After years of starting and stopping I’ve finally seen the inside of the back cover of The Black Jacobins. I was driven by two things. That it was my Post-Colonial/World literature pick for Classics Club for May and I wanted to learn a bit about Haiti’s history before I read Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of this World, set in a newly independent Haiti. Another book I’m going to read before I touch Carpentier’s book is something called Haiti: The Aftershocks of History by Laurent Dubois.
Anyway, James’ work, first published in 1938, is really part of a wider conversation of racial and class struggles of all former slave colonies. It begins in the late 18th century highlighting the brutal conditions for the slaves in San Domingo/Haiti and after of layers political intrigue, shifting loyalties, war, executions particularly virulent diseases, it ends in the early 19th century, when Haiti becomes independent and Jean-Jacques Dessalines declares himself emperor.
The star of James’ narrative is Tossaint Breda/L’Overture, a former slave inspired by the French revolutionary slogans; liberty, equality and fraternity. The first time I saw Tossaint’s name was as a song title on Carlos Santana’s Dance of the Rainbow Serpent when I was very young.
Tossaint did not start the revolution, and is dead before Haiti is independent. However, his contribution and leadership is invaluable. The Black Jacobins portrayed him as a good leader in battle, but he wasn’t ruthless and was a capable diplomatist with the blacks, mulattoes, plantation owners, ‘petty whites’, the Spanish, the English , the Americans and the French. It is Toussaint that takes the first stab at drawing up a constitution.
His great failure was that he couldn’t believe that after ending slavery, that France, a country he believed in and believed he was part of, would want to reinstate slavery. This blindness would eventually lead to him dying in captivity.
So it was really up to the likes of Dessalines and Christophe amongst others to keep Haiti out of imperialist hands.
What I like about the book is that doesn’t read like history text, which is good since History has never been my subject. This is not to say it is light reading either, as it’s loaded with names, dates and treaties. What I’ve written in this short post is not even the tip of the iceberg. However, James does try to to make the story relevant by drawing parallels to other other political realities. Obviously this book was originally published in the late 30’s, so his ‘contemporary’ examples are a bit dated.
The edition I
stole borrowed without permission for a long time from my father’s bookshelf was published in 2001, so there are more contemporary, but still dated, parallels in the Appendix to Fidel Castro and Francois Duvalier, better known as Papa Doc.
James’ leftist politics are evident because of his overall emphasis on class conflict that wasn’t just about race.
Did I enjoy this book? No, I stretched and took a deep breath when I turned the page and saw the Biliography. But I understand that it is an very important bit of writing, and that Cyril Lionel Robert James, usually just known as C.L.R. James, was an important Caribbean intellectual.
Next up, my long journey for Classics Club Spin, War and Peace.