Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Black Jacobins

I'm reading The Black Jacobins by CLR James at the moment, his account of the 1791 slave revolt in the French Caribbean colony of San Domingo that led to the independent republic of Haiti.

James began writing The Black Jacobins in 1932 when he was living in Nelson in Lancashire and working as a cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. It was published in 1938, just before he went to the United States.

What stands out in The Black Jacobins is James' command of the contemporary sources. He spent six months in France delving into the archives, including the correspondence between the French revolutionary government and Toussaint L'Ouverture, the ex-slave who led the Africans on the plantations to freedom and became the first consul of these black Jacobins.

San Domingo in the 1790's was a fascinating society. James manages to integrate the interlinking three-sided struggles that shaped the Haitian Revolution: in San Domingo itself, between the whites, the mixed-race "free people of colour" and the black slaves and between the "big white" planters and merchants, the "small white" artisans and the aristocratic colonial bureaucracy that ruled over both; in France similarly, between the King and his ministers, the republican bourgeoisie and the revolutionary sans culottes and between the Left, Right and Centre in the Constituent Assembly; internationally between Britain, France and Spain who each sought control of the island and between the royalist aristocracy and republican bourgeoise in France and the San Domingo colonists who - like the American colonists of Britain - wanted independence from France to escape the exclusive trade imposed on them by the former and the debts they owed to the latter.

Toussaint L'Ouverture died in prison in France in 1803, having been captured by a Napoleonic army that tried and failed to re-establish slavery in San Domingo. William Wordsworth, an early sympathiser of the French Revolution, wrote these lines in his poem To Toussaint L'Ouverture:

"Toussaint, the most unhappy of men!
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
 Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
 Pillowed in some deep dungeon's earless den; -
 O miserable Chieftain! where and when
 Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
 Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
 Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
 Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
 Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
 There's not a breathing of the common wind
 That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
 Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
 And love, and man's unconquerable mind."

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