Toussaint Louverture

By Norton, Graham Gendall | History Today, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Toussaint Louverture


Norton, Graham Gendall, History Today


France officially commemorates the bicentennial of his death, as Napoleon's prisoner, on April 7th, 1803.

THE CHATEAU DE JOUX, high in the mountainous region of Franche-Comte close to the Swiss border, was one of the great state prisons of France, along with the Bastille and the Chateau d'If (described by Dumas in The Count of Monte-Cristo). The huge fortress dates back nearly 1,000 years, its medieval walls augmented by Charles V, Vauban and finally by the young Joffre as engineer officer.

It was in this icy castle that, in 1802, Napoleon ordered that another French general, Toussaint Louverture, recently snatched from the heat of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, where he had lived all his life, should be incarcerated. Locked in his cell (which he never again left) on August 24th, 1802, he died alone on April 7th, 1803.

Now, 200 years after, his death is to be marked in France by `a great national commemoration, supported by the ministry of culture, sponsored by UNESCO, supported by many Caribbean and African countries and personalities', much of which will be centred on the chateau. Some 18 million euros will be spent to position the chateau as a `site-symbol of the fight for liberty'.

Toussaint Louverture is central to this project, though other notable figures were also imprisoned at Joux--Protestants after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Mirabeau (for personal rather than political reasons), chouans after the Vendee, the German patriot-poet von Kleist, as well as mulatto generals, contemporaries of Toussaint.

Toussaint is celebrated as `the first black general of the French army', having been made general de brigade in 1704, the year in which the National Convention abolished slavery. In that year too the black father of Alexandre Dumas was raised to the same rank, commanding troops in Flanders. Later, Toussaint was general de division.

He was `the first black governor of a colony'--Saint-Domingue, the western third of Hispaniola, today's Haiti; and also the `first leader of a victorious slave revolution, father of the independence of the "first black colony to achieve this, going on to become the world's first black republic"'.

Born a black slave, he can be seen as a precursor of the abolition of slavery, of colonial freedom, and (as those in charge of the chateau today suggest) of such men as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Patrice Lumumba or Nelson Mandela.

He was in fact something more than any of these. He was, as Lamartine said, the black Napoleon. Lamartine wrote a tragedy, Toussaint-Louverture, in 1850, two years after an Act of the 1848 French provisional government of which he had been a member finally abolished slavery. Another member of that government had been Victor Schoelcher, `the French Wilberforce', whose life was devoted to the black cause, and whose biography of Toussaint brings out all his greatness.

But Toussaint had something even greater than Napoleon: magnanimity. Not for him the pettiness of soul of the then First Consul, who put a sixty-year-old man from the tropics into a glacial prison, stripped him of his uniform, his rank and his attendant, allowing him to see no one. This was in character with the racism of Napoleon, who reestablished black slavery in the remaining French sugar colonies, and spoke of blacks with contempt.

Toussaint was born, probably in 1743, on the plantation of Breda in the north of today's Haiti. His father, a chiefs son from present-day Benin, had been taken in a local battle and sold to the plantation's owner, a French count who, it is said, recognising a fellow aristocrat, granted him privileged status. Toussaint, very unusually for a slave, was taught to read French. …

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