Thursday, September 20, 2012

My review of: The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution

C.L.R. James was a black historian who emphasized his work on Afro-nationalism. James was an avid Marxist. In 1901 James was born in Trinidad, where he witnessed firsthand how racial segregation, popular resentment, and wealth inequality played a role in determining the fate of most Caribbean blacks. In his twenties, James set out to become an author. He quickly became highly successful in Marxist circles throughout Europe and the Caribbean. He wrote numerous articles, pamphlets and books on the plight of the African diaspora, analysis on Marxist unity and division, and Western colonialism throughout Africa and the Americas. In 1983 the C.L.R. James Institute was founded.1James’ most important work on Afro-nationalism is The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution.

In The Black Jacobins, James’ thesis is that the Haitian revolution was the only victorious slave rebellion. James argues his thesis by outlining the underlying causes of why the slave rebellion was successful. The slave population on Hispaniola compared to the white population was significantly larger; and the slaves in Hispaniola were treated as expendable merchandise, because of the extremely high yielding cash-crops such as sugar and tobacco. There was also a large second class population in Hispaniola, which consisted of over one-hundred and twenty shades of race. This second class was known as mulattoes, a land owning and literate class of oppressed mixed race people.

The white French government in San Domingo marginalized these mulattoes by denying the mulattoes rights and votes in the National Assembly. James argues that the fall of the Bastille played just as major of a role in the Haitian revolution as it did for the French Revolution. Afro-nationalism and the revolts which it inspired had been suppressed for over one-hundred and fifty years throughout Hispaniola. However, news of the success of overtaking the Bastille was the spark which ignited a general unity between mulattoes and slaves. This unity and over one-hundred and fifty years of resentment towards European whites in Hispaniola caused an unstoppable force which was the Haitian revolution, a revolution which was marked by bloodshed no less great than its contemporary in France.

James’ writing style flowed evenly throughout the book. James was chronological and did not fail to point out the significance of the experiences that Toussaint L’Ouverture had lived through. The style that James used was storytelling and at times journalistic. In the book, James repeatedly emphasized the nature of hostile resentment and raw anger that the slaves and mulattoes used to feed their revolutionary fervor. Many times this anger resulted in some of the most inhumane violence towards ethnic Europeans, whether or not they were innocent of encouraging slavery or general disfranchisement of the mulattoes. James organized this book chronologically, starting with the unchecked brutality of overseer and slave which lasted for no less than one-hundred years. The book’s organization makes it simple for one to read sections and understand each section as a single piece within the story. The organization is perfect for flipping through the chapters and finding what one is looking for, rather than flipping back and forth throughout an unorganized book.

James consulted a number of primary sources from French, British, and San Domingo archives. The sources from these archives mainly consist of official correspondence between government officials and laws and proposed legislation. James also consulted primary sources from private collections from clubs and museums throughout the world.

James set out to explain why the Haitian revolution, led by L’Ouverture and influenced by revenge and resentment, was the most successful of any slave rebellion. James also set out to explain how the wealth inequality served to frame the injustice of San Domingo society. On page 46, James states that “And yet it was this very prosperity which would lead to the revolution”. In that quote, James is referring to the commoditization of the slaves and the immense wealth slaves produced. The more wealth that was produced, the less humane slaves were treated. James also set out to explain that the Haitian revolution set a precedent for other revolutions and revolts throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

James argues his thesis well by exemplifying numerous injustices and barbaric acts committed by the whites, which in turn caused an unforgettable and unforgivable sentiment in the slave and mulatto communities. Nothing I have read on the Haitian revolution compares to The Black Jacobins. James was one of the few leading Marxist scholars who intensely wrote about Afro-nationalism, with emphasis on the Caribbean black communities and native black Africans living in diaspora.

The Black Jacobins is an essential historical work to understanding the Haitian revolution in comparison to the French Revolution and future slave revolutions. Students who have studied French Revolution may touch on its impact in Hispaniola, which makes The Black Jacobins all the more essential of a guide to understanding, in-depth, how the two revolutions relate. This book should be suggested to anyone interested in the foundation of Afro-nationalism or Caribbean revolutions.

1  Anna Grimshaw, “C.L.R. James: A Revolutionary Vision For the 20th Century,”, (accessed October 26, 2011).

James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. 2 ed. New York: Vintage, 1989.    

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