By Adam Hochschild
Last updated 2011-02-17
Although he never set foot in Britain or the British West Indies, Toussaint L'Ouverture had a large, albeit indirect, influence on the end of slavery in the British Empire. L'Ouverture was the leader of history's largest slave revolt - a dozen years of bloody, brutal fighting, starting in 1791, that transformed the French colony of St Domingue into the independent country of Haiti.
By eliminating France as a major slaveholding power, Haitian independence cut the ground from under a prime argument in parliament against abolition - that if Britain abolished the slave trade, its rival, France, would take it over.
In 1793, at war with France, Britain tried to capture St Domingue. The attempt ended in a costly and humiliating failure. By forcing British troops to withdraw in 1798, L'Ouverture showed British officers what determined military opponents enslaved people fighting for their freedom could be. Of the more than 20,000 British soldiers sent to St Domingue during five years of fighting, over 60% died during the conflict. Some of the surviving officers returned home as abolitionists.
Haitian independence, in 1804, also showed enslaved people throughout the Caribbean that they could fight for freedom and win. Whenever Haiti was discussed at dinner, observed Lady Nugent, wife of the governor of Jamaica, 'the blackies in attendance seem so much interested, that they hardly change a plate, or do anything but listen... What must it all lead to?'
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