is all that remains of my fine army; the body of a brother-in-law, of a general, my right arm, a handful of dust! All has perished, all will perish! Fatal conquest! Cursed land! Perfidious colonists! A wretched slave in revolt. These are the causes of so many evils." He might more truly have said, "My own perfidy is the cause of all those evils."

A few words must conclude this tale. General Rochambeau was sent large reinforcements, and with an army of twenty thousand men attempted the reconquest of the island. After a campaign of ferocity on both sides, he found himself blockaded at Cape Haytien, and was saved from surrender to the revengeful blacks only by the British, to whom he yielded the eight thousand men he had left. As he sailed from the island he saw the mountain-tops blazing with the beacon-fires of joy kindled by the blacks. From that day to this the island of Hayti has remained in the hands of the negro race.