Toussaint was reputed to be of the western African Arradas tribe. His father, Gaou-Guinou, had been brought to Saint-Domingue and sold to the Count de Breda, Toussaint was the eldest son and his date of birth is given as either May 20 or November 1 (All Saints' Day procuring the name Toussaint), he took the surname Breda from his owner. De Breda was relatively humane and happy to encourage Toussaint to learn to read and write. He was already a noted horse rider and herbalist before his subsequent military and political career. He married a woman called Suzan and they had a son, named Placide.
Though it was not widely known during his lifetime, Toussaint was in fact a free man by the time of the great slave uprising he would eventually help lead. He was freed from slavery at about the age of 33 and colonial records show that he leased a field of about 15 hectares with 13 slaves to grow coffee. At the time of this lease he was still unable to sign, or write, though he would learn these skills before the revolution
The French Revolution of 1789 had a powerful impact on the island. Inspired by the new philosophies the French proclaimed the Rights of Man to include all free men. When this promise was withdrawn under pressure from the plantation owners it sparked widespread slave risings. Toussaint did not participate in the campaign of Vincent Ogé, a wealthy free man of color whose attempt to claim voting rights for this group in October 1790 was brutally crushed. But he became an aide to Biassou in the insurgency of August in the following year. He rose rapidly, the black army proved to be surprisingly successful against the fever ravaged and poorly led European troops. In 1793 Toussaint briefly allied with the Spanish and gained the nickname L'Ouverture which he adopted as his surname. Later that year the British occupied most of the coastal settlements of Haiti including Port au Prince.
In 1793 representatives of the French government offered freedom to slaves who would join them as they struggled to defeat white counter-revolutionaries and fight the foreign invaders. On February 4, 1794, these emancipation orders were ratified by the Revolutionary legislature in Paris, now largely Jacobin, which abolished slavery throughout all territories of the French Republic. In early May, 1794, Toussaint left the Spanish and joined the French army, bringing thousands of black soldiers with him. Under Toussaint's increasingly influential leadership, this French army of black, mulatto, and white soldiers defeated the British and Spanish forces. The British withdrew from Haiti in 1798, the army of Toussaint had won seven battles in one week against the British in January. In 1799 Toussaint invaded Saint-Domingue's southern peninsula and defeated the mulatto general André Rigaud, his last major rival for power in the colony. The Spanish were defeated in 1800 and Haiti was declared independent in 1801.
When Napoleon came to power in France, he began to work with colonists to return France's Caribbean territories to their earlier profitablity as plantation colonies. Denying that he was trying to reinstate slavery, Napoleon's brother-in-law Charles Leclerc attempted to regain French control of the island in 1802. Toussaint was invited to negotiate a settlement. Attending a meeting under safe conduct he was seized and shipped to France, where he died in captivity in the Fort de Joux in Doubs.