Toussaint L’Ouverture by John Barlow

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    Toussaint L'Ouverture,    by John Barlow, published by  James Cundee, after  Marcus Rainsford,    published in An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti, 1805,    NPG D15719,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the most successful uprising by enslaved people during the transatlantic slave trade.
Toussaint L'Ouverture
by John Barlow, published by James Cundee, after Marcus Rainsford
etching, published in An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti, 1805
10 1/4 in. x 8 in. (259 mm x 204 mm) paper size
NPG D15719
© National Portrait Gallery, London

In 1791, Toussaint L’Ouverture (about 1743–1803) led an uprising of enslaved Africans in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. By 1801, after a long series of fighting, L’Ouverture had gained control of Saint-Domingue and established a constitution. This eventually led to the creation of the new nation of Haiti, in 1804. 

Haiti was the first independent nation in the Caribbean and the first independent Black Republic ​A country that is governed by a president and politicians elected by the people and where there is no king or queen. in the world. The events leading up to independence became known as the Haitian Revolution. 

Analysing the portrait

  • View larger image
    Toussaint L'Ouverture,    by John Barlow, published by  James Cundee, after  Marcus Rainsford,    published in An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti, 1805,    NPG D15719,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Toussaint L'Ouverture, by John Barlow, published by James Cundee, after Marcus Rainsford, published in An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti, 1805

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time - look at it for at least a minute. What can you see?

    • L’Ouverture is wearing a full-length military officer’s uniform.
    • This includes a hat with a feather, breeches (trousers) and tasselled boots. There are stripes on the sleeve of his jacket, and he is wearing Epaulette A decoration on the shoulder of a coat or jacket, especially when part of a military uniform. on his shoulders.
    • He is shown as a formidable military leader, leading from the front and inspiring his people. 
    • He is holding a large sword in one hand.
    • In his other hand he’s holding what looks like a battle plan. The thin, rectangular shapes represent lines of soldiers, with guns or cannons between some of them. The zig-zag line at the top of the sheet looks like a wall – it resembles the one in the background, which is part of a Fort A building or buildings built in order to defend an area against attack. . 
    • He appears ready for battle.
    • As well as the Fort A building or buildings built in order to defend an area against attack. , there are tents, a cannon and some soldiers in plain uniforms. 
    • Saint-Domingue is being guarded by men ready to fight for their freedom.
Brothers and friends. I am Toussaint L’Ouverture, my name is perhaps known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want Liberty and Equality to reign in San Domingo. I work to bring them into existence. Unite yourselves to us, brothers, and fight with us for the same cause.
Toussaint L’Ouverture, 1793 

Why is this portrait significant?

  • L’Ouverture’s story was followed closely across the world. British politicians discussed the events unfolding in Saint-Domingue in parliament.
  • There was a need for a visual representation of this highly charismatic leader. As far as we know, L’Ouverture sat for only one portrait, which no longer exists.
  • The artist John Barlow never actually met Toussaint L’Ouverture. He had to create this image from a description by a British officer, Marcus Rainsford, who had met him. Rainsford didn’t describe L’Ouverture in any great physical detail, but he did describe his character and his uniform.
  • The artist probably based L’Ouverture’s uniform on one of the British Caribbean regiments which included Black soldiers, but no Black officers.
  • This is a positive image of Toussaint L’Ouverture. He was considered to be a useful and dynamic military leader in Britain as he pushed back its enemy, France. 
  • The image of a successful, armed Black leader in the Caribbean would have been unique and very powerful at this time. It would have been a threat to British power, as Britain had been making huge profits from the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. for around two hundred years.  

Who was Toussaint L’Ouverture?

  • Toussaint L’Ouverture is celebrated widely as the leader who laid the foundation for Haitian independence. His achievement continues to motivate radical and anti-racist movements throughout the world. 
  • L’Ouverture was born into slavery in Saint-Domingue. Saint-Domingue was controlled by France and had become the wealthiest Colony A country or an area that is governed by people from another, more powerful, country. in the French Empire A group of countries or states that are controlled by one leader or government. . Enslaved African workers were forced to grow sugar and coffee for export to Europe as part of the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. . 
  • At around the age of 30, L’Ouverture gained his freedom, although we don’t know much about how this came about. He began to make large amounts of money by exploiting enslaved people to grow coffee on his Plantation A large area of land, especially in a hot country, where crops such as coffee, sugar and rubber are grown. . 
  • In 1791, enslaved people in Saint-Domingue rose up against the plantation owners. They convinced L’Ouverture to join the rebellion and to lead the fight for the complete abolition of slavery, even though he already had his freedom. 
  • L’Ouverture proved a charismatic and successful military and political leader. He finally gained complete control of Saint-Domingue in 1801.
  • By this time, the French Republic ​A country that is governed by a president and politicians elected by the people and where there is no king or queen. had made slavery in its Colony A country or an area that is governed by people from another, more powerful, country. illegal. But the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, still saw L’Ouverture as a threat to French power. He had L’Ouverture arrested and sent to France, where he died in prison, in 1803. 
  • One of Toussaint’s lieutenants, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, continued to lead the fierce fight for independence. When French forces surrendered in 1804, Dessalines declared Saint-Domingue's independence, renamed it ‘Haiti’, and made himself emperor. 
  • The Haitian Revolution was the only successful uprising by enslaved people. Its success shook the system of Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. and helped to end it in the British Empire.

Questions

  1. In what ways does this portrait give us a positive view of Toussaint L’Ouverture?
  1. Why do you think Toussaint L’Ouverture still inspires anti-racist movements around the world? 
  1. How do you think L’Ouverture should be remembered? 

Next steps

Portraits of enslaved and previously enslaved people are very rare. Many contemporary artists explore these ‘gaps’ in the representations of our history through their work. Try researching artists such as Lubaina Himid, Joy Labinjo or Hannah Uzor.

Reflections

Between the 1500s and 1800s, millions of African people were kidnapped, sold and forced to work on Plantation A large area of land, especially in a hot country, where crops such as coffee, sugar and rubber are grown. in the Caribbean and the Americas, as part of the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. . Britain and other countries grew extremely rich from enslaved people’s labour. Generations of enslaved people resisted and rebelled against their brutal treatment. 

The transatlantic slave trade represents part of a complex and brutal period in our shared history. It can bring up strong reactions and raise many questions. Consider discussing these with a teacher or an adult you feel comfortable talking to. Use the links in this resource to find out more.