The Black Jacobins

A review of C. L. R. James's classic account of Haiti's slave revolt

THE HAITIAN Revolution was the first and only successful slave revolution in human history. The slaves’ struggle produced heroic leaders, especially Toussaint L’Ouverture. He and his revolutionary army of self-emancipated slaves defeated the three great empires of the eighteenth century—Spain, England, and France—and finally won independence after a decade of struggle in 1804.

While historians have written tomes on the eighteenth century’s other great revolutions—the American, and French—the Haitian Revolution has been buried under calumny or simply suppressed. Why? Our rulers of course minimize the role of revolution in history, even the ones that brought them to power, for fear of highlighting the fact that fundamental change comes from social revolution. But they hold a particular animus toward the Haitian Revolution. In its time it directly threatened the slave empires in the new world. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it offered hope of insurrection for independence to the colonies subject to the European empires. It has always been a challenge to liberals and their counsel of piecemeal reform and gradualism, which rarely if ever delivers change, and instead promises a counter-model of class struggle and revolution.

Even on the left, the Haitian Revolution does not get the recognition it merits. For example, most left-wing histories of the French Revolution, often marred by a Stalinist French nationalism, fail to understand the centrality of the Haitian colony and slavery in the development of French capitalism and the consequent strength of the bourgeoisie to overthrow the absolutist monarchy.1

C. L. R. James’s brilliant book, The Black Jacobins, rescues the Haitian Revolution from repression. James wrote it in 1938, making this year the seventieth anniversary of its publication. As he composed it, fascism swept Europe, Stalin imposed slave labor in his gulag, and Europe held the peoples of Africa and Asia in colonial bondage.2 James’s history both celebrates the triumph of Toussaint and the slaves and also uses it as a beacon call for national liberation and international proletarian solidarity against imperialism.

Like Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, on which James modeled his book, The Black Jacobins is not academic history, but one written by a proletarian revolutionist using theory and history as a guide to revolutionary struggle. Throughout his book he highlights the dialectical interaction between the revolutions in France and Haiti, particularly the interaction between the Parisian masses, the sansculottes, and the slaves. For James that international solidarity is the secret of both revolutions’ success, and necessary for human emancipation.

Capitalism, colonialism, and primitive accumulation
James opens The Black Jacobins by surveying the European conquest of the New World and their occupation of the island that would become Haiti:

The Spaniards, the most advanced Europeans of their day, annexed the island, called it Hispaniola, and took the backward natives under their protection. They introduced forced labor in mines, murder, rape, bloodhounds, strange diseases, and artificial famine (by the destruction of cultivation to starve the rebellious). These and other requirements of the higher civilization reduced the native population from an estimated half-a-million, perhaps a million, to 60,000 in 15 years (4).3

This plunder of the New World was part of what Marx called the “primitive accumulation” that fertilized European capitalism within the womb of feudalism. In Europe, the process was marked by the expropriation of peasants from their land, creating a “free” population that would form the basis of a wage working class. Meanwhile in the early colonies, merchant capitalists turned to chattel slavery to work the plantations that produced commodities and surplus for the system back in Europe. The emerging capitalist classes amassed fantastic fortunes and power that brought them into conflict with the feudal regimes, triggering the great bourgeois revolutions of the eighteenth century.

Spain, England, and France battled over control of Hispaniola as part of this plunder and exploitation of the New World. Finally in 1679, France and Spain agreed to divide the island between themselves. Spain retained control of the eastern side of the island and called it San Domingo, while the French won control of the eastern half and named it San Domingue. In the space of one hundred years, French merchants and planters turned San Domingue into a site of boundless horror and seemingly limitless profit that fueled French capitalism.

At the time, France was ruled by an absolutist monarchy, which represented the feudal nobility but also facilitated the emerging capitalists. The lesser nobles, squeezed by the centralizing dynamics of the absolutist state, looked for new sources of wealth and became planters in the colony. The monarchy gave French merchants a monopoly on trade, the infamous exclusif. The merchants used the trade and consequent profits to develop the port cities, the heart of early French capitalism, like Nantes, Bordeaux and Marseilles that would generate many of the early leaders of the French Revolution.

French merchants and planters turned San Domingue into, as James puts it, “the most profitable colony the world had ever known” (57). By 1789, its plantations produced half the world’s coffee, 40 percent of its sugar, and a host of lesser commodities like indigo. Over two-thirds of France’s trade flowed in and out of San Domingue. The colony became the envy of all the other imperial powers—Spain, Britain, and Holland.

Based on this wealth, the French bourgeoisie would overthrow the monarchy, transform all of Europe, and (inadvertently) trigger a slave revolution that would remake the New World and lead to the eventual abolition of slavery. As one liberal Frenchman named Mirabeau put it, the colonial system was “sleeping at the edge of Vesuvius”(55).

The Black slave laborers
The eruption would begin among the 500,000 slaves that labored on San Domingue’s plantations. To fulfill their insatiable demand for workers, the European powers plundered Africa for slaves (12 million total), subjected them to the horrors of the Middle Passage, and compelled them into the backbreaking toil of plantation labor.

In San Domingue, the slaves worked in giant labor gangs in the fields and sugar factories. The slave drivers whipped them through the course of eighteen-hour days to squeeze every ounce of labor out of them. The plantation masters often encased the slave’s heads in tin masks to prevent them from eating the sugar cane. Under criticism, the French monarchy attempted to regulate the brutality. The state imposed the Code Noir, a vast rulebook for implementing “humane” slavery, but it was honored more in the breach than the observance.

San Domingue became a vast killing field, sacrificing life for profit. The labor conditions were so brutal that half the slaves died within ten years of arrival. The slaves tended not to reproduce, and when female slaves became pregnant they would often give themselves abortions to prevent their potential children from being enslaved. The slave masters therefore had to continuously replenish their labor gangs with new slaves, buying an estimated 30,000 new laborers from the slave merchants each year. Thus, in 1791 on the eve of the revolution in San Domingue, more than two-thirds of the slaves had been born in Africa and known relative freedom within the last decade of their lives.

Like every exploited class in history, the slaves resisted their exploitation. They struggled at every step from capture to transport to the plantation. They fled to the mountains to form what became known as maroon bands, attempted to organize rebellion, and dreamed of revolution. The very conditions of labor brought them together in a fashion that made class struggle more possible. James writes, “The slaves worked on the land, and, like revolutionary peasants everywhere, they aimed at the extermination of their oppressors. But working and living together in gangs of hundreds on the huge sugar factories which covered the Northern Plain, they were closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time” (85–86).

The very divisions that the planters used to control the slaves provided them with the means for organization and coordination. Within the slave gangs, the planters appointed commanders from among the slaves to oversee their work. It was this layer of commanders that would organize the revolt and provide slaves with military leadership. The merchants and planters were creating their own gravediggers.

The booming colony nevertheless seemed stable. But, as James argues, “economic prosperity is no guarantee of social stability. That rests on the constantly shifting equilibrium between the classes. It was the prosperity of the bourgeoisie that started the English Revolution of the seventeenth century. With every stride in production the colony was marching toward its doom”(55). Newly enslaved, angry, restive, envious of the prosperity built on their whipped backs, the Black masses would soon rise up and smash their masters’ carefully cultivated barbarism.

Some sensed the coming explosion and hoped for the leadership from among the slaves to organize the fight for emancipation. One French abolitionist, Abbe Raynal, wrote:

Already there are established two colonies of fugitive Negroes, whom treaties and power protect from assault. Those lightnings announce the thunder. A courageous chief only is wanted. Where is he, that great man whom Nature owes to her vexed, oppressed and tormented children? Where is he? He will appear, doubt it not; he will come forth and raise the sacred standard of liberty. This venerable goal will gather around him the companions of his misfortune. More impetuous than the torrents, they will everywhere leave the indelible traces of their just resentment. Everywhere people will bless the name of the hero who shall have reestablished the rights of the human race; everywhere will they raise trophies in his honor. (25)

Toussaint Breda, a literate freed slave and overseer on the Breda Plantation, read this passage over and over again, dreaming of freedom for his slave brethren.

The capitalists and planters
Everywhere, even in the towns, the Black slaves outnumbered their white masters and overseers. There were only 30,000 whites in San Domingue amid half a million Blacks. They lived on their plantations scattered throughout the colony and in small towns of about 20,000 like Port Au Prince, the capital, and Cap Français in the North.

The whites were bitterly divided. At the pinnacle of power stood the governor, the representative of monarchy in the colony. The merchants and planters comprised the white ruling class of the colony, the so-called grand blancs, the big whites. Beneath them as their managers and enforcers were the petit blancs, the small whites—the functionaries and the rabble.

The planters hated the merchants and the governor because they enforced and benefited from the exclusif, the French monopoly on trade. The merchants also hated the governor and the restrictions of the feudal order back in France that constrained their economic and political advancement. And the small whites hated everyone above and below them.

The final players in the colony’s ruling class were the gens de coleur, the free men of color.4 Numbering some 30,000, they were the illegitimate children of the merchants and planters and their slave mistresses. They vacillated between the rulers and the exploited slaves. While racially oppressed—famously divided up into an absurd hierarchy of 128 categories based on skin color—the free men of color had limited rights under the Code Noir. They were allowed to hold military office, acquire property, and purchase slaves for their own plantations.

They were a subject part of the ruling class in the colony. They aspired to join their fathers among the big whites. But the white rulers hated them for driving up the price of land and attempted to restrict their rights. The free men of color in turn resented the big whites and also despised the monarchy and its representative for enforcing a racial order that excluded their full rights as rulers. Yet as rulers, however racially oppressed, they were no allies of the Black slaves whom they exploited, and from whom they attempted to distance themselves in the colony’s racial hierarchy.

The impact of the French Revolution
The bourgeoisie, including the merchants tied to slavery in the colonies, grew frustrated with the king and his regime’s feudal restraints on the economy and their political rights. They especially resented how he attempted to solve the regime’s financial crisis, ironically the result of debts incurred by its war with England over control of North America and its support for the American Revolution. The king’s taxes fell disproportionately on the bourgeoisie with much of the nobility receiving feudal exemptions. But the king even managed to alienate much of the nobility.

Famously, when Louis XVI tried in 1789 to shut down the Estates-General, the parliament he had called to impose taxes, the bourgeois delegates called together a constituent assembly to agitate for reform of the monarchy and its feudal restrictions. After the king attempted to disperse this assembly, the sans culottes—the artisan masses of Paris who were enraged by the increasing cost of food—stormed the Bastille and commenced the great French Revolution.

Riding a mass movement, the assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man announcing that all men are free and equal. Within the assembly the Amis Noirs, the Friends of the Blacks, demanded equal rights for the free men of color and gradual abolition of slavery itself. But the merchants and planters who had their representatives within the assembly attempted to silence even this mild demand for reform.

At the heart of France’s bourgeois revolution for liberty, equality and fraternity lay a giant contradiction: racism and slavery. This contradiction between the proclaimed ideals of the revolution and the reality of bigotry and bondage would spark the slave revolution in San Domingue.

The free men of color strike first
The French Revolution ignited all the conflicts in France’s precious colony. The big whites, small whites, and the free men of color split into hostile camps. The planters were nobles who after flirting with the idea of fighting for independence quickly became royalists. They obviously opposed the Rights of Man and defended feudalism.

The merchants quaked in fear that their colonial slave economy was in jeopardy from the revolution that they themselves had started. Rights are noble and morally virtuous, but for the good bourgeois, profits trump principle on every question. Nevertheless they opposed the planters’ royalism. They needed the connection to the French state and so wanted a limited revolution that kept slavery and the colonial order intact.

The small whites immediately aligned themselves with the revolution as an opportunity to strike out against the big whites. But they were far from the radicalism of the Parisian masses; they were adamantly opposed to rights for free men of color and the abolition of slavery. The various white forces battled out their conflicting ideas in the colonial assembly set up in the wake of the revolution.

In these crosscurrents among the whites, the free men of color took up the standard of the revolution as an opportunity to win their rights as citizens. Of course, as colonial property owners, they too did not demand abolition of slavery. They sent a delegation to agitate for their inclusion in the Rights of Man at the assembly in Paris. The Friends of the Blacks and free men of color spoke to the assembly, sending a ripple of consternation through the merchants and planters who maneuvered to suppress the question.

In the end, the assembly voted for a resolution that said nothing specific about rights for the free men of color. After a furious debate, they passed a resolution that all persons over the age of twenty-five and with property qualifications would be granted the right to vote. Instead of solving the question, this vague compromise triggered a three-cornered fight between white and free colored rulers and the small whites, many of whom would be denied the vote under the new law due to their lack of property.

Enraged by the assembly’s failure to address their rights, one of the free men of color in the delegation, Vincent Oge, left France for England to meet British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. Oge convinced him to supply money for an armed insurrection of the free men of color for their rights. Oge returned to San Domingue to lead a rebellion of a few hundred free men of color in Cap Français on October 21, 1790.

Oge appealed not to the slaves, but to the big whites, hoping to convince them with arms that they held common interests as plantation owners. The big whites would have none of it. They responded with the utmost savagery, suppressing the rising, torturing Oge and the other leaders, and finally killing them. But the spark of rebellion had been lit, and the fire of revolution would travel back and forth between the France and the colony for the next decade. The fate of the two revolutions was tied together in a complex knot.

France becomes a republic
Faced with revolution in France and chaotic conflict in the colonies, the king attempted to organize a counterrevolution with international backing to reimpose the old order. The King fled Paris and was seized by the masses in Varennes. The Parisian masses had heard of Oge’s murder and began to see their common cause with not only the free men of color but with the slaves. They now demanded liberty and equality not only at home but also abroad.

Under pressure from the radicalized masses, the assembly again debated the question of rights for free men of color. Julien Raimond, himself a free man of color, argued for rights for his group but also defended slavery before the assembly. In the end, they reached another rotten compromise that only served to further inflame the colonial revolt. They granted rights to free men of color who had been born of free parents. They thus enfranchised only about 400 out of the 30,000 free men of color.

On top of that, they defended slavery. One delegate, Barnave, summed up the attitude of the French bourgeoisie, stating that slavery “is absurd, but it is established and one cannot handle it roughly without unloosing the greatest disorder. This regime is oppressive, but it gives livelihood to several million Frenchmen. This regime is barbarous but a still greater barbarism will be the result if you interfere with it without the necessary knowledge”(80).

The capitulation to profit over principle demoralized the assembly, especially the Jacobins, the left wing of the revolution, and their supporters among the Parisian masses. The capitulation also gave the green light to reaction. Royalist forces won the day, repressed the masses, and scattered the Jacobin radicals who fled or went into hiding.

But as James argues, “phases of revolution are not decided in parliaments, they are only registered there”(81). Amid the tide of reaction, the Jacobins sharpened their ideas and cultivated their leadership of the French artisans and peasants. In San Domingue, James writes, the Black slaves “had heard of the revolution and had construed it in their own image: the white slaves in France had risen, and killed their masters, and were now enjoying the fruits of the earth. It was gravely inaccurate in fact, but they had caught the spirit of thing. Liberty. Equality. Fraternity”(81).

The slave revolt
Vesuvius was about to erupt. The crisis of the revolution and splits among the colony’s rulers opened space for the slave revolution. Throughout France’s Caribbean colonies, slaves revolted. Without this mass insurrection, there is no doubt that France would never have abolished slavery. James writes, “Neglected and ignored by politicians of every brand and persuasion, they had organized on their own and struck for freedom at last” (84). In San Domingue, the commanders—the better-educated slave overseers—provided the organization and leadership through secret meetings, which were often Vodou ceremonies.

The slave commander Boukman led a meeting at Bois Caiman that organized and launched the insurrection at the end of July 1791. He and his followers built a vast conspiracy across dozens of plantations in the Northern Plain. No one informed the planters and merchants of the coming insurrection; they were completely caught by surprise—a testament to the overwhelming solidarity among the slaves. The slaves rose up in the tens of thousands, slaughtered their masters, burned the plantations, and terrorized the surviving white population, taking revenge on their torturers.

The slave masters of yesteryear and today, along with their liberal handmaidens, have always condemned the Black laborers for their violent insurrection. James refutes this slander arguing that the slaves were

surprisingly moderate, then and afterwards, far more humane than their masters had been or would ever be to them. They did not maintain this vengeful spirit for long. The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression. For the one aims at perpetuating resented injustice, the other is merely a momentary passion soon appeased…. Compared with what their masters had done to them in cold blood, what they did was negligible. (89)

Toussaint L’Ouverture
Toussaint Breda, then using a last name borrowed from the plantation on which he labored, watched the rising from a distance, protecting the plantation and its mistress from harm. He was not a slave; he had been freed for quite some time. He was educated, literate, and had acquired at least one plantation and slaves of his own.5 He had achieved as much as any free Black man could in San Domingue. He certainly had more to lose than his chains.

Toussaint watched the course of the struggle for a month, pondering Abbe Raynal’s famous passage and weighing his options. Finally he decided to join the ever-expanding slave army in the mountains of the north commanded by Jean Francois and Biassou. He was appointed as a doctor in the army and after demonstrating political and military skills was promoted to Biassou’s assistant. By then they collectively commanded an army of self-emancipated slaves that had grown to 100,000, dwarfing all other military forces on the island.

In the colony’s less developed south and west, the free men of color rose up and demanded equality but not the abolition of slavery. This schism between the north and the south would plague the revolutionaries, opening breaches to imperialist schemes and invasions. In the north, the Black generals also did not demand abolition, but instead reform of slavery. Biassou, Jean Francois, and even Toussaint attempted to strike a deal with the French that would only emancipate a handful in return for peace. But the utterly reactionary planters and merchants refused. James writes, “only then did Toussaint come to an unalterable decision from which he never wavered and for which he died. Complete liberty for all, to be attained and held by their own strength”(107).

To prepare for revolutionary war, Toussaint separated himself from the other Black generals and trained a professional army of his own, utterly loyal to him and fired by their commitment to liberation. Meanwhile in France, moderate revolutionaries, like the Girondin Brissot, who was also a member of the Friends of the Blacks, were in power. But however much they supported rights for the free men of color, they said nothing about emancipation. Profits for the bourgeoisie mattered more than even their own doctrines. As James argues, Toussaint’s troops and “not the perorations in the Legislative would be decisive in the struggle for freedom”(117).

The masses’ “frenzy for liberty”
The French peasants and artisans, the mass base of the French Revolution, faced the same quandary as the Black slaves. The bourgeoisie had already attempted to rein in the radicalization. It was the masses and their Jacobin leadership that would bring the revolution to its grandest heights, finally eradicating the monarchy and abolishing slavery.

The assembly had sent a new commission to San Domingue to secure peace between the big whites and free men of color, stabilize the colony under a new anti-racist compact in the ruling class, and repress the slave insurrection. Two moderate Jacobins, Sonthanax and Polverel, led the commission and oversaw General Leveaux and 6,000 new French troops. Upon arrival, however, their mission fell to pieces as the troops split into opposed camps of royalists and revolutionaries.

The Paris masses decisively shifted the revolutionary tide in both France and San Domingue. They rose up to demand price controls on bread and other essentials, final abolition of all feudal strictures, and the end of the monarchy. They voted in Jacobins to the assembly. James describes their radical aims:

They were striking at royalty, tyranny, reaction and oppression of all types, and with these they included slavery. The prejudice of race is superficially the most irrational of all prejudices, and by a perfectly comprehensible reaction the Paris workers, from indifference in 1789, had come by this time to detest no section of the aristocracy so much as those whom they called “the aristocrats of the skin.” On August 11, the day after the Tuileries fell, Page, a notorious agent of the colonists in France, wrote home almost in despair. “One spirit alone reigns here, it is horror of slavery and enthusiasm for liberty. It is a frenzy which wins all heads and grows every day.” Henceforth the Paris masses were for abolition, and their Black brothers in San Domingo, for the first time, had passionate allies in France. (120)

With the Jacobins in firm command and backed by the French masses, they soon executed Louis XVI. Now France had become the center of world revolution and a threat to all the other European empires. Spain and England declared war on France, leading all the rest of Europe in a counterrevolutionary war for the destruction of Republican France. At the very same time, they invaded San Domingue to seize the colony, reimpose slavery, and reap the profits they had long coveted.

Sonthanax and the French leaders in San Domingue thus faced two imperial invasions and counterrevolution from royalist planters. Galbaud, a planter and the new governor of the colony appointed by the assembly, became the vehicle for counterrevolution. He and his planter allies attempted to overthrow Sonthanax. With no military forces to speak of, Sonthanax had no choice but to appeal to the slaves for military support. He promised emancipation for any slave who joined in the defense of his commission. Thousands of slaves rallied to his call and Sonthanax defeated Galbaud and chased 10,000 big whites from the island. Flush with victory, Sonthanax declared on August 29, 1793, the abolition of slavery in San Domingue.

The Black Jacobins
Yet Toussaint, Jean Francois, and Biassou did not rally to Sonthanax and the French Republic. Instead they allied themselves with monarchist and pro-slavery Spain, which hoped to use them as proxies bought with promises of individual liberty to conquer the colony. Toussaint was not fooled by the Spanish, and his decision was certainly not the result of some African allegiance to kingship. It was a rational calculation. He knew that Sonthanax had no power to abolish slavery; that lay in the hands of the assembly, which had yet to prove itself an ally of the slaves.

Toussaint bided his time and built his own army. He took advantage of Spanish support to acquire training and guns, and waited for the French National Assembly to decide where it stood on slavery. As a counter to Sonthanax, Toussaint issued his own decree on August 29. He discarded his old slave last name, Breda, and announced his new one, L’Ouverture—meaning the opening to liberty. He declared,“Brothers and friends. I am Toussaint L’Ouverture, my name is perhaps known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want Liberty and Equality to reign in San Domingo. I work to bring them into existence. Unite yourselves to us, brothers, and fight with us for the same cause”(125).

Meanwhile in the south and west, the ruling free men of color allied themselves with the invading British Army that had landed from Jamaica. Hemmed in by counter-revolution, the future of revolutionary France and the future of the slave rebellion in San Domingue hung in the balance. The Paris masses would decide the fate of both. They demanded that the Jacobins wash away every remaining vestige of feudalism, every limitation on liberty, including slavery. James writes:

It was not Paris alone but all revolutionary France. Servants, peasants, workers, the labourers by the day in the fields all over France were filled with a virulent hatred against the “aristocracy of the skin.” The many so moved by the sufferings of the slaves that they had long ceased to drink coffee, thinking of it as drenched with the blood and sweat of men turned into brutes. Noble and generous working people of France… are the people whom the sons of Africa and the lovers of humanity will remember with gratitude and affection, not the perorating Liberals in France nor the… hypocrites in the British Houses of Parliament.” (139)

Into this feverish climate of revolution that swept France in 1794, Sonthanax sent a multiracial delegation from San Domingue to appeal for emancipation. One white, one free man of color, and one former slave arrived to a rapturous reception in the National Convention. Minister Lacroix proposed a resolution that read, “The National Convention declares slavery abolished in all the colonies. In consequence it declares that all men, without distinction of colour, domiciled in the colonies, are French Citizens, and enjoy all the rights under the Constitution” (141). The convention passed it with overwhelming numbers.

In San Domingue, Toussaint soon heard of the decree and abandoned Spain as well as the other Black generals who remained Spanish pawns. He led his professional army of 4,000 emancipated slaves to join Sonthanax, Polverel, and Laveaux in a revolutionary war for the expulsion of the British and Spanish invaders and for complete liberation of all the island’s slaves. Toussaint had become a Black Jacobin, committed to the French Revolution and the abolition of slavery—at this point, two intertwined allegiances.

Toussaint and the revolutionary Black army 
At the moment of victory, Sonthanax and Polverel were recalled to France to face charges brought by disgruntled planters, leaving General Laveaux in charge of Toussaint, now a French general, and his army. Together they led the fight against the English and Spanish occupations.

Toussaint gathered around himself the ex-slave generals who would decide the future of San Domingue—Dessalines, Christophe, Moise, and his own brother, Paul L’Ouverture. Toussaint’s army grew to immense size, its ranks drawn from emancipated slaves and maroon bands that rallied to the French after the decree of emancipation. Laveaux, Toussaint, and the Black generals controlled the north and west. In the south, Andre Rigaud, a free man of color, mounted a revolutionary campaign against the British and their collaborators among the free men of color. He consolidated much of the area under his own regime, separate from Toussaint and the French who dominated the north.

The revolutionary forces were unstoppable in their assault on the British and Spanish. James captures the revolutionary spirit that animated their campaign: “All the French Blacks, from the labourers at Port-de-Paix demanding equality to the officers in the army were filled with immense pride at being citizens of the French Republic ‘one and indivisible’ which had brought liberty and equality to the world”(154). Their determination and allegiance was so firm that, James declares, “The British and Spaniards could not defeat it. All they could offer was money, and there are periods in human history when money is not enough”(155).

They quickly defeated Spain, which granted its half of the island to France. All but a few British redoubts remained in the north and south. By 1795 Laveaux and Toussaint were in control of San Domingue, facing the challenge of rebuilding the society ravaged by four years of warfare. Touissaint attempted to maintain the plantation system worked not by slave labor but by using the former slaves as wage laborers paid in money and a percentage of produce. He appointed whites to government posts and even allowed big whites to retain ownership of their great estates, and he tried to prevent the freed slaves from breaking up the plantations. This attempt to organize an agricultural proletariat on capitalist plantations would become a source of friction between Toussaint and the emancipated Black slaves, who wanted to farm their own small plots.

But no old order dies without a fight. Toussaint would face counterrevolution again and again for the next nine years both at home and abroad. Laveaux and Toussaint had to repress the free men of color, who saw rulership as their right, as well as big whites who sought the re-imposition of slavery. Some of these counterrevolutionaries kidnapped Laveaux at one point. James writes that after being liberated by Toussaint, Laveaux, “to the astonishment of all and the unbounded joy of the Blacks … proclaimed Toussaint Assistant to the Governor and swore that he would never do anything without consulting him. He called him the saviour of constituted authority, the Black Spartacus, the Negro predicted by Raynal who would avenge the outrages done to his race”(171).

France soon confirmed Toussaint’s appointment and entrusted his army with the defense of the new order while France’s own revolutionary army fought against the counterrevolutionary invasion from the rest of Europe.

Victory and reaction in France
France’s army soon defeated its foes. Now secure, the bourgeoisie began to rein in what it saw as the excesses of the revolution and consolidate their hold on the country. They repressed the Parisian masses, brought down the Jacobins, executed Robespierre, and ended the Terror the Jacobins had used to defend the revolution against internal foes.

With the rollback of the revolution, the merchants and planters in Paris began to agitate for the return of slavery. In 1795 these and other conservative forces passed a new constitution and elected a new centralized leadership, the Directory. In the new parliamentary bodies, recently elected slaveholders raged against the loss of their property, the slaves, in San Domingue. Reaction was gaining strength in France but did not yet have the power and will to carry through counterrevolution in the colonies.

Sonthanax, exonerated and back in San Domingue, noted the tide of reaction and worked to consolidate his regime’s control of the entire colony. He distributed 20,000 guns amongst the freed slaves, declaring, “here is the liberty which Sonthanax gives you; whoever would take this gun from you means to make you a slave again.”6 Against the wishes of Toussaint, Sonthanax then marched against Rigaud in the south. Up until then Toussaint and Rigaud had been collaborating despite differences, and both had abolished slavery in their territories. Rigaud quickly defeated Sonthanax’s forces. The conflict opened up two tragic fissures in the colony—one between Toussaint and Sonthanax and another between Toussaint and Rigaud.

From this point on, Toussaint aimed to gain control of the whole island to preserve liberty under Black leadership. Both Laveaux and Sonthanax were elected to represent San Domingue in France. Laveaux soon left and Toussaint quickly moved to compel Sonthanax to leave as well. Toussaint’s motives were not simply power, as some cynics claim, but the need to unite the entire island under his leadership, and to prevent the Directory from restoring slavery.

Toussaint issued a letter to the Directory declaring his allegiance to France but also his willingness to defend the new order in the colony. He hoped “France will not revoke her principles…. But if, to re-establish slavery in San Domingue, this was done, then I declare to you it would be to attempt the impossible: we have known how to face dangers to obtain our liberty, we shall know how to brave death to maintain it”(196–97).

The Directory plots against Toussaint
A split between France and Toussaint’s San Domingue was inevitable at this point. The Directory sent a new emissary, Gabriel Hedouville, to stir up division, win over Rigaud, and bring down Toussaint. While the Directory plotted his demise, Toussaint dutifully carried on his campaign against the British.

As the British forces collapsed, General Maitland attempted to lure Toussaint away from France. But the Black Jacobin would have none of it; he remained loyal to the French Revolution to his death. He instead destroyed the British forces, which lost over 80,000 men to battle and disease; it was one of the biggest single defeats in Britain’s colonial history.

Hedouville schemed against Toussaint, despite the Black general’s loyal service to France. Hedouville attacked him for allowing royalist big whites to retain their plantations. Frustrated with Hedouville’s constant interference, Toussaint resigned his post, returned to his plantation, and let Hedouville rule the colony on his own. Bereft of the Black general’s support, Hedouville proceeded to offend Black leaders and laborers. After he dismissed the Black general Moise, Toussaint overthrew Hedouville and drove him back to France.

Toussaint had crossed the Rubicon. He aimed to consolidate his hold on the island and prepare for its defense against what he feared to be an inevitable French invasion. He invaded the south to bring down Rigaud, whom Hedouville had stirred into opposition to Toussaint. Dessalines commanded the troops and quickly brought down the free men of color, as Rigaud too escaped to France. After suppressing various rebellions, Toussaint commanded the entire colony.

In France, Napoleon had just seized control of the French state to prevent a royalist coup. In doing so he consolidated the bourgeois revolution. Busy with his own revolutionary campaign that overthrew several feudal states in Europe, he delayed any confrontation with Toussaint. Napoleon instead confirmed Toussaint as governor and commander-in-chief of San Domingue. Napoleon’s redesign of the French state, however, confirmed Toussaint’s worst fears. Napoleon terminated political representation from the colonies and ruled that they would be governed by, in an ominous phrase, “special laws.”

Convinced that Napoleon aimed to restore slavery, Toussaint prepared the island for military defense and launched an enormous reconstruction plan to prove that it could be just as productive a colony under a free labor regime as it had been under slavery. He seized control of the Spanish section of the island to prevent it being used as a staging ground for a French invasion. He also freed slaves on the Spanish side of the island.

However, James argues, Toussaint made a great mistake. He never explained to either his army or the Black masses that he was preparing a fight for independence to preserve liberty. In contrast, Dessalines told his followers, “The war you have won is a little war, but you have two more, bigger ones. One is against the Spaniards, who do not want to give up their land and who have insulted your brave Commander-in-Chief: the other is against France, who will try to make you slaves again as soon as she is finished with her enemies. We’ll win those wars”(240).

James argues “that was and still is the way to speak to the masses, and it is no accident that Dessalines and not Toussaint finally led the island to independence. Toussaint, shut up within himself, immersed in diplomacy, went his tortuous way, overconfident that he had only to speak and the masses would follow”(240).

Black rule and colonial reconstruction
Nevertheless, Toussaint was in complete command of the island. He ruled for a brief period before the final war for independence. The island’s plantations were in ruins, much of the old ruling class had fled, and over a third of the ex-slaves had perished in the wars. Toussaint and his fellow generals represented a new Black ruling class that seized control of abandoned plantations, attempted to work out an antiracist compact with the remaining big whites, employing free Black laborers on the old plantations.

They implemented Toussaint’s double aim of reconstruction and preparation for self-defense. They buttressed the army with tens of thousands of guns purchased from the United States and other powers. They imposed draconian labor regulations that prevented the Black workers from leaving plantations or buying up property for subsistence farming. Toussaint even legalized the slave trade to overcome the labor shortage. Of course he freed the slaves upon arrival on the island and he even entertained the idea of a revolutionary war for ending the African slave trade and emancipating the subject areas of Africa from European domination. The new Black rulers rebuilt the great towns of the colony, Le Cap and Port-au-Prince. In these towns, they built a new education system to train a new layer of Black rulers.

Toussaint wrote a new constitution for the colony not as an independent state, but as a colony with dominion status within the French empire. It abolished slavery, guaranteed civil rights for all, protected the right to private property, and declared Toussaint ruler for life with the right to name his successor. Even within these dictatorial and extreme measures—no worse than Napoleon’s consolidation of the French Revolution under his own dictatorship—San Domingue was still a beacon of liberty in a New World of slave states and colonies.

Napoleon’s aim: Colonial counterrevolution
Napoleon and the French bourgeoisie had by now thoroughly abandoned the revolutionary egalitarianism of 1794. Hungering for the boundless profits of their slave colonies, they began to devise plans to invade and reimpose slavery in San Domingue and elsewhere. Napoleon represented bourgeois reaction in France, but his wars in Europe were progressive. By contrast, his planned invasion of San Domingue was counterrevolutionary.

Napoleon was a racist. He denounced the Black generals as “gilded Africans” and declared that “he would not leave an epaulette on the shoulders of a single nigger in the colony”(271). He dismissed Toussaint in particular as a “revolted slave” and raved that he would reduce them all to “nothingness”(271). He appointed his brother-in-law General Leclerc, a vile racist in his own right, to command sixty-seven ships transporting 20,000 troops—the largest marine force in French history at the time. French invading forces would eventually peak at 60,000. Britain and the United States aided the French invasion. Leclerc boasted in classic imperial fashion, “All the niggers, when they see an army, will lay down their arms. They will be only too happy that we pardon them”(274).

While the vast fleet crossed the ocean, Toussaint tightened his grip on the island. He repressed the Black workers who rose up against his stern regime of plantation labor. When they revolted in the north, the workers chanted support for Toussaint’s nephew, Moise, who had relaxed restrictions on the plantations and allowed them to buy and farm small plots of land of their own. They supported him as a political rival to Toussaint’s rule. Faced with revolt on the eve of the invasion, Toussaint crushed the rebellion, further undermining his base of support among the Black workers, and executed Moise. By turning against Moise and the workers, he isolated himself and weakened his ability to arouse his base against the French forces.

On top of that, although he understood the threat from Napoleon, Toussaint again hesitated to openly declare resistance to France. James argues, “Toussaint could not believe that the French ruling class would be so depraved, so lost to all sense of decency, as to try to restore slavery. His grasp of politics led him to make all preparations, but he could not admit to himself and to his people that it was easier to find decency, gratitude, justice, and humanity in a cage of starving tigers than in the councils of imperialism”(282).

Toussaint was caught between his commitment to the French Revolution and his commitment to liberty, a double commitment that had been united in 1794 but was now broken in contradiction. He could not come to grips with this reality and hesitated to fight for independence. Consequently he could not lay out to the laboring masses the nature of the struggle that lay ahead. Toussaint foundered on a contradiction he could not resolve.

When the French landed in the old Spanish side of the island, Toussaint could not raise the masses and instead had to rely solely on his military forces. Nevertheless, Toussaint laid out a plan for the resistance. He wrote to Dessalines:

Do not forget, while waiting for the rainy season which will rid us of our foes, that we have no other resource than destruction and fire. Bear in mind that the soil bathed with our sweat must not furnish our enemies with the smallest sustenance. Tear up the road with shot; throw corpses and horses into all the fountains, burn everything and annihilate everything in order that those who come to reduce us to slavery may before their eyes see the image of that hell which they deserve. (300)

Even with a military plan of total war, he would not announce any goal of independence. The Black generals led a furious guerrilla war against the French troops, outsmarting them, wiping out thousands, and proving Leclerc wrong beyond his most traumatic nightmares. Toussaint, however, disoriented his generals by opening negotiations for some kind of settlement with France that would maintain the Black generals in their offices. This mixture of total war and negotiation demoralized his generals who one after the other capitulated to Leclerc, beginning with Christophe. Finally Toussaint and last of all Dessalines surrendered.

Leclerc accepted Toussaint’s terms, maintaining the generals in their posts, but using them to repress the Black laborers who began to resist the French occupation. Leclerc used them yet distrusted them at the very same time; he always intended to get rid of them and replace them with white officers, and reimpose slavery. Leclerc began with Toussaint. He lured him into a meeting–which Toussaint could not refuse as an officer–captured him and his entire family, placed them in chains, and sent them aboard a ship for imprisonment in France.

Toussaint, outraged, declared when boarding the ship, “In overthrowing me, you have cut down in San Domingo only the trunk of the tree of liberty. It will spring up again by the roots for they are numerous and deep”(334). Napoleon jailed Toussaint high up in the cold French mountains. He died alone on April 7, 1803, killed by “ill-treatment, cold, and starvation” (363), abandoned by France—the country to which he had remained loyal, upholding its standard of liberty and equality even when its rulers had abandoned it. As the greatest Black Jacobin he had defeated two slave empires—Britain and Spain—but France, his treasured empire of liberty had betrayed him. The fight for independence to preserve liberty fell to his acolytes, the generals he had trained.

The fight for independence
Liberty hung by a thread. The struggle for its preservation was begun not by the generals, but by the Black laborers. They rose up when they heard rumors of Napo?leon’s restoration of slavery in Martinique and Guadeloupe in 1802. The old vultures, the big whites who had fled San Domingue, began to return in the hopes of reclaiming their old plantations with re-enslaved laborers.

The Black generals vacillated between France and the rising by the laborers in defense of emancipation. They too were subject to the illusions that had doomed Toussaint. For a period they even followed Leclerc’s orders to repress the workers’ rebellion. Finally, Dessalines and other Black generals joined the rebellion, breaking forever with France, and gave the Black masses disciplined military leadership. The final fight for independence and liberty now commenced. Dessalines displayed what James calls a “one-sided genius,” far more crude than Toussaint yet essential for emancipation.

But the French imposed the rules of the final conflict. Leclerc waged a war of extermination, a genocidal war that aimed to kill off the existing workers who resisted and replace them with docile new slaves. General Rochambeau was particularly sadistic. Writes James, “Rochambeau drowned so many people in the Bay of Le Cap that for many a long day the people of the district would not eat fish. Following the example of the Spaniards in Cuba and the English in Jamaica, he brought 1,500 dogs to hunt down the Blacks” (359). He held a special “fete” in Le Cap in which a cheering audience of gaily-dressed white women watched dogs rip apart a Black man tied to a stake. He also invited a group of free women of color to a party at which he informed them that they had inadvertently participated in a funeral ceremony for their husbands whom Rochambeau had recently murdered. The French “burned alive, hanged, drowned, tortured and started their old habit of burying Blacks up to their neck near nests of insects. It was not only hatred and fear, but policy” (360).

Leclerc’s plan was a fantasy of arrogance and ignorance. He was confronting not just a military resistance, but in fact an island-wide rebellion of the Black masses, who fought ferociously for liberty or death. “Far from being intimidated,” writes James, “the civil population met the terror with such courage and firmness as frightened the terrorists” (361). A French observer, Lemonnier-Delafosse, described how he witnessed a captured nineteen-year-old Black youth, who had seen two Blacks burned alive before him, shout, “You do not know how to die,” and proceed, in front of a crowd of whites, to free himself and put his own feet into the fire. Another captured woman refused to be hung by others, grabbed the rope and hung herself, remarking how sweet it is to die for liberty. “These were the men we had to fight against,” remarked Delafosse (361).

This was a “people’s war,” in which “they played the most audacious tricks on the French” (366). One French army was held down all night in anticipation of a major assault, only to find that they had been fooled by the shouts and movements of one hundred laborers pretending to be an army. Groups of armed Blacks and free men of color made lightning raids using small boats, landing quietly, killing and carrying off prisoners and plunder, and then moving on. Leclerc’s forces soon succumbed to disease, demoralization, exhaustion, and death on the battlefield. His army crumbled and he himself soon died of disease.

Dessalines declared the goal of the insurrection to be independence. Famously, he gathered his officers and soldiers together, took out the French tricolor flag, and tore out the white band, leaving the flag—blue and red—as a symbol of the Black nation’s resistance to white imperial rule and slavery. Fired with their new goal of independence to preserve liberty, the Black army and laborers decimated the French, who lost nearly all of their 60,000 troops.

In the final assault by the Black armies on Le Cap, the French faced wave after wave of attacks on their heavily entrenched positions. “The French, who had fought on so many fields,” writes James, “had never seen fighting like this” (367). French soldiers began shouting “Bravo!”, and Rochambeau sent a message to the other side commending the heroism of Clairveaux, the officer leading the assault.

Delafosse later wrote in his memoirs:

But what men these Blacks are! How they fight and how they die! One has to make war against them to know their reckless courage in braving danger when they can no longer have recourse to strategem. I have seen a solid column, torn by grape-shot from four pieces of cannon, advance without making a retrograde step. The more they fell, the greater seemed to be the courage of the rest. They advance singing, for the Negro sings everywhere, makes songs on everything. Their song was a song of brave men… (368)

Dessalines, however, did not successfully take control of the Spanish section of the island that would eventually become the Dominican Republic, a division that would haunt the politics of both nations.

Victorious against the French army, Dessalines declared independence in 1804. He named the new Black nation, “Haiti”—the name given the island by the indigenous population, the Tainos. It was a symbolic break with European and French slave masters’ conquest of the New World. He declared himself emperor for life. Then in 1805 faced with more counterrevolution from the big whites, he launched a massacre of the remaining white population. Importantly he did not kill all the whites, sparing Polish soldiers who had abandoned the French to fight on the side of the liberation struggle as well as white experts he thought necessary for the new nation. He declared that henceforth all citizens, regardless of their skin color, were Black.

“The massacre of the whites was a tragedy,” writes James,

not for the whites. For these old slave-owners… there is no need to waste one tear or one drop of ink. The tragedy was for the Blacks and the Mulattoes. It was a policy of revenge, and revenge has no place in politics…. As it was, Haiti suffered terribly from the resulting isolation. Whites were banished from Haiti for generations, and the unfortunate country, ruined economically, its population lacking in social culture, had its inevitable difficulties doubled by this massacre. That the new nation survived at all is forever to its credit for if the Haitians thought that imperialism was finished with them, they were mistaken. (374)

Isolated and starved of capital, the Black and free men of color were unable to develop a vibrant capitalist economy, but slipped back into subsistence farming and the consequent underdevelopment that has plagued Haiti ever since.

Haiti: Beacon of liberation
It would be wrong, however, to see the final war for independence as a tragedy. The United States, France, and Britain strangled Haiti in the nineteenth century precisely because it was a threat to their slave economies, a threat that should be defended and celebrated. It had abolished slavery, won independence, and set an example that would inspire slave rebellion throughout the New World.

As the great Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass declared, “We should not forget that the freedom you and I enjoy today; that the freedom that eight hundred thousand colored people enjoy in the British West Indies; the freedom that has come to colored race the world over, is largely due to the brave stand taken by the Black sons of Haiti…. When they struck for freedom… they struck for the freedom of every Black man in the world.”7

The Haitian Revolution transformed the Old and New Worlds. In Europe, Napoleon’s diversion of forces to re-enslave San Domingue led directly to his defeats at sea and on the continent. In the New World, the revolution terrified the slave masters throughout the region. In the wake of the slaves’ victory, the British opted to abolish the slave trade for fear of importing restive African labor to their colonies. The French abandoned their pretension to empire when they sold off their possessions in America with the Louisiana Purchase. Haiti itself became a redoubt of anti-colonial revolution; on the condition that he would free the continent’s slaves, Haiti gave support to Simón Bolívar and his struggle for Latin American emancipation. In the modern imperialist era, Toussaint and the Black slaves’ revolution continued to inspire struggles for national liberation.

C. L. R. James’s brilliant book recovers this revolutionary history to aid our struggles today. With imperialist occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Haiti, we have much to learn from the intertwined struggle of Toussaint, the Black masses, and the Paris masses of the French Revolution. The Haitian Revolution’s searing lesson is that class struggle, the defense of the right of nations to self-determination, and international working-class solidarity for social revolution are the only solution to world imperialism.

  1. Even Henry Heller’s The Bourgeois Revolution in France (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006), which presents a brilliant defense of the Marxist account of the French Revolution, fails to understand the significance of the colonies, especially San Domingue, for fertilizing French capitalism and spurring the revolution itself.
  2. James was born in Trinidad and moved to Britain in the 1930s where he became a Trotskyist and deeply involved in the emergent Pan-Africanist movement alongside his friend George Padmore. He later moved to the United States where he would play a leading role in the American Socialist Workers Party. He eventually broke with Trotsky and Trotskyism, developing his own analysis of Stalinism as state capitalism and attempting to combine in eclectic fashion his spontaneist Marxism and Pan-Africanism. For a good overview of James’s politics see Paul LeBlanc’s “C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism” in C. L. R. James and Revolutionary Marxism (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1994), 1–37.
  3. All page numbers refer to the 1989 (New York) Vintage Books edition.
  4. In keeping with other historians such as Laurent Dubois in Avengers of the New World (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press , 2004), I use the term “free men of color” instead of “mulatto,” the term James uses. “Mulatto” carries a racist connotation, originally deriving from the French term for mule (the infertile product of horse and donkey).
  5. For a new biography with interesting new information as well as some speculation about Toussaint, see Madison Smart Bell’s Toussaint Louverture (New York: Random House, 2007). Bell’s biography is quite good, despite being marred by his liberal politics and its dismissive view of James as a dogmatic Marxist, a characterization so inaccurate that it more reveals Bell’s own political hostility to any kind of Marxism rather than any accurate assessment of James’s classic book.
  6. Bell, Toussaint Louverture, 142.
  7. Quoted in Phillip Foner, The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Volume 4 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 484.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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