When slaves defeated an empire

September 18, 2008

Brian Kwoba reviews C.L.R. James' groundbreaking account of the Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins, on the 70th anniversary of its publication.

MORE THAN 200 years ago, a revolutionary uprising in the French colony of Saint-Domingue produced the most successful slave revolt in history. The revolution established Haiti as the first free nation of former slaves and an independent revolutionary Black republic in the heart of the Americas.

Today, most people know Haiti as "the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere." In January, it was widely reported that many Haitians were literally eating dirt to survive because of rising global food prices. The response--or lack thereof--by the "international community" to the food crisis in Haiti came to a head in April, when a wide-scale revolt broke out in cities across the country. Then, Haiti was devastated--once again--by hurricanes during the late summer and fall.

For Haiti, 2008 has been a lively year, to say the least. But there is something else significant about this year. It marks the 70th anniversary of the 1938 publication of C.L.R. James' groundbreaking account of the Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution.

Toussaint L'Ouverture pictured in an engraving made in post-revolutionary France
Toussaint L'Ouverture pictured in an engraving made in post-revolutionary France

A Trinidad-born writer and socialist, James became a leading intellectual and theoretician within the Pan-African milieu. His book on the Haitian revolution is a Marxist classic. With sweeping literary drama, biting sarcasm and passionate political conviction, The Black Jacobins tells the story of a tremendous historical epoch in brilliant colors.

The book begins with Columbus and the European colonizers who took the island of Haiti from its indigenous Taino inhabitants and exterminated them in order to claim its gold. After years of fighting over territory, France cut a deal with Spain in 1697 for the western third of the island--called Saint-Domingue by the French--and soon created a brutal plantation regime.

At the top of society, the white planters lived in privilege and opulence. The mixed-race or Black property owners were also well-to-do, as many of them owned land and slaves, but they were socially and politically excluded because of racism. In the middle were the "small whites," and at the bottom of the social hierarchy were the enslaved Africans.

James describes the working conditions of a typical sugar plantation:

They were about a hundred men and women of different ages, all occupied in digging ditches in a cane field, the majority of them naked or covered with rags. The sun shone down with full force on their heads. Sweat rolled from all parts of their bodies. Their limbs, weighed down by the heat, fatigued with the weight of their picks and by the resistance of the clay soil baked hard enough to break their implements, strained themselves to overcome every obstacle...

The pitiless eye of the Manager patrolled the gang and several foremen armed with long whips moved periodically between them, giving stinging blows to all who, worn out by fatigue, were compelled to take a rest--men or women, young or old.

There were roughly 30,000 whites on the island, between the big planters, the petty-bourgeois "small whites" and the colonial bureaucracy of the state administration. Mulattos or "free people of color" numbered roughly 28,000, and the slaves nearly half a million.

At the time, Saint-Domingue was not only the most profitable colony of France but of the whole world. Besides being a prized possession, slavery and the trade with the colonies was a major engine of economic development for the rising French bourgeoisie.

But in the colony itself, the white planters were hemmed in by the exclusive trade restrictions imposed by France, the mulattos were irritated at their social and political exclusion based on race, the small whites resented mulatto wealth, and the Black slaves hated the myriad atrocities of slavery.

BY THE time of the French Revolution in 1789, Saint-Domingue was a socio-economic tinderbox waiting to explode. When the Third Estate in France began to demand greater representation in government, the owning classes in Saint-Domingue followed suit. The big whites wanted more autonomy and political independence in their relations with France, so they formed a Colonial Assembly that was independent of the pre-existing French-controlled bureaucracy.

Free coloreds wanted social and political equality with whites and began agitating and petitioning the legislature for it. The small whites, resentful of the free men of color, attacked and lynched them in a racist fervor.

Shortly after the fall of the Bastille in Paris in 1789 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the new National Assembly in France began to debate whether these rights applied to the free coloreds in the colony. The liberal Friends of the Negro abolitionist society in France pushed for equal rights for free coloreds (not slaves). But when the colonists raised the specter of colonial independence or a slave revolt, the French bourgeoisie quickly chose "slavery, racism and profit" over "liberty, equality and fraternity" for the colonies.

Excluded at home and now rebuffed in France, the free coloreds in the colony launched an insurrection in 1790 under the leadership of Vincent Ogé. The revolt was smashed, and Ogé and his conspirators were tried, tortured and executed--to send a grisly warning to anyone else who might rise up. But this savage repression didn't intimidate those who were used to it--the slaves.

The very next year, a voodoo high priest named Boukman led a well-planned, secretive and coordinated slave insurrection. Thousands of slaves rose up, killing their white masters and setting fire to the plantations. There was so much smoke in the air from the burning cane that "for nearly three weeks the people Le Cap could barely distinguish day from night," wrote James.

As many as 100,000 slaves took part in the revolt in the subsequent weeks and months, as the mass movement spread and pulled behind it sections of free Blacks and young mulattos. As in France, splits at the top of society--between whites and free coloreds--had opened the door to mass action from below.

The rebellion brought a new leader onto the scene--a 45-year-old slave named Toussaint L'Ouverture. Recognized early on as unique, his master had allowed him to learn to read. Toussaint had not only learned about the military arts, world economics and politics, but he had also developed leadership skills from managing his owner's property.

When news of the slave insurrection reached France, the Assembly decided that granting rights to the free coloreds was a preferable alternative to civil war and slave insurrection, so they passed a decree doing just that. They also sent a fresh detachment of French troops to help quell the rebellion in the colony. The whites and free coloreds accepted the decree, as they joined forces against their rebellious slaves.

In 1792, revolutionary France was at war with Austria and facing growing demands from below for price controls on bread. Sensing King Louis XVI's collusion with foreign armies advancing toward Paris, the French masses rose up and overthrew him. In the revolutionary fervor leading up to the King's execution, ordinary Parisians became ardent abolitionists and antiracists, attacking what they called the "aristocrats of the skin."

WHAT DID this mean for Saint-Domingue? It meant the slaves now had real allies, because the workers and peasants of France were roused against oppression of all kinds--including slavery in colonies thousands of miles away. Before news of the King's execution reached Saint-Domingue, Toussaint's insurrection in the countryside was running out of steam, as the white and colored planters united to crush it. But just as the insurrection was about to be snuffed out, it got a new lease on life--from the working men and women of France.

Neighboring European monarchies, horrified at the sight of revolutionary democracy on their borders, intensified their war with France, including a new bid to seize its colonies. This new threat forced Saint-Domingue's colonial authorities to recall their counterinsurgency forces from the interior to defend the island's coasts from invasion--to the benefit of the slave insurrection.

By advancing their struggle for democracy at home, the French masses had (unbeknownst to them) created new breathing space for the nearly defeated slave resistance in the colony. This is just one example of the interplay between the French and Haitian revolutions, as told in The Black Jacobins.

What began as a revolt against oppression soon developed into a struggle for emancipation. Under the pressure of counterrevolutionary and royalist intrigue, a British invasion, and the strengthening of Toussaint's ex-slave army by Spanish backing, the French were eventually forced to declare abolition. This eventually pushed Toussaint to leave the Spanish side and join the revolutionary French, who quickly made him a brigadier general as he eventually led his army of ex-slaves, Black and white officers, and French soldiers to rout the British and Spanish forces around him.

By 1796, Toussaint had won the respect of the majority of the island's inhabitants, and consolidated a new regime free of slavery and counterrevolutionary forces. Under the French commissioners, and with a multiracial leadership, Toussaint built a modern ex-slave army and a new economy for the colony based on free labor and commodity export.
Over the next few years, Toussaint lead a struggle against a mulatto conspiracy for independence, waged a military campaign to expel the British completely, invaded and conquered Spanish San Domingo, and unified the whole island under his rule.

But as the revolution in France degenerated, its successive colonial deputies grew increasingly hostile and reactionary. , Toussaint had to struggle against multiple attempts at weakening his authority. By the time Napoleon came to power in 1799, Toussaint had become de-facto governor and undisputed master of the whole colony. As soon as France and Britain signed a peace treaty, Bonaparte quickly turned his attention to restoring "order" in the colonies, and in 1801 he sent a massive military expedition to re-impose slavery, racism and the profits of the old days.

That the French ruling class would be "so depraved, so lost to all sense of decency, as to try to restore slavery" demonstrates, as James put it, that there is more "decency, gratitude, justice and humanity in a cage of starving tigers than in the councils of imperialism."

A savage, protracted war followed the landing of Napoleon's forces, which is recounted in James' book with gripping suspense and intensity. Eventually, following the treacherous capture of Toussaint by the French, Jean-Jacques Dessalines leads the struggle for Haitian independence to victory.

Though Haiti would be punished by economic strangulation and repeated military intervention by the "Great Powers" over the next two centuries, the revolution itself was an inspiration for the entire hemisphere. The Haitian revolution sparked slave rebellions and successful liberation struggles throughout North, Central and South America. It also gave revolutionary impetus from below to the international cause of abolition--first of the slave trade, and ultimately of colonial slavery itself.

As James put it,

"The slaves defeated in turn the local whites and the soldiers of the French monarchy, a Spanish invasion, a British expedition of some 60,000 men, and a French expedition of similar size under Bonaparte's brother-in-law...The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organize themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day, is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement."

And at a time when calls are made--from Haiti to Darfur--for more "humanitarian intervention" by rapacious imperial powers, the book also serves as a brilliant argument for the possibility of the struggles of the oppressed themselves for their own liberation.

The Black Jacobins is essential reading for anyone seeking to challenge the forces of world imperialism that have produced horrific oppression in Haiti--then and now.

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