The Black Jacobins Essay, Research Paper
The San Domingo revolution led to the abolition of slavery, independence of Haiti from France and the proclamation of a black republic. However, unlike many historians, CLR James in his work, The Black Jacobins, does not depict the struggle for independence as merely a slave revolt which happened to come after the French Revolution. He goes beyond providing only a recount of historical events and offers an intimate look at those who primarily precipitated the fall of French rule, namely the black slaves themselves. In doing so, James offers a perspective of black history which empowers the black people, for they are shown to actually have done something, and not merely be the subject of actions and attitudes of others.
Even before the actual revolt, the slaves were not men who merely resisted; they were not passive objects. James offers graphic detail of the random and frequent beatings, killings and tortures in order to show the immense brutality of San Domingo’s slavery. The severity and harshness of the slavery was due primarily to the fact that the colonists understood that “To cow [the slaves] into the necessary docility and acceptance necessitated a regime of calculated brutality and terrorism” (12)
Throughout his account of San Domingos’ slavery, James maintains the perseverance of the humanity of the slave population. The slaves did not succumb to their conditions by becoming inanimate objects devoid of any human qualities. Although the “majority of the slaves accommodated themselves to [the] brutality by a profound fatalism and a wooden stupidity before their masters”, the slaves still maintained their intelligence and creativity. “The difficulty was that though one could trap them like animals, transport them in pens, work them alongside an ass or a horse and beat both with the same stick, stable them and starve them, they remained, despite their black skins and curly hair, quite invincibly human beings; with the intelligence and resentments of human beings” (11-12). Moreover, it “was this intelligence which refused to be crushed, these latent possibilities, that frightened the colonists, as it frightens the whites in Africa to-day” (18).
Throughout The Black Jacobins, James emphasizes the struggle, the tension between the demands made by the society and the human need for expression. Although, “Many slaves could never be got to stir at all unless they were whipped” they still found their ways of expression (16). Often, the only form of expression they had was suicide. “Suicide was a common habit, and such was their disregard for life that they often killed themselves, not for personal reasons, but in order to spite their owner” (16). The slave revolt was a necessary expression of the masses of the population. Through his descriptive account of the daily lives of the slaves, James shows that the only way to truly understand the San Domingo revolution is to understand the slaves.
The slave masses were in fact the creators of their own history. James acknowledges that the success of the slave revolt was made possible due to the internal rivalries in the colony. “From the very momentum of their own development, colonial planters, French and British bourgeois, were generating internal stresses and intensifying external rivalries, moving blindly to explosions and conflicts which would shatter the basis of their dominance and create the possibility of emancipation” (26). Nevertheless, James asserts that “Men make their own history, and the black Jacobins of San Domingo were to make history which would alter the fate of millions of men and shift the economic currents of three continents” (25).
While he maintains the importance of the mass movement in the revolution, James also shows the importance of a powerful and influential leader. For the slaves of San Domingo, this leader was the ex-slave Toussaint L’Ouverture. Toussaint had been uniquely prepared for his role in history. Although a slave, he became educated and well-read, managed his master’s affairs with great skill and became respected by masters and slaves alike for his diplomatic abilities. “His presence had that electrifying effect characteristic of great men of action” (147). In addition to his great leadership and organizational qualities, James stresses that Toussaint was a man of unwavering integrity, with an “unwarped character which abhorred the spirit of revenge and useless bloodshed of any kind (156)”. “All things considered he had been singularly humane? He had fought the British and the Spaniards and strictly observed all the rules of war” (236). Although Toussaint’s absolute ruling was somewhat controversial, James gives him much credit for his moral principles. “Personal industry, social morality, public education, religious toleration, free trade, civic pride, racial equality, this ex-slave strove according to his lights to lay their foundation in the new State. In all his proclamations, laws and decrees he insisted on moral principles, the necessity for work, respect for law and order, pride in San Domingo?He sought to lift the people to some understanding of the duties and responsibilities of freedom and citizenship” (248-249). Toussaint did not obtain power for the sake of power; he “saw early that political power is only a means to an end” (248). He worked tirelessly to bring salvation of San Domingo through the restoration of agriculture and expected the same level of dedication from his followers. According to Toussaint, “Work is necessary? it is a virtue, it is for the general good of the state” (155-156).
In essence, James tries to show that the success of the Haitian revolution was not a mere consequence of fortuitous events. It “would be vulgar error to suppose that ?the defeat of the English and the Spaniards? [was] inevitable?It is sufficient that but for [Toussaint] this history would be something entirely different” (248-249). More important is the fact that the Toussaint himself was a black and an ex-slave. James notes that “it is a great point gained to the cause of humanity that a negro domination is in fact constituted and organized in the West Indies under the command of a negro chief” (226).
After the revolution, the mentality of the people of San Domingo was foreover changed. Slavery would never be accepted again by the inhabitants. “Any regime which tolerated such practices was doomed, for the revolution had created a new race of men” (242). This new race of men were aware of their self-importance. “There was no need to be ashamed of being a black. The revolution had awakened them, had given them the possibility of achievement, confidence and pride. That psychological weakness, that feeling of inferiority with which the imperialists poison colonial peoples everywhere, these were gone” (244).
Thus, in The Black Jacobins, James does much more than retell the story of the San Domingo revolution. He shows the slave revolt to be an empowering example for all liberation movements. Thus, James hopes to stimulate the coming emancipation of Africa as well. James concludes The Black Jacobins by noting that “Imperialism vaunts its exploitation of the wealth of Africa for the benefit of civilisation. In reality, 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” (377).