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The Black Jacobins (1938)

by C. L. R. James

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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9131616,180 (4.25)19
A classic and impassioned account of the first revolution in the Third World. This powerful, intensely dramatic book is the definitive account of the Haitian Revolution of 1794-1803, a revolution that began in the wake of the Bastille but became the model for the Third World liberation movements from Africa to Cuba. It is the story of the French colony of San Domingo, a place where the brutality of master toward slave was commonplace and ingeniously refined. And it is the story of a barely literate slave named Toussaint L'Ouverture, who led the black people of San Domingo in a successful struggle against successive invasions by overwhelming French, Spanish, and English forces and in the process helped form the first independent nation in the Caribbean.… (more)
  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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This book was excellent read. The strengths included breathtaking battle scenes, rousing rhetoric for freedom and against slavery, brilliant stories of liberation, and page-turning political intrigue. The weaknesses in the book come from self-defeating politics of discipline for the sake of discipline, and the heart-rending compromises that Toussaint L'Overture makes with people who see him and the republic he created as nothing more than slaves to be punished for their insubordination.

The utter brutality and injustice of slave ownership, and the barbaric treatment of slaves is scandalous. You will literally shake your head at the stories of how slaves were treated under the law in Haiti. A particularly unnerving example is the slavemasters filling a slave up with gunpowder and lighting a fuse, exploding the body of the slave, perhaps for punishment, but seemingly just as often because the slavemasters could. And the slaves began creating a series of low-level daily resistance to such a situation that is tragic and fascinating. "The majority of the slaves accomodated themselves to this unceasing brutality by a profound fatalism and a wooden stupidity before their masters. [...]Through the shirt of [a slave] a master can feel the potatoes which he denies he has stolen. They are not potatoes, he says, they are stones. He is undressed and the potatoes fall to the ground. "Eh! master. The devil is wicked. Put stones, and look, you find potatoes."

There is also a peculiar living of the slaves when they are so close to brutal death. The phenomenon of poisoning struck me particularly, which was apparently quite commonplace in Haiti before the revolution. Slaves used poison to alleviate their slavery at great expense of human life. Revenge poisoning by a slave of a slave master was common, as was the avoidance of splitting up families by poisoning all but one son of a slavemaster so that there would be but one heir. But so was other, more insidious poisonings. If it was heard that a master was to undertake more ambitious plantations, the slaves would poison one another until the numbers had been reduced to where such an undertaking would be impossible, in order to keep their workload down. Or if a kinder master were leaving town, some of the slaves and the property (cattle) would be poisoned, so that the master would have to stay to sort out the mess.

It is no wonder, given the ferocity of life for a slave, that when they organized insurrection, not just day-to-day resistance, they were ferocious themselves. I was dazzled by haunting images of the oppressed Haitians finding their revenge. "The slaves destroyed tirelessly[...]they were seeking their salvation in the most obvious way, the destruction of what they knew was the cause of their sufferings; and if they destroyed much it was because they suffered much. [...] "Vengeance! Vengeance!" was their war-cry, and one of them carried a white child on a pike as a standard. And yet they were surprisingly moderate, then and afterwards, far more humane than their masters had been or would ever be to them."

One particular passage left me breathless: that of Hyacinth. "Hyacinth, a bull's tail in his hand, ran from rank to rank crying that his talisman would chase death away. He charged at [the French] head, passing unscathed through the bullets and the grape-shot. Under such leadership the Africans were irrisistible. They clutched at the horses of the dragoons, and pulled off the riders. They put their arms down into the mouths of cannon in order to pull out the bullets and called to their comrades "Come, come, we have them." The cannon were discharged and blew them to pieces. But others swarmed over guns and gunners, threw their arms around them and silenced them."

Very quickly, the narrative of the Haitian Revolution is made into the narrative of Toussaint L'Overture. Toussaint's nickname and eventually surname, means "the opening," which refers to the skilled general's ability to tear holes through the lines of the French forces in the initial battles of the Haitian anti-colonial war, but also to the fact that he, like the author of this review, has a gap between his front two teeth. This is an adorable factoid.

There was much colonial political intrigue that I wasn't expecting. The slaves initially fought the French, and Toussaint allied himself with the Spaniards, the enemy of his enemy. England, smarting from a recent defeat in North America, also wanted new colonies. Spain had the best offer on the table, so the Haitian slaves fought both the French and the English. Then a revolution broke out in France, and the new republic abolished slavery and held that the Haitian slaves deserved freedom, a much stronger sentiment than Spain's promises. Toussaint and the slaves did a dramatic 180 degree turn, conquering the lands won for Spain back for the new French Republic, returning Spanish lands to France, losing land to the English, whom Toussaint expended a great deal of energy expelling from the colony. As the French revolution turned sour and the Jacobins were replaced by the Napoleonic forces of reaction, Toussaint and his slave army attempted to stay loyal to France. But Napoleon had no use for a colony without slavery, and Toussaint's slave army was forced to negotiate secretly with the English and fight off the French again, while the Spanish eagerly looked for a chance to take over. It was a pretty tense relationship with the major powers of Europe.

This was not the book I thought it would be. In ignorance, I had thought of the title of the book as an analogy, where the Haitian revolutionaries were akin to the Jacobins in France. As it turns out, Toussaint and his followers were in constant contact with the Jacobins, and saw themselves as fighting for the Jacobin revolution in France in one of France's colonies. This social revolution in France is borne out in Haiti. Unfortunately, the book spent a great deal of time describing Toussaint L'Overture avoiding social revolution, and attempting stability on the shakiest ground with conniving politicians that wished to see him back in chains. Toussaint was a brilliant general, to be sure, but he wanted to be a brilliant diplomat as well. This might have seemed practical at the time, but does not make for exciting reading, and is certainly not good revolutionary policy. Every inch that Toussaint gave, the French took a foot, and insulted the bravery of the slave army. Toussaint began to mold himself to the wishes of these conniving politicians, and this was especially distressing. He even went as far as executing his cousin Moises, who was leading insurrection against the French at a time when Toussaint was attempting to make conciliations that would have deeply compromised the freedom he had already won for his people. It is in these moments of weakness and betrayal that "the masses looked on, confused, bewildered, not knowing what to do."

But even Toussaint at his most bumbling knew of the inability to reenslave a free people. "We have known how to face dangers to obtain our liberty, we shall know how to brave death to maintain it." He was, for the most part a pretty amazing badass. He kept language about the slave trade in Haiti's constitution, so that slavers would continue to bring slaves to the Haitian shores, where he would free them from bondage. He invited slaves in the United States to escape to Haiti, where they would be free. He sent millions of francs to America to arm a militia to oust the European slave trade from Africa. And it was to his brilliant maneuvers on the battlefield that we credit the freedom of the Haitian black slaves, and the creation of the first black ex-colonial republic on the planet, and the second republic in the Western Hemisphere.

CLR James spends an unfortunate amount of time praising the discipline of the slave army in not destroying the material conditions that kept them in slavery. Though slavery was abolished, in order to prevent in the slaves the "slip into the practice of cultivating just a small patch of land, producing just sufficient for their needs," Toussaint "confined the blacks to the plantations under rigid penalties," with practices not unlike later feudalism, where a quarter of the produce was given to the laborers. "Toussaint knew the backwardness of the laborers; he made them work." "Losing sight of his mass support, taking it for granted, he sought only to conciliate the whites at home and abroad." There are also several remarks as to the discipline of the former slaves in not destroying property, when it was property that kept them enslaved. I am not impressed by morose discipline for the sake of discipline. CLR James wished to see in Toussaint and the Haitian revolution a Lenin figure, and Toussaint at his weakest, was able to give him that satisfaction.

The book takes a turn for the better just before the end, as the clutter of diplomacy with slaveowners and the compromise for the sake of discipline gave way to yet another war with France in the Haiti's war for independence. "neither Dessalines' army nor his ferocity won the victory. It was the people. They burned San Domingo flat so that at the end of the war it was a charred desert. [..."]We have a right to burn what we cultivate because a man has a right to dispose of his own labor, was the reply of this unknown anarchist.["]" "It was a people's war. They played the most audacious tricks on the French. [A French officer] heard at a musket's distance a low voice psaying "Platoon, halt! To the right, dress!" The French made their dispositions and waited all night for a sudden attack. When the day came, they found that they had been the dupe of about a hundred laborers. "These ruses, if one paid too much attention to them, destroyed one's morale; if they were neglected, they could lead to surprises."" The people of Haiti fought fiercely, not just with their lives, but with their deaths for freedom. "When Chevalier, a black chief, hesitated at the sight of the scaffold, his wife shamed him. "You do not know how sweet it is to die for liberty!" And refusing to allow herself to be hanged by the executioner, she took the rope and hanged herself." ( )
  magonistarevolt | Apr 30, 2020 |
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 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
C. L. R. Jamesprimary authorall editionscalculated
Fivel-Demoret, ClaudeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Naville, PierreTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Walvin, JamesEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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