Learning about Haiti – The Black Jacobins by C. L. R. James

Years ago, reading Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones left me wanting to learn more about the history of Haiti.  An island nation with so dramatic and bloody a story – you’d think there would be more books devoted to it.  Not so.  I finally discovered The Black Jacobins:  Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C.L.R. James thanks to my local indie bookstore owner. Originally published in 1938, the language and politics are somewhat dated.  (The use of the word “negro” as a descriptor startled me every time I encountered it.  James also had definite Communist leanings, exemplified by the Appendix he added in 1963: From Toussaint L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro).  Yet this book is still one of the most comprehensive histories available on the island nation.

The Black Jacobins:  Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution is a wonderfully written and in-depth examination of the Haitian Revolution, spanning 1791-1803.  Haiti began as the French colony of  San Domingo,  at that time the richest colony in the world.  The money came from sugar, coffee and indigo plantations worked by African slaves.  They labored under the most brutal conditions imaginable (by some accounts up to 1/3 of the slave population died in their first year on the island).  Reproduction rates were low and infant mortality high.  And so the San Domingo slave trade functioned as a revolving door.  New slaves were imported into the colony at the rate of 40,000 a year and by 1789, two years before the uprising, that population had risen to 500,000.  2/3 of whom had been born and captured in Africa.  Haiti became a nation as the result of a slave revolt, perhaps the only successful slave uprising in history.  The fact that so many of the men and women who took part in the uprising had not been born into slavery and had lived free prior to enslavement is an important element of this story.

That is the kind of detail James highlights and which make his story so absorbing.  The Black Jacobins examines the Haitian Revolution from every angle.  The treatment of the slaves and the disposition of the owners is discussed.  Events taking place in San Domingo are looked at in conjunction with those happening in France.  The roles played by England, Spain and America, and the colony’s place on the world stage are all factored in.  James does an excellent job at laying out the convoluted path history often takes.   Haitian independence was not a result of a linear string of events, but rather a demonstration of how multiple events – sometimes seemingly unrelated – converged to create a historic moment, a perfect storm.

I don’t want to give the impression that The Black Jacobins is primarily a dry and academic work.  Far from it.  James emphasizes the human component of his story,  providing anecdotes and first hand reports which are obviously the result of exhaustive research.  The most engaging accounts are those of the slaves who stepped up to lead:  Toussaint L’Ouverture,  Christophe and Dessalines.   Three very different men, all with right intentions, but who made critical mistakes – mistakes which laid the foundation for the state of Haiti today.  Speaking of Toussaint, James wrote:

The man who so deliberately decided to join the revolution was 45 years of age, an advanced age for those times, grey already, and known to everyone as Old Toussaint.   Out of chaos in San Domingo that existed for years to follow, he would lay the foundations of a Negro state that lasts to this day.  From the moment he joined the revolution he was a leader, and moved without serious rivalry to the first rank.  We have clearly stated the vast impersonal forces at work in the crisis of San Domingo.  But men make history, and Toussaint made the history he made because he was the man he was.

Throughout its 426 pages James manages to keep the feeling of an oral history.  Mixed in with the academic minutia are stories, accounts and letters.  Small segues are made.  And he has an eye for the dramatic scene.

Rochambeau hated the Mulattoes more than the blacks.  One night at Port-Républicaine he gave a great ball to which he invited several Mulatto women.  It was a magnificent fête.  At midnight Rochambeau stops the dancing and begs them to enter a neighboring apartment.  This room, lit by a single lamp, is hung with black draperies in which white material figures as skulls; in the four corners are coffins. In the middle of the horrified silence the Mulatto women hear funeral chants sung by invisible singers.  Dumb with terror they stood rooted to the spot, while Rochambeau told them: “You have just assisted at the funeral ceremonies of your husbands and brothers.”

Haitian history, like most colonial histories, is not particularly cheerful.  But it can be fascinating.  The Black Jacobins had me riveted from the first page until the last.  With Haiti in the news, it never hurts to have more information than what comes through our televisions.  This book is a good starting point.

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