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J. R. Beard (John Relly), 1800-1876
Toussaint L'Ouverture: A Biography and Autobiography
Boston: James Redpath, 1863.

Summary

Toussaint L'Ouverture (1743-1803) won international renown in the Haitian fight for independence. He led thousands of former slaves into battle against French, Spanish and English forces, routing the Europeans and seizing control of the entire island of Hispaniola. L'Ouverture became governor and commander-in-chief of Haiti before officially acknowledging French rule in 1801, when he submitted a newly written constitution to Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) and the French legislature for ratification. In response, Bonaparte sent an army to depose L'Ouverture. He was taken prisoner in June, 1802 and shipped to France, to be held without trial in the frigid dungeons of Joux, where he died, according to the autopsy certificate included in Toussaint L'Ouverture, from "pleuro-pneumonia" in April, 1803 (p. 353).

John Relly Beard (1800-1876) was an English Unitarian minister who wrote more than thirty books in his lifetime, including The Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture (1853), and several reference volumes on a variety of topics. He wrote in simple language and attempted to translate complicated foreign affairs—such as the Haitian struggle for independence—into terms that every reader could understand. Beard's biography of L'Ouverture was first published in London on the fiftieth anniversary of L'Ouverture's death. Ten years later, in 1863, Boston publishers reissued Beard's biography under the title Toussaint L'Ouverture: A Biography and Autobiography, replacing a brief history of Haiti's fight for independence after L'Ouverture's exile with the first English translation of a thirty-five page autobiography written by L'Ouverture, along with additional documents, including a copy of L'Ouverture's autopsy certificate and tributes written by public figures such as Haiti's King Henri Cristophe, English poet William Wordsworth and abolitionist Wendell Philips.

L'Ouverture writes his autobiography while imprisoned at Joux in order "to render to the French Government an exact account of my conduct" and to acquit himself of treason in the conflict between his Hatian forces and those of French general Charles Leclerc (p. 295). L'Ouverture explains that he had been charged "to prevent the enemies of the Republic from penetrating into the island" and so ordered "all the commanders of the sea-ports not to permit any ships of war to enter into the roadstead, except they were known and had obtained permission from me" (p. 295).When Leclerc's forces arrive, commanders of the ports naturally refuse him admission until they can confer with L'Ouverture, but Leclerc grows impatient and attacks the harbor. Christophe, then a general under L'Ouverture, responds by burning the city, whereupon Leclerc launches an all-out war. When L'Ouverture learns that Leclerc has killed large numbers of his soldiers, he vows to "fight to the last to avenge the death of these brave soldiers, for my own liberty, and to reestablish tranquillity and order in the colony" (p. 299). After months of fighting, L'Ouverture relinquishes control of the island to Leclerc "to arrest the progress of the evil" associated with warfare (p. 310). He retires to a country house but while "remaining peaceably at home, on the faith of solemn treaties, he was seized, loaded with irons, dragged away with the whole of his family, and transported to France" (p. 333). L'Ouverture is indignant at this betrayal because he understands that, "Doubtless, I owe this treatment to my color; but my color,--my color,--has it hindered me from serving my country with zeal and fidelity? Does the color of my skin impair my honor and my bravery?" (p. 320).

Abolitionists, activists and writers from around the world answer L'Ouverture's question resoundingly in the years following his death. Among others whose memorials are included in the text, William Wordsworth and John Greenleaf Whittier penned tributes to the fallen leader. Whittier praises his fortitude and looks forward to the time when L'Ouverture should be

Redeemed from color's infamy;
And men shall learn to speak of thee,
As one of earth's great spirits born
In servitude and nursed in scorn,
Casting aside the weary weight
And fetters of its low estate,
In that strong majesty of soul
Which knows no color, tongue, or clime,
Which still hath spurned the base control
Of tyrants through all time! (p. 364)

See also the Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, The Negro Patriot of Hayti [1853 edition] and its summary.

Works Consulted: Bell, Madison Smartt, Toussaint Louverture, New York: Pantheon Books, 2007; Ruston, Alan, "Beard, John Relly," The Dictionary of National Biography, London: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Zachary Hutchins

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