The Black Jacobins

Earlier this year, Shane Parrish author of the blog Farnam Street wrote an article in Business Insider through which he shared The 5 Books Mega Investor Ben Horowitz  Says You Need to Read. One of the books on that list that caught my attention, is The Black Jacobins – Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C.L.R. James. Why after all was Ben recommending a history book?

As Cyril states in the preface, the backdrop of The Black Jacobins is as follows:

In 1789 the French West Indian colony of San Domingo supplied two-thirds of the overseas trade of France and was the greatest individual market for the European slave-trade. It was an integral part of the economic life of the age, the greatest colony in the world, the pride of France, and the envy of every other imperialist nation. The whole structure rested on the labour of half-a-million slaves.

This was too good to be true for the French, and in late 1791 a revolution from within the colony emerged:

In August 1791, after two years of the French Revolution and its repercussions in San Domingo, the slaves revolted. The struggle lasted for 12 years. The slaves defeated in turn the local whites and the soldiers of the French monarchy, a Spanish invasion, a British expedition of some 60,000 men, and a French expedition of similar size under Bonaparte’s brother-in-law. The defeat of Bonaparte’s expedition in 1803 resulted in the establishment of the Negro state of Haiti which has lasted to this day. 

Why is this revolution such a big deal?

The revolt is the only successful slave revolt in history, and the odds it had to overcome is evidence of the magnitude of the interests that were involved. The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organise themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement. Why and how this happened is the theme of this book.

While this historical achievement had many actors, it had a primary leader protagonist and that man was Toussaint L’Ouverture:

By a phenomenon often observed, the individual leadership responsible for this unique achievement was almost entirely the work of a single man—Toussaint L’Ouverture. Beauchamp in the Biographic Universelle calls Toussaint L’Ouverture one of the most remarkable men of a period rich in remarkable men. He dominated from his entry until circumstances removed him from the scene. The history of the San Domingo revolution will therefore largely be a record of his achievements and his political personality. The writer believes, and is confident the narrative will prove, that between 1789 and 1815, with the single exception of Bonaparte himself, no single figure appeared on the historical stage more greatly gifted than this Negro, a slave till he was 45- Yet Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint and even that is not the whole truth. 

Below I will share excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

Early on Toussaint was inspired by some of the literary work being developed at the time:

Philosophical and Political History of the Establishments and Commerce of the Europeans in the Two Indies by Abbe Raynal: “If self-interest alone prevails with nations and their masters, there is another power. Nature speaks in louder tones than philosophy or self-interest. Already are there 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 signal 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 honour.”

San Domingo had a strategic importance for France, but internal and external forces were converging to loosen their control over this important colony:

These then were the forces which in the decade preceding the French Revolution linked San Domingo to the economic destiny of three continents and the social and political conflicts of that pregnant age. A trade and method of production so cruel and so immoral that it would wilt before the publicity which a great revolution throws upon the sources of wealth: the powerful British Government determined to wreck French commerce in the Antilles, agitating at home and intriguing in France among men who, unbeknown to themselves, would soon have power in their hands; the colonial world (itself divided) and the French bourgeoisie, each intent on its own purposes and, unaware of the approaching danger, drawing apart instead of closer together. Not one courageous leader, many courageous leaders were needed, but the science of history was not what it is to-day and no man living then could foresee, as we can foresee to-day, the coming upheavals. Mirabeau indeed said that the colonists slept on the edge of Vesuvius, but for centuries the same thing had been said and the slaves had never done anything.

While revolutions were happening in Europe, they did not translate equally in the colonies:

And meanwhile, what of the slaves? They 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 the thing. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Before the end of 1789 there were risings in Guadeloupe and Martinique. As early as October, in Fort Dauphin, one of die future centres of the San Domingo insurrection, the slaves were stirring and holding mass meetings in the forests at night. In the South Province, watching the fight between their masters for and against the revolution, they had shown signs of unrest. In isolated plantations there were movements. All were bloodily repressed. Revolutionary literature was circulating among them. But the colonists were themselves giving a better example than all the revolutionary tracts which found their way to the colony.

On Toussaint’s upbringing and character:

An important thing for his future was that his character was quite unwarped. Since his childhood he had probably never been whipped as so many slaves had been whipped. He himself tells us that he and his wife were among the fortunate few who had acquired a modest competence and used to go hand in hand and very happy to work on the little plot of land which some of the slaves cultivated for themselves. Besides his knowledge and experience, through natural strength of character he had acquired a formidable mastery over himself, both mind and body. As a boy he was so frail and delicate that his parents had not expected him to live, and he was nicknamed “Little Stick”. While still a child he determined to acquire not only knowledge but a strong body, and he strengthened himself by the severest exercises, so that by the time he was 12 he had surpassed all the boys of his age on the plantation in athletic feats. He could swim across a dangerous river, j jump on a horse at full speed and do what he liked with it.

Toussaint soon realized that the enslaved will have to fight for their liberty:

Then and 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. The most extreme revolutionaries are formed by circumstances. It is probable that, looking at the wild hordes of blacks who surrounded him, his heart sank at the prospect of the war and the barbarism which would follow freedom even if it were achieved. He was ready to go a long way to meet the colonists. He probably honed for some attempt at better treatment. But having been driven to take his decision, as was his way, he never looked back…Henceforth it was war, and war needed trained soldiers. Toussaint dropped his post of Physician to the Armies of the King, and assuming the title of Brigadier-General started to train an army. Once only in his political life did he ever fail to meet an emergency with action bold and correct.

He would have to overcome challenges in training his forces:

It was from these men “unable to speak two words of French” that an army had to be made. Toussaint could have had thousands following him. It is characteristic of him that he began with a few hundred picked men, devoted to himself, who learnt the art of war with him from the beginning, as they fought side by side against the French troops and the colonists…Feuillants and Jacobins in France whites and Mulattoes in San Domingo, were still looking upon the slave revolt as a huge riot which would be put down in time, once the division between the slave-owners was closed.

Popular support was on his side:

If the army was the instrument of Toussaint’s power, the masses were its foundation and his power grew with his influence over them. Just out of the degradation of slavery they had come into a world of indiscriminate murder and violence…Fear of the restoration of slavery was always the cause of the trouble. The British had no intention of abolishing slavery, neither had the Spaniards. 

Toussaint steadily started his rise as a leader, at times directly helped by the French:

On August 17th, four months after Sonthonax landed, the Directory confirmed Toussaint’s promotion by Laveaux to the rank of general of division, and that of Pierre Michel and other ex-slaves as generals of brigade. France, still engaged in a life and death struggle in Europe, was leaning on the blacks, not only against the British, but against the threat of Mulatto independence. Thus the stock of Toussaint as leader of the blacks was rising steadily. 

He was very conscious that economic prosperity was key to a strong independent nation:

But he worked also at the restoration of the colony. Le Cap was partially rebuilt, and cultivation began a to flourish…”The guarantee of the liberty of the blacks is the prosperity of agriculture” was another saying always on his lips which spread among the blacks.

As the French were getting ready to re-instate slavery, he eloquently addressed them to reconsider:

On November 5th he addressed a letter to the Directory which is a milestone in his career…Do they think that men who have been able to enjoy the blessing of liberty will calmly see it snatched away? They supported their chains only so long as they did not know any condition of life more happy than that of slavery. But to-day when they have left it, if they had a thousand lives they would sacrifice them all rather than be forced into slavery again. But no, the same hand which has broken our chains will not enslave us anew. France will not revoke her principles, she will not withdraw from us the greatest of her benefits. She will protect us against all our enemies; she will not permit her sublime morality to be perverted, those principles which do her most honour to be destroyed, her most beautiful achievement to be degraded, and her Decree of 16 Pluviose which so honours humanity to be revoked. But if, to re-establish slavery in San Domingo, 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.

His address to them is nothing short of a literary masterpiece, displaying his mastery of communication, a key leadership skill:

Pericles on Democracy, Paine on the Rights of Man, the Declaration of Independence, the Communist Manifesto, these are some of the political documents which, whatever the wisdom or weaknesses of their analysis, have moved men and will always move them, for the writers, some of them in spite of themselves, strike chords and awaken aspirations that sleep in the hearts of the majority in every age. But Pericles, Tom Paine, Jefferson, Marx and Engels, were men of a liberal education, formed in the traditions of ethics, philosophy and history. Toussaint was a slave, not six years out of slavery, bearing alone the unaccustomed burden of war and government, dictating his thoughts in the crude words of a broken dialect, written and rewritten by his secretaries until their devotion and his will had hammered them into adequate shape. Superficial people have read his career in terms of personal ambition. This letter is their answer. Personal ambition he had. But he accomplished what he did because, superbly gifted- he incarnated the determination of his people never, never to be slaves again. Soldier and administrator above all, yet his declaration is a masterpiece of prose excelled by no other writer of the revolution. Leader of a backward and ignorant mass, he of his time. The blacks were taking their part in \ the destruction of European feudalism begun by the French Revolution, and liberty and equality, the slogans of the ‘evolution, meant far more to them than to any Frenchman. That was why in the hour of danger Toussaint, uninstructed as he was, could find the language and accent of Diderot, Rousseau, and Raynal, of Mirabeau, Robespierre, and Danton. And in one respect he excelled them all. For even these masters of the spoken and written word, owing to the class complications of their society, too often had to pause, to hesitate, to qualify. Toussaint could defend the freedom of the blacks without reservation, and this gave to his declaration a strength and a single-mindedness rare in the great documents of the time. The French bourgeoisie could not understand it. Rivers of blood were to flow before they understood that elevated as was his tone Toussaint had written neither bombast nor rhetoric but the simple and sober truth. 

Further details on his character and behavior as a leader, which inspired his followers:

It was his prodigious activity which so astonished men. Nobody ever knew what he was doing: if he was leaving, if he was staying, whither he was going, whence he was coming…He was as completely master of his body as of his mind. He slept but two hours every night, and for days would be satisfied with two bananas and a glass of water. Physically without fear, he had to guard against being poisoned…He seemed to bear a charmed life…Despite his awkwardness of build and ugliness of feature he managed in the end to make a strong impression upon all with whom he came in contact. He had in the last years an unusual distinction of carriage. His step was martial, his manner commanding. Simple in his private life, he wore resplendent uniforms on state occasions, and his aides-de-camp followed his example in elegance and display…In a community where so many were still primitive and simple-minded, the personal character and conduct of the leader, sprung from the people, was not without social significance. Despite Toussaint’s despotism, his ruthlessness, his impenetrability, his unsleeping suspicion of all around him, his skill in large-scale diplomacy and petty intrigue, to the end of his life he remained a man of simple and kindly feelings, his humanity never drowned by the rivers of blood which flowed so plentifully and so long. His “no reprisals” sprang from a genuine horror of useless bloodshed. Women and children in particular he hated to see suffer.

His Achilles heal was his attachment to the French:

If he was convinced that San Domingo would decay without the benefits of the French connection, he was equally certain that slavery could never be restored. Between these two certainties, he, in whom penetrating vision and prompt decision had become second nature, became the embodiment of vacillation. His allegiance to the French Revolution and all it opened out to mankind in general made him what he was. But this in the end ruined him.

Another weakness was that he did not constantly communicate and update his followers as to his vision, what has been achieved and what he was thinking – which overtime erodes trust:

In nothing does his genius stand out so much as in refusing to trust the liberties of the blacks to the promises of French or British Imperialism. His error was his neglect of his own people. They did not understand what he was doing or where he was going. He took no trouble to explain. It was dangerous to explain. but still more dangerous not to explain. His s temperament. close and self-contained, was one that kept its own counsel. Thus the masses thought he had taken Spanish San Domingo to stop the slave traffic, and not as a safeguard against the French. His silence confused them and did not deceive Bonaparte…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.

As he was being deported from San Domingo, his final triumphant words were:

As Toussaint stepped on board the boat he spoke to Savary the captain some words which he had doubtless carefully prepared, his last legacy to his people. “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.”

Toussaint’s life ended in a French prison, but as history has it at a time when San Domingo was getting ready to declare independence – the cause of his life:

There is no drama like the drama of history. Toussaint died on April 7th, 1803 and Bonaparte must have thought that half the battle against San Domingo was now won. But in Toussaint’s last hours his comrades in arms, ignorant of his fate, were drafting the declaration of independence.

The will of the people for freedom overcame all the military power of the invaders:

The records are there. For self-sacrifice and heroism, the men, women and children who drove out the French stand second to no fighters for independence in any place or time. And the reason was simple. They had seen at last that without independence they could not maintain their liberty, and liberty was far more concrete for former slaves than the elusive forms of political democracy in France.

On a concluding note, how the San Domingo revolution served as a platform for wider revolutions in the developing world in general but Africa in particular:

Such men as Loveway are symbols of the future. Others will arise, and others. From the people heaving in action will arise, will come the leaders; not the isolated blacks at Guys’ Hospital or the Sorbonne, the dabblers in surrealisme or the lawyers, but the quiet recruits in a black police force, the sergeant in the French native army or British force, the sergeant in the French native army or British police, reading a stray pamphlet of Lenin or Trotsky as Toussaint read the Abbe Raynal. Nor will success result in the isolation of Africa. The blacks will demand skilled workmen and teachers. International socialism will need the products of a free Africa far more than the French bourgeoisie needed slavery and the slave-trade. Imperialism vaunts its exploitation of the slave-trade. Imperialism vaunts its exploitation of the from the very nature of its system of production for profit it strangles the real wealth of the continent—the creative capacity of the African people. The African faces a long and difficult road and he will need guidance. But he will tread it fast because he will walk upright.

A highly recommended read, in the area of history, politics, leadership, and human-rights.


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