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J. R. Beard (John Relly), 1800-1876
The Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Negro Patriot of Hayti: Comprising an Account of the Struggle for Liberty in the Island, and a Sketch of Its History to the Present Period
London: Ingram, Cooke, and Co., 1853.


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, who was taken prisoner in June of 1802 and shipped to France to be held without trial in "the dungeons of the castle of Joux" until he died of pneumonia in April, 1803 (p. 233).

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, 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 and other related documents, including a transcript of his post-mortem examination. Beard's biography remained the authoritative English-language history of L'Ouverture's life until the late twentieth century.

In explaining his reasons for writing about L'Ouverture, Beard frankly admits that he does so in order to "supply the clearest evidence that there is no insuperable barrier between the light and the dark-coloured tribes of our common human species" (p. 1). Throughout the text, Beard compares L'Ouverture to famously successful white generals and argues for L'Ouverture's supremacy. L'Ouverture is superior to George Washington, Beard writes, because L'Ouverture could have seized absolute power more easily than Washington, and "[t]he greater the opportunity the greater the temptation; nor can he be accounted the inferior man who overcame in the severer trial" (p. 142). Similarly, Beard argues that L'Ouverture is a better man than Bonaparte because "the two differed in that which is the dividing line between the happy and the wretched; for while, with Bonaparte, God was a name, with Toussaint L'Ouverture, God was at once the sole reality and the sovereign good" (p. 283). For Beard, L'Ouverture's ultimate failure to liberate Haiti and his untimely death are the product of unfortunate circumstances—not an indictment of his character or leadership abilities.

Beard suggests that L'Ouverture inherits his talent for governance from his great-grandfather, who "is reported to have been an African king" in Arrada, a former fort and settlement in what is now the Republic of Benin (p. 23). L'Ouverture's father, Gaou Guinou, is brought to Haiti from Arrada as a slave in the early eighteenth century, but Guinou enjoys "full liberty on the states of his proprietor" and is "allowed to employ five slaves to cultivate a portion of land" (p. 24). Guinou names his oldest son Toussaint and provides for his education; "a black esteemed for the purity and probity of his character" named Pierre Baptiste becomes "the godfather of Toussaint" and, "[c]ontinuing to speak his native African tongue, which was used in his family, Toussaint acquired from his godfather some acquaintance with the French" and "a smattering of Latin, as well as some notions of Geometry" (p. 25). These privileges notwithstanding, Guinou's son is still a slave and must work his way up from a shepherd to become "steward of the implements employed in sugar-making" (p. 28).

As a steward, Toussaint supports the plantation owners during a slave revolt in 1791: he prevents "the insurgents from setting the fields of sugar-cane on fire" and personally protects the white superintendent's white wife (p. 59). When the uprising becomes a political battle between French, English and Spanish interests in Haiti, however, he joins the slave army and eventually becomes a general. Toussaint fights brilliantly for the Spanish in 1793 but switches allegiances after the French Republic proclaims "the general freedom of the blacks," and beginning on May 4, 1794, he hoists "the French flag wherever he was in power" (pp. 125, 86).

To memorialize "the opening which Toussaint had made for himself in the ranks and the possessions of the enemy" and "to announce to his people that he was about to open the door to them of a better future" (p. 83), he adopts the surname L'Ouverture, French for the opening. L'Ouverture believes that he is "destined to great things" and that his rise to command is in fulfillment of prophecy: "A secret voice said to me, 'Since the blacks are free, they need a chief, and it is I who must be that chief, foretold by the Abbe Raynal'" (p. 125). Beard responds to L'Ouverture's claims by emphasizing his role as a type of Christ; L'Ouverture speaks "his ideas in parables" and "by the blacks he was regarded as a messenger of God" (p. 137).

L'Ouverture also acquires political power. After defeating the English in 1797, he is appointed "commander-in-chief of the army of Saint Domingo" and assumes control of the entire island in 1801. Beard explains that under L'Ouverture's rule, the island enters a golden age: "Distances were abridged; time was saved; the minds of the people were awakened from torpor; activity universally prevailed, and commerce and riches began to abound" (p. 132). According to Beard, "[e]ven the horses, under the influence of Toussaint's example, improved their pace" (p. 132).

But when L'Ouverture attempts to solidify his power by drafting a new constitution and sending it to the French legislature for ratification, Bonaparte responds by reinstituting slavery and sending an army to depose him. Despite the enemy's superior numbers, training and firepower, L'Ouverture fights Bonaparte's brother-in-law, the French General Leclerc, to a standstill, surrendering only when Leclerc agrees to re-abolish slavery. L'Ouverture retires in the Haitian countryside, but Bonaparte considers him a lingering threat and orchestrates L'Ouverture's arrest and imprisonment in Joux, where he dies.

See also Toussaint L'Ouverture: A Biography and Autobiography [1863 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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