The Black Jacobins , first published in , changed the way colonial history was written. This is the ultimate success story in the context of imperialism. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. Rehearsed readings from this play were performed at the Bluecoat, Liverpool, on 27 October By , James had come to politics and Marxism.
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But for the Taino, their hopes of finding paradise were irredeemably lost. It is only with some appreciation of the world-historical importance and inspiration of the Haitian Revolution that one can begin to understand why Western imperial powers have tied a tight neocolonial noose around Haiti ever since.
Around two thirds of the people who were to ultimately make the Haitian Revolution began their lives growing up in Africa, before being captured, mostly at a young age, and enduring the violence and terror of the Middle Passage to the Americas in chains on European slave ships. It is hard to imagine worse circumstances in which to try to make history than those in which the men, women and children who were to make the Haitian Revolution found themselves.
But the heroic individual and collective resistance by the enslaved Africans themselves should never be forgotten. In The Black Jacobins James—himself the great grandson of slaves—begins with the slave experience and slave resistance. They undertook vast hunger strikes; undid their chains and hurled themselves on the crew in futile attempts at insurrection. What could these island tribesmen do on the open sea, in a complicated sailing vessel? To brighten their spirits it became the custom to have them up on the deck once a day and force them to dance.
Some took the opportunity to jump overboard, uttering cries of triumph as they cleared the vessel and disappeared below the surface. Death meant not only a release from their cruel bondage but also, the captives believed, a return to Africa. Mass suicide in order to spite the sadistic slave captains and owners was only too common.
Those who managed to escape overboard were in some ways the lucky ones. Arrival in the New World meant being branded with a hot iron, then working 12 or 18 hour days on the plantations, harvesting and processing sugar cane or other tropical produce. By the 18th century the French had partially displaced the Spanish on the western edge of Hispaniola and established a colony called Saint Domingue.
The French colonial regime was particularly brutal, but across the Caribbean slaves were literally worked to death, with an average life expectancy of seven years.
This Dante-esque living hell for the enslaved black labourers was often justified on the racist grounds that African people were a cursed subsection of humanity. Their labour power was craved by European capitalists for the growing plantation economies in the Americas. Lenin famously noted that there were three conditions for a revolutionary situation.
As a colony, there were also tensions amongst the rich. On the one hand, the master planter class dreamt of ultimate national independence from France and the freedom to trade on the open market with other countries for the best price and so better enrich itself. On the other hand, the colonial bureaucratic elite were direct representatives of the Bourbon monarchy and governed in the interests of the French metropole.
But all these internal and external contradictions did not fully manifest themselves until , when the Great French Revolution exploded in Paris, symbolised by the storming of the Bastille. The white planters of Saint Domingue, like those in other French colonies, now took the opportunity to join war on the representatives of the absolute Bourbon monarchy.
Soon white Saint Domingue, like France itself, was in a state of civil war. The local planter class were perhaps inspired by the American Revolution, which had succeeded in ending the colonial domination of Britain while, crucially, leaving the profitable institution of slavery preserved intact. There was a tiny free black population made up of slaves who had either bought their way out of slavery or been freed at some point.
However, far more significant was the 28,strong free coloured population—the mixed heritage so-called Mulattoes—mainly the offspring of illicit relationships between white slave-owners and black slave-women. Others lived a poorer existence and probably identified somewhat more with the plight of the enslaved black community.
Yet while the free people of colour were quite economically powerful, politically and legally they were excluded and discriminated against. Slave societies were based on a strict racial hierarchy and the free coloured population were detested and persecuted by whites because of their darker coloured skin. Their arguments increasingly carried weight in revolutionary France itself, where a transformation of mass consciousness was now under way. Neither the poor nor rich whites, however much they hated each other and might at times try to enlist the free people of colour as allies against one another, were prepared to tolerate any change to the racial status quo.
In the south of Saint Domingue the free coloured population organised itself militarily and fought the local whites. But in these early battles the free people of colour, while championing the ideals of liberty and equality, themselves maintained a deadly silence on the question of slavery. Yet without the slaves they could not really hope to defeat the whites militarily. Their dream of simply replacing the whites as the ruling planter class of Saint Domingue was a bankrupt one, and ultimately left them hopeless and exposed as a group.
Indeed, the French colony of Saint Domingue had always looked to farsighted observers as though it was a sleeping volcano that could erupt into social revolution at any moment. It was a matter not simply of the exceptional brutality and relentless injustices of the planters crying out to be avenged, but of the balance of forces.
By the time of the outbreak of the French Revolution in , the 30, or so whites lived amidst some , enslaved blacks. The French Revolution played an important role in creating for the first time among the slaves a feeling that supremely bold, revolutionary action could now win as a strategy. Slave resistance to slavery, despite the incredible dangers, was inevitable—indeed irrepressible—and slave-owners always lived in fear of being poisoned by their domestic slaves.
During the 18th century heroic bands of slaves would escape from the plantations and form independent maroon communities in the mountains which they successfully and fiercely defended from the colonial militias.
Though destined to be an ever-present thorn in the side of the colonial regime, maroon communities in some senses acted as a safety valve for the system—releasing the pressures inherent in slave societies. The Africans brought with them their own religions which, in dialogue with Catholicism, formed the new fusion of Vodou. There had been one large attempt at a slave revolt on Saint Domingue in the midth century—led by the African maroon leader Makandal—but it had been preemptively and ruthlessly crushed with relative ease by the white community and their masses of troops.
It was difficult for the great mass of slaves, illiterate and without formal education, to get any direct information on the revolutionary events in France themselves. But many slaves worked in domestic service and listened to the tense debates among the master planter class of Saint Domingue.
Accordingly, as James noted:. It was gravely inaccurate in fact, but they had caught the spirit of the thing. Of course, the proclamation of these new ideals by the revolutionary government in France had not led to any immediate change whatsoever in the lives of the enslaved across the French Empire.
The Declaration of The Rights of Man and Citizen in did not mention slaves, just as it did not mention women. Indeed it stated that property rights were sacred and slaves, after all, were property. But such revolutionary declarations had nonetheless thrown the minority free population of Saint Domingue into turmoil and civil war in the name of liberty. Now the slaves saw their opportunity to strike out on their own for freedom and began to plan accordingly.
After a series of mass meetings held in the northern mountain forests at night in early , and inspired by Vodou priests like Boukman, the slaves agreed to rise on 24 August The rising began a little prematurely, giving the planters just enough time to adequately defend Le Cap itself.
Carrying torches to light their way, the leaders of the revolt met in an open space in the thick forests of the Morne Rouge, a mountain overlooking Le Cap. There Boukman gave the last instructions and, after Voodoo incantations and the sucking of the blood of a stuck pig, he stimulated his followers by a prayer spoken in Creole. He sees all that the white man does. The god of the white man inspires him with crime, but our god calls upon us to do good works.
Our god who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us…listen to the voice of liberty, which speaks in the hearts of us all. That very night they began. Each slave gang murdered its masters and burnt the plantation to the ground…precautions…had saved Le Cap, but the preparation otherwise had been thorough and complete, and in a few days one half of the famous North Plain was a flaming ruin. From Le Cap the whole horizon was a wall of fire.
From this wall continually rose thick black volumes of smoke, through which came tongues of flame leaping to the very sky. For nearly three days the people of Le Cap could barely distinguish day from night, while a rain of burning cane straw, driven before the wind like flakes of snow, flew over the city and the shipping in the harbour, threatening both with destruction. Any revolutionary movement that does not go forward does not stand still but goes backwards, and to have gone backwards would have meant capture and certain death for the rebels.
The black slave revolt in the north simply had to grow and spread, which it did. It soon pulled behind it and into its ranks sections of more privileged groups such as free blacks and even at times the free coloured population. Toussaint was to be the most important recruit into the ranks of the slave revolt.
The struggle lasted for twelve years. The revolt is the only successful slave revolt in history, and the odds it had to overcome are evidence of the magnitude of the interests that were involved. The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organise themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day, is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement.
Before very few Europeans questioned the slave trade, let alone agitated for its end. Colonial slavery in the Americas had been seen as something natural and essential to the success of the emerging global capitalist system and the making of the modern world.
This change had first expressed itself in August …but they were soon formed into regiments and were hardened by fighting.
They organised themselves into armed sections and into popular bodies… At bottom the popular movement had acquired an immense self confidence. The former slaves had defeated white colonists, Spaniards and British, and now they were free.
They were aware of French politics, for it concerned them deeply. Black men who had been slaves were deputies in the French Parliament, black men who had been slaves negotiated with French and foreign governments.
Black men who had been slaves filled the highest positions in the colony. There was Toussaint, the former slave, incredibly grand and powerful and incomparably the greatest man in San Domingo. There was no need to be ashamed of being a black. The revolution had awakened them, had given them the possibility of achievement, confidence and pride. That psychological weakness, that feeling of inferiority with which the imperialists poison colonial peoples everywhere, these were gone.
This was another tiny Caribbean island which had been scarred by the experience of slavery and centuries of imperial domination by Spain, France and Britain. The systematic and daily injustices that resulted from the pervasive racism of a regime premised on white supremacy clearly echoed the situation in colonial Saint Domingue.
James for the first time brought cold hard rationality to the inspired frenzy of the Haitian Revolution. Yet his critical stress on black agency and the dramatic transformation in consciousness and confidence of the Haitian masses was combined with a masterful grasp of the totality of social relations within which they acted. Moreover, in Russia the proletariat did not arise gradually through the ages, carrying with itself the burden of the past as in England, but in leaps involving sharp changes of environment, ties, relations, and a sharp break with the past.
In a period of world-wide revolutionary change, such as that of and our period which began with , the revolutionary crisis lifts backward peoples over centuries and projects them into the very forefront of the advanced movement of the day. Throughout his study of the Haitian Revolution, James ably demonstrated for the first time that it was not simply an inspiring struggle on a tiny island on the periphery of the world system, but was inextricably intertwined with the Great French Revolution throughout.
It pushed the revolutionary process forward in the metropole itself, investing notions of human rights with new meanings and universal significance. This detailed how in February , when the French Revolution was at its height and in the presence of an inspiring deputation representing the liberation struggle in Saint Domingue, the National Convention not only finally faced political reality—the fact that the slaves had already abolished slavery in Saint Domingue—but, in a glorious moment of revolutionary history, voted to abolish slavery throughout the Republic in the name of the Rights of Man.
In a fundamental sense, the destinies of the two revolutions were from now on explicitly bound together. Few, if any, embodied this new spirit of solidarity and fraternity more than Toussaint Louverture himself. The ideals of the Enlightenment, of liberty, equality and fraternity, became a material force to be reckoned with in Saint Domingue, embodied in the black rebel slave army built and led to victory after victory by Toussaint.
The Black Jacobins Reader
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Making The Black Jacobins
Carolyn E. Fick, In the third chapter of the section, leading scholar of the Haitian Revolution Carolyn E. Fick recalls working as a student with James while researching her own ground-breaking volume of Haitian revolutionary history.
The Black Jacobins
More about this series. Author: Rachel Douglas. James's complex and ever-evolving Marxism, taking seriously his own estimation of his intellectual accomplishments. Her extraordinary book makes a pivotal contribution to our understanding of James's masterpiece and is essential reading for all those engaged with understanding the Haitian Revolution and the decisive place of The Black Jacobins in its interpretation. James rewrote and rethought The Black Jacobins over the course of his life.
CLR James and the Black Jacobins
He and his revolutionary army of self-emancipated slaves defeated the three great empires of the eighteenth century—Spain, England, and France—and finally won independence after a decade of struggle in Our rulers of course minimize the role of revolution in history, even the ones that brought them to power, for fear of highlighting the fact that fundamental change comes from social revolution. But they hold a particular animus toward the Haitian Revolution. In its time it directly threatened the slave empires in the new world.