Known to his contemporaries as “The Black Napoleon,” Toussaint L’Ouverture was a former slave who rose to become the leader of the only successful slave revolt in modern history that created an independent state, the Haitian Revolution.
Born into slavery on May 20, 1743 in the French colony of Saint Dominque, L’Ouverture was the eldest son of Gaou Guinon, an African prince who was captured by slavers. At a time when revisions to the French Code Noir (Black Code) legalized the harsh treatment of slaves as property, young L’Overture instead inspired kindness from those in authority over him. His godfather, the priest Simon Baptiste, for example, taught him to read and write. Impressed by L’Ouverture, Bayon de Libertad, the manager of the Breda plantation on which L’Ouverture was born, allowed him unlimited access to his personal library. By the time he was twenty, the well-read and tri-lingual L’Ouverture—he spoke French, Creole, and some Latin—had also gained a reputation as a skilled horseman and for his knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs. More importantly, L’Ouverture had secured his freedom from de Libertad even as he continued to manage his former owner’s household personnel and to act as his coachman. Over the course of the next eighteen years, L’Ouverture settled into life on the Breda plantation marrying fellow Catholic Suzanne Simon and parenting two sons, Isaac and Saint-Jean.