Toussaint Louverture Seizes Power
Toussaint’s forces, comprised in the main of former slaves, succeeded in restoring Haiti to French control by expelling the Spanish from their part of the island, and wresting concessions from the British. Once the external threat was removed, however, an internal power struggle erupted within the colony, mainly between Toussaint and a bevy of rivals.
Having made himself master of Haiti, Toussaint was reluctant to surrender too much power to Metropolitan France. After all, it was not Metropolitan France that had saved the colony from the British and Spanish, but Toussaint, by dint of his own efforts and those of his men. So he began to govern Haiti as a de facto independent entity. That pitted him against the colony’s Civil Commissioner, Sonthonax, whose first loyalties were to Republican France. Toussaint attempted to solve the problem by arranging for Sonthonax to leave Haiti in 1797, as one of its elected representatives to the National Assembly in France. When Sonthonax refused to leave, Toussaint dropped the pretense, and forcibly placed him on a ship bound for France.
Another internal rival was Andre Rigaud (1761 – 1811), a free mulatto born to a wealthy French planter and his African slave concubine. A typical affranchist, Rigaud’s power base was with wealthy mulatto planters in Haiti’s south, who sought acceptance by the colony’s whites, and were fearful of the recently freed African slaves. He raised an army, and resisted Toussaint’s efforts to impose his authority on southern Haiti.
That led to an armed conflict for control of Haiti known as “The War of Knives” (1799 – 1800). Toussaint emerged victorious, and Rigaud was forced to flee the colony. One of Toussaint’s deputies, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, then set out to destroy Rigaud’s mulatto state in southern Haiti, and carried out a violent purge that was so brutal, it rendered any future reconciliation with the mulatto planters impossible.
Toussaint then turned his attention to the Spanish part of the island of Hispaniola – the part comprising today’s Dominican Republic. For years, it had been used as a refuge and base of operations for many of his opponents, who raided across the border into Haiti, or smuggled arms and supplies to Toussaint’s adversaries in the colony. Toussaint solved the problem by invading Spanish Hispaniola in December of 1800, in defiance of orders from Napoleon Bonaparte that he not do so. He swiftly overran the entirety of Hispaniola, then issued a decree on January 3rd, 1801, freeing the slaves in the Spanish part of the island.
Now in command of all of Hispaniola, Toussaint dictated a new constitution that made him governor-for-life with near absolute powers. He professed himself a Frenchman, and proclaimed his loyalty to France’s First Consul, Bonaparte, but he also called for black autonomy and a sovereign black state. Bonaparte responded by sending a massive expeditionary force to restore French control over Haiti.