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A Classic Book on the History of Human Liberation

CLR James gives readers a deep insight into the making of the revolution in Haiti, and the end of slavery in the island.
A Classic Book on the History of Human Liberation

Image Courtesy: New Socialist

James, C L R,   ‘The Black Jacobins’-Toussaint L’Ourverture and the San Domingo Revolution, second revised edition, October 1989, Vintage Books(Random House), New York, first ed. 1963, pages 426, price $16.

This is a classic book of the first revolution in the Third World. This is the story of the 1791-1803 Haitian revolution, which became a model for liberation movements later. Author C.L.R. James was born in 1901 in Trinidad. The first Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago, Eric Williams, was James’s pupil.  James wrote on cricket, apart from writing on revolutionary movements and fiction. He wrote on Herman Melville in 1953, a novel Minty Alley in 1927, World Revolution (1937), A History of Negro Revolt (1977), Notes on Dialectics (1980), and At the Rendezvous of Victory (1984). C

James was foremost a Marxist in the Caribbean region and tried his hand in Trinidad politics, but was not successful. His pupil Williams even detained him. Before his death in 1989, James was awarded the highest award of Trinidad &Tobago -- The Trinity Cross – that at last recognised his contribution to Trinidad’s society.

James had dedicated his book on Haiti’s revolution to his British friends, Harry and Elizabeth Spencer. A map of Haiti and its surroundings has been given in the beginning of the book. In the Preface to the 1963 Vintage edition, James mentioned that this book was written in 1938. The publisher has not been mentioned. In the 1963 edition, after the Cuban liberation of 1959, James added the chapter, ‘From Toussaint L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro’, looking at future of Caribbean nations in the Cuban socialist model. But, the dream of James has still not been realised in the Caribbean.

In Preface to first 1938 edition, James has referred to the importance of San Domingo for France. In 1789, the French Revolution took place, Bastille and Jacobin became iconic names. Inspired by the events in their master country, France, the slaves revolted against French occupation in 1791 in Haiti, so James called them ‘Black Jacobin’.

The struggle of the San Domingo slaves took 12 years to succeed. The defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803 led to the establishment of the Negro state of Haiti, the first free Black or Negro state. All other Black states in Africa or South America/Caribbean were still under colonial control of Spain, France, England, Dutch or Portugal. The hero of this revolt was the gifted slave, Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Apart from the two prefaces, James has written the Prologue for the book and 13 chapters. The bibliography is exhaustive, an index is given and the appendix is in the prior mentioned essay, ‘From Toussaint L’ Ouverture to Fidel Castro’. In the Prologue, James has given a brief background of the region, where Christopher Columbus first landed on the island of San Salvador, looking for gold. Local Red Indians directed him to Haiti, a large island, rich in the yellow metal. Spaniards annexed this island in early 16th century. Slavery was introduced. Later, France, Spain and Britain slaughtered each other for 30 years to possess this island in the region. France got a larger part of the island in the 17th century. More and more slaves were brought from Africa and the human drain from Africa ran into millions.

In the first chapter of the book, ‘The Property’, James depicts the establishment of slavery and the conditions in which the slaves lived. They worked for 18 hours a day and, as per James, “worked like animals, the slaves were housed like animals “(page 10). For the smallest of faults, the slaves received the harshest punishment. Whipping was common, a piece of hot wood was placed on buttocks of a victim, salt, pepper, citron, cinders, hot ashes were poured on bleeding wounds. Slaves were tied with irons on their hands and feet, logs of wood tied behind to carry wherever they walked. Blowing of a slave was -- ‘to burn a little powder in the arse of a nigger’. But in the midnight celebrations of their African cult, Voodoo, they would sing—Eh! Eh! Bomba! heu! heu!.

The song meant—‘we swear to destroy the whites and all they possess; let us die rather than fail to keep this vow’—and they died in hundreds, as the vow could not be kept!

A literary opponent of slavery was Abbe Raynal, who even before the French Revolution, called for the slave revolution. He was a priest and wrote a book on the exploitation of oppressed people by the white masters. This book inspired Toussaint to make a revolution in Haiti.

In the second chapter, ‘The owners’, James depicts the human and natural resources of Haiti. Port-au-Prince was the official capital of the colony, and even today is the capital of the country. James explains the demography of the island. There were blacks, whites and Mulattos – the offspring of black-white couples. Mulattos were in a better condition than the Blacks. The San Domingo Blacks heard about the French Revolution exploding; Bastille, the symbol of feudal reaction, was stormed in July 1789.

 ‘Parliament and Property’ is the title of the third chapter. In 1790, a colonial assembly was held. Mulatto and Blacks sometimes united against the Whites, while sometimes the Mulattoes did not support Blacks, rather they supported the French occupants. In France’s national assembly, a group called ‘Friends of the Negro’ was formed. Lots of struggles took place, and one liberal Mullato leader, Oge, was tortured to death by the Whites.

In fourth chapter, The San Diego Masses Begin’, the slave rebellion explodes. Toussaint joined the rebellion one month later. Four months of insurrection came to a dead end. Even good liberals--Friends of the Negro -- did not do anything to abolish slavery. In fifth and continuing chapter, ‘And the Paris Masses Complete’, about 6,000 thousand men sailed from France in 15 ships to crush the slave revolt. On August 29, 1793, slavery was abolished by Sonthanax.  Toussaint’s forces were growing now, and he did not respond to French overtures, but after the French Assembly passed the decree for abolition of slavery, Toussaint joined the French under threat from British forces.

‘The Rise of Toussaint’ is the sixth chapter, which shows the power of Toussaint, who was advising French Governor Laveaux, but who ignored his advice and capitulated. In seventh chapter, ‘The Mulattoes Try and Fail’, Laveaux was arrested by Mulattoes, released by Toussaint, who was proclaimed as ‘Assistant to the Governor’. In the eighth chapter, ‘The White Slave Owners Again’, there are episodes of intrigues in the ruling sections, Sonotheaux, was a friend of Blacks, but was dictatorial. Toussaint was liked by all-- Blacks, Whites and Mulattoes.

‘The Expulsion of the British’ is the title of the ninth chapter. In the three-year war in West Indies, Britian lost 80,000 men. ‘Toussaint seizes the Power’ is title of 10th chapter. By 1800, Toussaint was victorious, he was a master of the whole island, though there were internecine killings among Blacks. ‘The Black Consul’ is the 11th chapter. Toussaint in his control tried to develop the island, gave it a constitution in which the Church was subordinate to the State.

‘The Bourgeoisie Prepares to Restore Slavery; is 12th chapter. It is about the time of reversal; Napoleon Bonaparte was on the rise and he hated the Blacks. Toussaint committed blunders, but his failure, according to James “was failure of enlightenment and not of darkness” (page 288).

The final and 13th chapter is the longest, ‘The War of Independence’. This is history of deceits, forgery and bravery. Toussaint was arrested after failures, which was a shock to the whole population. Bonaparte restored slavery in Guadeloupe. That was an alarm for Haiti. Governor Leclerc Charles Belair and his wife were arrested, condemned and shot. Leclerc died. His successor Rochambeau drowned so many people in the Bay of La Cap, and 1,500 dogs were unleashed to hunt the Blacks.

It was Dessalines from among the Blacks who faced the crisis. A boy of 19, he told the oppressors that “you don’t know how to die. See how to die”. He set himself ablaze and got burnt without uttering a groan. It reminds one of Guru Arjun Dev on a hot plate and Bhagat Singh on the gallows. A woman shamed her Black chief husband and took a rope to hang herself, rather than let the oppressors hang her!

In prison, Toussaint was made to die with torture, hunger and insults. He died on April 7, 1803.On November 29, 1803, Dessalines made the proclamation of liberation of Haiti. On December 31, the new state was named Haiti. In 1805, the Whites were massacred in Haiti. Dessalines was crowned in October 1804.

The book’s appendix is written equally passionately and focuses on Trinidad, the Caribbean and West Indies’ glorious tradition of anti-colonial struggles. The author refers to many novels and poems to indicate that West Indies should follow Castro. He quotes from Aime’ Cesaire’s poem:

But the work of man is only just beginning

And it remains to man to conquer all

The violence entrenched in the recesses of his passion

And no race possesses the monopoly of beauty,

Of intelligence, of force, and there

 Is a place for all at the rendezvous

 of victory.........

Truly, a great and essential book to understand human history!

Chaman Lal is a retired Professor from JNU and Honorary Advisor to Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre, New Delhi. He was a visiting Professor to The University of West Indies in Trinidad during 2011. The views are personal.

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