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

by C. L. R. James

Paper Book, 1963


A classic and impassioned account of the first revolution in the Third World. This powerful, intensely dramatic book is the definitive account of the Haitian Revolution of 1794-1803, a revolution that began in the wake of the Bastille but became the model for the Third World liberation movements from Africa to Cuba. It is the story of the French colony of San Domingo, a place where the brutality of master toward slave was commonplace and ingeniously refined. And it is the story of a barely literate slave named Toussaint L'Ouverture, who led the black people of San Domingo in a successful struggle against successive invasions by overwhelming French, Spanish, and English forces and in the process helped form the first independent nation in the Caribbean.… (more)



Call number



New York : Vintage Books, [1963]

User reviews

LibraryThing member Artymedon
Regardless if one is as sensitive as this author with the struggle of the masses seen with a marxist perspective on history or not, James wrote one of the most important books of the XXth Century describing, in 1938, how a concentrationary society operated, economically thrived to later implode in
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chaos - pre-revolutionary slave based San-Domingo - with its northern plain composed of 500+ sugar cane plantations and 1200+ plantations of Indigo.

This book gives remarkably documented clues on the French Revolution and should be mandatory reading to each school girl/boy learning about the factions which from 1791 through 1798, fought to have Equality and Liberty prevail over economic or privileged interests.
As always with this period, the American, French and Haitian revolution have many paths which cross one another often seeing the same participants like Donatien-Marie-Joseph de Vimeur, vicomte de Rochambeau, the son of Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, the Rochambeau of the American Revolution.

It is impossible to comprehend the French Revolution of 1789 through only a nationalist prism as the interests of the maritime bourgeoisie were central to how it evolved and was ultimately put in the hands of the sugar lobby strong man: Napoleon.

Like a detective, C.L.R. James connects the dots of history and is in communion with the key figure of his story, Toussaint L'Ouverture, who had the same intuitive mind helping him to predict accurately -most of the time - what the future may bring, because he had one aim, avoid the restoration of slavery in San Domingo. He also villifies the Imperialists: the scheming Pitt and Dundas of the United Kingdom eyeing possible contagion in Jamaica from the winds of liberty; and the reactions from the Spanish and the French in favor of the planters.

He dislikes the Girondins faction because they represent the maritime bourgeoisie of Bordeaux or Nantes and the clubs like Marsiac which favored white planters, placing during Thermidor one of their men as President of the Council of Elders. C.L.R. James shows how Politics is played; how Leclerc - the First Consul's brother in law and husband of Pauline - plays successfully at times the racial card to create dissent among the Black and Mulattos generals.

From a 1938 perspective, C.L.R. James reminds his reader of how Napoleon's intervention in San Domingo can be compared to the threats of Mussolini and Hitler leading some of the most democrats of the leaders including Toussaint, to compromise at the peril of their own liberty because they just could not believe that Napoleon's and Leclerc's intrigues, as representatives of the French Republic which had given them their liberty, aimed at restoring slavery. His works is a warning that democracy is never a given and that reaction can spend 22 years trying to reassert itself by restoring the planters to their former white supremacy. He even makes a parallel with Franco in Spain 1936.

If C.L.R. James acknowledges the historic role of Dessalines in Haiti's 1803 independence, his heart clearly goes with Toussaint which death he recalls in captivity with great emotion.

Less remembered is how pre-revolutionary San Domingo sugar based economy created jobs in France; its trade giving directly or indirectly work to 2,000,000.00 French while creating a proletariat -albeit an unpaid and involuntary one - before the term was popularized by Karl Marx.
C.L.R. James a native of the West Indies from Trinidad & Tobago sees when he revisits his 1938 writing around 1961, a continuum between Toussaint, Fidel Castro and the colonies from Africa which had not yet reached their independence. He remains cautious on his appreciation of Fidel Castro as this revolution had just taken place then. C.L. R. James also quotes in his conclusion the "Negritude" of Aimee Cesaire as the poetic narration of a different model of development.

His narration of the period is epic throughout and if it was a film, 2/3 of the book are one long action sequence.
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LibraryThing member ehines
A great book about a surprisingly little known chapter of history. The glorious beginning of what would become the long sad story of Haiti.
LibraryThing member numbernine
The Haitian Revolution is such a cool but complicated historical event. This is a nice narrative of it, fiery and impassioned. CLR is clearly an admirer of Toussaint's and hopes for Haiti to serve as a model for African nations to fight against colonialism (it was written in 1938). Disappointingly,
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there's very little--almost no--detail on the revolution's military campaigns, which is an odd omission for what is essentially a narrative of a long war and a biography of a great general.
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LibraryThing member thorold
The Trinidadian-born scholar C.L.R. James was a revolutionary Marxist who somehow managed to combine a highly successful day job as a cricket writer (his memoir [Beyond a boundary] is still often cited as one of the best cricket books ever) with a long career of political activism in which he was,
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inter alia, adviser to many of the future leaders of postcolonial Africa. [The black Jacobins] is a classic bit of Marxist historical writing, in which James sets out the case for seeing the slave labourers of the Caribbean sugar plantations as the first modern industrial proletariat.

There's more to it than just political theory: James is clearly fascinated by the complicated interactions between the different social groups within the French colony (slaves, free blacks, Maroons, "Mulattoes", white administrators, and the slave-owning plantocracy) as well as the effect of the rapidly-changing political situation in France (the Paris mob and the left-wing intellectuals opposed to slavery on the one hand; the maritime bourgeoisie with shares in the sugar or shipping trades on the other), and of course the periodic involvement of Britain, Spain and the USA, also torn between preserving their own stakes in slavery and doing down the French. Since most of the parties involved changed sides a couple of times between the 1780s and 1804, the course of the conflict is hard to follow, even in James's very lucid account, and no-one comes out of it with very much credit apart from the mass of the Haitian people with their unshakeable demands for freedom. Even James's great hero, Toussaint Louverture, who is practically a saint in the earlier chapters (and the greatest general since Alexander) makes a critical error of judgement by remaining loyal to France after the Peace of Amiens gives Napoleon the chance to attempt to re-establish control over the colony.

The Penguin edition comes with a postscript added by James in 1980, which provides a superbly concise summary of Caribbean history and culture from Toussaint to Castro, including quick sketches of most of the major literary and political figures of the region (most of them personal acquaintances, of course).
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LibraryThing member ASKelmore
Best for:
Those interested in the history of enslaved people who successfully fought back.

In a nutshell:
Enslaved people revolt against the British, Spanish, and French over twelve years, eventually creating Haiti.

Worth quoting:
“The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than
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the revenges of poverty and oppression.”

Why I chose it:
I received this as a birthday gift this year.

You will be shocked to learn that I, a white woman raised and educated in the US, knew nothing about how Haiti came to be. I KNOW. It’s almost as though the history I was taught was incomplete in some very specific ways.

This fascinating book tells the story of how those who were enslaved in what is now Haiti revolted across over a dozen years to eventually claim victory by ensuring an end to slavery, expelling the French colonial government, and declaring independence.

The story told by this book begins 229 years ago this week (21 August 1791), and follows the complexities of race, class, slavery, and revolution. The main focus is on Toussaint Louverture, who led most of the revolution, though eventually he was taken to France and died in jail. He was a slave until 1776, then fought in multiple battles until undertaking, with others, a fight inspire by the French revolution.

I have some trouble following detailed military histories, especially when I don’t have the basics already in mind. I only recognized one name in this book before I read it - Napoleon, and he only shows up in the last 50 pages or so. I think to truly grasp everything in here, I would need to read it at least two more times, maybe more. But that speaks not to the quality of the writing, but to my lack of foundational knowledge of the subject.

I’d recommend this to anyone who is interested in history and the fight for freedom.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it
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LibraryThing member rab1953
C.L.R. James gives a detailed and gripping story of the revolution that led to the declaration of an independent Haiti in 1803. I didn’t try to keep track of the individual skirmishes and leaders, but the overall picture is fascinating and enriched by the details that James gives.
His start,
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provocatively titled The Property, is a memorable picture of the life that Haitian slaves faced, and why they fought so strongly for freedom. This was not an abstract notion, but a daily struggle that meant life, death, pain, family, food and more. It’s the reason for violent revolution.
James goes on to describe the complex relationships between the “property” and the small number of free, property-owning blacks, the land-owning whites, the “small” whites, and the people of mixed heritage. As all of these groups had their own interests in relation to land and property in San Domingo and to the colonial powers in France, they looked at the slave revolt from a perspective of identity, but primarily from the perspective of how it would affect their own assets.
This becomes a critical factor as the revolution plays out, with different factions forming alliances and compromises as they attempt to protect their own interests. It’s interesting that all of the factions, and at times some of the former slave leaders, consider – or actively work toward – reinstituting slavery as the only way to restore the economic base of the island, whether as a colony or an independent country. As a result, the freed slaves were ruthless and violent in destroying restoration factions, and faced ruthless repression as well.
The story has many layers, but James keeps it understandable, even for someone like me who does not have much knowledge of the times. As he shows, the complex interaction of class and racialized status makes simple analysis impossible, and no clear path or outcome was predictable. This remains true even today when identity politics is at the forefront, but class retains a powerful force. As he puts it, “The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it so fundamental.”
Especially interesting for me was James’ description of the situation in France, and the impact of the revolution of 1793. The economic significance of the San Domingo colony, and what James calls the “maritime bourgeoisie” that owned properties and got obscenely wealthy on the colonial trade, was the backbone of the rising class that overthrew the old French regime. Their bourgeois revolution to raise the trading class also led to the uprising of the lower classes, who opposed slavery in spite of the bourgeois attempts in the new French parliament to preserve it. So the French San Domingo colonies not only created the economic conditions that drove the French revolution, but also created the conditions that undermined it in favour of a (short-lived) proletarian revolution.
This of course was reversed after the bourgeoisie regained power in the assembly. James’ description of the intrigues and interests playing out in the national assembly gave me an understanding of the meaning of the French revolution that I knew very little of before. Reading those chapters has made me want to find out more about the French revolution if I can find a book that lays it out as clearly as James does. It’s also interesting to see how the English foreign strategy used slavery and a pretense of opposing it to undermine their rivals for economic power in the Caribbean.
The clarity of James’s description and analysis make it clear why his book is viewed as such a model and inspiration among revolutionary thinkers.
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LibraryThing member rivkat
This 1938 book is a fascinating look at how history used to be done: James is both passionately committed to the justice of the revolution’s cause (and a Marxist view of historical inevitability/class conflict) and basically willing to take the existing documentation, written almost entirely by
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whites, at face value. That means the book reverses racist moral judgments but generally presumes their account of events was factually accurate, which I don’t think a modern historian would do.
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LibraryThing member woj2000
It is rare to be so disappointed by a book so revered. As a story it is interesting enough, albeit lacking the literary devices that make stories so engaging. As history-writing it is limited, featuring no discussion of scholarship and being scant in citation. It does not appear to address
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controversies or debates, preferring instead to steam ahead with a narrative of heroism and perfidy. It is best understood as a hagiographic political polemic, featuring passages concerned purely with the moral outrages of its time. Indeed, in this way, its value as a historic document in a particular context is compelling - we can understand more why sanctifying Toussaint L’Ouverture and exalting the bravery of his disciplined black military is a significant decision in a world of colonialism and segregation, particularly one where the European empires had been shaken recently by revolution.
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Original publication date



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