C L R James

C L R James
© Steve Pyke/Getty Images


Cyril Lionel Robert James – better known as C L R James – was a historian, journalist, intellectual and socialist. His most famous work is The Black Jacobins, a history of the Haitian Revolution.

Early life in Trinidad and the UK

James was born in Trinidad in 1901. After attending school in Port of Spain, he worked as a teacher and became a member of a circle of anti-colonialist writers called the ‘Beacon Group’.

In 1932 James moved to a small town in Lancashire. He became a cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian – cricket was a lifelong love – before moving to London.

Political activism and writings

James was becoming increasingly politically active and interested in the struggles of working people. He was a Trotskyist, a Pan-Africanist and an advocate for Caribbean independence. His biographer Paul Buhle called James’s 1932 work, The Case for West Indian Self Government, ‘The first important manifesto for national independence in the British West Indies’.

In 1934 James wrote a play about the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture, which was performed in the West End with Black American actor and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson in the starring role. Decades later, in 1967, James wrote a new play on the Haitian Revolution titled The Black Jacobins. In 1936 his only novel, Minty Alley, which James had written in Trinidad, was published. It was a social commentary and reflected many of his political concerns.

World Revolution, a history of the rise and fall of the Communist International, followed in 1937 and The Black Jacobins, a history that returned to the Haitian Revolution, was published in 1938.

James was invited to tour the United States by the Socialist Workers' Party to support the cause of Black workers. In 1939 he met Trotsky, who was then living in Mexico, where James also met the artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. He stayed in the US until he was forced to leave in 1953, having outstayed his visa. He wrote a book about the work of Herman Melville while being detained on Ellis Island. He returned to England and began to report on cricket for the Manchester Guardian once more. In 1963 he would publish Beyond a Boundary, his memoir about cricket.

In 1958 James went back to Trinidad for a time, where he edited The Nation newspaper. Returning to Britain, he was involved in the anti-university experiment. He continued to write throughout his later years. He died in Brixton in 1989 and was buried in Trinidad.

Further information about the life of C L R James can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Related articles

Black British theatre: 1950–1979

Article by:
Natasha Bonnelame
Authors, artists and activists

Postwar migration to Britain from Africa and the Caribbean led to the development of black British theatre in the 1950s. Natasha Bonnelame introduces several of the most important black playwrights of the period, including Errol John and Wole Soyinka and describes the contexts in which their plays were staged.

Caribbean anti-colonial activists in Britain before World War Two

Article by:
Hakim Adi
Authors, artists and activists, Waves of history

At the turn of the 20th century, colonialism meant that colonial subjects did not have the right to determine their own future. Hakim Adi introduces us to Pan-Africanism and some of the key figures and organisations who campaigned against colonialism and racism before the outbreak of World War Two.

Directing The Black Jacobins

Article by:
Yvonne Brewster
Authors, artists and activists

The Black Jacobins, by Trinidadian historian C L R James, tells the story of the Haitian Revolution. Director Yvonne Brewster recalls how her groundbreaking production of the play in 1986 contributed to the development of black British theatre.

Related collection items

Related works

The Black Jacobins

Created by: C L R James

The Black Jacobins (1967) overview The Trinidadian socialist, historian and journalist C L R James first tackled ...