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The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution Paperback – October 23, 1989
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In 1789 the French colony of Saint Domingue was the most profitable real estate in the world. These profits came at a price: while its sugar plantations supplied two-thirds of France's overseas trade, they also stimulated the greatest individual market for the slave trade. The slaves were brutally treated and died in great numbers, prompting a never-ending influx of new slaves.
The French Revolution sent waves all the way across the Atlantic, dividing the colony's white population in 1791. The elites remained royalist, while the bourgeoisie embraced the revolutionary ideals. The slaves seized the moment and in the confusion rebelled en masse against their owners. The Haitian Slave Revolt had begun. When it ended in 1803, Saint Domingue had become Haiti, the first independent nation in the Caribbean.
C.L.R. James tells the story of the revolt and the events leading up to it in his masterpiece, The Black Jacobins. James's personal beliefs infuse his narrative: in his preface to a 1962 edition of the book, he asserts that , when written in 1938, it was "intended to stimulate the coming emancipation of Africa." James writes passionately about the horrific lives of the slaves and of the man who rose up and led them--a semiliterate slave named François-Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture. As James notes, however, "Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint."
With its appendix, "From Toussaint L'Ouverture to Fidel Castro," The Black Jacobins provides an excellent window into the Haitian Revolution and the worldwide repercussions it caused. --Sunny Delaney
"Brilliantly conceived and executed...The absorbing narrative never departs from its rigid faithfulness to method and documentation."
"Mr. James is not afraid to touch his pen with the flame of ardent personal feeling -- a sense of justice, love of freedom, admiration for heroism, hatred for tyranny -- and his detailed, richly documented and dramatically written book holds a deep and lasting interest."
-- The New York Times
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The Haitian revolution, triggered by the revolution of 1789 in France, lasted from 1791 to 1802 and was the only successful slave revolt in history.
Toussaint L'Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, was, by all accounts a remarkable man. He was born a slave win the French colony of San Domingo. This was a very prosperous colony whose primary export was sugar cane. San Domingo was a slave economy which exploited the labor of African slaves in the sugar plantations. The life of a plantation slave was extremely difficult, lashings were commonplace and the life expectancy of a slave was about three years. In 1789 the population was divided into three primary groups a minority of about 30,000 whites, half a million black slaves and, inevitably, some 40,000 mulattoes. When the French Revolution burst onto the world in 1789 the blacks on the island took its Declaration of the rights of man at face value, a promise of their liberation.
CLR James, the author of Black Jacobins, was a Troskyite / Marxist historian from the island of Trinidad who wrote his book in 1938 on the eve of the Second World War. He later lived and died in London (see blue plaque). As a passionate partisan, James clearly wishes to paint Toussaint L'Ouverture as a revolutionary hero in the Marxist mold. James attempts to fit Toussaint into the Procrustean bed of his Marxist dialectic, but with scant credibility--perhaps due to the absence of urban proletariats in 18th century San Domingo. Toussaint has been variously described as the "black Spartacus," the"black Washington" and the "black Napoleon". Toussaint had actually been freed in 1776, years before the revolt. As a child he received no formal education, but did receive some instruction from the Jesuits. At the outset of the uprising, he carefully escorted his own masters to safety. Toussaint famously said, "I was born a slave, but nature gave me the soul of a free man."
Consider, however, the way in which CLR James describes Toussaint L'Ouverture...
"A sincere Catholic and believer in the softening effect of religion on manners, he encouraged the practice of the Catholic religion, and wrote to that old friend of the blacks, the Abbe Gregoire, for advice. He favoured legitimate children and soldiers who were married, and forbade his officials and commandants to have concubines in the houses of their wives, a legacy of the old disreputable white society....
Personal industry, social morality, public education, religious toleration, free trade civic pride, racial equality this ex-slave strove according to his lights to lay their foundations on the new State. In all his proclamations, laws and decrees he insisted on moral principles, the necessity for work, respect for law and order, pride in San Domingo, veneration for France. He sought to lift the people to some understanding of the duties and responsibilities of freedom and citizenship.
He had the extraordinary faculty of satisfying all who came to see him, and was known all over the island as a man who never broke his word. Even Sonthonax, the Jacobin lawyer and a very finished intriguer himself, said in the French Chamber that Toussaint was incapable of telling lies" ("Much like George Washington").
Toussaint wrote in a letter, "I have always done as much as lies in my power to preserve the property of each and every one..."
After the abolition of slavery he quickly recognized economic necessity proclaiming, "Work is necessary, it is a virtue, it is for the general good of the state." James continues, "His regulations were harsh. The laborers were sent to work 24 hours after he assumed control of any district, and he authorized the military commandants of the parishes to take measures necessary for keeping them on the plantations."
Toussaint said, "Learn, citizens, to appreciate the glory of your new political status. In acquiring the rights that the Constitution accords to all Frenchmen, do not forget the duties it imposes on you. Be but virtuous and you will be Frenchmen and good citizens...Work together for the prosperity of San Domingo by the restoration of agriculture, which alone can support a state and assure public well being...The age of fanaticism is over. The reign of law has succeeded that of anarchy.
"The finance of the old regime was complicated and irksome. Toussaint demanded first 'an exact inventory of our resources'; then abolished the numerous duties and taxes which were only a source of fraud and abuses. He gave the gourde, the local unit of money, a uniform value for the whole island...Thus he was able to get rid of the numerous officials whom the old system demanded; each taxpayer knew how much he had to pay, and the simplicity of the system and his strict supervision raised the standard of probity...He lowered the tax on fixed property from 20 to 10 per cent, and on the advice of Stevens, the United States Consul, abolished it altogether soon afterwards. The 20 per cent tax on imports acted as a check on the purchases of the merchants, and Toussaint lowered it to 10 per cent; later, to encourage the poor, he lowered the duty on articles of the first necessity to 6 per cent."
He negotiated trade agreements with the United States and Great Britain.
Toussaint L'Ouverture, an uneducated ex-slave, was, in short, far more successful in executing his economic program than has been the current occupant of the White House! Toussaint, in spite of being an ex-slave rather than a slave owner, was, Like George Washington, a deeply conservative revolutionary (see earlier post, George Washington in London? 2/8/12), . He was a devout Catholic in spite of his island's peculiar fondness for Voodoo. He supported reconciliation with the whites as opposed to retribution. He defended property rights for all races and favored low taxes and free trade--he even bought 30,000 muskets from the Americans. Sixty-two years before Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Toussaint was abolishing human slavery in a piece of North America. He created a written Constitution that made him Governor for life. This document also said, "There cannot exist slaves, servitude is therein forever abolished. All men are born, live and die free and French."
Toussaint loved liberty, guns, religion, military discipline and low taxes. Today he might be labelled a "bitter clinger" for these convictions. Voltaire, who detested slavery, and Toussaint were both "God and Liberty" conservatives.
It was on the battlefield that Toussaint displayed his most remarkable powers. In the course of the 12 year struggle the slaves under his leadership "defeated the local whites and the soldiers of the British monarchy, a Spanish invasion, a British expedition of some 60,000 men, and a French expedition...under Bonaparte's brother-in-law. " He demonstrated tremendous physical courage usually leading his men from the front of each engagement.
Toussaint, however, made one great mistake. He trusted and was faithful to the French who ultimately betrayed him. Napoleon, believing the dispossessed whites in France who claimed that San Domingo could only recapture its former economic glory with the re-institution of slavery, dispatched his brother-in-law, General Leclerc, with an army of 40,000 thousand men to recapture San Domingo for France. Napoleon, who claimed the "La Revolution c'est moi" was committed to destroying one of its few undeniable accomplishments--the abolition of slavery. After a brutal campaign, Toussaint was eventually captured and sent back to France where he was imprisoned in Fort de Joux in the Doubs. He died shortly afterward in 1803.
After his capture he said, "In overthrowing me you have cut down in San Domingo only the trunk of the tree of liberty; it will spring up again from the roots, for they are many and they are deep." His words were indeed prophetic.
The occupying French forces were decimated by Yellow fever. General Leclerc himself died in Haiti at age 30, leaving Pauline Bonaparte a widow. Napoleon's forces were ultimately defeated (the final straw was the Battle of Vertières on November 18, 1803) by Toussaint's second-in-command, Dessalines, leading to "the establishment of the Negro state of Haiti which has lasted to this day."
If you enjoyed Black Jacobins you will also like America Invades: How We've Invaded or been Militarily Involved with almost Every Country on Earth by Kelly / Laycock and Italy Invades
But every once in a long while, one comes across a history book that is so well written and engagin, that it becomes far more than just a book recounting past events, far more than just a book one learns from, and instead becomes an experience, a book to enjoy! This is such a rare book.
I purchased it simply to have soemthing to teach me about Toussaint L'Ouverture and Haitian Independence, and instead got a book I could hardly put down.
Besides the excellent writing, what makes this book especially wonderful and memorable to read, is that James doesn't just discuss the Haitian Revolt, but goes into details about the French Revolution, and its inner complexity and contradictions. He also touches often upon the more psychological dimensions of the struggle.
Now, as others have pointed out, James' Marxism does tint his writing, but never to a degree as to give the impression that one is reading a dishonest or heavily biased account of events.
One minor, or perhaps not so minor, limitation of the book is that it does not treat the successful post-L'Ouverture Haitian fight and independence with the same detail as the previous times. I suppose for that one needs to take a look at other books, but nevertheless aside form the final events, all the history is right here covered brilliantly and with great insight.
Highly recommended, for anyone interested in Haitian history, as well as just good solid well-written non-fiction books.