The Black Jacobins: the Haitian revolution against slavery

Submitted by AWL on 26 August, 2020 - 10:30 Author: Dan Davison
Haitian revolutionaries

This is a speech by Dan Davison, a labour activist and sociology PhD student at the University of Cambridge, for a talk on C.L.R. James and the Haitian Revolution held in July 2020. All page references are to C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (London: New edn., Penguin 2001).


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Before I begin, I’d like to note that, given the time period in which they were written, the language of the sources I’m dealing with is, shall we say, somewhat awkward to 21st century ears. Where possible, I’ll try to use modern terminology, but several of the quotes I make or titles I refer to will feature language that was considered respectful at the time but isn’t anymore, e.g. “Negro”.

With that out the way, let’s talk about C.L.R. James and the Haitian Revolution! The Haitian Revolution began on 22 August 1791 as a slave uprising in what was then the French colony of Saint-Domingue. It ended on 1 January 1804 with the declaration of Haiti as an independent state, the first state in history to ban both slavery and the slave trade unconditionally from the first day of its existence.

The revolution was the largest slave revolt since the rebellion Spartacus led against the Roman Republic in 73-71 BCE. Not only that: it is the only successful black slave revolt in the history of the world and had major ripple-effects, quickening the demise of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and enabling further steps in the Atlantic Revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.

While it was published over 80 years ago now in 1938, the pre-eminent account of the Haitian Revolution is still The Black Jacobins: Touissant L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C.L.R. James. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Black Jacobins put the Haitian Revolution on the map. At the time, it was not normal to see the Haitian Revolution as at least as significant an event as the American and French Revolutions that also occurred in the late 1700s. Now that’s an increasingly common position.

For those who don’t know, the Jacobins were a radical republican political club in France that enjoyed political ascendancy during the French Revolution. Hopefully it will become apparent over the course of this talk why James chose “Black Jacobins” as the title for his book.

So then, who was C.L.R. James? He was a Marxist, humanist, and pan-Africanist writer and activist born in Trinidad in 1901. In Trinidad he received a very broad education at the Queen’s Royal College from 1910 to 1918, where he then taught English and History for several years.

He arrived in England in 1932 and worked as a journalist, including as a cricket correspondent for The Guardian. He became acquainted with Marxist writings and methods in England and joined the Trotskyist movement around 1933.

In 1936, James published Minty Alley, the first novel by a black West Indian to be published in England, and wrote a three-act West End play about the Haitian Revolution, also titled The Black Jacobins, starring the legendary actor and singer Paul Robeson. During this time, James’ friend Harry Spencer gave him the money he needed to go to the archives in France for a few months to conduct his research on the Haitian Revolution.

In 1939, James came to the US and joined the Socialist Workers’ Party (‘SWP’ - no direct relation to the British group of the same name). During this time, he participated in a famous set of exchanges within the American Trotskyist movement on the question of whether black Americans could be regarded as a nation within the US with the right to self-determination, with Trotsky and James leaning more towards accepting that position and Max Shachtman and Ernest Rice McKinney taking a more sceptical view of the matter.

There were heated debates in the SWP during and after the Soviet invasions of Poland and Finland in 1939-40. Several SWP members grouped around Shachtman left to form a new organisation called the Workers’ Party. These “heterodox Trotskyists” (as opposed to the “orthodox Trotskyists” who stayed in the SWP under James Cannon’s leadership) came to view the Stalinist USSR as an exploitative class society that should not be given even critical support.

They instead decided that socialists had to support the international working class against both the capitalist and Stalinist camps, hence why that political tradition is known as Third Camp socialism, best summed up in the famous Cold War slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but international socialism!”. James went with Shachtman into the Workers’ Party, where he and Raya Dunayevskaya headed a minority tendency, known as the “Johnson-Forest tendency” from their pen names.

James split from the Workers’ Party in 1947. According to James, this was because he believed Shachtman’s political concerns to be insufficiently revolutionary for the situation at hand. He briefly re-joined the SWP, only to leave again in 1950.

After that point, James left the Trotskyist movement altogether. He had a varied literary and scholarly career, including a curious stint as a high dignitary of the People's National Movement, the governing party of Trinidad from 1956-86, founded by his former student Eric Williams. Eventually, James passed away in Brixton, London in 1989.

If that’s our brief background picture of James himself, what motivated him to write Black Jacobins? Most pressingly, he found none of the existing books on the Haitian Revolution satisfactory, especially as they gave little attention to the role of the slaves themselves.

For this reason, Black Jacobins is sometimes referred to as a “history from below”, though I’d argue that label draws something of a false dichotomy. Whilst Black Jacobins certainly underscores how the masses in Haiti and France shaped events, James also spotlights notable individual figures who played decisive roles, most obviously the black Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, who James (approvingly paraphrasing the French historian Alphonse de Beauchamp) describes as “one of the most remarkable men of a period rich in remarkable men” (p. xviii).

James also wrote the book with an eye on the contemporary context of anti-colonial struggle in Africa and the Caribbean. Throughout the 1930s, he’d been an active campaigner for such causes as the independence of the West Indies and opposition to the Italian invasion and occupation of Ethiopia.

In other words, James wanted his book to relay the historical significance of a great black African slave revolution, thereby underscoring the kind of world-changing agency that exploited and oppressed blacks have exercised in the past and could exercise again in the present.

If that’s why James wrote Black Jacobins, what can we say about the Haitian Revolution itself? For those who don’t know, Haiti is part of a large Caribbean island called Hispaniola, which had been controlled by Spain from the 1490s until the 17th century. After years of French buccaneers settling on it, Spain ceded the western part of the island to France, who named it Saint-Domingue in 1625 (in Spanish “San Domingo”, the name James uses most frequently and, for that reason, the name I’ll use most frequently). The Spanish-controlled part of the island was known as Santo Domingo and eventually became the modern-day Dominican Republic, whose capital is still called Santo Domingo.

In 1789, there were approximately 25,000 whites, 30,000 free black people, and 500,000 slaves in what is now Haiti. The slaves worked on sugar and coffee plantations, and James pulls no punches discussing the horrors they went through. As well as the wanton death and cruelty the slaves faced packed into ships’ galleries from Africa to the Caribbean, James vividly describes the brutality and terrorism the San Domingo slavers employed to keep the slaves in line: whipping them, mutilating them, burning them alive, filling them with gunpowder and blowing them up, fastening them near ant or wasp nests, and many other sickening forms of torture.

The rate of death among the slaves was so high that the French had to import new slaves constantly, such that two thirds of the San Domingo slave population at any given time were African born. Nonetheless, a spirit of resistance remained strong. The slaves would secretly hold midnight voodoo celebrations where they would sing a song in Kikongo, which James translates into English as: “We swear to destroy the whites and all they possess; let us die rather than fail to keep this vow”. (p. 15)

As James goes on to say: “The colonists knew this song and tried to stamp it out, and the Voodoo cult with which it was linked. In vain. For over two hundred years the slaves sang it at their meetings, as the Jews in Babylon sang of Zion, and the Bantu today sing in secret the national anthem of Africa.” (p. 15)

Slaves who escaped and formed bands of free men in the woods and forests were known as maroons. There were attempted slave revolts before the Haitian Revolution, including that of the Maroon leader Mackandal, who spent six years building up an organisation of black slaves to poison the slave owners before he was captured and burned at the stake in 1758.

As for the rest of the San Domingo population, James notes several significant racial and socio-economic groups. First, the “big whites”, meaning the planters, as well as the wealthy merchants and agents of the maritime bourgeoisie in the towns. Second, the “small whites”, meaning the artisans, lawyers, notaries, and other subordinate classes in the white population. Third, the Royalist bureaucracy, composed of Frenchmen who governed the island. As James puts it:

“Here then was the first great division, that between great whites and small whites, with the bureaucracy balancing between and encouraging the small whites. Nothing could assuage or solve this conflict. The moment the revolution begins in France, these two will spring at each other and fight to a finish.” (p. 29)

Additionally, there were the free blacks and free mulattoes (that is, mixed-race people), known collectively as free people of colour. They were better educated and more literate than the slave population, often trained as artisans, and frequently served in either the army or the administration of the plantations. However, as James notes, “[t]he advantages of being white were so obvious that race prejudice against the Negroes permeated the minds of the Mulattoes who so bitterly resented the same thing from the whites” (p. 34-35).

James places the Haitian Revolution of 1791 in relation to the French Revolution of 1789. In 1788 in France, the monarchy decided to restabilise the State’s finances by convening the Estates General, a kind of Parliament (at that point dormant since 1614) consisting of the three estates, meaning the social orders or classes that made up the realm; namely, the clergy (the “First Estate”), the nobility (the “Second Estate”), and the remaining 98% of the people (the “Third Estate”). The Estates General convened on 5 May 1789. The monarchy wanted each estate to vote separately and the nobility stood firm on this, but the Third Estate, which by this point included the French bourgeoisie, insisted on the estates voting together.

Furious at feudal privilege and its stifling effect on France’s development, the Third Estate declared themselves the National Assembly on 17 June 1789. It refused to dissolve and on 14 July the Paris masses, having armed themselves, stormed the Bastille, a prison in Paris and a major symbol of royal authority. By the end of July, bourgeois municipal councils and militias had taken power in most French cities. A massive peasant revolt swept France in late July and early August, destroying enclosures, claiming back common land, and rebelling against paying tithes and feudal dues.

On the night of 4 August, the National Assembly drew up a decree to abolish feudal privileges and proclaim equality before the law. On 26 August the National Assembly adopted the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which famously states that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights”.

King Louis XVI refused to ratify the decrees and the declaration, but on 5 October about six or seven thousand women, and then 20,000 National Guardsmen, marched on Versailles from Paris and forced the King to ratify the decrees. Famously, these events would culminate in the new National Convention’s abolition of the monarchy on 21 September 1792 and King Louis XVI’s execution by guillotine on 21 January 1793.

Importantly for present purposes, an ocean away, the people of San Domingo keenly felt these political shockwaves. The General Assembly in Paris passed legislation to grant limited local autonomy to the colonies, including a provision calling for “all local proprietors…to be active citizens”. The white Colonial Assembly in San Domingo chose to interpret this provision as applicable to the planter classes only, leading to a mulatto rebellion in October 1790. With the assistance of French troops, the rebellion was put down by local planter militias and, in February 1791, the mulatto leaders were publicly executed.

Under pressure from the Abbé Grégoire and others in light of these events, on 15 May 1791 the French National Assembly granted political rights to all free people of colour born of free mothers and fathers. Whilst this itself was a major compromise that would have extended political rights to only a few hundred free blacks and mulattoes, the San Domingo white colonists furiously resisted even that.

But what of the slaves? If I may quote James at length: “They had heard of the revolution and had construed it in their own image: the white slaves in France had risen and killed their masters, and were now enjoying the fruits of the earth. It was gravely inaccurate in fact, but they had caught the spirit of the thing. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” (p. 66)

On 22 August 1791, the slaves on the northern sugar plain of San Domingo rose up in a coordinated rebellion, sparking the Haitian Revolution. Here we should turn to that major player in these events I brought up earlier: the former slave Touissaint L’Ouverture. Thought to have been born in 1743 and freed in 1776, L’Ouverture was a very well-read man. Politically, he was already a Jacobin by the time of the slave revolt.

It is believed that he took the name “L’Ouverture” as an allusion to an anti-slavery passage in the Abbé Raynal's influential encyclopaedia, Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies, a major work of the Age of Enlightenment. As James describes, “Touissant alone among the black leaders, with freedom for all in his mind, was in those early months of 1792 organizing out of the thousands of ignorant and untrained blacks an army capable of fighting European troops” (p. 95).

Likewise, it’s worth bearing in mind that several key black Haitian revolutionary leaders in this period, like André Rigaud and Louis-Jacques Beauvais, had gained military experience as volunteers in the French imperial forces sent to assist the Americans in their revolutionary war against the British Empire. It’s not widely spoken of now, but black French colonial subjects were enthusiastic to help the American revolutionary effort because they could see the potential its core ideas held for black liberation in the Americas and elsewhere. To illustrate, 900 black volunteers from San Domingo were among the 1,900 French troops who retook Savannah in Georgia from the British in 1779, just over a decade before the Haitian Revolution.

As you can imagine, Spain and Britain were keen to see their French imperial rivals lose a prized colony. The leadership of the slave insurgency chose to ally with Spain, which – as you might recall – controlled the eastern part of the island of Hispaniola. By 1792, the rebel slaves controlled a third of the island. In 1793, they forced the colonial commissioners to abolish slavery in the colony, which then sent a delegation to France to argue in favour of abolishing slavery in the whole French Empire.

That same year, as part of its own war against France, Britain sent its forces to San Domingo in what Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger called a “great push” to take the colony. The British seized a French fort in San Domingo in September 1793 and over the next five years would send over 20,000 men in 200 ships, which at the time was the largest military expedition Britain had ever launched.

As for what the delegation from San Domingo found when they arrived in revolutionary France, although France had always had pro-abolition voices, like the Friends of the Negro society, who by this point had been raising concerns in the National Assembly for several years, at the start of the French Revolution in 1789, the French masses were largely indifferent to the question of abolition. The intervening events in San Domingo changed all that. As James observes, the Paris masses of 1793-94 felt towards the blacks:

“…as brothers, and the old slave owners, whom they knew to be supporters of the counter-revolution, they hated as if Frenchmen themselves had suffered under the whip…It was not Paris alone but all revolutionary France. ‘Servants, peasants, workers, the labourers by the day in the fields’ all over France were filled with a virulent hatred against the ‘aristocracy of the skin’. There were many so moved by the sufferings of the slaves that they had long ceased to drink coffee, thinking of it as drenched with the blood and sweat of men turned into brutes.” (p. 113)

Now the French bourgeoisie faced the prospect of San Domingo falling into the hands of the First Republic’s enemies, as well as the pressure of not appearing as hypocrites to the masses of France when proclaiming that all men are born free and equal. So on 4 February 1794, without a debate, the National Convention passed a declaration for abolition across the whole French Empire: “in consequence, it decrees that all men, without distinction of colour, living in the colonies are French citizens and will enjoy the rights guaranteed by the Constitution”.

Upon hearing of the decree, L’Ouverture assumed the title of General-in-Chief of the Army and led the Haitian and French forces in a long campaign to oust the British invaders. By 1798, he’d dealt Britain a humiliating defeat: of the over 20,000 British troops sent to capture San Domingo, 60% died either in battle or from yellow fever.

However, it was far from smooth sailing from that point. June 1799 saw an internal conflict, known as the War of the Knives, between L’Ouverture and his former ally Rigaud. Eventually, Rigaud was forced to flee, leaving L’Ouverture as the de facto ruler of San Domingo, although still ostensibly loyal to France. In January 1801, L’Ouverture successfully led an expedition to capture Santo Domingo, the Spanish-held side of the island, and free the slaves there.

San Domingo’s growing autonomy from France under L’Ouverture’s rule quickly attracted unwelcome attention. In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte became First Consul of France and in 1801 he sent the French Army to restore colonial order, led by his own brother-in-law Charles Leclerc. Leclerc was more than happy not only to deport L’Ouverture, but also to wage a war of extermination. In his own words to Bonaparte on 7 October 1802:

“…we must destroy all of the black people in the mountains — men and women — and spare only children under twelve years of age. We must destroy half of those in the plains and must not leave a single person of colour in the colony who has worn an epaulette.”

That same year, Bonaparte reinstated slavery in the rest of France’s Caribbean colonies, but in October, rumours that France was planning to reinstate slavery in San Domingo as well sparked the black population into rebellion once more, this time for Haitian independence.

In May 1802, Jean Baptiste Brunet of the French Revolutionary Army arrested L’Ouverture and deported him to France, ostensibly because they suspected him of plotting an uprising. Eventually, L’Ouverture would die in prison on 7 April 1803, but as he boarded the frigate Créole that would take him to France, he gave a defiant warning: “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 numerous and they are deep”.

With L’Ouverture gone, Jean-Jacques Dessalines led the Haitians in the independence struggle. The war was tough and costly on both sides, but the Haitian revolutionaries endured against Napoleon’s forces. The French officers were taken aback by their opponents’ ability and tenacity. As Leclerc wrote back home: “Unfortunately the condition of the colonies is not known in France. We have there a false idea of the Negro…We have in Europe a false idea of the country in which we fight and the men whom we fight against.” (p. 287)

As James recounts: “The dishonest political position of the French Army was now taking its toll. The soldiers still thought of themselves as a revolutionary army. Yet at nights they heard the blacks in the fortress singing the Marseillais, the Ça Ira, and the other revolutionary songs. Lacroix records how these misguided wretches as they heard the songs started and looked at the officers as if to say, ‘Have our barbarous enemies justice on their side? Are we no longer the soldiers of Republican France? And have we become the crude instruments of policy?’” (p. 257-58)

On at least some occasions as the French army started to disintegrate, French soldiers switched sides, almost certainly helped by the practice L’Ouverture had put in place of explaining the Haitian cause to French prisoners of war. As James notes, “[a]ll that was needed was a highly political detachment of white Jacobins fighting in the black ranks, and calling on Leclerc’s soldiers to come over” (p. 257). Similarly, there were Polish legionaries in Napoleon’s army whose own experience of national oppression made them empathise with the black Haitians fighting for their freedom and led them to defect.

At the Battle of Vertières on 18 November 1803, Dessalines led the Haitian rebels to victory against French General Rochambeau’s forces in the closing battle of the war. On 1 January 1804, Dessalines declared independence, pledging that the Haitians would forever “ensure the empire of liberty in the country that gave us birth; we must seize from the inhuman government that has for a long time kept us in the most humiliating torpor, all hope of re-enslaving us; we must then live independent or die”. That commitment to abolishing slavery forever was enshrined in Article 2 of Haiti’s first constitution in 1803. Importantly, unlike the two-step approach taken by the European colonial powers and the United States, Haiti abolished slavery and the slave trade at the same time.

Lamentably, the loss of colonial rule did not prevent France from finding other ways of imperialistically preying on Haiti. In 1825, France – which at this point was a monarchy again – extorted Haiti into an indemnity of 150 million francs, framed as compensation to the French colonists for lost revenues from slavery, in return for French recognition of Haitian independence. Haiti accepted France’s terms under threat of war. The Baron de Mackau, whom King Charles X of France had sent to deliver the ordinance, arrived in Haiti in July 1825 with 14 brigs of war carrying over 500 cannons. The debt took 122 years to pay off and was finally settled in 1947, but the decades of regular payments left the Haitian government chronically insolvent.

Nevertheless, the Haitian Revolution would have major ripples throughout the Western Hemisphere. In the US, the Haitians’ struggle for freedom became a major point of reference for pro-abolition forces before and during the American Civil War of 1861-65. The white abolitionist John Brown, who attempted an insurrection against slavery in Virginia in 1859, was said to have patterned his life on L’Ouverture. At the time of the war itself, the black abolitionist Fredrick Douglass frequently invoked public memory of the Haitian Revolution when calling on African Americans to join the Union army. By James’ own reckoning, abolition and emancipation in the British colonies might have been postponed another thirty years had the Haitian slave revolt not provided the reformist British bourgeoisie with a vivid example of a black revolution from below.

To tell a story closer to home for me as a Venezuelan, Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan military and political leader of the Spanish American wars of independence, was granted refuge in Haiti in 1814. Alexandre Pétion, the first President of the Republic of Haiti, agreed to provide Bolívar with troops, weapons, and ships. In return, Bolívar had to abolish slavery in the territories he liberated from Spanish rule: a promise Bolívar kept. In other words, had it not been for the Haitian Revolution, my own country’s war of independence might well have gone very differently.

In an article in the Washington Post on why, in the midst of today’s worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, it is important to remember the Haitian Revolution, the historian Julia Gaffield says the following:

“A comprehensive support of Black Lives Matter must acknowledge and celebrate black history and its foundational role in shaping the modern world, including the abolition of slavery. By silencing Haiti and erasing its critical role in modern history, Euro-American nations have been able to claim abolitionist bragging rights rather than reckoning with their centuries-long participation in Atlantic slavery and only slow and grudging decisions to end it, following the demands of black people…This is why Haiti must be at the center of every conversation about the abolition of slavery. Haitians defied all odds and fought courageously for their freedom; no one gave it to them.”

I for one think that’s as fitting a note to end on as any!

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