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François Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture

Toussaint L'Ouverture, François Dominique (fräNswäˈ dômēnēkˈ tōsăNˈ lōvĕrtürˈ) [key], c.1744–1803, Haitian patriot and martyr. A self-educated slave freed shortly before the uprising in 1791, he joined the black rebellion to liberate the slaves and became its organizational genius. Rapidly rising in power, Toussaint joined forces for a brief period in 1793 with the Spanish of Santo Domingo and in a series of fast-moving campaigns became known as L'Ouverture [the opening], a name he adopted. Although he professed allegiance to France, first to the republic and then to Napoleon, he was singleheartedly devoted to the cause of his own people and advocated it in his talks with French commissioners.

Late in 1793 the British occupied all of Haiti's coastal cities and allied themselves with the Spanish in the eastern part of the island. Toussaint was the acknowledged leader against them and, with the generals Dessalines and Christophe, recaptured (1798) several towns from the British and secured their complete withdrawal. In 1799 the mulatto general André Rigaud enlisted the aid of Alexandre Pétion and Jean Pierre Boyer, asserted mulatto supremacy, and launched a revolt against Toussaint; the uprising was quelled when Pétion lost the southern port of Jacmel.

In 1801, Toussaint conquered Santo Domingo, which had been ceded by Spain to France in 1795, and thus he governed the whole island. By then professing only nominal allegiance to France, he reorganized the government and instituted public improvements. Napoleon sent (1802) a large force under General Leclerc to subdue Toussaint, who had become a major obstacle to French colonial ambitions in the Western Hemisphere; the Haitians, however, offered stubborn resistance, and a peace treaty was drawn. Toussaint himself was treacherously seized and sent to France, where he died in a dungeon at Fort-de-Joux, in the French Jura. His valiant life and tragic death made him a symbol of the fight for liberty, and he is celebrated in one of Wordsworth's finest sonnets and in a dramatic poem by Lamartine.

See C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins (1938, 2d ed. 1963); C. Moran, Black Triumvirate: A Study of L'Ouverture, Dessalines, Christophe (1957); A. M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., Toussaint L'Ouverture: Haitian Liberator (1989); M. S. Bell, Toussaint Louverture: A Biography (2007).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Haiti History: Biographies

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