Stroud Radical Reading Group: The Black Jacobins

By Mar Plowman 

Stroud Radical Reading Group meets monthly. After each session, Amplify Stroud publishes a summary of the text and discussion. This month, Mar Plowman (with other members of Stroud Radical Reading Group) reports on the session on The Black Jacobins by CLR James (1938). This formed part of a series – Geographies and Histories of Racial Capitalism – which will conclude on 25th November with a discussion of (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire by Nadine El-Enany.

This powerful book describes the origins and events of the Haitian Revolution – the only successful slave revolution in history. It focuses on the role of Toussaint L’Ouverture, as described by CLR James. Toussaint was a former slave who became an influential and popular leader who brought ‘Saint-Domingue’, as it was previously known, to the precipice of revolution – a revolution which was then successfully completed to bring about the independent nation of Haiti.

The book begins in the colonial world of the late 1780s, when Saint-Domingue was a French colony. With the background of the French Revolution in 1789, the various groups in the colony were divided on whether they were on the side of that revolution or on the side of the royalists. The early chapters of The Black Jacobins describe the main players in France as well as in Saint-Domingue. In the colony, the society consisted of various groups, characterised by differences of race, class, and benefit gained or restricted by the French trading system called The Exclusive, which meant the produce of the colony (for example coffee and sugar) could only be traded with France. 

The then King of France, Louis XIV, had passed the Code Noir in 1685, which divided people of colour into 128 groupings; people were afforded rights according to how much ‘whiteness’ they were considered to have. The Code Noir also made certain ‘punishments’ of slaves illegal, but in practice this was ignored. Primarily motivated by the aim of continuing to make large profits, the White plantation owners and foremen treated the Black slaves extremely harshly in an attempt to retain power and control. The Black slaves outnumbered the White residents of Saint-Domingue by a significant margin and, according to James, the inhumane treatment was an attempt to deter them from turning against their oppressors. However, this likely only reinforced the determination of the Black slaves to rise up against this system.

Upending common understandings of the British role in the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, James argues that some British politicians felt abolition would weaken its arch rival France much more than Britain. Saint-Domingue was extremely prosperous, largely due to the use of slave labour. In France at this time, revolution was initially driven by the rich, property owning bourgeoisie and supported by the French masses, and didn’t originally include abolition of slavery in its aims. The maritime bourgeoisie in France wanted to be able to trade more freely, as did the plantation owners in Saint-Domingue. The mixed race* people of Saint-Domingue were largely property owners, and therefore in favour of a revolution in France that would support their financial interests. Others, including some of the slaves, supported the Royalist counter-revolution, being resistant to more power in the hands of the plantation owners who persecuted them. However, they would also have been influenced by the talk of liberty and equality which sprang from revolutionary France and the hypocrisy of their persecutors was abundantly clear. 

“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.” (p161)

Having established this context, our discussion moved to events on the ground in Saint-Domingue. We discussed how the physical geography of the plantations in close proximity around the settlement of Le Cap meant that the slaves of these plantations were able to communicate and plan actions together, whereas on other parts of the island the plantations were far apart and there was little scope for most slaves to travel or communicate. A number of revolts and uprisings predated the larger organised push for freedom, and lessons had been learned in terms of organisation and strategy. Rebellions had been punished extremely harshly; the courage of the uprisings which followed cannot be overstated.

When the push for freedom happened, Toussaint L’Ouverture was not initially involved. Having gained free status, he worked as an overseer on a plantation. He stayed there for a month after the rebellions began and apparently protected the family that owned the plantation from the retaliatory violence levelled at the White oppressors. When he joined the uprising, it appeared to be a calculated decision – he sent the White family and his own wife and children to safety and set off to join the rebels in the hills. He was one leader of several at this point, and his leadership is described in admiring terms by CLR James: how he organised men into troops and planned attacks, as well as how he brought people together with strong words and shared aims both then, and later, as the governor-general of Saint-Domingue. The events which eventually led to Haitian Independence are complex and hard to summarise in a review – it’s best to read the full text. In brief, war followed, with mixed race people who formed their own political and combative group, and with White troops under French leadership, as well as British and Spanish invasions at different points. 

In our discussion, we addressed the figure of Toussaint L’Ouverture who is described as a person of great morality and with many positive personal characteristics. He had strong revolutionary principles and believed in bringing everyone together in a society with rights for all, and where everyone contributed. He was generally opposed to violence for the sake of violence, but in discussing the violence associated with both slavery and the revolution, he makes a powerful point: 

“When history is written as it ought to be written, it is the moderation and long patience of the masses at which men will wonder, not their ferocity.” (p112)

The successful revolution is presented as rising from both the historical context and this extraordinary leader working to gain power at the right time. L’Ouverture took a more conciliatory approach to the White inhabitants of the island than others, a strategic decision as much as a moral one. In the end, he focused on appeasing the Whites to the neglect of his Black supporters. CLR James argues that this led to a loss of faith in his leadership, which weakened the Haitian revolution at a crucial point with the result that L’Ouverture was eventually captured and imprisoned in France. He died in a prison cell.

There is analysis throughout this text of the financial and social motivations of the various national groups, racial groups, and classes of the time – and we debated the extent to which CLR James commitment to a Marxism means the text is a Marxist analysis – where material conditions and economic pressures drive history rather than ideas. It certainly can’t be described as a neutral analysis: it is definitely hailing Toussaint L’Ouverture as the hero (and his end a tragedy) and the success of the revolution as a positive outcome. To quote one member of the Reading Group, “it has no pretence of being neutral, and that’s a good thing”.

With many of us being contemporary UK residents we live in a racist country born of the age of slavery and imperialism in which this book is set, and yet James reminds us that change is both possible and vital. CLR James highlights how, alongside the historical and political context – which was ripe for a revolution, Toussaint was inspired by a book by a White Frenchman Abbé Raynal, which “called boldly for a slave revolution with a passionate conviction that it was bound to come some day and relieve Africa and Africans”.

“Over and over again Toussaint read this passage: ‘A courageous chief only is wanted. Where is he?’” (p20)

While it may be impossible to determine that Toussaint’s actions were inspired by these words, the immense sense of possibility that can be created by a book (in a situation which was so dire) is underlined by a story James tells regarding The Black Jacobins in his 1980 foreword: “During the celebrations of the independence of Ghana in 1957, I met some Pan-African young men from South Africa who told me that my book had been of great service to them… I could not help thinking that revolution moves in a mysterious way its wonders to perform”. James writes that “the book was written not with the Caribbean but with Africa in mind”, and his book can be said to have influenced leaders of successful anti-colonial independence movements. I feel this gives us a sense of empowerment for our lives now, where we have lesser (though significant) problems and more potential to make change than those enslaved people appeared to have in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Turning our attention to Haiti in the present day, we learned that the people of Haiti were forced to repay a huge debt imposed following independence – to deter French invasion and in return for belated recognition of independence by France (in 1825). These payments have been a major cause of long-term impoverishment of Haiti and demonstrate the enduring colonial power structures from which the country has been unable to free itself entirely and the subsequent long-term suffering of its people. This is despite their ancestors fighting so relentlessly for their freedom.

I’m glad to have been educated on this topic, as I knew nothing about the Haitian Revolution before, and I’m motivated to pass on the information. Since this is not the sort of history we’re taught in schools, I urge you to learn it yourself and pass it on. 

NB:

*In the book, CLR James refers to people with one White parent and one Black (or mixed) parent using the ‘M-word’; we have used the term ‘mixed race’ here. Michael Chrzan’s article explains why: “The “M” Word and Other In-Group Words You’re Not Allowed to Say (and Why)”.

The Reading Group has previously discussed Akala’s book “Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire”, which explores the content of the title in both the historical periods dealt with by James, and today – including “colourism” that lingers in the Caribbean from it’s promotion under the colonial era’s systematic racism whereby, as James writes of the situation in Saint-Domingue specifically: “the offspring of white and black and intermediate shades [were classified] into 128 divisions (p31)” and “the man of colour who was nearly white despised the man of colour who was only half-white, who in turn despised the man of colour who was only quarter white, and so on through all the shades” (p35). 

In the final event of their Geographies and Histories of Racial Capitalism series, Stroud Radical Reading Group will discuss (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire by Nadine El-Enany. Please find details and register to join us via the Stroud Radical Reading Group website: stroudradicalreading.wordpress.com.

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