Haiti (officially Republic of Haiti) has appeared in in the 21st century news bulletins for all the wrong reasons having endured a coup d’état in 2004 and a sequence of catastrophic earthquakes, most notably in 2010 that killed more than 250,000 people. However the country, located on the island of Hispaniola in the Greater Antilles Archipelago of the Caribbean Sea, has a fascinating history and a claim to be the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean, the second republic in the Americas, the first country to abolish slavery and the only state in history established by a successful slave revolt.
Initially led by a former slave and the first black general of the French Army, Toussaint Louverture, slaves and free people of colour launched the Haitian Revolution between 1791 and 1804. Louverture was born a slave in Haiti, then a French colony known as Saint-Domingue on the plantation of Bréda at Haut de Cap. His birth year is estimated to have been between 1739 and 1746 and little is known of his early life. It is believed that Louverture was freed from slavery in 1776 although he remained employed at the Bréda plantation, perhaps responsible for livestock, acting as coachman or organising the workforce.
Inspired by the French Revolution (1789–99) freed slaves of Saint-Domingue sought to expand their rights, whilst perpetuating the denial of rights to slaves. In August 1791, a major salve rebellion in the north (which had the largest plantations and enslaved population) marked the start of the Haitian Revolution. Louverture became involved in negotiations between rebel leaders and the French Governor for the release of white prisoners and a return to work in exchange for improved freedoms and rights of slaves. Whilst the offer was rejected, the white prisoners were released and escorted to safety by Louverture.
With the rebuff of French authorities, Louverture become committed to the complete abolition of slavery. Louverture’s role transitioned to that of a highly successful military leader with particular success in developing guerrilla tactics. The politics of the time were complicated and influenced not only by local interests but also the ebb and flow of the ongoing French Revolution. Louverture was forced to secure alliances with the Spanish in 1792 (who occupied the the eastern territories of Hispaniola) and the French in 1794. Having secured significant territories, Louverture focused on keeping the peace, developing agricultural trade and on on 20 March 1796, appointed himself Governor.
By November 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte had gained power in France and confirmed Louverture’s position whilst promising to maintain abolition. In March 1801, Louverture appointed a constitutional assembly, composed chiefly of white planters, to draft a constitution for Saint-Domingue which officially established his authority over the entire island of Hispaniola. Napoleon, fearing a loss of direct control over the colony, sent a force of 20,000 men under the command of his brother-in-law, General Charles Emmanuel Leclerc, to restore French authority. With both sides shocked by the violence of the initial fighting, Leclerc reverted to diplomatic means, successfully persuading some of Louverture’s generals to switch loyalties. On 6 May 1802, Louverture was forced to negotiate an acknowledgement of Leclerc’s authority in return for amnesty for himself and his remaining generals. Hostilities ended and Louverture retired. Just days later, Louverture was arrested and deported to France where he was imprisoned at Fort-de-Joux in Doubs. He died in prison on 7 April 1803. Ironically, it was one of his arguably disloyal generals, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, that took up the revolutionary cause, defeating a French army at the Battle of Vertières in 1803 and declaring Haiti an independent nation in 1804.
The epic life of Toussaint Louverture has been captured in film and in literature. In 2012 a French film was released based on the life of Louverture, written and directed by Philippe Niang and staring the Haitian, Jimmy Jean-Louise, in the title role. The life of Toussaint Louverture was captured in a book first published in 2020 entitled Black Spartacus written by the acclaimed author, Sudhir Hazareesingh. The book is a fascinating read and features images of Louverture that have appeared on numerous international issues of stamps, coins and bank notes.
To view postal issues of the Haiti, please visit the M&S Philately HipStamp store.