The first successful slave revolt in history

Issue 

The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution
By CLR JAMES
Penguin, 2001
364 pp, $22(pb)

REVIEW BY PHIL SHANNON

Which country defeated the largest ever invasion force sent by Britain in its colonial heyday? Which country inflicted a defeat on Napoleon's army to rank with his disastrous Moscow campaign of 1812? Haiti, the Carribean island which today is one of the poorest countries in the world, has these anti-imperialist honours.

Not that official history has ever been keen to break the silence which has much to do with Haiti's other neglected honour of being the site of the first successful slave revolt in history.

The stirring story of the savage yet heroic struggle of the African slaves of the French colony of St Domingue, under the leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture, is told with all the narrative vigour, political insight and revolutionary sympathy that it deserves by West Indian Marxist, CLR James in this new edition of his 1938 classic, The Black Jacobins.

A bare 15 years after Columbus "discovered" the island of St Domingue in 1492, the million indigenous inhabitants had been exterminated with such efficiency that the Spanish colonialists had to launch the world slave trade to re-populate the island. Africans were abducted to work the sugar, tobacco and coffee plantations. France joined in the plunder, after securing the eastern half of the island in 1695 following a war with Spain.

By 1789, there were half a million slaves in St Domingue powering an export trade which made up two-thirds of France's entire gross national product. In 1789, however, there were revolutionary winds blowing in France which were about to rock that country's social structure and which were to reach France's most valuable colonial jewel and develop there into a destructive tempest of liberation.

The slave colony was held together by a brutally effective but volatile glue of fear and sadism. The slaves were terrorised into submission with the whip, blocks of wood tied to their feet, the iron collar, mutilations, roasting alive on slow fires, hot ashes poured on bleeding wounds. Death was a mere whim away.

Some suicided, some escaped to form bands which raided the plantations, some organised uprisings which, uncoordinated, failed. What successfully touched off the powder keg in St Domingue was a revolutionary spark in Paris.

Bourgeois revolution against the monarchy in France started the rot amongst the ruling class in the colony. White plantation owners and the maritime capitalists who profited from slavery took on the royalist colonial government for increased political rights in order to expand their profits. But all, whether royalist or republican, capitalist or aristocrat, were at one on the slavery question. All the talk of rights conspicuously ignored rights for the slaves.

The French Revolution was, after all, a bourgeois revolution, and political rights were restricted to property owners. Slaves were "property" and had no rights.

The slaves thought otherwise, however, and caught the spirit of the revolution, including Toussaint Breda. As an educated member of the caste of household slaves, Toussaint put his rare literacy skills to political use when he read progressive pamphlets from France.

Revolutionary ideas were set simmering in secret meetings of slaves held in the forests at night, boiling over into a great slave revolt which broke out in 1791. The colonial bourgeoisie's quick resort to arms against their royalist political enemies had shown the slaves how liberty was to be won and in a wave of savagery, taught by their masters, the slaves swept to victories over their "owners".

The 45-year-old Toussaint joined the revolt and quickly rose to leadership of the huge slave army. The uprising was very nearly betrayed immediately. After four months, stalemate set in and famine in the liberated areas followed after the torching of the crops.

The slave leaders, Toussaint amongst them, negotiated a deal: freedom for the leaders in return for helping the French army hunt down those slaves who continued to resist. When this deal was rejected by the bourgeois government in Paris, which could not contemplate freedom for any slave, Toussaint crossed his political Rubicon, resolved on liberty for all slaves and resumed the fight.

Toussaint forged a military alliance with slave-owning Spain against slave-owning France. When slave-owning Britain sought to capitalise on France's problems in St Domingue and invaded, Toussaint found himself in a tactical jam.

What blasted open the gridlock was the working people of Paris, who in 1793-94 mobilised to propel the Jacobin left in the bourgeois government to defend the royalist-threatened revolution by democratising and radicalising it.

On February 3, 1794, the Jacobin-led parliament declared slavery abolished. "Aristocracy of the skin" now joined aristocracy of king and court on the dust-heap. Toussaint had found his first genuine allies as the St Domingue slaves and the Paris masses made common cause against a common enemy.

Toussaint, adopting the name L'Ouverture (after the new "opening" in the struggle for liberty), switched sides from Spain to slave-free France and, in a war lasting four years, repelled Britain's largest ever colonial invasion force. Britain lost 80,000 soldiers.

With royalist counter-revolution defeated in France, however, the French bourgeoisie, crying economic ruin from the abolition of slavery and wanting their property back, deposed Robespierre's Jacobins and turned their attention to their Carribean colony.

After provoking the middle-class "mulattoes" (people of mixed black and white ancestry) to wage a vicious but failed three-year civil war in St Domingue, the French capitalists abandoned divide-and-rule tactics and opted for direct invasion under their saviour, the emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who sent 60,000 soldiers to restore slavery in the rebellious colony.

Toussaint, having taken the slaves from bondage to control of the whole island in 10 years, now stumbled at this last hurdle of the liberation struggle. Enforcing a tight work discipline on the former slaves in order to revive the economy, and refusing to confiscate the land of the plantation owners, Toussaint bred resentment in the black labourers which brewed into a revolt in the north which Toussaint ruthlessly suppressed.

Toussaint had attempted to balance between the classes and the black labourers felt that Toussaint was too conciliatory to the plantation owners and former slave owners. When Toussaint pulled back from final confrontation with a France that now represented these class interests, he lost the confidence of the labourers and his army.

Toussaint's misplaced allegiance to a France which had decreed the abolition of slavery but was now planning its reintroduction blinded him to the shifting balance of class forces within the republic. Toussaint's autocratic leadership now became a fatal problem when his military strategies and political goals diverged from what the ex-slaves needed — independence from France.

When Toussaint was arrested and deported to prison in France, where he died from pneumonia, his parting words were prophetic: "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 arrest sparked a renewal of the black insurrection. With a self-sacrificing fury that came from a recognition that the only alternative was "liberty or death", the black soldiers and labourers rose in desperate struggle.

Led by one of Toussaint's generals, the ferocious Dessalines ("crude, coarse and stained with crimes but deserving his place among the heroes of human emancipation"), they seized the day in a people's war for national independence which swept the French from the island in a matter of months. Colonial government was never to return to the island, renamed Haiti in January 1804.

Misery, massacres and repression were alas never to be entirely banished from the fledgling nation. The US business class took over from where the French and British slavers left off, sending in the marines from 1915-1934 and later supporting the brutal indigenous Haitian dictatorship of the Duvaliers for 30 years, reducing Haiti to an illiterate, poverty-wracked, AIDS-ridden, deforested source of mega-profits for US capitalism.

It was a punishment to fit the "crime" of Toussaint and the half a million African slaves who dared to struggle for, and win, their liberty. The slave revolt in Haiti, in which Toussaint and one third of the slaves perished, is a tale of horror and heroism, pitiless suffering and exhilarating victory. CLR James' book ensures it shall not be forgotten.

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