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

by c. l. r. james
with an introduction by christienna fryar and notes by james walvin
penguin modern classics, 416 pages,  £12.99

Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743–1803), leader of the Haitian Revolution and remembered as the “father of Haiti,” is a noble figure from the revolutionary period of Atlantic history. The story of Haiti has been tragic in the 220 years since his death in captivity in France, a narrative that has been told anew in fine investigative articles by Catherine Porter and others in the New York Times. But this two-century tragedy is not his doing, and his personal virtue, honesty, and prudent governance of Haiti for over a decade are most instructive. His own achievement, and the subsequent tragedy, remind us that there is a scheme of universal standards of conduct that can be applied to different nations, eras, races, and individuals. Not all history is relativistic or revisionist, and neither logically nor ethically should we surrender to what Pope Benedict XVI called “the dictatorship of relativism.” L'Ouverture's intuitive assumption was that knowledge and conscience can and should transcend subjectivism and relativism, that morality is real; he did not succumb to revolutionary fanaticism or Napoleonic cynicism.

In English, the most important book on L’Ouverture is the ground-breaking 1938 study by the Anglophone West Indian C. L. R. James: The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Revised and augmented in 1962, it was published anew last year as a Penguin Modern Classic, with an introduction by American scholar Christienna Fryar. In this book, James examines L’Ouverture's role in the Haitian Revolution (or San Domingo Revolution) of 1791–1803, the first successful revolution of black slaves against European colonial rule. The Black Jacobins is a powerful work of history, animated by aggrieved moral passion, a Marxist-Trotskyite and anti-imperialist framework, and a depiction of moral individuality in the tradition of Thomas Carlyle and Christianity. It also tells us a great deal about C. L. R. James himself and about Caribbean, African, and Asian radical movements over the last hundred years. Black Jacobins is justly considered a classic, but despite the book’s brilliance it has a major flaw: L’Ouverture was not a Jacobin revolutionary. He was a Catholic, whose view of universal human dignity was drawn from the heart of the gospel itself.

Born around 1743 (the same year as Thomas Jefferson) and raised in French-owned Saint-Domingue—what is now Haiti—L’Ouverture was the child of Catholic African slaves. He learned to speak French, which most slave owners did not permit slaves to do (depriving them of a common language was an effective oppressive tool). From a devout slave godfather, L’Ouverture also learned some Latin and the essential features of Catholicism, to which he was loyal for his whole life. He became an effective worker, was given some degree of liberty and his own piece of land and became an especially fine horseman and steward of land and livestock. Thanks to his godfather's tutelage, he was able to read radical French anti-slavery literature, including the Abbé Raynal’s 1770 attack on European imperialism in “the two Indies,” with its prophecy of an imminent anti-imperial slave revolution that required only a capable leader: “a courageous chief only is needed.” C. L. R. James sees L’Ouverture as recognizing his great vocation in Raynal’s book.

L'Ouverture read and understood the revolutionary implications of the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen as well as the universal ethic of the Christian gospel to which his godfather, Catholic practice, and some good priests introduced him. He read French anti-slavery thinkers such as Raynal, Mirabeau, and the Abbé Grégoire. This extraordinary maturity and wisdom made him unique among black leaders in Haiti, and it also gave him a sense of prudence and universal fairness. In 1791, at age forty-five, he identified publicly with the cause of freeing Saint-Domingue’s black population and ending slavery in the region. He knew that this would probably cost him his life—and it did, a dozen years later in a remote prison high in the frigid Jura mountains of eastern France.

James’s book is devoted to the actions of L’Ouverture and the slave rebellion. He weaves the history of Saint-Domingue with that of revolutionary France from 1789 to 1803, showing how the variations of French political regimes affected its rich slave colony—made up of a vast kidnapped African slave population, a smaller mixed-race population, poor whites, and a plantation-owning white elite. He also describes the intermittent attempts by the various French regimes of 1791–1803 to recover their profitable colony and re-enslave its inhabitants. An effective general, L’Ouverture fought off not only the French but also the Spanish and British, all eager to conquer and exploit the rich colony. 

Though many of his fellow black rebels displayed vengeful (if understandable) wrath, L’Ouverture did not demonize whites, despite frequent betrayal by them—betrayal that ultimately cost him his country, his liberty, and his life. He seems to have understood and believed in the universal equal worth of all human persons—a transcendent ideal of the Christian gospel—and he felt grateful to the French for introducing this universality to him and for attempting intermittently to establish it politically in the revolutionary decade.

He was ultimately betrayed by his trust in French honor and promises. Napoleon had him tricked and kidnapped. Dreading a slave rebellion in the U.S., the Francophile Thomas Jefferson encouraged this treachery by promising Napoleon in 1801 to help “starve out Toussaint” through maritime blockade and aid to the invading French army of General Leclerc. This story has been told authoritatively in Conor Cruise O’Brien’s The Long Affair. Though Leclerc’s invading army was defeated and decimated, thus encouraging Napoleon to leave the Americas altogether (and sell the Louisiana territory to the U.S.), L’Ouverture was kidnapped, taken to France, and imprisoned in the remote Jura mountains, where he died an early death in 1803.

The poignancy of C. L. R. James’s own life—birth and education in segregated British Trinidad in 1901, a long career spent in anti-imperialist agitation in Britain and the U.S., adherence to a lonely and increasingly sectarian Trotskyite Marxism—deeply affect his depiction of L’Ouverture’s noble life. A biographical note tells us that in 1937, a year before Black Jacobins, James wrote “World Revolution . . . a damning critique of Stalinism.” L’Ouverture ended up in the ruthless clutches of the power maniac Napoleon, but fortunately James managed not to end up in the hands of the power maniac Stalin (though his admiration of Lenin and Castro makes painful reading). 

Truly “enlightened,” L’Ouverture saw Christian universalism as the great hope of mankind, foreshadowing Tocqueville’s Christian rebuke of Gobineau’s “scientific racism” as well as Jefferson’s racialism (and the “sexploitation” of his young slave Sally Hemings) and the ideologies of John C. Calhoun and Darwinian racism. James actually makes this point himself a number of times, but only in passing. He calls L'Ouverture “a sincere Catholic” and notes his devotion to the Catholic mass—L’Ouverture encouraged its celebration among the black population, befriended priests, and opposed Voodoo. Unlike some of his own black allies and successors, in power he resisted flattery and elaborate public fawning: “A dais and incense . . . belong only to God.” He frequently examined his fellow Haitians on the Catholic catechism. He told one flattering office-seeker, “I cannot see everything, but . . . nothing escapes God.”

As Conor Cruise O’Brien has shown, the slave-owning Virginia gentleman Jefferson himself might be called a “Jacobin” for his “long affair” with the French Revolution. But Toussaint L’Ouverture cannot. He was never a Jacobin; he was a Catholic.

M. D. Aeschliman is author of The Restoration of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Continuing Case Against Scientism

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Image by New York Public Library on GetArchive licensed via Creative Commons. Image edited and cropped.

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