Toussaint Louverture (ca. 1743–1803) was a Haitian general and leader of the Haitian Revolution. 

Toussaint Louverture is thought to have been born enslaved around 1739–1746 on the plantation of Bréda at Haut de Cap on the northern coast of Saint-Domingue, present day Haiti. His father, Gaou Guinou was the son of the king of Benin in West Africa and his mother, Pauline, was Guinou’s second wife. Louverture was likely well-educated throughout his youth, as his letters demonstrated knowledge of both French and Creole and a familiarity with Greek, Italian, and French philosophers.

In 1776, at the age of 33, Louverture was freed and the following year, he married Suzanne Simone Baptiste. The couple remained in Bréda, where Louverture amassed a small fortune through the exploitation of enslaved individuals on his leased coffee plantation.

This silkscreen print is a left profile portrait of the general in deep red military regalia, trimmed in gold. He wears a matching red bicorn hat with a front medallion holding three white plumes

Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000)

L'Ouverture, 1986

From the series The Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture

H x W: 32 1/16 x 21 15/16 in. (81.5 x 55.8 cm)

ink on paper


© 2020 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The spark of the French Revolution in 1789 inspired free people or color in Saint-Domingue to seek addition rights under the law. However, in August 1791, a Vodou ceremony marked the beginning of the rebellion amongst Saint-Domingue’s enslaved population. As an enslaver, Louverture left Bréda and removed his overseers from his coffee plantation. After joining the Spanish-allied military forces of Georges Biassou, he took on a leadership role in the rebellion, discussing strategy and negotiating supplies with the Spanish. In a late 1791 prisoner of war negotiation, Louverture made successions to the enslaved population in Saint-Domingue, banning the use of the whip, allowing an extra day off, and emancipating some of the rebellion’s leaders. In the years following, he earned notoriety as a significant military leader and skilled negotiator.

In the early 1790s, he adopted the surname Louverture and shifted his viewpoints on slavery and abolition. Instead of fighting for more humane treatment of enslaved individuals, he instead campaigned for the complete abolition of slavery. When the French revolutionary government first outlawed slavery on February 4, 1794, Louverture switched his allegiance to the French. The July 1796 Treaty of Basel formally ended hostilities between the French and Spanish.

Throughout his years in power, Louverture worked to improve the economy and security of Saint-Domingue. He restored the plantation system using paid labor, negotiated trade treaties with Britain and the United States, and maintained a large and well-disciplined army. He was promoted to Saint-Domingue’s highest-ranking officer in 1797.

A letter signed by Toussaint Louverture to Charles Humbert Marie Vincent from Cap-Français (now Cap-Haïtien), Haiti, on October 21, 1797.

Letter to Charles Humbert Marie Vincent signed by Toussaint Louverture, October 21, 1797


By 1801, Louverture had conquered the whole island, extending abolition to the Spanish Santo Domingo, and embarked on a program of modernization. In 1802, when Louverture promulgated an autonomist constitution for the colony, instating himself as governor for life over the whole of “Hispaniola,” Napoleon Bonaparte took this as an affront to French control of the island and Louverture was arrested and deported to France. He died in prison in 1803.

The Haitian Revolution continued under his lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who declared independence for the sovereign nation of Haiti in early 1804. The Haitian Revolution and the actions of Toussaint Louverture led to the establishment of the first sovereign state in Latin America, challenging the European colonial order. The Haitian Revolution inspired other national and Creole revolutions across Latin America.

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