An introduction to C L R James’s 'The Black Jacobins'

An introduction to C L R James's The Black Jacobins

Rachel Douglas traces the evolution of C L R James’s ground breaking work on the Haitian Revolution, which developed in the form of articles, a published history and stage plays.

The Black Jacobins, first published in 1938, changed the way colonial history was written. Its author, C L R James, would later recall his motivations for writing this history book: that he was tired of hearing about Africans being oppressed and decided to write a book making people of African descent the active subjects of their own history, instead of the passive objects of other people’s history. This project is writ large throughout the various incarnations of The Black Jacobins, even at the level of individual sentences in James’s articles, histories and plays about the Haitian Revolution, where the enslaved are the subjects of active verbs.

Several of James’s works – two plays (1936 and 1967), two editions (1938 and 1963) of a classic history and several articles from the 1930s and 1960s/70s – tell the history of the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), in which enslaved black labourers took on the most powerful armies of the great powers of their day (France, Britain and Spain), and won. In fact, James’s 1936 play on the subject, titled Toussaint Louverture, bore the subtitle: The Story of the Only Successful Slave-Led Revolt in History. This is the ultimate success story in the context of imperialism. James uses the Haitian Revolution and its main revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture for vindication purposes.

The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C L R James, 1938

The Black Jacobins Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution

‘The revolt is the only successful slave revolt in history’: C L R James introduces his subject in the preface to the first edition of The Black Jacobins.

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Writing back against racism and fascism: James’s work in the 1930s

James’s first published references to the Haitian Revolution and its leader appeared in a 1931 article. In ‘The Intelligence of the Negro: A Few Words with Dr Harland’, James writes back against the pseudo-scientific racism in a previous article by a certain Sidney C Harland, an English scientist based at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad. Using Haitian history and the biography of Toussaint L’Ouverture, James’s 1931 quarrel with Dr Harland provides a prototype for the thrust of James’s later writings on the Haitian Revolution. James delivers hammer blows to his adversary Harland’s attempts to ‘prove’ the dangers of ‘race admixture’ (i.e. interracial relationships) and black inferiority.

Another antidote to such racist poison was James’s play Toussaint Louverture, performed on 15 and 16 March 1936 at London’s Westminster Theatre and starring African American actor Paul Robeson in the title role. Rehearsed readings from this play were performed at the Bluecoat Theatre, Liverpool, on 27 October 2013. By 1936, James had come to politics and Marxism. He had his political awakening in Nelson, Lancashire where he started reading Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (1930) and Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852). In London James led a small Marxist group. He met up with Malcolm Nurse, his childhood friend from Trinidad, who by then had adopted the name George Padmore and become a communist. Together, they founded a Pan-African movement, which focussed on Black revolts all over Africa, the West Indies and beyond. James and Padmore formed two related organisations: the International Friends of Abyssinia (IAFA) in 1935, and its later incarnation the International African Service Bureau (IASB), which existed from May 1937 onwards.

The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C L R James, 1938

The Black Jacobins Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution

C L R James dedicated The Black Jacobins to Harry and Elizabeth Spencer, whom he made friends with in Nelson, Lancashire. They loaned James money so that he could travel to Paris to conduct research for his book.

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During this period, James campaigned against fascist Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia/Ethiopia. Toussaint Louverture was deployed as a vehicle for propaganda to oppose fascism. In the play, James draws parallels between sovereign Ethiopia and self-governing Haiti, which became the first independent Black republic in 1804. Indeed, from the start of his career, the question of West Indian self-government had preoccupied James. In 1933 he published a pamphlet titled The Case for West Indian Self-Government, excerpted from his longer work The Life of Captain Cipriani (1932).

Scandalous hypocrisy characterises all of the two-faced imperialists throughout the play. Representatives of the great powers only agree on one aim: to counter the rise of Toussaint. Special condemnation is reserved for the US Consul Tobias Lear, a real historical figure whose character brings the American occupation of Haiti (1915–34) to mind. James exposes the imperialist antics, naked greed and racism of Lear and the other representatives.

James revisions the past-as-history out of the same raw research and political contexts as the 1936 play. When James tells the past as history, instead of showing the past as stage drama, he can add commentary in the text and footnotes and in doing so more overtly condemn the imperialim antics of the great powers. Unlike the play, which does not come with any sources and footnotes scrolling below the stage during performance, he engages other sources in dialogue as he deploys the apparatuses of footnotes and the extensive annotated bibliography.

Trotsky, socialism and the theory of permanent revolution

In the history, James extrapolates Trotsky’s theories of ‘permanent revolution’ and ‘combined and uneven development’ by applying them to colonial contexts and anti-colonial revolution in another part of the world – the Caribbean and the Haitian Revolution – and to earlier time periods, too. Permanent revolution as defined by Trotsky articulates the idea that revolution and socialism were possible in a ‘backward’ country such as Russia, despite its lack of capitalist development. Others, including Marx, argued that socialist revolution would happen first in those countries where capitalism was most fully developed. Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution is fundamentally linked to a related idea: ‘combined and uneven development’. Trotsky applied this idea to the situation in Russia, which had pockets of society which were still feudal along with other areas featuring the most advanced forms of capitalism.

James has his ‘Black Jacobins’ enacting permanent revolution long before the Russian Revolution, on which Trotsky’s theory was based. On slave plantations, James shows a system producing vast concentrations of unwaged and exploited slaves, who are capable of challenging colonial power because their exploitation and grievances are at boiling point. These enslaved people are depicted as living in the most appalling and ‘backward’ conditions – and yet on the plantations they live side-by-side with the plantation machinery that is powering economic growth back in mainland France, and also the wealth being accumulated by the ‘big’ planters of the great houses in the French colony.

Map of Saint-Domingue, c. 1750

Map of San Domingo, c. 1750

18th-century map of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, created when the French slave colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) was growing rapidly. It shows how the island was divided between the two ruling empires of Spain and France.

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The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C L R James, 1938

The Black Jacobins Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution

This map, ‘to illustrate the war of independence’, was reproduced in The Black Jacobins.

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Civil rights, Black Power and West Indian identity: The Black Jacobins in the 1960s

A revised edition, published in 1963 led to The Black Jacobins becoming an active text again in the 1960s. It acted as catalyst and road map for guiding new generations emerging during the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and beyond. This is the version of the history that is best known to this day. Changes to the history reflect the political positions developed by James and the Johnson-Forest Tendency (his political organisation in the United States) during the 1940s and to early 1950s. These were that revolution does not require a leadership vanguard, it does not need to begin in Europe and it can be self-organised and spontaneous. The revised history focusses more squarely on Toussaint’s tragic flaw and on what he should have done: talked to the people.

Toussaint L'Ouverture on horseback

Toussaint L’Ouverture on horseback

A powerful image of Toussaint L'Ouverture, a former slave who helped to fight colonial forces on the island of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) and was a leader of the Haitian Revolution.

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One prominent revision in the 1963 edition was the addition of the famous appendix entitled ‘From Toussaint Louverture to Fidel Castro’, which updated the history in light of new historical developments. The appendix signposts the road to West Indian identity through the work of Caribbean writers, including V S Naipaul, George Lamming and the poet-statesman Aimé Césaire from Martinique in the French Caribbean. In the appendix, James provides his own translation of, and commentary on, Césaire’s renowned poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal [Notebook of a Return to My Native Land], making it his own.

Retelling the story from below: James’s second play

Radically different to James’s 1936 Toussaint L’Ouverture play is his 1967 play, The Black Jacobins. It premiered 14–16 December 1967 at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, against the backdrop of the Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Biafran War, July 1967–January 1970).

James uses the second play to foreground alternative popular leaders of whom there is little archival trace. While he writes out ‘top’ revolutionary leaders, such as Toussaint and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, he writes in alternative, popular characters, including Moïse (Toussaint’s adopted nephew who leads uprisings against his uncle), Samedi Smith and low-ranking ordinary soldiers. Here, James shifts the spotlight downwards, retelling the story of the Haitian Revolution from below as a corrective to the more usual top persons’ history.

Letter from Jean-Jacques Dessalines, 1793

Letter from Jean-Jacques Dessalines, 1793

Jean-Jacques Dessalines was one of the leaders of the Saint-Domingue (Haitian) Revolution of 1791–1804. He was instrumental in the founding of independent Haiti and was its first ruler.

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Originally, James wanted the play to end with an epilogue, which would have fast-forwarded to the present day. James wrote three versions of the epilogue. The first version was based on the failure of the West Indies Federation – the brief political union of Caribbean islands from January 1958 to May 1962. Other epilogue versions were less Caribbean-specific. James billed the epilogue as ‘completely adaptable to the circumstances and environs of the production’, to be ‘altered as necessary’. Speakers A–C would have been played by the same actors as Toussaint, Dessalines and Christophe. Speaker D, the same actor as Moïse, would have morphed into a modern-day political organiser, and delivered a rousing closing speech about the true nature of independence and the need to take power over the land and resources out of foreign hands. The epilogue has only ever been performed once, as rehearsed readings at the Bluecoat Theatre, Liverpool, in 2013.

Typescript of The Black Jacobins by C L R James

Typescript of The Black Jacobins play by C L R James, 1967

The epilogue from The Black Jacobins.

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All of the sprawling drafts of this second play, with their multiple alternative scenes, are testament to James’s radical rewriting. Compared to the first play, The Black Jacobins portrays Toussaint in a more negative light. James recentres the play so that it revolves around Toussaint’s sentencing to death of Moïse, and the showdown between the two characters which leads up to this. From being completely absent from the first play, and then progressively written in through the two editions of the published history, Moïse becomes pivotal in the later play.

Typescript of The Black Jacobins by C L R James

Typescript of The Black Jacobins play by C L R James, 1967

Scene featuring Moïse from The Black Jacobins.

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Staging The Black Jacobins

As one of the Caribbean’s most significant and pioneering historical plays, The Black Jacobins has been staged by the region’s most innovative contemporary directors, including Yvonne Brewster, Rawle Gibbons, Eugene Williams and Harclyde Walcott. There have been productions of it in Jamaica (1975, 1982), Trinidad (1979, 1993) and Barbados (2004). Brewster directed the major London production of 1986 – almost 50 years to the day since the two London performances of Toussaint Louverture in 1936 with Paul Robeson in the lead. In the event, the 1986 London production coincided with the ousting of Haitian dictator Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier on 7 February 1986.

Programme for The Black Jacobins by C L R James, 1986

Programme for The Black Jacobins by C L R James, 1986

Talawa Theatre Company’s production of C L R James’s play The Black Jacobins (1967) was performed in 1986 at the Riverside Studios in London. Directed by Yvonne Brewster, it was the first play to be staged by the newly formed Black-led theatre company.

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The tentacles of the Duvalier dictatorship (1957–86) were also spotlighted by Rawle Gibbons’s 1993 production during the 1991–94 coup which removed Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Actors playing Tontons Macoutes – the militia formed during the Duvalier dictatorship – drove the audience out of their seats during the interval, while others called on them to act against the usual indifference to Haiti, and to sign a petition demanding Aristide’s reinstatement.

Gibbons and Marvin George set up a Haitian-centred carnival band Jouvay Ayiti [New day/daybreak Haiti] in Trinidad after the 2010 Haitian earthquake, when Haitian students came to the University of the West Indies in the Anglophone Caribbean. Currently, Jouvay Ayiti is performing under the banner ‘Return of the Black Jacobins’, which takes its inspiration from James’s play and the Haitian Revolution to create a type of mas/mass action, using the medium of mas(querade) from Trinidad carnival and combining it with Haitian carnival, rara. ‘Return of the Black Jacobins’ is also calling for reparations for slavery. There are plans to take these Black Jacobins-inspired activities to Haiti as, to date, the play has never been performed on Haitian soil. The Black Jacobins in all its multiple forms was a major achievement, with C L R James becoming one of the prime makers of West Indian history, politics and literature.

This article also appears on Discovering Literature: 20th Century.

  • Rachel Douglas
  • Rachel Douglas is Lecturer in French at the University of Glasgow. Her work focuses on Caribbean literature and film in French and English with a special focus on Haiti. She has a book forthcoming with Duke University Press entitled The Making of The Black Jacobins: The Drama of C.L.R. James’s History. Other work includes Frankétienne and Rewriting: A Work in Progress (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009); the first single-author monograph on Haiti’s leading writer and visual artist. Recent research interests include questions of rewriting, the process of archiving, autotranslation and the literary in postcolonial contexts, and postcolonial visual cultures.