Toussaint L’Ouverture in An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti

Rainsford paints a glowing portrait of the abilities and accomplishments of L’Ouverture, the most noted leader of the rebellion and one of the key founders of the nation of Haiti.


The close of the eighteenth century, a period marked by the grandest operations and the most gigantic projects, presented to the world a new and organized empire, where it was not only supposed to be impossible to exist, but, where even its existence was denied, although it was known by those connected with that quarter of the globe to have taken place, and under the most flourishing auspices. The beneficent and able black, Toussaint L'Ouverture, devoid of the extraneous policy of the governors of ancient states, no sooner found himself at ease from the complicated warfare with which, from the first moment of his government he had been surrounded, than he evinced equal talents for the arts of peace, with those which he had invariably displayed in the field; and that mercy which had ever accompanied him in victory, now transfused itself in a mild and humane policy in the legislature. His first care was to establish, on a firm foundation, the ordinances of religion, according to the existing constitutions of society, to watch over the morals, and excite the industry of those who had committed themselves to his charge.

The effects of these exertions were quickly evident throughout his dominion. Such was the progress of agriculture from this period, that the succeeding crop produced (notwithstanding the various impediments, in addition to the ravages of near a ten years war) full one third of the quantity of sugar and coffee, which had ever been produced at its most prosperous period. The increase of population was such, as to astonish the planters resident in the mother country who could not conceive the possibility of preventing that falling off, in the numbers of the negroes, which formed their absolute necessity for supplying them by the by slave trade. Health, became prevalent throughout the country, with its attendant, cheerfulness, that exhilarator of labor.

Having introduced in a prominent fashion the surprising character, to whose talents and energies, the inhabitants of this regenerated island were indebted for their then existing advantages, it becomes necessary to present the reader with a view of the circumstances which accompanied a life so important in the history of St. Domingo.

TOUSSAINT L'OUVERTURE was born a slave in the year 1745, on the estate of the Count de Noe, at a small distance from Cape François, in the northern province of St. Domingo, a spot since remarkable as the very source of revolution, and site of a camp, (that Breda,) from whence its native general has issued mandates more powerful than those of any monarch on the earth.

While tending his master's flocks, the genius of Toussaint began to expand itself, by an attention towards objects beyond the reach of his comprehension; and without any other opportunity than was equally possessed by those around him, who remained nearly in impenetrable ignorance, he learnt to read, write, and use figures. Encouraged by the progress he rapidly made in these arts, and fired with the prospect of higher attainments, he employed himself assiduously in the further cultivation of his talents. His acquirements, as is oftentimes the case, under such circumstances, excited the admiration of his fellow slaves, and fortunately attracted the attention of the attorney, or manager of the estate, M. Bayou de Libertas. This gentleman, with a discrimination honorable to his judgment, withdrew Toussaint from the labor of the fields, to his own house, and began the amelioration of his fortune, by appointing him his postilion, an enviable situation among slaves, for its profit, and comparative respectability.

This instance of patronage by M. Bayou, impressed itself strongly on the susceptible mind of Toussaint. True genius and elevated sentiments are inseparable; the recollection of the most trivial action, kindly bestowed in obscurity, or under the pressure of adverse circumstances, warms the heart of sensibility, even in the hour of popular favor, more than the proudest honors. This truth was exemplified by the subsequent gratitude of Toussaint towards his master. He continued to deserve and receive promotion, progressively, to offices of considerable confidence.

Among other traits fondly preserved in St. Domingo of the conduct of Toussaint during the early period of his life, are his remarkable benevolence towards the brute creation, and an unconquerable patience. Of the former, many instance related which evince a mind endowed with every good quality. He knew how to avail himself so well of the sagacity of the horse, as to perform wonders with that animal; without those cruel methods used to extort from them the docility exhibited in Europe; he was frequently seen musing amongst the different cattle, seemingly holding a species of dumb converse, which they evidently understood, and produced in them undoubted marks of attention. They knew and manifested their acquaintance, whenever he appeared; and he has been frequently seen attending with the anxiety of a nurse any accident which had befallen them; the only instance in which he could be roused to irritation, was when a slave had revenged the punishment he received from his owner upon his harmless and unoffending cattle. Proverbial became his patience, insomuch that it was a favorite amusement of the young and inconsiderate upon the same estate, to endeavor to provoke him by wanton tricks and affected malignity. But so perfectly he had regulated his temper, that he constantly answered with a meek smile, and accounted for their conduct by such means, as would render it strictly pardonable. To the law of self-preservation, or the misfortune of not knowing the delight of philanthropy, he would attribute an act of brutal selfishness; while he imputed to a momentary misapprehension an inclination to rude and malicious controversy. Thus was his passive disposition never in the smallest degree affected, being ready on all occasions to conciliate and to bear, in circumstances whether frivolous or of the, highest importance.

At the age of twenty-five Toussaint attached himself to a female of similar character to his own, and their union cemented by marriage, which does not appear to have been violated, conferred respectability on their offspring. Still he continued a slave; nor did the goodness of M. Bayou, although it extended to render him as happy as the state of servitude would admit, ever contemplate the manumission of one who was to become a benefactor to him and his family. Such is the effect of ancient prejudice, in obscuring, the highest excellence of our nature; he who would perform godlike actions without hesitation, from any other cause, shrinks from a breach of etiquette, or a violation of custom! . . .

Continuing on the estate on which he was born, when the deliberations preceding the actual rebellion of the slaves were taking place upon the plantation of Noe the opinion of him who was always regarded with esteem and admiration was solicited. His sanction was of importance, as he had a number of slaves under his command, and a general influence over his fellow negroes. Among the leaders of this terrible revolt were several of his friends, who he had deemed worthy to make his associates for mutual intelligence; yet, from whatever cause is not ascertained, he forbore in the first instance to join in the contest of liberty. It is probable that his manly heart revolted from cruelties attendant on the first burst of revenge in slaves about to retaliate their wrongs and sufferings on their owners. He saw that the innocent would suffer with the guilty; and that the effects of revolution regarded future, more than present justice. When the cloud charged with electric fluid becomes too ponderous, it selects not the brooding murderer on the barren heath, but bursts, perhaps, indiscriminately, in wasteful vengeance, o'er innocent flocks reposing in verdant fields.

There were ties which connected Toussaint more strongly than the consideration of temporary circumstances. These were gratitude for the benefits received from his master, and, generosity to those who were about to fall,—not merely beneath the stroke of the assassin, for that relief from their sufferings was not to be allowed to all, but likewise the change of situations of luxury and splendor, to an exile of danger, contempt, and poverty, with all the miseries such a reverse can accumulate.

Toussaint prepared for the emigration of M. Bayou de Libertas, as if he had only removed for his pleasure, to the American continent. He found means to embark produce that should form a useful provision for the future; procured his escape with his family, and contrived every plan for his convenience: nor did his care end here, for after M. Bayou's establishment in safety at Baltimore, in Maryland, he availed himself of every opportunity to supply any conceived deficiency, and, as he rose in circumstances, to render those of his protégés more qualified to his situation, and equal to that warm remembrance of the services he owed him, which would never expire.

Having provided for the safety of his master in the first instance, Toussaint no longer resisted the temptations to join the army of his country, which had (at this period) assumed a regular form. He attached himself to the corps under the command of a courageous black chief, named Biassou, and was appointed next in command to him. Though possessed of striking abilities the disposition of this general rendered him unfit for the situation which he held; his cruelty caused him to be deprived of a power which he abused. No one was found equally calculated,to supply his place, with the new officer, Toussaint; therefore, quitting for ever a subordinate situation, he was appointed to the command of a division.

If during this early period of his life, the black general had shone conspicuously, through every disadvantage, with the brightest talents and the milder virtues, he now rose superior to all around him, with the qualities and rank of an exalted chief. Every part of his conduct was marked by judgment and benevolence. By the blacks, who had raised him to the dignity he enjoyed, he was beloved with enthusiasm; and, by the public characters of other nations, with whom he had occasion to communicate, he was regarded with every mark of respect and esteem. General Laveaux called him "the negro, the Spartacus, foretold by Raynal, whose destiny it was to avenge the wrongs committed on his race": and the Spanish Marquis d'Hermona declared, in the hyperbole of admiration, that "if the Supreme had descended on earth, he could not inhabit a heart more apparently good, than that of Toussaint L'Ouverture."

His powers of invention in the art of war, and domestic government, the wonder of those who surrounded, or opposed him, had not previously an opportunity for exhibition as at the period to which we have arrived in this history. Embarrassed by a variety of contending factions among the blacks, and by enemies of different nations and characters, he was too much occupied in evading the blows constantly meditated in different quarters, to find leisure for the display of that wisdom and magnanimity which he so eminently exercised. Nevertheless a variety of incidents are recorded in the fleeting memorials of the day to corroborate the excellence of his character, and still more are impressed on the memory of all who have visited the scene of his government. Notwithstanding the absoluteness of military jurisdiction, which existed with extra power, no punishment ever took place without the anxious endeavors of the General-in-Chief to avoid it, exerted in every way that could be devised. No object was too mean for his remonstrance, or advice; nor any crime too great to be subjected to the rules he had prescribed to himself.

Source: Marcus Rainsford, An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti: Comprehending a View of the Principal Transactions in the Revolution of Saint-Domingo; with its Ancient and Modern State (London, 1805), 239–43, 245–248.