The Wrongful Death of Toussaint Louverture
The hero of the Haitian Revolution’s lonely death in a French prison cell was not an unfortunate tragedy but a cruel story of deliberate destruction.
Audio version: listen to this article.
On the morning of 7 April 1803, Toussaint Louverture, leader of the slave insurrection in French Saint-Domingue that led to the Haitian Revolution, was found dead by a guard in the prison in France where he had been held captive for nearly eight months. The guard, Citizen Amiot, had written to the French Minister of the Marine in January 1803 describing Louverture’s condition as grave: he was suffering from constant fevers, severe stomach aches, loss of appetite, vomiting and inflammation of his entire body. Despite the fact that Amiot’s predecessor, Commander Baille, had reported similar problems to French officials the previous autumn, no doctor had ever visited Louverture while he was alive in Fort de Joux.
It was only after Amiot found Louverture’s lifeless body – his head resting upon the woodless chimney in his cell, as though he were in gentle slumber rather than in rigor mortis – that a surgeon, Gresset, and his medical apprentice were brought in to assess him. After ‘scrupulous’ examination Gresset observed that Louverture was ‘without a pulse, not breathing, heart devoid of movement, skin cold, eyes still, [with] stiff arms’. He concluded that the prisoner was ‘truly dead’, a strange turn of phrase for a case that must have been obvious. The official autopsy described Louverture’s lips as having been tinged with blood.
The seeming incredulity in these words was at least partially a result of the fact that Louverture had been accused of faking his physical ailments in the months leading up to his demise. The previous October, Louverture asked Baille to tell the government that his cell, which was often freezing, was too cold. Baille acknowledged Louverture’s claims that the temperature was causing him to suffer almost constant coughing, along with rheumatic pain throughout his body. But Baille told Minister Denis Decrès that more firewood would not be necessary since the captive was likely faking his symptoms; yet more proof of what he called ‘that destroyer of humankind’s aggregated monstrosity’.
In September 1802, Louverture, with the help of his fellow prisoner, his servant Mars Plaisir, gave a written memoir to the man Napoleon had sent to interrogate him, General Marie-François Auguste de Cafarelli. In the memoir, Louverture defended his conduct as a French general and complained directly about the treatment he was receiving despite his title and rank. Louverture also made it clear that he believed that all that had led up to and befallen him since his arrest in June was due to the colour of his skin. ‘Without a doubt I owe this treatment to my colour’, he wrote. ‘But my colour, my colour, has it ever prevented me from serving my Country with diligence and devotion?’:
Arbitrarily arrested without anyone explaining or telling me why, all of my assets seized, my entire family ravished, my papers confiscated and kept from me, shipped out and sent over here, nude like an earthworm, with the most atrocious of calumnies having been spread about me, is that not to cut a person’s legs and then order him to walk? Is it not to bury a man alive?
His previous guard, Baille, confirmed in a letter to Decrès that he was denying medical care to Louverture because he was black: ‘The composition of negroes being nothing at all resembling that of Europeans, I am ill-inclined to provide him with a doctor or a surgeon, which would be useless in his case.’ The meticulous records kept by the French government suggest that Amiot was dangerously obtuse, at best, or criminally disingenuous, at worst. When questioned about how Louverture’s condition became fatal under his surveillance, Amiot’s only defence was to state that Louverture ‘never asked for any doctors’.
The utter lack of care for Louverture’s life shown by his captors is merely one instance in a large body of mounting evidence showing that medical professionals in the US and western Europe have historically dismissed, ignored, or disregarded black people’s physical suffering, often with fatal consequences. There are painfully relevant lessons for today in the story of Louverture’s death, about the disproportionate and wrongful incarceration of black men, the relationship between denial of care and prison neglect and the deadliness of racism. But to understand how the once exalted and celebrated Toussaint Louverture became merely an ‘old negro’ in the eyes of the French who had previously made him a general, it is necessary to understand who he was and all that he would be forced to die for; it is also necessary to acknowledge all that he was accused of having been and what he had decided to live for.
Life and times
Popular history has it that Louverture was born sometime in May 1743 on the Bréda plantation in Haut-du-Cap in Saint-Domingue. According to Louverture’s son, Isaac, a key source of information about his father’s life, however, Louverture was born in the colony in 1746, the grandson of an Arada prince named Gaou-Guinou. Although Toussaint, called Toussaint Bréda at the time, had been previously enslaved, by 1776 we know that he had been emancipated and was working for the Comte de Noé, a white creole. Close to the end of the decade, Toussaint had become partnered with an enslaved woman named Suzanne Simon-Baptiste, who had at least one child, Placide, from a previous relationship. Louverture and Suzanne would go on to have two children together, Isaac and Saint-Jean, the latter of whom was born in 1791, the year the Revolution would formally begin.
On 14 August 1791, in a forest near a plantation in Morne-Rouge, a group of enslaved people clandestinely gathered together under the direction of a man named Boukman Dutty. The story of the Bois Caïman ceremony – heralded as the event that would kick-off the Haitian Revolution – tells that an enslaved woman named Cécile Fatiman killed a sacrificial pig and subsequently offered its blood to the crowd to drink. Boukman then reportedly delivered an exhortation to war in Haitian creole:
The god of the white man calls him to commit crimes; our god asks only good works of us. But this god who is so good orders revenge! He will direct our hands; he will aid us.
By the middle of September 1791 over 1,500 coffee and sugar plantations had been destroyed and as many as 80,000 of the enslaved were in open rebellion. In response, the French National Assembly sent three civil commissioners to restore order. When that failed, a second French commission, composed of Léger Félicité Sonthonax, Étienne Polverel and Jean-François Ailhaud, was dispatched with hopes of quelling the insurrection once and for all. Complicating matters, however, was the fact that in May 1792 Spain declared war against both England and France, and by January 1793, France – in the midst of its own revolutionary turmoil – executed its king, Louis XVI, and declared war against England. Subsequently, all three nations – England, France and Spain – began wrestling for control of the most lucrative sugar colony in the world.
By June 1793, much of Cap-Français had gone up in flames and the capital city of Saint-Domingue was soon all but deserted by its white residents, who fled to the United States and Cuba. In desperation, Polverel and Sonthonax published separate decrees of general emancipation for regions of the colony under their authority.
Amid these momentous events, Louverture emerged as the most important leader of the rebellion, urging his troops to settle for nothing less than the abolition of slavery. On 29 August 1793 Louverture issued his rallying cry for unity:
Brothers and friends … I have undertaken vengeance. I want Liberty and Equality to reign in San Domingo. I work to bring them into existence. Unite yourselves to us, brothers, and fight with us for the same cause.
Free and French
In February 1794 the French Jacobin government had no choice but to abolish slavery throughout its empire. Viewing this as a distinct victory, Louverture and his troops joined forces with a French general, Étienne Laveaux, to defeat forces from both England and Spain. It is Laveaux who is said to have baptised Toussaint with the name ‘l’ouverture’, saying ‘this man makes an opening everywhere he goes’. By 1799, Louverture had not only led France to victory, but he had sent Laveaux and all the French commissioners away, establishing himself as the head of the colony.
Louverture’s self-proclaimed heroism is illustrated by the following statement: ‘I’ve been fighting for a long time, and if I must continue, I can. I have had to deal with three nations and I defeated all three.’ But these were not Louverture’s only rivals. Some of his fellow officers, who had likewise been formerly enslaved, along with Louverture’s own children, would be integral to his eventual capture.
Like many important free men of colour, Louverture had sent his two older sons – Placide and Isaac – to Paris to be educated. While Isaac notes that they were treated like quasi royalty in France, Napoleon’s wife Joséphine, a native of Martinique, confessed that these children were viewed as hostages. In her memoirs, Joséphine wrote that she had urged her husband not to send an expedition to Saint-Domingue since such a decision would be a ‘fatal move’ that ‘would forever take this beautiful colony away from France’. Instead, Joséphine counselled her husband to ‘keep Toussaint Louverture there. That is the man that you require in order to govern the Blacks’. Indeed, ‘what complaints could you have against this leader of the Blacks?’ she asked. ‘He has always maintained a correspondence with you; he has done even more, he has given you, in some sense, his children for hostages.’
Though he would later claim that he regretted this decision, Napoleon, who had become First Consul by overthrowing the French Directory in 1799, did not heed the advice of his wife. Instead, he directed his brother-in-law, General Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc, to head to Saint-Domingue to crush what he perceived as Louverture’s usurpation of his authority.
In February 1801, Louverture had called an assembly to create a constitution for Saint-Domingue. It was completed in May and Louverture signed it in July 1801. He then sent it to Napoleon. Although its third article declared that the inhabitants of Saint-Domingue would henceforth be ‘free and French’, Napoleon interpreted Louverture’s naming of himself as Governor-General for Life as a declaration of war. In his memoirs, written during his second exile, Napoleon explained this constitution as the final impetus for the expedition: ‘Toussaint knew very well that in proclaiming his constitution, he had thrown away his mask and had drawn his sword out of its sheath forever.’
Louverture claimed to have been in Santo Domingo, on the eastern side of the island, which had been ceded to France by Spain in 1795, when Leclerc arrived off the coast of Le Cap in late January 1802 with between 20,000 and 40,000 French troops. General Henri Christophe, commander over the city, took it upon himself to deny entry to the French. Leclerc responded with a combination of disbelief and fury. ‘I have learned with indignation, citizen general’, Leclerc wrote to Christophe on 3 February 1802, ‘that you are refusing to receive the French squadron and the army I command, under the pretext that you have not received an order to do so from the general government.’ Leclerc then threatened to send 15,000 men at daybreak the next day to Fort Picolet and Fort Belair, with another 4,000 to be sent to Fort Liberté and yet another 8,000 to Port Républican.
Christophe’s response was similarly indignant. ‘I have the honour of informing you that I cannot deliver these forts and posts, over which I have been given command, before having received an order from the governor-general Toussaint-Louverture, from whom I derive my authority.’ Christophe did have his aide-de-camp inform Louverture of Leclerc’s arrival, but in the meantime he issued his own warning. ‘If you realise these threats’, he wrote to Leclerc, ‘I will resist as an officer-general must; and … you will only enter the city of Cap, after having watched it reduced to ashes. And even upon these ashes, I will fight you.’
After learning that the French had been engaged in attacks against Louverture’s troops elsewhere on the island, Christophe ordered his men to set fire to Le Cap. The cities of Léogâne, Gonaïves and Saint-Marc would soon also burn under Louverture’s orders.
Louverture would pay dearly for this opposition to Leclerc, both personally and politically. By mid-February, Leclerc officially decreed both Louverture and Christophe to be ‘outlaws’. By spring, French newspapers were regularly printing articles defaming Louverture: one declared that ‘the cruelty and barbarity of Toussaint are without example’, another that he was having the entire white population of the colony’s major cities slaughtered, despite the fact that Louverture had helped his former masters escape to safety.
Leclerc was also using Louverture’s children, who had recently returned to the colony, as pawns. When the governor-general rebuked Leclerc’s letter of 12 February 1802, in which he told Louverture he had only four days to surrender, Leclerc subsequently directed Coisnon, the children’s teacher, to take Isaac and Placide to the Louverture plantation in Ennery to pressure their father. Louverture observed that while the letter they brought from Napoleon did order him to submit to the authority of Leclerc, averring that the French battalion had come ‘in peace’, all of Leclerc’s actions since he arrived ‘amounted to war’.
Louverture told Coisnon, to that end,
In the midst of such violence and destruction, I must not forget that I am carrying a sword ... As such, if, as you have said, General Leclerc sincerely desires peace, let him stop the advance of his troops.
Things would unravel in a surprising way for Louverture. While he was no stranger to betrayal – having fought and defeated fellow general André Rigaud for control of the southern part of the colony and having had his own nephew General Moïse executed as a traitor – the loss of one of his greatest allies would particularly sting him. In April Christophe held a private meeting with Leclerc that Isaac Louverture would later say had devastated his father. In the course of the meeting, Christophe became convinced by Leclerc’s promises that the French had no intention of reinstating slavery. Christophe subsequently negotiated his surrender on the condition that he be permitted to preserve his rank as general in the French army. His defection was decisive. It was almost immediately followed by that of General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the founder and future emperor of independent Haiti.
After this, Louverture grudgingly agreed to acknowledge Leclerc’s authority. By May he had officially retired from the French army and had gone home to his family in Ennery. Still, Louverture found himself repeatedly charged with inciting insurrection among the ‘blacks’. French newspapers, as well as the letters of Leclerc, constantly referred to secret missives supposedly exchanged between Louverture and Generals Belair, Dommage and Fontaine, who were commanders over regions of the colony still in open rebellion. Using the supposed existence of these letters as a pretext, Leclerc issued a warrant for Louverture’s arrest. On 7 June 1802, Louverture and his whole family – including his 105-year-old godfather – were forced onto a ship called Le Héros and deported to France.
In September, about a month after he had arrived at the Fort de Joux, Cafarelli arrived and questioned Louverture about the existence of government funds Leclerc said he had stolen. Leclerc’s troops had already ravaged Louverture’s properties in Saint-Domingue looking for treasures they accused him of having hidden. Louverture responded to this by telling Cafarelli: ‘As for the treasures of mine of which you speak with so much insistence, they do not exist.’ Cafarelli was not convinced. In the report he eventually submitted he described Louverture as ‘wilfully deceitful’.
Cafarelli’s account of the three interviews he had with Louverture provides crucial details about the physical and emotional tortures to which Louverture was subjected. Upon entering his cell, Cafarelli described Louverture as ‘feverish and trembling from the cold. He was suffering a lot’, Cafarelli said, ‘and could barely speak’. When he did muster the strength to answer questions, Cafarelli reported, ‘he speaks often of his family, above all of his son Placide. I could not tell him where they are’. Cafarelli also observed that Louverture had come completely ‘undone’ after Commander Baille followed Decrès’ order to seize his military uniform and replace it with convict’s clothing.
Other French officials at the prison described further tactics designed to humiliate, disorient and torture Louverture. In his October 1802 letter to Decrès, Baille confirmed that, as instructed, he had seized Louverture’s clock and stripped him of his military title: ‘Toussaint is his name, that is the only denomination that must be given to him.’ Then, in January 1803, Mars Plaisir was suddenly released; the loss of his company was devastating, as for four months it had provided Louverture with his only solace. Finally, another guard at the prison, General Ménard, wrote to Decrès three days before Louverture’s death to brag with more than a hint of sardonic satisfaction that Louverture was becoming ‘disturbed’, because his sleep was interrupted each night by a guard who repeatedly entered his room.
The official report of Louverture’s death, recorded in the registry of the Justice of the Peace of the canton of Pontarlier near the border with Switzerland, confirmed that he died from a combination of pneumonia and a stroke. The autopsy also recorded that both his lungs were filled with blood.
The government’s newspaper, Le Moniteur Universel, was not only circumspect about Louverture’s death, but completely silent. The Minister of the Marine had published a letter about ongoing affairs in Saint-Domingue in the Moniteur on 25 April, in which he made no mention of the fate of the revolutionary leader who had recently died in French captivity. And no French newspaper appears to have reported that the former general was dead until 28 April when the Journal des Débats printed a pithy notice containing multiple errors: ‘It was reported from Besançon, on the date of the 2nd of this month’, the article reads, ‘that Toussaint Louverture, who was detained at Fort de Joux, had died there eight days ago.’
In spite of attempts by many powerful figures in France to cover up the seriousness of their crime against the man they had held prisoner without any trial or formal charges having been filed against him, Louverture’s death was reported across the Atlantic world. In London, the 3 May issue of The Times reported that:
Toussaint Louverture is dead. He died, according to letters from Besançon, in prison, a few days ago. The fate of this man has been singularly unfortunate, and his treatment most cruel. He died, we believe, without a friend to close his eyes. We have never heard that his wife and children, though they were brought over from St. Domingo with him, have ever been permitted to see him during his imprisonment.
By June, the news reached the United States with the Commercial Advertiser reporting, ‘Toussaint Louverture, the celebrated African Chief, is dead.’
It would be tempting to end with the ensuing victories of the Haitian Revolution that led to the creation of the first slavery-free nation in the Americas; or to call upon the famously apocryphal phrase that Louverture is said to have uttered while boarding the ship to his captivity: ‘In overthrowing me, you have done no more than cut down the trunk of the tree of liberty in Saint-Domingue, it will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and deep.’ However, we must not obscure the truth that it was Louverture’s terrible fate that taught the other revolutionary leaders there could no longer be meaningful negotiations for peace. In the documents that detail how Louverture died lie not a tale of unfortunate tragedy, but one of deliberate destruction.
As Louverture frequently noted in his letters to French officials, he had tried to compromise with the French and was even willing to accept some blame. In the letter to Napoleon that he wrote aboard Le Héros, Louverture implored, ‘Citizen First Consul, I will not conceal from you my faults: I have committed several. Is any man exempt from them though?’ Louverture also pointed out that after having been assured of an amnesty by General Leclerc, he was tricked into a meeting and summarily arrested. The French had betrayed him. Alluding to the fact that in May 1802 Napoleon had allowed the reintroduction of slavery into the French Empire, but also clearly despondent over his forced estrangement from his family, one of the last things Louverture told Cafarelli was:
Saint-Domingue is a huge treasure, but to bring it to its full potential, you need … the peace and freedom of the blacks. But oh! General, I don’t care about treasures, because I have lost things far more precious than treasures.
Marlene L. Daut is Professor of African Diaspora Studies at the University of Virginia and author of Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World (Liverpool University Press, 2015).