Born into slavery on May 20th, 1743, in the French colony of Saint Dominique, L’Ouverture was the son of Gaou Guinon, an African prince who was captured by slavers. As a child, he was taught to read and write by his godfather, the priest Simon Baptiste. Also, the manager of the plantation where L’Ouverture was born, Bayon de Libertad allowed him full access to his personal library.
By the time L’Ouverture was 20 years old, he was well read and spoke several languages. Well known for his skills as a horseman and knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs. In 1776, he was freed from slavery but continued to manage his former owner’s household personnel as well as remained his coachman. After getting married and having two children, L’Ouverture would settle into life on the plantation with his family for the next 18 years.
In 1791, Slaves in the area began a revolt, setting fire to plantation houses and fields as well as killing whites. The 48-year-old L’Ouverture, even though he was a free man, decided to join the insurrection. After securing the safety of his family and former slave master he quickly rose through the ranks, becoming the secretary to George Biassou, one of the insurgency’s leaders. Initially, L’Ouverture and other black commanders teamed up with Spain against France.
In 1794, in an attempt to secure a victory, the French National Convention freed all the black slaves and granted them citizenship. Once this move was made, L’Ouverture allied with the French against Spain. From 1794-1802 he was the most dominant political and military leader in the French colony. Under his leadership, they defeated the British and captured the Spanish controlled half of the island.
By 1801, although Saint Dominque remained a French colony, L’Ouverture ruled it as an independent state. He would also draft a constitution reiterating the 1794 abolition of slavery and appointing himself governor for “the rest of his glorious life.” In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte grew tired of L’Ouverture’s actions and sent his brother in law Charles Leclerc, to capture L’Ouverture and return the island to slavery under French control.
Imprisoned at Fort de Joux in France, L’Ouverture died of pneumonia on April 7th, 1803. Independence for Saint Dominque would follow one year later under Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of L’Ouveture’s generals.