Toussaint Louverture before the Haitian Revolution (WMQ)

Cite as: Philippe Girard and Jean-Louis Donnadieu. “Toussaint Before Louverture: New Archival Findings on the Early Life of Toussaint Louverture,” William and Mary Quarterly 70:1 (January 2013).

AbstractThe early life of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture (ca. 1743–1803) was long shrouded in myth, in part because Toussaint (who did not take the name “Louverture” until the Haitian Revolution) gave an account of his youth that suited his political interests more than historical accuracy. Newly exploited French plantation and notarial records help paint a detailed and nuanced portrait of Toussaint’s prerevolutionary life but also lead to more general conclusions about plantation life, the free population of color in Saint Domingue (Haiti), and the nature of the Haitian Revolution. The article first explores Toussaint’s extended kinship network (which included his African-born parents, his surrogate parents, his first wife, Cécile, and his second wife, Suzanne, and many prominent free blacks) and concludes that the revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines had once been the slave of Toussaint’s son-in-law. The circumstances of Toussaint’s enslavement, his owners’ family, and his manumission suggest that Toussaint’s experience of slavery was less traumatic than others’. Finally, the sources reveal the landholdings acquired by Toussaint during his political ascent to have been extensive but not always profitable. Overall, the formative years of Toussaint’s youth underline the complexity of his relationship with the plantation system and help us better understand his political choices when he later ran Saint Domingue as a governor for life.

Résumé: Cet article présente les dernières découvertes sur la jeunesse de Toussaint Louverture, notamment ses liens avec divers esclaves et libres de couleur, à commencer par Jean-Jacques Dessalines.

Introduction (for the full text of the article, go to the William and Mary Quarterly).

            Over the past two decades, interest in Atlantic History and the African Diaspora has grown exponentially in the United States, bringing increased scholarly attention to the Atlantic society par excellence, Saint-Domingue (Haiti), the African Diaspora’s shining moment, the Haitian Revolution, and Haiti’s most celebrated revolutionary leader, Toussaint Louverture.[1] During his years in the public spotlight, Toussaint left behind a large documentary trail that has allowed historians to retrace much of his official career from the time he joined the slave revolt in 1791 until his death in captivity in France in 1803. The prerevolutionary period, however, is so little known that the most widely read English-language biography of Toussaint relied on virtually no archival sources to retrace the first three fourths of his life.[2]
The problem stems in part from Toussaint’s humble origins. Slaves are largely absent from the colonial documentary record, except in plantation records that focus quasi-exclusively on their age, race, occupation, and financial worth. But Toussaint was also a private man who zealously guarded his privacy or even purposely obscured his past for political reasons. His official correspondence with French authorities generally eschewed personal matters and the memoir he wrote after his downfall in 1802 dealt primarily with his public record as governor of Saint-Domingue. For a long time, historians thus had to content themselves with accounts of his life written by contemporaries who had only known him at his apex, the oral tradition, tainted recollections by his son Isaac, and a 1799 article in the Parisian daily Moniteur Universel that was more mythmaking than journalism.[3] Drawing from these sources, the first wave of Toussaint biographies generally portrayed him as a family man deeply attached to his wife Suzanne, as a slave whose emancipationist ideals, drawn from the French Enlightenment, had been fulfilled by the Haitian Revolution, and as a landowner whose wealth was as great as it was mysterious.[4] These three facets conveniently fitted the persona most appealing to his U.S., British, and French admirers: that of a Western, idealistic, and moderate opponent of slavery.
            Since then, historians have revisited some of these assumptions. The single most ground-breaking moment was a 1977 article in which Gabriel Debien, Jean Fouchard, and Marie-Antoinette Menier showed that Toussaint was already a free man in 1776, long before the onset of the Haitian Revolution, and that he had owned and rented slaves. A few articles, notably by David Geggus, have helped flesh out Toussaint’s background, but the revelations about Toussaint’s slave-owning past continue to define Louverturian studies, with traditionalists clinging to a vision of Toussaint as an idealistic emancipator while revisionists like Pierre Pluchon emphasize his conflicted relationship with the plantation system.[5]
            Uncovering more details about Toussaint’s private life is a difficult but not impossible task. Letters written by the family that owned him and their plantation managers have survived in the Archives Départementales de la Gironde in Bordeaux (73J1), the Archives Départementales de la Loire-Atlantique in Nantes (E691), the Archives Nationales in Paris (18AP3), and a private collection in Mirande.[6] Notarial and church records that document baptisms, marriages, deaths, and sales involving the Louverture family are available at the Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer in Aix-en-Provence (1DPPC, SUPSDOM, NOTSDOM, and FM/Série E). The memoirs of Toussaint’s son Isaac, published in 1825, have been widely used, but one can also tap unpublished recollections of Isaac and his brother Placide at the University of Puerto Rico (Nemours collection), the Bibliothèque Nationale (NAF 12409), and the Schomburg Center of the New York Public Library (Sc Micro R1527). Occasional documents pertaining to Toussaint’s land holdings and his family network can also be gleaned at the Archives Nationales, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, the Boston Public Library, and the Service Historique de la Défense in Vincennes.
            These sources remain fragmentary and often biased, but they allow us to fill some gaps in three crucial areas. Newly uncovered documents reveal important aspects of Toussaint’s family life, including the death of his parents, a first marriage that produced three children, the lineage of his son Placide, the extended kinship network that would later form the backbone of his regime, and a surprising connection between Toussaint and his successor Jean-Jacques Dessalines: Dessalines was likely the former slave of Toussaint’s son-in-law. The second lesson pertains to Toussaint’s enslavement. Documents confirm that he was an exceptional slave who was unusually close to his plantation manager, but also correct some unfounded assumptions about the person who “owned” him and provide some background on the circumstances of his emancipation and on plantation life in Saint-Domingue. Finally, documents allow us to clarify the mystery surrounding Toussaint’s land holdings, which were numerous but not as financially rewarding as contemporaries assumed, thus putting into question the recovery of Saint-Domingue’s plantations under Toussaint’s governorship. These various revelations do not fundamentally alter our vision of Toussaint as a unique individual, but they have wider implications beyond the field of Haitian history. They underscore that he and many other revolutionaries were a “band of brothers” and that we should approach the revolutionary era from the bottom up.[7] They expose scholars specializing in other slave systems where racial boundaries were more hermetic and free people of color less prominent (the United States in particular) to a plantation system that, however oppressive, allowed for some degree of social mobility and racial mingling. Finally, they inform the broader debate about the transition from slave to free labor in the New World.
These discoveries help lift the veil of secrecy surrounding Toussaint’s private life, but they also raise a new and perplexing question: what prompted Toussaint to hide so much about his past? The answer itself—he only presented the evidence that suited his political agenda—provides additional layers of information by revealing how Toussaint wanted to be perceived by his contemporaries and underlining his mastery of the public sphere. More generally, this attempt to reconstruct a slave’s life from an incomplete documentary record, the use of oral traditions, and the necessity to filter all available evidence for potential bias will offer to all scholars a case study in, to paraphrase Marc Bloch and Michel Foucault, the use of the “historian’s craft” to retrace the “archeology of knowledge.”

[1] As a slave and a freedman, Toussaint Louverture was officially known as Toussaint Bréda (after the plantation on which he was enslaved). He only became known as “Louverture” during the Haitian Revolution, so this article, which focuses on his early life, will refer to him simply as “Toussaint.” Studies of the Haitian Revolution published in the past two decades include Carolyn E. Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990); Michel Rolph-Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995); David P. Geggus, ed., The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001); Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004); John D. Garrigus, Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue (New York: Palgrave, 2006); Jeremy Popkin, You Are All Free (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Philippe Girard, The Slaves Who Defeated Napoléon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2011).
[2] For the biography, see Madison Smartt Bell, Toussaint Louverture: A Biography (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007).
[3] For the main sources, see Moniteur Universel (9 Jan. 1799); François-Marie Périchou de Kerversau, “Rapport sur la partie française de Saint-Domingue” (1 Germ. 9 [22 March 1801]), Box 2/66, Rochambeau Papers, University of Florida in Gainesville (hereafter RP-UF); Antoine Métral, Histoire de l’expédition des Français à Saint-Domingue sous le consulat de Napoléon Bonaparte (1802-1803), suivie des mémoires et notes d’Isaac l’Ouverture (1825; reprint: Paris, Karthala, 1985); Philippe Girard, ed., The Memoir(s) of Toussaint Louverture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
[4] For early biographies, see Louis Dubroca, La vie de Toussaint Louverture, chef des noirs insurgés de Saint-Domingue (Paris: Dubroca, 1802); Joseph Saint-Rémy, Vie de Toussaint Louverture (Paris: Moquet, 1850); Thomas Prosper Gragnon-Lacoste, Toussaint Louverture (Paris: Durand, 1877); Victor Schoelcher, Vie de Toussaint Louverture (Paris: Ollendorf, 1889); H. Pauléus Sannon, Histoire de Toussaint Louverture 3 vols. (Port-au-Prince: Héraux, 1920-1933).
[5] For notable articles, see Gabriel Debien, Jean Fouchard, and Marie-Antoinette Menier, “Toussaint Louverture avant 1789. Légendes et réalités,” Conjonction no. 134 (1977), 65-80; David Geggus, “Toussaint Louverture and the slaves of the Bréda plantation,” Journal of Caribbean History no. 20.1 (1985-1986), 30-48; Geggus, “Les débuts de Toussaint Louverture,” Généalogie et histoire de la Caraïbe no. 170 (May 2004), 4173-4174; Geggus, “La famille de Toussaint Louverture,” Généalogie et Histoire de la Caraïbe 174 (Oct. 2004), 4318-4319; Geggus, “Toussaint Louverture avant et après le soulèvement de 1791,” in Franklin Midy, ed., Mémoire de révolution d'esclaves à Saint-Domingue (2006; reprint, Montréal: CIDHICA, 2007), 112-132; Geggus, “Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution,” in R. William Weisberger et al., eds., Profiles of Revolutionaries in Atlantic History, 1750-1850 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 115-135. Thanks to David Geggus for providing a complete list of his writings. On Toussaint as an emancipator, see Aimé Césaire, Toussaint Louverture: La révolution française et le problème colonial (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1981); Alain Foix, Toussaint Louverture (Paris: Gallimard, 2007). On Toussaint’s conservative side, see Pierre Pluchon, Toussaint Louverture (Paris: Fayard, 1989); Jacques de Cauna, Toussaint Louverture, le Grand Précurseur (Bordeaux: Sud Ouest, 2012).
[6] The private collection’s letters have been published in Jean-Louis Donnadieu, Entre Gascogne et Saint-Domingue : le comte Louis-Pantaléon de Noé, grand propriétaire créole et aristocrate gascon, 1728-1816 (Ph.D. dissertation, Université de Pau et des Pays de l'Adour, 2006), 353-393. A 1786 inventory mentions other letters, but their current location is unknown. See “Inventaire après le décès de M. le Chevalier de Breda” (20 July 1786), Minutier central, et/LXXXVI/847, Archives Nationales, Paris (hereafter AN).
[7] On ties between revolutionaries, see also Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Knopf, 2000).

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