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Richly informative account of the Haitian revolution
on July 30, 2000
James delivers an exquisitely descriptive account of the only slave revolt that ultimately lead to the founding of a black republic in the heart of the Caribbean. This well written book reads like prose making it an easy read. James does an excellent job of letting the reader know who the players in San Domingo were before and during the revolution including - the big whites (planters); small whites (artisans and professionals); mulattoes and blacks. The psychological make up and desires of each class is fully explained so that the reader instantly understands why alliances between the groups were formed and dissolved over time and their effect on colonial government. The character of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the black general who led the slave revolt and administered the colonial government, is discussed throughout the book and insights into his thinking and perspective are gained through his written correspondence and his governmental orders. This allows the reader to gain an in-depth understanding of L'Ouverture as a 3 dimensional persona. The book contains an excellent bibliography for reference. Black Jacobins however is not without some minor flaws. First, although James gives a good account of the desires of various sectors of French society, he fails to give as rich an account of the motivations and perspectives of the French statesmen operating in France. Second, James discussion of Dessaline, L'Ouverture's general who persecuted the revolt to its end, is not dealt with in the same depth as the other major personas. Other writers have undoubtedly covered Dessaline but it would have been nice to gain James' perspective. Critics of James have gone as far as to suggest that he subverts racial dynamics for class dynamics. Two points on this issue refute this notion. First, James provides ample information on the role of race in shaping the motivations of the major partisan groups. Indeed, the reader gains a real appreciation for the prominent role mulattoes played in the revolution and how their attitudes on race and liberty helped shape the alliances they made. Second, writing as a son of Haitian immigrants, I can attest to the fact that Haitians don't perceive race prejudice in Haiti the same way blacks to in the United States. This is not surprising considering that blacks constitute not only the social but also a political majority in Haiti. Rather Haitian society is more sensitive to distinctions in color, education and background. Since color distinctions was the only factor relevant during the revolution, James only deals with that particular distinction and he does so in a balanced manner. Finally, the prospective purchaser of Black Jacobins should be aware that James espouses a Marxist worldview. However, his ideology is not so pervasive as to render the book unpalatable to non-subscribers of Marxism. James provides ample independent references for his historical accounts and the critical reader will find that the conclusions he draws are credible. I would recommend this book.