By the time Toussaint Louverture died in April 1803, in solitary confinement in a French jail near the Swiss frontier, brief biographies of him were in press or had already appeared in England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and South Carolina. A few months earlier, William Wordsworth had published in the London Morning Post his sonnet “To Toussaint L’Ouverture” and the British Annual Register had declared him the major public figure of 1802.(1) Shortly after his death, the abolitionist James Stephen rushed out a tract of his own, which went through four British editions in a year and began “Every body has heard of Toussaint, the famous Negro general.” (2)

This international fame did not extend quite as far as some have imagined, and it was only recently acquired. (3) Born a slave in the 1740s in the wealthy French colony of Saint Domingue,  Toussaint lived most of his life in obscurity. He began slowly to emerge as a public figure during the huge slave uprising that started in 1791 and would eventually  transform Saint Domingue into Haiti.  A relatively minor participant to begin with, it took two years before he established himself as the number three leader among the slave insurgents. By that time, the summer of 1793, the uprising had been co-opted by the neighboring Spanish, who hoped to snatch the valuable colony from a vulnerable French Republic. Switching sides the following year, when the Republic declared slavery abolished, Toussaint broke with most of his former comrades and made himself indispensable to France in its struggle defeat Spanish and British invaders. While remaining a French colony, Saint Domingue became the site of a radical social experiment. The Directory in Paris recognized the former slave as deputy-governor and commander in chief of the colonial army, but, as Toussaint deftly eliminated rivals, the French government grew concerned about his ultimate intentions. These remain unknown, because in 1802, after he had drawn up a colonial constitution, Napoleon Bonaparte sent a large military expedition to overthrow him.

Not much was written about Toussaint in France before he became deputy-governor in 1796, and he was scarcely mentioned in the British press until 1799. (4) His public career, after all, lasted barely ten and a half years. His first letter to the French government was published in the Moniteur in January 1797, marking what Deborah Jenson calls his “discursive ‘opening,’” and an interview he gave to a French visitor appeared two years later. (5) Once he had emerged as the dominant force in Saint Domingue, however, and a conflict with Napoleon Bonaparte began shaping up, the eyes of the Atlantic world turned toward the French colony and attention focused on the small, elderly West Indian who appeared to have metamorphosed instantly from slave to statesman. (6)

Copyright by David Geggus.

1. Vie privée, politique et militaire de Toussaint Louverture par un homme de couleur (Paris: Magasin de Librairie, 1801); Vita privata politica e militare di Toussaint-Louverture, scritta da un uomo del suo colore, prima traduzione italiana adorna del suo ritratto (Milan: Stamperìa Italiana e Francese, 1802); [Charles-Yves] Cousin d’Avallon, Histoire de Toussaint-Louverture (Paris: Pillot, 1802); René Périn, L'incendie du Cap: ou, le règne de Toussaint-Louverture (Paris: Marchand, 1802); [Louis] Dubroca, Vie de Toussaint-Louverture (Paris: Dubroca, 1802), which was quickly translated into English, Dutch, Danish, and Swedish, and into German in 1806; Toussaint-Louverture’s frühere Geschichte nach englischen Nachrichten bearbeitet (Fürth: Bureau für Litteratur, 1802); Morning Post, 2 February 1803; Annual Register for 1802 (London: Otridge, 1803), 211-212.

2. [James Stephen], Buonoparte in the West Indies, or the History of Toussaint Louverture, the African Hero (London: Hatchard, 1803). A revised version was published as James Stephen, The History of Toussaint Louverture (London: Butterworth, 1814). 

3. The undocumented claim that blacks in Rio de Janeiro were wearing in 1804 badges inscribed “Toussaint Louverture, king of the blacks,” reported in Yann Moulier Boutang, “La fin de l’esclavage: Haïti et les modèles de transition abolitionnistes,” 202, in Rétablissement de l’esclavage dans les colonies françaises, ed. Yves Bénot, Marcel Dorigny (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2003), is a garbled version of an incident concerning Jean-Jacques Dessalines, not Toussaint. 
4. The northern planter who published Histoire des désastres de Saint-Domingue in mid-1795 did not mention him, but briefly introduced him in his Réflexions sur la colonie de Saint-Domingue that appeared a year later.  The Times of London first mentioned him (as “Pouissaint L’Ouverture”) on 7 November 1794, and the London Gazette in December 1798. The Times erroneously referred to him several times as a “mulatto general” between January 1799 and October 1800.

5. Deborah Jenson, “Toussaint Louverture Spin Doctor? Launching the Haitian Revolution in the French Media,” in Doris Garraway, ed., Tree of Liberty: Cultural Legacies of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), 57-60. It is quite untrue that Toussaint gave interviews that appeared in the French press “throughout the second half of the 1790s,” as claimed in Nick Nesbitt, Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), 59.

6. David Geggus, “British Opinion and the Emergence of Haiti, 1791‑1805,” in Slavery and British Society, 1776-1848, ed. James Walvin (London: Macmillan, 1982), 130-131.