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The Black Jacobins by C. L. R. James
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The Black Jacobins

by C. L. R. James

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8061517,153 (4.32)17
  1. 40
    The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss (Artymedon)
    Artymedon: The three revolutions that created our modern world are the American the Haitian and the French Revolution. The story of the Black Count is the point of intersection between the three in that they tried and did for a short time create a society based on the principle of equality for man regardless of race, birth or religion. It is also the key for the lecture of Alexandre Dumas' important works [[The Count of Monte-Cristo]] and [[Georges]], the later treating the question of race. That the real father of Dumas, a general of the French revolution be less known that his illustrious son author of the "Three Musketeers" is explained by how the reaction to the French revolution and the counter coup of the Thermidorians followed by that of the strong man of the sugar lobby, Napoleon, reestablished slavery in the Antilles. It is also the story of how and how it failed to do so in St Domingue, where the Black Count was born a slave, prompting the independence of this nation as black and mulatto only Haiti followed by its economic blocade by the rest of the world. Tom Reiss not only writes wonderfully be he also researched his subject in the Castle of Vincennes France and in the Dumas archives in Villers-Cotteret because this extraordinary Black Count, unlike Edmond Dantes, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, really existed.… (more)
  2. 10
    You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery by Jeremy D. Popkin (EduardoT)
  3. 00
    Landon Carter's Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation by Rhys Isaac (Artymedon)
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» See also 17 mentions

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The definitive history of the Haitian Revolution, and for good reason. James writes with passion and clarity, and persuasively argues that the Toussaint did everything he could to make Haiti work as a democratic protectorate of France before being betrayed by Bonaparte, leading to the subsequent bloodshed and marginalization of Haiti on the international stage. ( )
  jalbacutler | Apr 27, 2018 |
C L R James was a Trinidadian historian and journalist whose book on cricket has been described by none other than John Arlott as the finest book written on the game. He was also a Marxist which if you didn’t already know could be divined here from the frequent use of the word bourgeoisie and many mentions of class. Note also, "The rich are only defeated when running for their lives."

The San Domingo Revolution was the only successful slave revolt in history. It eventually led to the establishment of the state of Haiti. Toussaint L'Ouverture, who changed his name from Toussaint Bréda when he joined the revolt, was its undoubted hero. James says however that “Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint.”

San Domingo was a prodigious source of wealth for its white sugar planters and the merchants back in France who traded its product; wealth built on the backs of the slave workers imported from Africa, a slave trade which James says had turned Central Africa from peace and happy civilisation to violence and ferocity, the product of an intolerable pressure on the African peoples. Of those who dispute that statement we have, “Men will say (and accept) anything in order to foster national pride or soothe a troubled conscience.”

Before the revolt San Domingo was riven by differences; between the planters and the bureacracy, big whites, small whites, Mulattoes, blacks. (For some reason I couldn’t fathom James always capitalises the word Mulattoes.) For the small white with not much in the way of property, "race prejudice was more important than even the possession of slaves. The distinction between a white man and a man of colour was for them fundamental." An illustration of the central importance of colour to San Domingan life was that, "They divided the offspring of white and black and intermediate shades into 128 divisions. The true Mulatto was the child of pure white and pure black, a quarteron was the child of a Mulatto woman and a white man. This went all the way down to the sang-mêlé of 127 parts white and one part black but who was still a person of colour. These distinctions exemplify “the justification of plunder by any obvious differentiation to those holding power.” I note here that James describes pure blacks as negroes. I suppose the usage was common in the 1930s when he was writing but it strikes an odd note now.

Free Mulattoes were able to save, to own property and eventually to lend money. Their threat was such that, "white San Domingo passed a series of laws which for maniacal savagery are unique in the modern world." But the Mulattoes were too numerous and the colonists had to be satisfied with humiliations such as restrictions on dress, meetings, travel, and so on. Black slaves and Mulattoes hated each other, and those who were more white despised people with blacker ancestry. This internalisation of racial prejudice was still prevalent in the Jamaica of James's present.

In 1789 San Domingo accounted for 11 of the 17 million pounds of France's export trade. The beginning of British efforts to abolish slavery was an attempt to undermine this economic powerhouse. "The slave trade and slavery were the economic basis of the French Revolution." The fortunes made, "gave to the bourgeoisie that pride which needed liberty and contributed to emancipation." But then came the French Revolution and the ideals of liberté, egalité and fraternité, which took root in the fertile ground of the plantations.

When the uprising finally came James says that the slaves in their vengefulness were surprisingly moderate, far more humane than their masters had been, not maintaining it for long – unlike the systematic and enduring abuse the slaves had suffered. Toussaint himself established early a "great reputation for humanity, a very singular thing in the San Domingo of those days." The crucial event for the sustenance of the revolt was the abolition of slavery by the Constituent Assembly in Paris, a reason for the slaves to cleave to revolutionary ideals thereafter.

Britain then promptly rowed back on the abolition of slavery and attempted to take over San Domingo. Under Toussaint the former slaves inflicted on Britain “the severest defeat that has befallen a British expeditionary force between the days of Elizabeth and the Great War.” The British lost more men in actual deaths than Wellington did to all causes in the entire Peninsular War, "'her arm for six fateful years fettered and paralysed.'" Held by Toussaint and his raw levies Britain could not attack the revolution in France.

James has an undiluted admiration for Toussaint (along with Nelson and Napoleon one of the three outstanding personalities of the times) though admits his one fatal flaw. His allegiance to the French Revolution made him what he was; but in the end this ruined him. "His desire to avoid destruction was the very thing that caused it. It is the recurring error of moderates when face to face with a revolutionary struggle."

The rise of Napoleon is seen by James as the bourgeoisie reasserting itself. Under Bonaparte it was the French intention to restore slavery on the island and their actually doing so in Guadeloupe that led to Haiti’s final independence. Toussaint’s blind spot had seen him acquiesce to the new French Governor, eventual imprisonment, transportation to, and eventual death in, France. It was Toussaint’s more ruthless deputy Dessalines who came to see independence was the revolt’s only hope.

James keeps describing the slaves and their culture as primitive (as he also characterises those of Africa.) Is this as a result of his Marxist view of history and its laws? He notes that slaves brought from Africa were compelled to master European languages, "highly complex products of centuries of civilisation." There was therefore "a gap between the rudimentary conditions of the life of the slave and the language he used." (Note also that inclusive - exclusive? - "he".) It seems to me these sentiments are profoundly condescending - to African and slave alike.

Everything in the book is seen through the prism of Marxism, an approach which seems almost quaint these days as does James’s conclusion that salvation for the West Indies lies in Africa.

Aside:- For a fictional treatment of the slave revolution I would recommend the excellent All Souls’ Rising by Madison Smartt Bell. Having looked that up I discover Bell has published two subsequent books on the subject. ( )
  jackdeighton | Aug 18, 2017 |
The Trinidadian-born scholar C.L.R. James was a revolutionary Marxist who somehow managed to combine a highly successful day job as a cricket writer (his memoir [Beyond a boundary] is still often cited as one of the best cricket books ever) with a long career of political activism in which he was, inter alia, adviser to many of the future leaders of postcolonial Africa. [The black Jacobins] is a classic bit of Marxist historical writing, in which James sets out the case for seeing the slave labourers of the Caribbean sugar plantations as the first modern industrial proletariat.

There's more to it than just political theory: James is clearly fascinated by the complicated interactions between the different social groups within the French colony (slaves, free blacks, Maroons, "Mulattoes", white administrators, and the slave-owning plantocracy) as well as the effect of the rapidly-changing political situation in France (the Paris mob and the left-wing intellectuals opposed to slavery on the one hand; the maritime bourgeoisie with shares in the sugar or shipping trades on the other), and of course the periodic involvement of Britain, Spain and the USA, also torn between preserving their own stakes in slavery and doing down the French. Since most of the parties involved changed sides a couple of times between the 1780s and 1804, the course of the conflict is hard to follow, even in James's very lucid account, and no-one comes out of it with very much credit apart from the mass of the Haitian people with their unshakeable demands for freedom. Even James's great hero, Toussaint Louverture, who is practically a saint in the earlier chapters (and the greatest general since Alexander) makes a critical error of judgement by remaining loyal to France after the Peace of Amiens gives Napoleon the chance to attempt to re-establish control over the colony.

The Penguin edition comes with a postscript added by James in 1980, which provides a superbly concise summary of Caribbean history and culture from Toussaint to Castro, including quick sketches of most of the major literary and political figures of the region (most of them personal acquaintances, of course). ( )
  thorold | Dec 29, 2015 |
5
  OberlinSWAP | Jul 20, 2015 |
6
  OberlinSWAP | Jul 20, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
C. L. R. Jamesprimary authorall editionscalculated
Fivel-Demoret, ClaudeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Naville, PierreTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679724672, Paperback)

In 1789 the French colony of Saint Domingue was the most profitable real estate in the world. These profits came at a price: while its sugar plantations supplied two-thirds of France's overseas trade, they also stimulated the greatest individual market for the slave trade. The slaves were brutally treated and died in great numbers, prompting a never-ending influx of new slaves.

The French Revolution sent waves all the way across the Atlantic, dividing the colony's white population in 1791. The elites remained royalist, while the bourgeoisie embraced the revolutionary ideals. The slaves seized the moment and in the confusion rebelled en masse against their owners. The Haitian Slave Revolt had begun. When it ended in 1803, Saint Domingue had become Haiti, the first independent nation in the Caribbean.

C.L.R. James tells the story of the revolt and the events leading up to it in his masterpiece, The Black Jacobins. James's personal beliefs infuse his narrative: in his preface to a 1962 edition of the book, he asserts that , when written in 1938, it was "intended to stimulate the coming emancipation of Africa." James writes passionately about the horrific lives of the slaves and of the man who rose up and led them--a semiliterate slave named François-Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture. As James notes, however, "Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint."

With its appendix, "From Toussaint L'Ouverture to Fidel Castro," The Black Jacobins provides an excellent window into the Haitian Revolution and the worldwide repercussions it caused. --Sunny Delaney

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:44 -0400)

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