In 1492, Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola, destined to become the epicenter of the world’s most despicable slavery trade. On his second voyage there, he brought sugar, the first consumer product of capitalism.
Under the French, the region today called Haiti became her most prosperous colony due to sugar plantations. The backbreaking toil on industrial machinery left slaves maimed and mangled. Even if they survived the Middle Passage, a slave’s average lifespan there was only 7 years. The profits went to plantation owners (many of whom lived in faraway France), the Atlantic capitalists who shipped the sugar to European markets, and the taxes of the French Crown.
By 1789, Saint-Domingue held captive 465,000 black slaves. The punishments outlined in the King’s Code Noir were brutally enforced. The few protections listed for slaves were entirely ignored. Imperial disregard for evangelization meant the French colony had only 1 priest for every 2,747 slaves in 1752 (Philippe Girard, Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life, Pages 21-22). As Guillaume Raynal wrote in 1770: “Where is he, that great man whom Nature owes to her vexed, oppressed and tormented children? Where is he? He will appear, doubt it not; he will come forth and raise the sacred standard of liberty… Everywhere people will bless the name of the hero who shall have reestablished the rights of the human race…”
Toussaint Louverture was this man. Born into slavery on All Saints’ Day 1743, he bought his freedom and was educated on the plantation.
In 1791, two classes of plantation-owners (grands blancs and gens de colouer) both revolted, seeking greater autonomy. Seeing an opportunity, black slaves began their own revolution supported by many of the island’s priests as “an insurrection that was holy and legitimate” (Source).
Amid the chaos of the island, Louverture emerged as a heroic and virtuous leader. Oft-considered a “Black Jacobin,” this devout Catholic attended daily Mass as governor and sang the Te Deum after military victories. The great general accepted the surrender of his enemies with magnanimity and mercy, and prevented the slaughter of white women and children. Unlike the anti-clerical liberals of the Reign of Terror, Louverture was an integralist revolutionary. His 1801 Haitian Constitution declared emancipation, enshrined Catholicism as the state religion, outlawed divorce, and recognized the government’s duty to promote virtuous marriages. The Haitian Revolution would be known as the most successful slave revolt in human history.
Louverture’s only key failings were not promoting an international project, preserving elements of the plantation system (which many freed cultivators resented), and falling for a fatal trap laid by the tyrannical Napoleon, who was hoping to restore white supremacy.
In the words of François-René de Chateaubriand, a royalist soldier and romantic writer, “Toussaint-Louverture, the black Napoleon, [was] imitated and killed by the white Napoleon” (Mémoires d’outre-tombe, Quatrième partie, Livre VI). To him, General Louverture foreshadowed the revolutionary potential of Catholic Social Teaching: “Far from being completed, the religion of [Christ] the Liberator is barely entering its third period, the political period: liberté, égalité, fraternité.” (Livre X)