Being a plantation slave in the New World's Caribbean colonies wasn't exactly a super happy fun time picnic of rainbows, ultrasuede teddy bears and delicious handfuls of pastel-colored tropical fruit flavored Skittles. I know that my cubicle-dweller day job provides me with little in the way of actual first-hand experience to substantiate this wild, completely over-the-top claim, but in my defense, I'm pretty sure that most big-shot History PhDs these days agree that backbreaking fourteen-hour days working hard labor in burning hot temperatures and hygrometer-snapping humidity isn't exactly the most enriching character-building life experience a human being could possibly endure. It was a brutal, thankless, grueling existence that sucked a bag of fiery dicks with the efficiency of a bagless Dyson, and there's really no way you can argue otherwise without coming off sounding like a total fucking jackass. To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, take this into consideration: When the Spanish and French first settled the island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), they enslaved the local natives and made them work the sugar cane and coffee fields – the end result was that a giant chunk of the indigenous population ended up dying from exhaustion, dehydration, and disease, and the European plantation owners had to go out and import slaves from Africa to pick up the slack and fill out their conscripted work force.
Francois-Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture was born into this seemingly-endless cycle of spine-crushing misery, but didn't start the rebellion that would overthrow the government and abolish the slavery institution that had dominated Haiti for nearly a hundred years. In some ways, civil disobedience in the form of armed rebellion had been going on since the beginning – there had always been reports of slaves getting sick of the whole forced-labor bullshit, escaping into the mountains, and launching guerilla raids on plantations to plunder food, supplies, and weapons – but the big impetus that got the whole "fuck slavery" movement kick-started actually took place in the rural parts of the Haitian countryside in 1791. It was around this time that a loosely-organized group of mega-pissed slaves took advantage of the fact that the French homeland was a little busy with that whole French Revolution / Guillotine Everyone / Total Fucking Anarchy thing, and they seized the opportunity to rise up and wreak some havoc on the jackasses who had been viciously oppressing them for the entire duration of their natural lives. These pissed-off ex-slaves grabbed a hold of pitchforks, cane knives, shovels, or whatever other vicious farming implements they could convert into eye-puncturing weaponry of facial destruction and went on a murder-death-kill rampage across northern Haiti, massacring plantation owners and their families in admittedly-horrific ways, burning their shit into cinders, and generally just laying waste to the countryside with the realness. The Spanish government, seeing a deliciously-diabolical opportunity to have a bunch of renegade slaves weaken the French army to the point where the Spanish military could swoop in there like vultures and claim the entire island for themselves, eagerly provided money and supplies and weapons to help sustain the revolt. Good work guys, hang in there, liberty is close, etc.
The island of Hispaniola in the 18th century.
The French owned the pink, the Spanish had the yellow,
and the blue is territory that was owned by the Brits for a while.
Toussaint L'Ouverture is about to kick all of their asses and take this entire island by force.
As a man who suffered under the yoke of slavery for over thirty years and could fully appreciate all the ways in which it bit a donkey's ass, Toussaint L'Ouverture hated the institution about as much as anybody ever hated anything, so when he heard word that there was a revolution brewing in the countryside and people were freaking out with extreme violence, he grabbed a cavalry saber and ran out there to get a piece of the action for himself. A few months into the revolt, Toussaint signed on with a local rebel group, working first as a medical doctor tending to the sick and wounded, but eventually he determined that was too tame so he got involved with tactical and strategic decisions as well. An incredibly well-read military mastermind who had spent his life voraciously blowing through badass shit like Julius Caesar, Plutarch, Machiavelli, Stoic philosophy, and French Enlightenment literature (which might not be bone-crushingly badass, but hey, it's good to be well rounded), Toussaint gave the slave revolt the one thing it desperately needed – organization. Cohesiveness. Direction. Awesome-looking jackets. A guy who could strike a sweet pose on a horse. A student of military history and philosophy, Toussaint whipped his already-formidable army from a rag-tag group of disorganized civilian soldiers to an efficient fighting force capable of whipping serious asses, instructing his men in the "European style" of combat, drilling them in tactics and marching orders, and eventually taking on French regular infantry units in both pitched battles and hit-and-run Red Dawn guerilla attacks. Toussaint, being a warrior of honor who wasn't really down with butchering innocent bystanders just because they looked like maybe they had at some point in their lives been down with slavery, also worked to tone down that whole insane over-the-top brutality that had been a mainstay of the revolution up to this point, ordering his troops not to just run around wantonly massacring every white person they could find. Yes, he wanted vengeance as well, but arbitrarily impaling civilians wasn't necessarily the best way to go about it. He also opened negotiations with both his French enemies and his Spanish allies, communicating with them not as a desperate rebel leader, but as a calm-and-collected political diplomat.
Toussaint and his armies beat the holy living dogshit out of the French for a while, and his tactical genius was so impressive that his French adversaries ended up giving him the nickname "L'Ouverture", which simply means "The guy who finds the opening." Mostly they were talking about Toussaint's innate ability to find the weakness in his enemies' lines and exploit it, but the dude did also supposedly father something like 16 kids so who perhaps other explanations are also appropriate as well. Either way, thanks to his badass battle skillz it wasn't long before the slave revolt turned into a full on organized revolution, and the tide of battle was quickly turning against his former French masters. Victory was close. You have no chance to survive make your time HA HA HA.
But then something weird happened. Just when the final conquest of his enemies seemed within his grasp, things got a little tricky for our man Toussaint – in May of 1794 the government of France formally declared an abolition of slavery in the colonies (something Toussaint's Spanish allies admittedly had no intention of doing), and the soon-to-be defeated French governor personally came up and asked Toussaint to come to his side and defend the island against the Spanish – who by the way were now starting to send regular army units on a mission of conquest.
Battling the French forces.
I particularly love the dude on the left holding the severed head.
Since Toussaint's sole goal in the war was freedom for his people and the end of slavery, and the French were offering it in cold, hard legislation while the Spanish were content to sit back and just say, "Yeah dudes it'll be awesome, trust me! Just drive the French off the island, install us as your new all-powerful overlords, and we'll sit around the campfire all night long singing Kumbaya in Spanish and drinking awesome sangrias" the decision wasn't quite as mind-racking as you might think. Toussaint pulled the Spanish flags down from his forts, ran up the French flags, offered safe passage back to Spanish lines for any of his men who disagreed with his decision, and just like that the former enemy of France immediately went to war on the side of his former masters, taking on not only the Spanish, but also a British army that suddenly showed up out of nowhere for some reason.
Toussaint L'Ouverture and his now-hardened core of ex-slave asskickers immediately proceeded to beat the crap out of both the Spanish and the British and whatever else stood in their way, driving the enemies of France from Saint-Dominque in the span of just a few months of relentless kicks to the metaphorical nutsacks. The Spanish were pushed back to their side of the island, and a heaping dose of cannon fire and Yellow Fever (which was known to the Brits by the significantly less-sexy moniker "The Black Vomit") decimated the British army to the point where a couple English regiments actually fucking mutinied when they received orders to reinforce the units on Haiti.
|"Brothers and friends, I am Toussaint L'Ouverture; perhaps my name has made itself known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want liberty and equality to reign in Saint-Domingue. I am working to make that happen. Unite yourselves to us, brothers, and fight for the same cause."
Once the Spanish and British had been expelled and slavery abolished, the raging war of ultimate insanity came to an end. Toussaint, through his sheer unstoppable asskicking skills, now found himself as the most prominent commander on the winning side of the war, a distinction that brought a large number of eager reinforcements flocking in his direction, and a distinction that also afforded him the sort of godly prestige you can really only acquire by being the most badass military commander in the history of your country (i.e. groupies). Sure, the French were still in charge of the island, but Toussaint had achieved his ultimate goal – every man in the land was free, all people were equals under the law, and every employee in Haiti was receiving a paid wage for their work.
But Toussaint was just getting started. A few months later, in March of 1796, the French governor of Haiti was captured and imprisoned by a band of pissed-off ex-plantation owners that were all butt-hurt about that "violent overthrow of the feudal system" thing, so Toussaint L'Ouverture marched his army out, beat the ungodly shitballs out of the counter-revolutionary faction, and rescued the Governor. For bailing out the gov, Toussaint was subsequently appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Haiti (which at the time was still known as Saint-Dominique... did I already mention that?), and promoted to commander-in-chief of the island's military forces. With the army now under his able control, Toussaint went on a rampage, marching first against the remnants of the British forces in Haiti, driving them completely off the island, and then blitzing across the border into the Spanish-controlled area of the island, crushing the Spanish military with his surprise attack and sending them all running back to their mamas in Europe. By 1801, this former plantation slave had led a full-scale revolution, demolished the institution of slavery, liberated his people from over a century of servitude, conquered the entire island of Hispaniola, beaten up on the Spanish, British, and French regular armies, and appointed himself Governor-for-Life of Haiti. Not too shabby.
Why yes, I am awesome. Thank you for noticing.
Unfortunately for Toussaint, he wouldn't have much of a chance to enjoy his victory. You see, all this unstoppable asskicking eventually caught the attention of France's First Consul, and our friend Napoleon Bonaparte wasn't really the sort of guy who liked to share the spotlight when it came to military genius-ness. Napoleon was somewhat concerned that Toussaint had aspirations of an independent Haiti on his mind, so in 1802 the soon-to-be-Emperor sent his brother-in-law to the islandwith an army of 20,000 soldiers. Ostensibly the group was being dispatched to reinforce Toussaint's men, but in reality their true motives were far more ulterior (and also sinister).
Toussaint had actually already put a pretty brilliant plan in place to fight against a potential invasion against Haiti – he would burn the coastal cities to the ground, retreat to the mountains in the center of the island, wait for the insane parasitic tropical diseases to take their toll on the invaders, and then ride down and crush his enemies while they were still barfing up black shit and suffering from comically-explosive diarrhea. Unfortunately, he didn't get a chance to put this plan into action – when Napoleon's army showed up, the first thing they did was request a meeting with Toussaint to negotiate terms. Toussaint wasn't exactly pumped about the idea of burning all of his cities to the ground and fighting a protracted guerilla war if he didn't have to, so he went out to the meeting to see what was up. As soon as the Governor-for-Life showed up to parlay, Toussaint L'Ouverture was double-crossed, captured, and thrown in a dungeon in Paris, where he eventually died a year later.
It was an inglorious end, but Napoleon hadn't counted on one thing – Toussaint had build up an infrastructure, a national identity, and a love of freedom that wasn't going to die with him. When his allies heard of the double-cross, they immediately knew that Napoleon hadn't come in peace – he had come to conquer the island and re-enslave the populace. Fuck that. They fought the French tooth and nail, followed Toussaint's teachings and strategies, and in 1804 Toussaint L'Ouverture's chief lieutenant defeated the French once and for all and declared Haiti and independent country. It was the first time a slave rebellion in the New World had led to the successful (and permanent) overthrow of a Western colonial government.
"In overthrowing me you have only cut down in Saint-Domingue the trunk of the tree of liberty;
it will spring up again from the roots, for they are many and deep."
Library of Congress
Acton, John E. The Cambridge Modern History of Napoleon. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1906.
Adams, Jerome R. Liberators, Patriots, and Leaders of Latin America. McFarland, 2010.
Chartrand, Rene. Napoleon's Overseas Army. Osprey, 1989.