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How Toussaint de Bréda became ‘the Opening’

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

The child was born on the Day of all Saints to an Allada aristocrat named Hippolyte and an Aja woman named Pauline, both slaves at Haut-du-Cap, one of four plantations owned by Pantaleón de Bréda, an absentee owner. On Nov 1, 1742, the child was therefore christened “Tous-saint de Breda.” Toussaint grew up among slaves speaking Fon and practicing Vodun. Eventually, Toussaint developed close relationship with Catholic priests and came to reject “African barbarism and superstitions” throughout his life. In the 1790s, as he helped organize the slave armies to destroy plantations around Le Cap, Toussaint understood his role in providential Catholic terms — he had become “the opening,” L’Ouverture, for slaves to gain both emancipation and French civilization, including literacy and classical learning. De Bréda mutated into “the Opening” by sheer self-will. TL was an autodidact who at age 50 began to teach himself reading and writing. During his 1803 imprisonment near the Swiss Alps, TL left a 16,000 word petition to Napoleon in phonetic spelling in his own handwriting. He wrote and rewrote the petition several times, forcefully claiming to be primarily a Frenchman, a Black general of the Republic. Napoleon never read the petition. There is only one surviving copy left. It was found sown into the frock TL wore in prison, along with a collection of other notarized papers.

Philippe Girard’s Touissant Louverture: A Revolutionary Life is a book that is hard to read. Girard takes apart the sacred aura surrounding TL’s life. Girard offers a portrayal completely at odds with James’s myth-making Black Jacobins (1938), drawing on untapped primary records in 22 different archives. TL comes across as an arriviste Francophile, deeply insecure of his own racial worth and whose best friend was François Bayon, the white lawyer who corruptly ran the plantations for the Bréda family and for whom TL worked as a stagecoach driver.

In 1776, Bayon granted TL manumission in very obscure circumstances. In 1779, TL moved out of Haut-du-Cap to run the coffee plantation of his white son-in-law, Dessir, with 13 slaves, one of whom happened to be Jean-Jacques Dessalines. TL mismanaged the plantation and two of the slaves he “rented” died. In 1782, the bankrupted TL returned to the Bréda plantation to work for Bayon as a muleteer. By then his first wife Cecile had ran away with the free mulatto and wealthy slave owner Guillaume Provoyeur. In the 1780s, TL lost two of his sons with Cecile. He also lost Dessir. His daughter inherited Dessir’s surviving slaves, including Dessalines. TL “married” again a laundress, the slave in Haut-du-Cap, Suzanne. Suzanne brought to the relationship a mulatto son, Placide, whom TL loved more than his black son with Suzanne, Isaac.

In 1789, his friend Bayon was sacked as administrator of the Breda states due to corruption and mismanagement. The new administration reshuffled slaves among the plantations and increased demands on muleteers like TL who kept horse-driven sugar mills going. As a consequence, TL became the unacknowledged leader behind the first slave rebellions in the northern district of Le Cap in early 1791.

When TL became the French Republic’s military governor of San Domingue, he sent both Placide and Isaac to be educated in France. The French used the two kids as a security to guarantee TL’s fidelity during most of the 1790s. The French had a reason to doubt TL’s loyalty. He had switched sides twice. TL first abandoned the service of France for Monarchical Spain. After stint of two years, TL went back to the service of the French Republic. The French republican authorities were familiar with TL’s original deep Catholic, Royalist leanings.

Girard presents TL as a savvy yet unprincipled leader who while in the service of the Spanish monarchy would acquire many landed properties in Santo Domingo and traffic in slaves across the border. In the 1790s, TL became one of the wealthiest men in the island, with large plantations ran by “cultivators,” former slaves who now worked for “wages.” TL transformed one-year contracts into life contracts. He also re-instituted chained gangs and physical punishments. Under his labor regime, cultivators enjoyed fewer rights than slaves under the French ancien régime Black Code. TL crushed cultivator rebellions and massacred thousands. For a decade, TL opposed the massacre of white planters and whites in cities, both in San Domingue and Santo Domingo. Whites were key in the economic revival after the wars. They would also keep the island culturally tethered to France. When he governed Saint Domingue for the French Consulate, TL also opposed redistribution of plantation property for subsistence farming. When in 1801 cultivators in Cap massacred 300 whites, including his friend Bayon, TL ordered 5000 cultivators slaughtered as retribution.

When TL secured absolute control over the two halves of Island in 1801, the French Republic requested TL to prepare armies to attack British Jamaica and the US Carolinas, to abolish slavery. TL had no interest in dismantling the regime of slavery in the wider Caribbean. He rather secured the survival of favorable trading conditions for Saint Domingue, to have fiscal revenue and keep the plantation regime viable. TL conducted secret diplomacy with Britain and the USA, signing informal armistices to the mounting rage of Napoleon. TL had refused to follow the geopolitical instructions of the Republic that sought to destroy the British and the American economies by exporting abolitionism and war from Saint Domingue. Worse, TL also secured the revival of the African slave trade with British Jamaica. Africans were to arrive in Saint Domingue as “cultivators” not “slaves.”

When Napoleon sent his young brother-in-law Leclerc to sack TL for running the island under a constitution that TL penned to give himslef absolute power, TL had no allies among black generals and cultivators. Leclerc’s invading French army found sacks of cash all over the island that TL had order stashed as his own personal wealth. His daughter’s former slave, Dessalines, TL’s faithful companion during the endless wars of the 1790s, personally turned TL in as prisoner of the French.

It is not surprising that TL went on to enjoy a century of opprobrium in Haiti. It was British, French, and US early 20th century intellectuals and particularly the Afro Trinidadian C.L.R. James who would memorialize TL as the immaculate leader of the first successful slave rebellion in the Americas. By then, historians could access only documents that TL had himself ordered printed in both France and San Domingue, lionizing TL as a republican emancipator. Girard offers a deeply researched yet jarring and unsentimental biography of a deeply flawed republican hero.

This is a review of Philippe Girard’s Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life.

Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra is the Alice Drysdale Sheffield Professor of History at the University of Texas Austin. His books include How to Write the History of the New World (2001), Puritan Conquistadors (2006), and Nature, Empire, and Nation (2007)