- Paperback: 448 pages
- Publisher: Vintage; 2 edition (October 23, 1989)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0679724672
- ISBN-13: 978-0679724674
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 86 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #21,222 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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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Over the half millennium that it took for the Feudal World to break up, a paradigm composed most of philosophical abstractions, like freedom, equality, brotherhood and fraternity, was commandeered by those who followed the Feudal Lords, the Planters, and the bourgeoisie of the major slaveholding Western capitols, who used them cynically as rhetorical top cover. All carefully laced with romantic visions and myths of hope and promise, they were systematically and purposefully worked into Western political discourse as idealistic asymptotes to be achieved. But none of this cheap talk was ever meant to become a reality for the world ‘s Black slaves.
Like carrots on a stick, high-minded principles along with the whip and the rack, soon became viable labor management tools. Tied just above the heads of those on the bottom rung of the social ladder, these symbolic carrots were used to spur “the little whites” and “slaves of all colors,” on to ever greater production for the “big whites. ”The aristocracy of skin color” was the foremost of such symbolic carrots held over the heads of “little whites.”
The emerging theory was that: so long as their shoulders remained heavily tethered to the grindstone and the profits kept rolling in, little harm was done in having laborers believe that someday there would be pies falling from the sky, or that “little whites,” due to skin color alone, were better than blacks; or that somehow they could eventually become “big whites,” or even that slaves, who were used up so quickly that they had to be replenished every three years, could eventually become voting citizens? After all, religions had sold similar kinds of pie in the sky about the end of the world for centuries and life after death. So where was the harm in it?
However, over time, those on the bottom slowly began to realize that misuse of high-minded abstractions to keep them redoubling their labor and the profits that only went to the “big whites,” was all a cruel “power game” played on the playing field and on the terms of “big whites,” at everyone else’s expense.
If high-minded principles were ever to become real and stop being just rhetorical top cover for the Planters to use only as cynical fodder to keep the heads of those on the bottom at the wheel making obscene profits for the slave drivers, it could only happen that those principles could become real only if “little whites” and “slaves” acquired enough political power together to turn the social order upside down. And that is exactly what they did in Haiti.
Using the brutal facts on the ground in both the French and Haitian Revolutions, and implying by analogy that the same occurred during the American revolution, except that the American Revolution was really a counter-revolution, the author has shown us how those on the bottom rung of the social ladder in Haiti — the “little whites,” “mulattoes,” and “African slaves,” who believed in the high-minded principles of the French and American Revolution, even when the Colonial masters themselves did not — were able to rise above its most cynical interpretations to seize power and make them real for all the Haitian and French people.
On a global canvas driven by, and punctuated by, the Seven Years War, the author weaves a narrative of details that expresses the brutal realities of those times; and he does so in the most cold-blooded of terms. The graphic details of how the war was played out day-by-day, decision my decision, intrigue by intrigue, and treachery by treachery, over more than a decade, can now replace the mythical high-minded, syrupy romantic versions: Freedom was won only after the stronger powers eventually became the weaker ones on the battlefields, and were then forced to fold their hands and sue for peace. QED
The force that animated both the American and French revolutions is no longer much of a secret. It was the same nasty inhuman undertow of geopolitical competition that animated the rest of the Western world: the mindless quest for the enormous global profits generated by labor from the African slave trade.
While the unfolding drama was centered mainly in the Caribbean (mostly San Domingue, Jamaica, Barbados and Cuba), it became a template and a trope that extended into America and across South America as far away as Brazil.
This story is centered in the nature-rich, but still notoriously emotionally backward and wretched little voodoo-laced Caribbean environmental paradise called San Domingue (today’s Haiti). Paradoxically, the logical end-point to this story is what all of the corrupt geo-competitive slave-dependent states had long feared: a slave revolt engineered by a single slave who was also so brilliant a politician, a master strategist and tactician, a straight-shooting much respected negotiator, a preacher, and a warrior who led from the front, one who believed with all his heart in the principles that the French Republic had used only as rhetorical top cover, that he was compared to, and defeated Napoleon Bonaparte on the battlefield. His named was Toussaint L’ Ouverture.
If you can imagine a three-dimensional chess board in which checkmate is the last shot fired in a circular firing squad, with the second and third dimensions being class and race, and the first being royalty and nationality, then you will have an approximate idea of what the multi-tiered multi-cultured back-biting treachery, brutality, torture and hatred was like in France, Haiti and America during the decades through their respective revolutions. These were really untidy affairs.
In fact, it may not be easy to see that the deepest truth told in this disturbing narrative is that the French Revolution and the slave revolt in San Domingue, were in truth just two of the unintended consequences of —indeed lingering imperatives of — the “so-called” earlier American Revolution, which a decade before had set the table for, and had become the template for them both. And which, if the complete truth were ever told, was itself but a fearful convulsive reaction to the expected impending end of the transatlantic slave trade.
Couple that with the prohibition against moving west into Indian territory imposed by the Treaty of Paris, and a slightly increased British war surtax, and you will then see why the “so-called” American Revolution in fact became little more than what Professor Gerald Horne called a counter-revolutionary imperative: It was these very modest calls for peaceful coexistence at the end of the Seven Years War, that had set the table for, and set in motion, the “so-called” American (counter) Revolution. Each of these very modest peace conditions (we are led to believe in canonical American history), made the reactionary American patriots, hopping mad enough to launch their own revolution?
Thus, the full truth is finally told here: all three — the American and French Revolutions, as well as the Haitian slave revolt — were all of one ignominious piece, clandestinely instigated by the vengeful reaction of the ostensible winner of the Seven Years War, the then “not-so-great-again,” Great Britain.
In fact, the exercise left here for the astute reader is understanding that in the background, the devilishly clever ostensible winner of the Seven Years War, England, seeded and set in motion what would become the only successful black slave revolt in world history.
While it is indeed true that on paper England was the last man left standing on the battlefield in the Seven Years War, and thus was able to dictate its peace terms, it was all but self-evident even then that England was the winner “in name only.”
Just as was the case with the losers, paradoxically, England found its exchequer empty, a causality of seven years of brutal war with troops flung all across the globe, and with slave insurrections popping-up in its Caribbean and American colonies. As a result, its cotton and sugar cane colonies in the Caribbean as well as in the Carolinas were being shattered.
It must have seemed to England that it had cleared away the geopolitical debris from a whole continent only to see the ungrateful Americans swoop down under it and take over — turning themselves into an empire even before they had become a nation!
Britain thus found itself all but written out of the enormous profits of the transatlantic slave trade, and out of the competition for empire in both the Caribbean and the entire North American continent: San Domingue, Brazil and the Carolinas were “in;” Jamaica, Barbados and England were “out.”
The new global centers of sugar cane, indigo, corn, tobacco, and cotton were now San Domingue and the Carolinas. France and America, two ostensible losers in the Seven Years War, now sat in the “Cat bird seat.” How had it happened, and what to do?
In between the lines in the subtext, the author tells us that it was the very greed and prosperity of the French and English bourgeoisie, respectively the real profiteers of the slave trade, had started both revolutions. With every increase in slave-generated profits, the maritime bourgeoisie and colonists’ greed simply inched them ever closer to their own doom. As he notes on page 55: “The colonists slept on the edge of Vesuvius.” The mindless increase in slaves, coupled with increasing numbers of absentee planters, conspired to fill the colonies with a dangerous lopsided black-white demographic. In Jamaica and Barbados alone, resentful, increasingly intractable, ready to rebel slaves, out-numbered whites 100-1.
Machiavellian England took due note of this situation and came up with the right plan to both lick its wounds and exact revenge from its enemies, the erstwhile losers of the Seven Years war. It made a virtue out of necessity by moving its colonial production from the plantations it had lost in both the American, and its revolt-ridden slaveholding Caribbean colonies. It moved this production to its other colony, India, where ostensibly, free labor, instead of slave labor, was used — that is, if one could call paying Indians a penny per day, slave-free labor?
This maneuver would allow England to have its cake and eat it too. For, at least on its face, it would end British dependence on the brutal immoral and inhuman African slave trade, while at the same time, allow it to point an accusing finger back at the hypocrisy of those unwilling to give it up — and who in fact still relied on it for life-and-death — yet continued to proclaim freedom, fraternity, brotherhood and equality for all strata of French and American societies?
By simply calling for an immediate end to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, England occupied the moral high ground alone, and thus this superior position allowed it to bring down both revolutionary houses.
But more importantly, by stopping the transatlantic slave trade in its tracks, this Machiavellian English master stroke complicated the internal politics of both nations irreparably, and thus helped destroy the very basis of its geopolitical rivals’ enormous profits.
The plan England set in motion worked beyond perfection. For it did much more than just expose the moral hypocrisy of its rivals and irreparably undermined their internal politics. One of the most important unintended consequences of calling loudly for the end of the transatlantic slave trade is now firmly enshrined into Western History: It set in motion slave revolts that lit up the Caribbean like Roman candles on the Fourth of July. They could be seen as far away as San Domingue, Virginia, North and South Carolina, New Orleans, and all across South America and Cuba.
This book tells the story of how the most spectacular of those revolts happened: That is, how the ex-slave, Toussaint L’Ouverture, at age 45, led the first and only successful African slave revolt.
His was a remarkable revolution, one that Western history books, even today, are still loathe to talk about. It was won over 12 years after defeating a Napoleon army of 60,000, a British expeditionary force of 100,000 — and after also receiving timid support from both America and Spain.
In a footnote to history, that for the first time only becomes clear in the subtext of this book, the reader will now learn the true reason why Thomas Jefferson reversed the support given to L’Ouverture by his predecessor John Adams.
To his historical credit, Adams saw L’Ouverture for what he was: a true republican, a fighter for the same principles of freedom and liberty that the “so-called” Founding Fathers in America, and the very revolutionaries overthrowing the French Republic, had falsely claimed to have also been fighting for? Apparently Adams believed in them as deeply as did L’Ouverture?
Our history books tell us Jefferson went to Haiti ostensibly to aid his sworn enemy France in putting down the L’Ouverture led revolt? But, even though Jefferson had close ties with France, that explanation still makes no historical sense? It makes no sense because US policy through Adams already supported L’Ouverture as a republican revolutionary in the same vein as the American revolutionaries, and moreover, he alone was fighting against America’s sworn enemy France.
Everyone knew that if Napoleon, who hated blacks (and frequently used the N-word), survived Haiti, his next move was going to be to reinstate slavery all over the French Antilles; return to New Orleans, kick Spain out, and use it as a launchpad to retake the North American continent from colonial America. Since France already owned everything between the Appalachian mountains and Spanish Texas; and could count on Spanish troops stationed in Cuba to join in, this was a no brainer: the French threat was the greatest one facing a new nation trying desperately to hold on to its new empire, one won only by default.
But Jefferson was as much a Machiavellian player as was Napoleon and the Kings of France and England. And had his own hidden reasons for going to Haiti panned out, it would have been Jefferson rather than Napoleon, or King George picking up the pieces after what was expected to be a quick and certain L’Ouverture defeat. In which case, Jefferson would then take over Haiti and all French territories in North America as consolation prizes. And then it would be Jefferson instead of Napoleon who would reinstitute the multi-racial multi-cultural Slavetocracy that had previously existed in Haiti as well as in French held America.
However, against all odds, Toussaint L’Ouverture dashed both Jefferson’s King George’s and Napoleon’s hopes by winning the revolt and taking over Haiti himself. But as history turned out, Jefferson lucked-out anyway, as after the lost in Haiti, an already war-weary France just gave up the fight and all its territory in the New World through what became known as “the Louisiana Purchase,” And as the saying goes, the rest is history.
Here in this book are to be found the always tense and scary details, written about beautifully. But a word of warning is in order: A reader would be remiss — he would commit an unconscionable and an unforgivable sin to get so engrossed in the writing as to miss the deeper overarching narrative running along in the subtext.
For those who want to know before hand what Toussaint L’Ouverture was really like, there is no better summary of how others felt about him than what was said about his declaration supporting the revolution sent to Paris, just as things for him were about to turn for the worst. I repeat verbatim those comments from the last paragraph of chapter eight on page 198:
“Personal ambition he had. But he accomplished what he did because, superbly gifted, he incarnated the determination of his people never, never to be slaves again.
Soldier and administrator above all yet his declaration is a masterpiece of prose excelled by no other writer of the revolution. Leader of a backward and ignorant mass, he was yet in the forefront of the great historical movement of his time.The Blacks were taking their part in the destruction of European Feudalism begun by the French Revolution, and liberty, and equality, the slogans of the revolution, meant far more to them than to any Frenchman.
That was why in the hour of danger Toussaint, uninstructed as he was, could find the language and accent of Diderot, Rousseau, and Raynal, of Mirabeau, Robespierre and Danton. And in one respect he excelled them all. For even all these masters of the spoken and written word, owing to the class complications of their society, too often had to pause, to hesitate, to qualify, Toussaint could defend the freedom of the blacks without reservations, and this gave to his declarations a strength and a single-mindedness rare in the great documents of the time. The French bourgeoisie could not understand it. Rivers of blood were to flow before they understood that elevated as was his tone, Toussaint had written neither bombast nor rhetoric but the simple sober truth.”
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.