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Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution

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Published: Wed, 06 Sep 2017

This investigation will cover the topic of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) with the specific focus of the revolutionary leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture. The research question is: To what extent did the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture result in the success of the Haitian Revolution? Two of the sources used in this investigation include the translation of an autobiography of Toussaint L’Ouverture and a book on the Haitian Revolution.

Memoir of General Toussaint L’Ouverture

The autobiography of Toussaint L’Ouverture is a primary source as it was written by the revolutionary leader himself during his life. L’Ouverture wrote this account of the revolution and his role in it after the Haitian Revolution while he was in prison in 1803. This autobiography is significant to this investigation because it directly tells his account of the events and will be important in investigating L’Ouverture’s role in the revolution. This document contains value for its origin because it is a first hand account of an important historical figure. The autobiography begins with L’Ouverture stating that he was commanded by the French government to give a truthful account and reflection, thus giving it its value from purpose. This source also has value from its content because L’Ouverture discusses battles, important figures, and communications between nations and leaders in great detail. This document is limited by its origin because L’Ouverture originally wrote this autobiography in French so the document in examination is a translation. A limitation in its purpose is that it was written to account the Haitian side of the conflict and therefore is biased because he was only examining one side. A limitation in its content is that this document is only one man’s view and it does not present anything from the opposing French view.

A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution

The next source is a book on the history of the Haitian Revolution written by Popkins, an American professor and scholar. It was published in 2012, long after the events of the Haitian Revolution, and it is all based on archival research so it is a secondary source. This significance of this document to this investigation is that it will provide a big picture account and analysis of the Haitian Revolution and of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s role. This source has value because it was created for the purpose of historical accuracy and looking at multiple views. Additionally, this source has value for its origin because the author had no personal connection to the events, eliminating potential bias due to the author belonging to one side of the conflict. The author is also stated to be an expert in French and Haitian history, further eliminating bias because of limited knowledge. A value in its content is that this book examines interpretations from many different sources. A limitation by the content of this source is that the author has no personal knowledge of the events of the Haitian Revolution or of Toussaint L’Ouverture. The source is also limited by its origin because it was created a long time after the events it covers. Additionally, it is limited because it was created for the purpose of making a “concise” overview of the Haitian Revolution, limiting the detail and specific knowledge included in it.

Part B: Investigation

Word count: 1255

The Haitian Revolution was a bloody uprising and the only successful slave revolt in history (Girard 28) . Haiti was a French slave colony until the slaves revolted against France. The revolution resulted in the liberation of the slave population and the creation of a black republic. The slaves had no formal organization and therefore relied on the leadership of one man: Toussaint L’Ouverture. General L’Ouverture was of African heritage, speaking a native African tongue as well as French (Myers 6). His life as a slave gradually improved as he was promoted to higher positions and was allowed to live a comfortable lifestyle, including family life, profit, and education (Rainsford 243). His access to education and literature was crucial to his ability to lead militarily and politically. He gained his freedom after fifty years of slavery, by which time he had developed strongly rooted ideals about his race and their emancipation (Beard 22). When the slave revolts began, L’Ouverture did not immediately join the fight and instead, seeing how brutal the uprising slaves were, decided to be patient (Rainsford 246). This demonstrates that L’Ouverture did not have any role in beginning the slave revolts because he did not join the cause until later. Once he did join the fight, he served as a soldier, and soon was promoted to various leadership roles, under a general known for his brutality (246). At this time, the slaves were filled with rage and passion and they carried out violent attacks. L’Ouverture saw this and realized that change was not going to come about in this manner. (244). This knowledge laid the basis for L’Ouverture’s level headed approach to war and politics.

The slave revolts were generally disorganized and haphazard (Rainsford 243), as none of these slaves had military or political training, let alone basic education. L’Ouverture joined the revolt equipped with the knowledge to lead a military and political uprising and the character to solicit followers (Rainsford 244). L’Ouverture had much success as a general fighting the French and a as a nation builder. He claims in his autobiography that the peace and economic success of the island were “all [his] work” (Louverture Memoir 295). It would seem that L’Ouverture’s leadership had created a functioning society out of a slave state. Haiti had a working economy under his leadership because he focused the economy on the agricultural production which had been the status quo during French rule when the island produced large amount of coffee and sugar for Europe (295). Although many Haitians were angry with the relatively unchanged economy, it worked to stabilize the infant nation (Rainsford 240). General L’Ouverture was very successful at leading the slave armies. Along with his assisting generals, Christophe and Dessalines, he was able to pressure all British forces – who were at the time in conflict with the revolutionaries – to withdraw from the island (Bell 114). He was also very successful in negotiating with the French General Leclerc, who misrepresented France’s orders by attacking L’Ouverture and his forces. L’Ouverture was able to calmly respond by arranging a diplomatic meeting and creating a resolution about territorial boundaries, proving his advanced diplomatic ability (Louverture Memoir 296). He also proved advanced military ability by defending cities against French Gen. Rochambeau. One specific battle was at La Croix, during which L’Ouverture fought off Rochambeau’s force which far outnumbered his own (304). Dessalines and Christophe also proved very capable and they worked cohesively with each other and with L’Ouverture (301).  L’Ouverture’s leadership empowered the Haitian people and the slave armies and his reputation had such a lasting effect that he became a heroic figure for anti slavery activism in the U.S. He was described by some activists in the mid-1800s as being “among history’s greatest men” (Clavin 38).  His character became a symbol of anti slavery idealism and, on a larger scale, of racial equality (35). L’Ouverture was proof of the ability of black men to achieve feats comparable to white men, showing that the races were equal (38). His success had “revolutionary implications” because this was the first time a black slave population had ousted a white population (Popkins 6).

It is consistently accepted by the preceding sources that L’Ouverture is the man who lead the Haitians to freedom and the start of an independent nation. However, L’Ouverture had no role in declaring the independence of the nation because at the time he was in prison in France. In 1802 L’Ouverture was imprisoned by France until his death in 1803 (Louverture Memoir 305). Thus, he was absent during the finals days of the revolution. After his imprisonment, Christophe and Dessalines continued the fight and forced out the French armies of Rochambeau and Leclerc (Dubois 41). It was Dessalines, in fact, who officially declared Haiti’s independence and named the nation (History.com). Popkins’ book, A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution, discusses the less romantic side of L’Ouverture’s rule. L’Ouverture put in place an authoritarian government with the goal of protecting the freedom of the black population, with himself as the head figure (Popkins 90). The new government had to be able to protect the people from other revolts within the nation, as well as from invasion from other nations (91). The fact that there were other revolts within Haiti itself demonstrates that L’Ouverture was not completely successful at achieving unity. In a letter to the people of Haiti, L’Ouverture says that some of the Haitians “provoke the disunity of citizens and the disorganization of the current state of affairs,” showing that the country was not unified (L’Ouverture Letter). L’Ouverture implemented “increasingly violent means to maintain his authority,” because the Haitian people did not wish to cooperate with him and in fact, many resented his authority (Popkins 91). Popkins’ work tells the events from a different angle than the previously discussed sources. While Popkins is not directly contradicting Clavin’s statement that L’Ouverture was a “great man,” he provides us with some contradictory evidence of L’Ouverture’s political achievement (Clavin 38). It becomes clear, then, that L’Ouverture’s leadership was not flawless, as it is portrayed in some ideological accounts of the man.

In summary, Toussaint L’Ouverture was a qualified leader who rose to command the slave armies of the Haitian Revolution. He played an important role in unifying the slave armies as well as building a functioning nation. L’Ouverture was crucial in organizing the Haitians in revolution against the French and his authoritarian rule kept the nation together despite internal conflict. His character was admired by Haitians at the time and by American anti slavery activists. The general, however, does not play the singular role of Haitian liberator. L’Ouverture had no role in the beginning of the revolutionary cause, and he had no role in the declaring of independence. Furthermore, there are contrasting views of L’Ouverture: as an idealized hero and as an authoritarian ruler. Many authors write of the general as an impressive man and a symbol of racial equality, yet there is also evidence of him being violent and unsuccessful in unification. To L’Ouverture’s credit, “the local situation was far too combustible for gradual reform,” and he did all that any man could to stabilize the nation” (Brown 4). He did more than any other one person did in the efforts to establish the free nation of Haiti. In conclusion, General Toussaint L’Ouverture was a pivotal figure in the success of the slave armies and in the building of the Haitian nation, but he did not lead the Haitian slaves completely from oppression to republic.

Part C: Reflection

Word count: 412

In my investigation, I discovered that the modern-day view of Toussaint L’Ouverture is one of an idealized hero. His image has been used by many biographers to support anti slavery movements and to explore racial equality. Many secondary accounts of L’Ouverture give the man high praise and essentially create him as an ideological figure rather than a historical figure. While this situation provides ample works praising L’Ouverture, it creates an issue in which it is challenging for historians to find purely factual accounts as well as opposing accounts of his role in the Haitian Revolution. I examined primary and secondary sources in my investigation. The secondary sources proved valuable in that they provide big picture looks at the events surround L’Ouverture and the revolution. The primary source of L’Ouverture’s memoir proved valuable because it provided first hand accounts of events which are likely to be accurate and truthful. I was challenged with my primary source because it provide only small areas of information, lacking the big picture view of the Haitian revolution which I found in my secondary sources. I learned from this the challenges that historians face when creating secondary historical works based on primary sources. When doing my research, I located the parts of each work dealing specifically with Toussaint L’Ouverture. Some of my sources covered much more than my area of focus so I had to limit where I looked within each source. I then organized my sources by their purpose in my investigation: information on Toussaint’s life, positive views of his leadership, and skeptical views of his leadership.

While in many areas of research facts can be obtained with pure objectivity, historical research does not have this luxury. In my investigation I gained awareness of the challenges historians face in finding accurate information. Historical archive-based research is challenging because all works contain some level of bias. Another issue I faced is that there is limited documentation available addressing the opposing sides to the Haitian Revolution. This is because the French and European people paid little attention to the slave revolts at the time (Popkins 10). This leaves historians with a limited scope of documentation from which to create secondary accounts. It is the role of the historian to discern the accuracy of sources by evaluating their value and limitations, which I did in my own investigation. I also learned from my investigation that the significance of historical figures may change over time due to historians’ purposes for writing.

Works Cited

Beard, John Relly. The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Negro Patriot of Hayti: Comprising an  Account of the Struggle for Liberty in the Island, and a Sketch of Its History to the Present Period. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina, 2012. Questia School. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

Bell, Madison Smartt. Toussaint Louverture: A Biography. New York: Pantheon, 2007. Print.

Beard, J. R., and James Redpath. Toussaint L’Ouverture: A Biography and Autobiography. Freeport, NY: for Libraries, 1971. Print.

Brown, Gordon S. Toussaint’s Clause: The Founding Fathers and the Haitian Revolution. Jackson, MS: U of Mississippi, 2005. Questia School. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

Clavin, Matthew J. Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War: The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 2010. Questia School. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.

Dubois, Laurent. Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. New York: Metropolitan, 2012. Print.

Girard, Philippe R. Haiti: The Tumultuous History–from Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.

History.com Staff. “Haitian Independence Proclaimed.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2010. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.

L’Ouverture, Toussaint. “Letter to the Citizens of Color and Free Negroes of Saint-Domingue by Haiti 1791.” Themarxists.org. Trans. Mitch Abidor. Marxists.org, 2007. Web. 09 Apr. 2016.

Louverture, Toussaint. Memoir of Toussaint L’Ouverture. Boston: James Redpath, 1863. Print.

Myers, Walter Dean, and Jacob Lawrence. Toussaint L’Ouverture: The Fight for Haiti’s Freedom. New York: Simon & Schuster for Young Readers, 1996. Print.

Popkin, Jeremy D. A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Questia School. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

Rainsford, Marcus. An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti Comprehending a View of the Principal Transactions in the Revolution of Saint Domingo, with Its Antient and Modern State. London: J. Cundee, 1805. Print.

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