The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938), chronicles the history of the Haitian Revolution, which occurred from 1791 to 1803.
Written by the incomparable Trinidadian historian, C.L.R. James, the text posits the Haitian Revolution within the larger context of the French Revolution. James’ text focuses on several aspects of the Haitian Revolution, including the rise of Toussaint L’Ouverture to anti-slavery leadership.
Born a slave in Haiti, L’Ouverture later espoused the French Revolutionary ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity). In his book, James showed how L’Ouverture and his cadre of anti-slavery forces held these ideals more passionately than did many of the French revolutionaries.
James also showed how L’Ouverture was able to assume leadership of the Haitian revolutionary fighters and inspire others, such as Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe, to stalwart resistance and leadership.
L’Ouverture also inspired Boukman who, while enslaved in Jamaica, was caught teaching other slaves to read. As punishment, he was whipped. To ensure that Boukman wouldn’t “corrupt” other Jamaicans, he was sold off to slavery in Haiti.
If one was to compare Haiti – then St. Domingue – in its impoverished conditions today to what it was then, one can get some insight into the country’s historic struggles. For instance, the steep price Europe and the U.S. imposed on its population because of the audacity of their slaves to not only free themselves, but to also do so by defeating military detachments sent against them by France, Britain and Spain.
This price paid by Haitians continues to this day. In fact, as recently as the 1970s during the rule of “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, “Baby Doc”, global capital used Haiti as a base to pay below-basement wages to workers in the Third World: 14 cents per hour. These conditions led to unrest so severe that the young Duvalier fled to France for safety.
When Jean-Bertrand Aristide came to power, the first thing he did was raise wages to 34 cents per hour. However, wages dropped to 11 cents per hour after he was deposed of power in a coup and forced into exile in South Africa.
These 20th century impositions had followed the billion dollar punishment France had imposed as the price ordinary Haitians had to pay for overthrowing slavery. This had occurred after France, following its humiliating military defeat at the hands of former slaves, successfully mobilized the first “European and global embargo” against the former Francophonie colony.
What was the justification used by France?
James’ magnum opus, The Black Jacobins – a text elemental for anyone wishing to grow in Black history – showed how, in 1789, before the beginning of the French Revolution, the colony of St. Domingue, now Haiti, had furnished two-thirds of France’s overseas trade, employed 1,000 ships and 15,000 French sailors.
The colony, France’s richest, had become the envy of every European nation. Its plantation system provided a pivotal role in the French economy and was the greatest individual market for the African slave trade. The national wealth of France would thereby have been greatly reduced, and the slave trade then benefitting Europeans, Arab and Asian slave traders and economies, was too lucrative to abandon to the “canaille”, or those considered “sans humanite”.
Meanwhile, inside Haiti, the conflict and resentment that had permeated the society of San Domingo, now further inspired ironically by the French Jacobins, morphed into slave resistance that took an organized form in the late 18th century. Thus did the French Revolution inspire many, like Toussaint in 1789.
Finally, The Black Jacobin shows how the Haitian Revolution became the only successful slave revolt in history; why it resulted in the establishment of Haiti, the first independent Black state in this Hemisphere.
Tragically, Haiti remains a poverty trap of political instability, rampant corruption, internal poor governance, outright invasions, external control, and an entrepôt for illegal drugs trafficked between South and North America.