This is a first edition of The Black Jacobins (1938), C L R James’s classic history of the Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804.
James had previously dramatised the events of the Revolution in his 1936 play Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History and, in 1967, he turned to drama once again with his second play on the subject, The Black Jacobins.
What was James’s approach in his history of the Haitian Revolution?
In 1791, enslaved Africans in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) rose up against the profoundly brutal slave regime. Led by Toussaint L’Ouverture and later by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the revolutionary struggle lasted for 12 years and resulted in the abolition of slavery in Haiti and Haitian independence. The Haitian Revolution was the first and only successful slave revolt in the Americas and Haiti was the first independent black republic outside of Africa.
James’s pioneering account of these events helped transform the way we look at colonial history. His Marxist analysis of the Haitian Revolution puts the slaves at the centre of their own story, demonstrating that their freedom came out of their collective mobilisation and not as a result of the good will of abolitionists. He focusses on the achievements and political personality of Toussaint, whose remarkable leadership brought about the end of enslavement in Haiti. Throughout the book James draws parallels between the Haitian uprising and anti-colonial struggles in the 20th century.
How was Saint-Domingue society organised?
In Chapter 2, titled ‘The Owners’, James analyses the highly stratified Saint-Domingue society before the Revolution, including the position of the ‘mulattoes’ (a contemporary term used for people of mixed African and European heritage, many of whom were free). Skilled and educated, many mulattoes began to acquire wealth and property, inspiring ‘hatred and fear’ among the white colonists (pp. 25–27). The plates on [p. xiv] depict enslaved and free members of this complex society.
What challenges did Toussaint face as leader of the Revolution?
In his analysis of Toussaint’s character and military strategy, James draws parallels with the challenges faced by Lenin and the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution (p. 236). Lenin used members of the bourgeoisie to fill important posts as an interim measure until the proletariat had gained the necessary skills, just as Toussaint had ‘[kept] whites in his army’ for similar reasons. ‘Neither revolution had enough trained and educated officers of its own’, James observes (p. 237).
Toussaint’s tragic flaw, argues James, was in his failure to communicate his motives with his generals (p. 240). He was a naturally reserved man who kept his cards close to his chest, in contrast to Dessalines with his bold and rousing speeches to the army.
What does James say about the abolition campaign?
James explodes the myths surrounding abolitionism, arguing that it was financial self-interest that motivated the desire to end slavery. The British, James argues, were alarmed by the phenomenal wealth the Saint-Domingue colony brought their rivals, the French, and sought to cut off the supply of slaves to the island with the aim of ruining the economy (pp. 37–39). ‘With the tears rolling down their cheeks for poor suffering blacks’, argues James, ‘those British bourgeois who had no West Indian interests set up a great howl for the abolition of the slave-trade’ (p. 38).
Throughout The Black Jacobins, James highlights the challenge and dilemma of ‘independence’ in a world still dominated by capitalism and imperialism. Of Dessalines’s proclamation of independence and taking the throne as emperor in October 1804, James notes that he ‘… entered into his inheritance, tailored and valeted by English and American capitalists, supported on the one side by the King of England and on the other by the President of the United States’ (p. 305).