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

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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.

428 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1938

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About the author

C.L.R. James

52 books280 followers
C. L. R. James (1901–1989), a Trinidadian historian, political activist, and writer, is the author of The Black Jacobins, an influential study of the Haitian Revolution and the classic book on sport and culture, Beyond a Boundary. His play Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History was recently discovered in the archives and published Duke University Press.

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Profile Image for Paul.
1,159 reviews1,919 followers
June 14, 2019
This is the classic account of the Haitian revolution; one of the most significant slave revolts. C L R James is a historian in the Marxist tradition and he is passionate about his subject. James was a Trinidadian and I knew him originally as a writer about cricket (I kid you not) and he has written one of the best books ever written about cricket (Beyond a Boundary). The Black Jacobins was first published in 1938 and was one of the seminal works of the history of the African diaspora.
James was a writer and thinker who covered a wide range of issues. His love of sport led to books and writing on cricket; asking the question "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?", directly parodying Kipling and he showed how his love of the sport meshed with his political views. He wrote novels and plays (including one about Toussaint L’Ouverture which starred Paul Robeson). James was also a tireless political agitator over several decades. He met and worked with Trotsky, Kenyatta, Nkrumah to name a few and was very involved with many of the independence movements of the mid twentieth century.
In 1791 the French colony of San Domingo was the richest slave colony in the Caribbean. James charts the rebellion and struggle for independence which lasted until 1803; and the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, himself a slave until the age of 45. James very consciously wrote this as a blueprint for how to run a successful revolution, he was aware that there would be a movement towards independence and away from the current imperial powers. He is clearly impressed by L’Ouverture;
“Pericles, Tom Paine, Jefferson, Marx and Engels, were men of a liberal education, formed in the traditions of ethics, philosophy and history. Toussaint was a slave, not six years out of slavery, bearing alone the unaccustomed burden of war and government, dictating his thoughts in the crude words of a broken dialect, written and rewritten by his secretaries until their devotion and his will had hammered them into adequate shape.”
This is history from below before historians like Hill and Hobsbawm popularized it. It is written almost in novel style, but the historical analysis is still there. The slaves are the agents of their own emancipation and the story as it develops is gripping. This is a detailed historical text and is not a quick read and there are plenty of twists and turns. The slave rebellion ultimately fought off attempts to overthrow it by the Spanish, British and the French. Toussaint L’Ouverture cuts a heroic figure as a wise and thoughtful (though flawed) leader. He did not survive to see the revolution safe and complete and was captured by the French and died in France. Wordsworth wrote a sonnet in lament which ends
thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man's unconquerable mind.
James argues against the prevailing historiography of the time. Traditionally it has been argued that the French expedition of 1801-3 which consisted of some 60 000 troops was only defeated by weather and yellow fever and the revolutionaries were inferior militarily and could only succeed with white officers, and that Napoleon was not trying to reinstate slavery. James explodes all these myths. Napoleon had appointed his brother-in-law to lead the expedition and James tracked down extensive correspondence and pieced together the campaign. It is clear that there was every intention by the French to reinstate slavery and James suggests that there is evidence of a plan to exterminate the whole non-white population (hundreds of thousands of people) and bring across new slaves from Africa because they would be less likely to rebel.
James takes on a few myths; one in particular, that the abolition of the slave trade was due to the campaigning of people in Britain like Wilberforce and other anti-slavery activists. James does not demean their views, but he argues they were being used and the real reasons were economic. San Domingo was an economic powerhouse, producing great riches for France and many of the slaves were being bought from the British. Voices in Britain were beginning to question why the government was helping fund a French colony. From a capitalist perspective Adam Smith was already arguing that slavery was not an efficient economic system. It may have made and kept much of the aristocracy and establishment rich, but it was ceasing to make economic sense in terms of the growing industrial revolution.
James brings the book up to date with an appendix written in the 1960s linking the Haitian revolution with that of Cuba. Of course the study of history moves on and some of James’s detailed work and conclusions have been amended and developed. He also does not detail the important role women played in the revolution. He hints at their importance and later historians have begun to tell their story. Despite its faults The Black Jacobins, as a review in Time Out says;
“Contains some of the finest and most deeply felt polemical writing against slavery and racism ever to be published”
I could not put it better.
Profile Image for Naeem.
384 reviews228 followers
August 18, 2008
James' masterpiece. It's considered one of the most important histories ever written. I consider it a landmark in my own life. It had explosive effects on my thinking. There is no way to do justice to this book in a review. But let me try.

I am going to rave about this book. But there is also plenty of criticism of it. Every historian of the Haitian Revolution has to comment on this book. All of them have to write in his shadow and in response to James. You can hardly call yourself a Third World type without having read and responded to this book.

James writes beautifully. Better even than Collingwood in philosophy. No history I have read comes close James' prose.

James makes the Haitian Revolution come alive. You get to know his hero, Toussaint, as if he were a family member. James makes sure we know Toussaint's failures as well. Not once but twice Toussaint is willing to turn his army of former slaves and betray the revolution for the price being acknowledged as a free Frenchman. Nor is James shy about exposing the violence committed by the former slaves against the white and mixed armies.

Perhaps the best aspect of this book is that it is an interactive history of the Haitian and French Revolutions. After reading this book it becomes impossible to think of the French Revolution without considering that its unfolding and its ultimate stillbirth is the result of the French revolutionaries' inability to think of the Haitian slaves as actual human beings. We are talking about the most progressive elements of the left here.

And so it is still today. It is in this book I began to understand how and why modern ideals bend back on themselves to reveal the barbarism of Europe's modernity.

James does all this by anticipating what I am calling "interactive, dynamic, third world histories" -- those written by the likes of Stavrianos, Eric Wolf, Janet Abu-Loughod, K.N. Chaudhuri, and even Amitav Ghosh. These are histories that do not limit themselves to the boundaries of states or false continents such as "Europe" (Western Asia) and which take global flows as the unit of analysis.

Further, white people are not limited to being bad guys. There are at least two or three characters who commit cultural suicide, forgo the benefits of power and privilege, and join up with the slaves. One could hardly believe this to be true. But there it is, an ambition for us all.

Also present is a careful and delicate tension between James' class analysis -- he is self-identified Marxist, and his analysis of race, culture, and nationalism. I have taught this book for years and have never felt that I broke through the surface of James' deeper yearnings.

There is no event in the modern period that is more important and less visible than the Haitian Revolution. (On the silence of which see, Michel Rolph-Trouillot's Silencing the Past.) This book explodes this silence and changes everything. It is as much a book as event of history itself.

One criticisms: He does not pay enough attention to women or to the everyday actions of ordinary slaves. On this see Carolyn Fick's The Making of Haiti.
Profile Image for Anna.
1,651 reviews614 followers
December 3, 2017
I’m too tired to do this book justice, for which I apologise. Briefly, I’d only come across references to the Haitian Revolution before in histories of the French Revolution. The two were closely entwined, however the importance of the Haitian Revolution is often overlooked as it was a revolution led by black slaves against their colonial oppressors: the French. It’s a great deal more complicated than that, however as the book closes an army of former slaves has defeated Napoleon’s army, the best in the world at that time, and won independence for Haiti. It’s a fascinating and complex story, which James elucidates without oversimplifying. It’s also moving and horrifying, as Haiti’s victory was achieved at the cost of devastation and thousands of deaths. James’ Marxist analysis considers it both a class- and race-based conflict and states that the two cannot be examined separately. He also links this revolution of late 18th to early 19th century to resistance against colonisation in the 20th century. ‘The Black Jacobins’ was written in 1938 and includes an appendix written later (in the 1960s I think), which compares Fidel Castro with the extraordinary leader of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint L’Ouverture. James spends some time explaining the strengths and weaknesses, the many successes, and the few but critical failures of this incredible former slave. He consistently tried to negotiate rather than making war, but was constantly frustrated in this by the utter perfidy of the white forces, be they British, French, or Spanish. All three underestimated anyone not white and Toussiant L’Ouverture in particular. They were to learn their lesson, but not until decades had passes and thousands perished needlessly. James tells the story with nuance and sympathy, laying bare the evil of the slave trade and the scars it has left on Haiti, which remain to this day. James has an inspiring and invigorating writing style and this book has aged very well. An excellent introduction to a too-often forgotten revolution.
Profile Image for BookOfCinz.
1,389 reviews2,266 followers
December 20, 2018
There is no possible way I can convey how important reading this book is. I am not a major reader of history books but in reading this I learned so much. I joked with my friend that when I finish this book I should be given a BA in Haitian History and rightly so. The Black Jacobins gives an in-depth look on the history of Haiti, the revolution and the impact the man called Toussaint L'Ovuerture.

I have always had a bit of fascination with the country Haiti mainly because of its rich culture and history. There is so much to explore and unpack about this country and I think C.L.R James did an exceptional job of putting a lot things in context and revealing the things that shaped this country into what it is today.

Haiti was the first country in the Caribbean to abolish slavery. They led the most successful slave revolt that impacted the world during that time. The revolt as a catalyst of things to come. In this book we are given an in-depth look of how the country was impacted by the British, French, Spanish and American influence. There are so many things at play in the history of Haiti and the revolution and it is covered in its entirety in this book.

It is a difficult book to read because of the timelines and numerous persons mentioned, but it is worth going through. I know about Toussaint L'Ouverture in passing, in reading this book I got a better idea of who this man is, what he stood for and how he impacted history in a major way.

A must read.
Profile Image for Manray9.
376 reviews100 followers
June 20, 2019
With The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Overture and the San Domingo Revolution, C. L. R. James provided an ideologically-tinged account of the slave insurrection on the French colonial island of Saint-Domingue that created the nation of Haiti. In 1791 the oppressed black people of the island rebelled against their plight. The imperialist powers of France, Britain, and Spain fought at different times to suppress the uprising and reimpose slavery. They all underestimated the courage, tenacity, and natural talents of the untrained and uneducated black generals -- Toussaint L'Ouverture being the most notable -- who raised armies and fought European professional soldiers to a standstill between 1791 and 1804. The bitterness engendered by two centuries of barbaric treatment at the hands of white French planters created among the people a potential fighting force often eager to die rather than submit to defeat by white men. With just a modicum of military training, these forces -- using both conventional European and partisan tactics -- wore down their enemies.

Added to the vicious atmosphere of a war conducted outside the prevailing rules, was the plague of yellow fever. Saint-Domingue was the graveyard of many thousands of Europeans. In the British expedition of 1791-97, three of every five British soldiers died of yellow fever (according to James this fact was concealed by His Majesty's government). Napoleon's general, Leclerc, wrote that his expeditionary force lost four-fifths of its men due to a combination of bloody battles and yellow fever. While this was an exaggeration to excuse his failure to suppress the ex-slaves, 4,000 of the 5,000 Poles accompanying the French forces died -- mostly of yellow fever. At one point French surgeons reported the deaths of 100 men per day. Leclerc himself succumbed to the illness after only nine months on Saint-Domingue.

Although Toussaint L'Ouverture was captured through treachery and deported to France where he died imprisoned by Bonaparte at Fort-de-Joux, the fighting continued under Generals Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, and others. At last, in November of 1803, the French gave up. They evacuated Saint-Domingue with the aid, rather surprisingly, of the Royal Navy. On 4 January 1804, Haiti -- having been restored to the Arawak name -- was declared free and independent.

C. L. R. James was a Trinidadian journalist and political activist who strongly supported anti-colonialist and pan-African causes. His book, while thoughtful and skillfully-presented, is not conventional history. James' views were strongly leftist and The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Overture and the San Domingo Revolution is undermined by occasionally dipping into bald Marxist polemics. Nevertheless, James earned a solid Three Stars from me and sparked my interest in further reading on Toussaint L'Overture and the slaves who won their own freedom in 1804.
Profile Image for Andrea.
Author 5 books174 followers
February 1, 2012
This is a fascinating and tragic story, one I knew very little about, and on the most basic level of simply understanding an incredibly complex part of history, this does a very engaging job. He writes the history of places like Haiti the way they should always be written, as playing a part on a world-wide stage, deeply influenced by and deeply influencing other countries. France's wealthiest colony, San Domingo funded the French Revolution, it diverted a sizeable number of (and bested) British forces from the war against Napoleon for years, and in turn decimated the immense flotilla that Napoleon himself sent against it. I had never heard or read of the immense importance this small island played in 'European affairs'. The other side? "The blacks were taking their part in the destruction of European feudalism begun by the French Revolution, and liberty and equality, the slogans of the revolution, meant far more to them than to any Frenchman." [198] It makes the key point that to write of a colonial power in the absence of the influence of its colonies makes as little sense as to write of colonies without connecting that history to the struggles within the Colonial power. An insight still ignored by too many who split knowledge and importance, cause and effect, by geography. The slave trade and mercantilism connected the world and its events in ways rarely acknowledged with any depth.

James rarely rises above his text to make this point (or the others), he simply makes the connections in the way he writes history. This is a strength in terms of thinking through how history is studied, but frustrating also, as I wanted a bit more filling out of these more theoretical insights, and the ones that follow, but they must be pieced together.

He is a key thinker on race, of course, and here we see him putting together how race was constructed, and it is clearly constructed in his account, and how race and class intersect. The first chapter is titled "The Property" followed by "The Owners", beginning with the economic relationship of profit, but not ignoring the many factors at play in this complex society. On the class differences between the white settlers:
"This was the type for who race prejudice was more important than even the possession of slaves, of which they had few. The distinction between a white man and a man of colour was for them fundamental. It was their all. In defence of it they would bring down the whole of their world." [34]

"The higher bureaucrats, cultivated Frenchmen, arrived in the island without prejudice; and looking for mass support used to help the Mulattoes a little. And mulattoes and big whites had a common bond -- property. Once the revolution was well under way the big whites would have to choose between their allies of race and their allies of property. They would not hesitate long." [44]

On the mulattoes and free blacks:
"In a slave society the mere possession of personal freedom is a valuable privelege ... Behind all this elaborate tom-foolery of quarteron, sacatra and marabou, was the one dominating fact of San Domingo society -- fear of the slaves" [38]

"The advantages of being white were so obvious that race prejudice against the Negroes permeated he minds of the Mulattoes who so bitterly resented the same thing from the whites [42-43]

Mulatto instability lies not in their blood but in their intermediate position in society. [207]

This was no question of colour, but crudely a question of class, for those blacks who were formerly free stuck to the Mulattoes. Persons of some substance and standing under the old regime, they looked upon the ex-slaves as essentially persons to be governed." [166]

A sophisticated analysis of race and class and political expediency, the idea of whiteness as privilege and property, a tale of how racial categorisations and boundaries were devised and then cemented into place. So impressive. A final quote on race and revolution:
Political treachery is not a monopoly of the white race, and this abominable betrayal so soon after the insurrection shows that political leadership is a matter of programme, strategy and tactics, and not the colour of those who lead it, their oneness of origin with their people, nor the services they have rendered." [106]

Of course, most of this book is about how Toussaint alone, ex-slave, genious, of inexhaustible physical stamina, and incarnation of the desire for freedom, could have led the struggle to end slavery.

Which leads into James's thinking on revolution itself, and I suppose that's where I break with him most. What I most fundamentally disagree with are statements like this, on Dessalines' betrayal of a fellow commander to the French just before he rose up in rebellion:
"It was a treacherous crime, but it was not treachery to the revolution." [346]

It's the old question of ends and means of course, and so what I find most chilling is this combination of ends justifying the means with an emphasis put on individual leadership. But that's always what I've found most chilling about Lenin and Trotsky.

This is activist history, which I much appreciate. I think it's vital that radical history should interrogate what went wrong and what we can learn, which C.L.R. James does openly (again thinking through race as it intersects with class):
Criticism is not enough. What should Toussaint have done? A hundred and fifty years of history and the scientific study of revolution begun by Marx and Engels, and amplified by Lenin and Trotsky, justify us in pointing to an alternative course. [282]

It was in method and not in principle, that Toussaint failed. 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 fundamental. [283] ... Whereas Lenin kept the party and the masses thoroughly aware of every step, and explained carefully the exact position of the bourgeois servants of the Workers' State, Toussaint explained nothing, and allowed the masses to think that their old enemies were being favoured at their expense. ... and to shoot Moise, the black, for the sake of the whites was more than an error, it was a crime." [284]

Toussaint's error was that he lost touch with the masses, which was a tactical mistake. It was not his bid for power. James plays down the constitution that appointed Toussaint governor for life with the power to name his own successor with the curious phrase, "Constitutions are what they turn out to be..."

I suppose my own belief is that an individual will always go wrong, will always fail, will always make mistakes, will always be corrupted by power. This is a good portrait of a man who was undoubtedly most extraordinary, but I believe revolution is a collective activity. That seems to be just a political difference until you realise how little in this book there is about Dessalines or Moise or any of the other ex-slave leaders, what they thought and how they fought and how they worked together day in and day out with Toussaint (or not as the case was). Of course, what I love about James is that he seems to be continuously interrogating his own orthodoxies and challenging his own statements, there's a brilliant footnote on page 338 drawing parallels with a quote from George Lefebvre on the fact that we shall never know the real names of the leaders of the French Revolution, the ones who did most of the work and actually raised the masses far from the orations of the figureheads. James writes that "the tragedy of mass movements that they need and can only too rarely find adequate leadership." [25], the question becomes what that leadership should look like and how it carries out its role.

My last caveat is just that James definitely seems to share some of the Western and white prejudice floating around, although more critical of it than most. He writes:
"It is probable that, looking at the wild hordes of blacks who surrounded him, his heart sank at the prospect of the war and the barbarism that would follow freedom..." [107]

Always he supports and rationalises Toussaint's own defense, not to say courting, of the whites, his refusal to redistribute land or government position:
"It is Toussaint's supreme merit that while he saw European
civilisation as a valuable and necessary thing, and strove to lay its
foundations among his people, he never had the illusion that it
conferred any moral superiority." [271]

So again you see a very orthodox Marxist sense of civilisation as being European, the march of history in a material though not moral sense. The clear descriptions of not simply the amorality, but the true barbarism of the Europen slavo-owner, the stripping of that moral superiority is incredibly important however, and undeniably differentiates him from almost all other historians. I think there is plenty of places in the rest of the book where James arguably undercuts some of these same ideas on progress and civilisation as well to some extent.

A classic. Just a couple more choice quotes to end with, not because I necessarily agree with them, but because they are both punchy and provocative, and a final rumination on the character of Toussaint that I'm not quite sure I understand and am still pondering:
That calm confidence in its capacity to deceive is a mark of the mature ruling class." [294]

The rich are only defeated when running for their lives. [78]

But in a deeper sense the life and death are not truly tragic. Prometheus, Hamlet, Lear, Phedre, Ahab, assert what may be the permanent impulses of the human condition against the claims of organised society. They do this in the face of imminent or even certain destruction, and their defiance propels them to heights which make of their defeat a sacrifice which adds to our conception of human grandeur.

Toussaint is in a lesser category. His splendid powers do not rise but decline. Where formerly he was distinguished above all for his prompt and fearless estimate of whatever faced him, we shall see him...misjudging events and people, vacillating in principle...

The hamartia, the tragic flaw...was in Toussaint not a moral weakness. It was a specific error, a total miscalculation of the constituent events. [291]

Profile Image for Malcolm.
1,707 reviews404 followers
August 3, 2011
James's history of the anti-colonial rising in what is now Haiti during the French revolution and its suppression by the revolutionary regime is one of the great analyses of colonial rebellion and struggles for liberation. Essential reading for a grasp of imperialism and colonialism – and I was delighted to see that Toussaint L'Ouverture is now commemorated in The Panthéon – France's monument to national heroes. He is not buried there: he died in a French prison and the location of his place of burial is unknown.

The Haitian revolution was one of the great moments of world history - an event now overshadowed by Euro-centric histories celebrating the marvel that was the French revolution and that fail to mention that revolution's attempts to suppress the rising in its spirit in Haiti (or the French soldiers sent to repress the revolution who refused to fight the people they saw as acting as they had). It is also overshadowed by Haiti's underdevelopment, decades of US supported dictatorships, underdevelopment of Haiti by imperialism.

James wrote this as part of a set of books that set out to show the depth of anti-colonial spirits, to decentre Eurocentric histories and to tell the stories of the agency and success of the suppressed; this remains one of the most important works in his enormous body of work, a tale of successful action by the most oppressed to slough off their chains and their oppressors, and to confront revolutionary France with the implications of its actions. Vibrant, dynamic, and essential reading for all historians and just about anyone with a concern for social justice.
Profile Image for Steve.
351 reviews1 follower
March 3, 2020
Wow, were those French some brutal folks. Lest anyone think Napoleon a compassionate dictator, just have a look at how he directed his troops in Haiti, San Domingo as it was then known. I guess there’s no end to the tales of deprivations and sufferings that our civilization inflicts, is there? Maybe I should stop reading tales of woe and shift to things happy?

I noted a worthy remark in the author’s bibliography regarding histories of the French Revolution written in England and the United States:
But they are of little value, for the writers, particularly in England, usually try to be what is known as “fair to both sides.” Thus the reader is led to see most of the explosive incidents of the Revolution, which was really a series of gigantic explosions, as unfortunate excesses. A reactionary historian might miss much of the creative actions and ideas of the revolutionary forces, but he would hardly fail to portray the clash of an irresistible conflict, of suddenly emergent forces pursuing unsuspected aims. In a revolution excesses are the normal, and the historian who does not accept that does not accept the revolution and therefore cannot write its history.

Profile Image for E. G..
1,112 reviews668 followers
September 21, 2016
Preface to the Vintage Edition
Preface to the First Edition

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

Appendix: From Toussaint L'Ouverture to Fidel Castro
Profile Image for Christopher Saunders.
863 reviews834 followers
December 4, 2022
Written in 1938, C.L.R. James' The Black Jacobins remains the definitive account of the Haitian slave revolt which created the world's first Black republic. James captures the savage, dehumanizing brutality of San Domingo's slave regime under the French, where slaves were regularly worked to death or subjected to a variety of gruesome punishments (many involving insects and gunpowder) by their masters. Such a stratified environment could not long survive the French Revolution; the revolt spread to Haiti, first among the white bourgeoisie, who outlawed slavery while doing little alleviate racial disparities; disputes between recently freed slaves, emancipated Blacks, privileged Mulattoes and whites of various classes tip the country into civil war, in turn triggering a failed British invasion and an attempted reconquest by Napoleon's Grand Armee. It's a dizzyingly complex topic which James makes commendably lucid and compelling. Toussaint L'Ouverture inevitably takes center stage, though James casts him a wary eye as a brilliant leader, but also a compromiser not willing to make full-scale revolution (Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe, his generals and successors, receive more flattering treatment). James' unabashed Marxism informs much of his analysis, framing the conflict more through class than racial terms and emphasizing, constantly, how San Domingo's importance to the French economy led the revolutionaries to betray their principles by reinstating slavery. He's not wrong, but the constant relapse into proletarian rhetoric feels grating at times. Still, if any historical subject invites an Afro-Marxist reading it's Haiti, a country who, after its victory over France, became an outcast in the white-dominated world and struggles to this day to overcome the legacy of its mistreatment. A masterful work of historical polemic.
Profile Image for Artnoose McMoose.
Author 1 book35 followers
June 17, 2010
After the earthquake in Haiti, all books about Haiti in the Pittsburgh library system were checked out. I was on the wait list for this book for about 6 months. Unfortunately it finally arrived at a time when I was trying to finish up another non-fiction book before going out of town. I was only able to get through about half of the book.

That being said, it was a lot more dry than I expected and had I not read another history on Haiti first, I may have been pretty lost. I think I must have a contemporary taste on how history is written--- somewhat exciting and with a specific theme or narrative. This was kind of like fact after fact, with some Marxist opinion thrown in now and then.

Without a knowledge of the history of the French Revolution, it's easy to get a little confused when reading a history of the Haitian Revolution, because it's all a little combined. I would recommend reading up a little on the French Revolution before tackling this book, because names and places can start to get muddled.
Profile Image for prz grz.
12 reviews7 followers
September 21, 2015
a passionate and meticulously sourced account of the Haitian Revolution and the life of its most celebrated leader, Toussaint L'Ouverture. James pulls no punches when discussing the contradiction between the lofty ideals of the French Revolution and the bourgeoisie's unwillingness to let go of the tremendous wealth of slave-cultivated San Domingo, nor does he spare the European abolitionists of the time.

it's a book full of gut-wrenching horrors, as any honest account of colonialism must be. it's also full of hope; it takes the side of the oppressed without equivocation, and reminds us that against impossible odds, against both the vast forces of reaction and the wavering, misguided or treacherous leaders of the people, victory is possible.
Profile Image for Vince Will Iam.
147 reviews27 followers
November 25, 2020
What a passionate and masterful work by James! A must-read for all descendants of Africans and for the world to learn about the tragic yet inspiring history of the first Black-led republic.

When it comes to Toussaint L'Ouverture, I'm just speechless at such bravery and wisdom in one man. This book reveals the evil character and hypocrisy of the European imperialist powers. Toussaint has paid dearly for his blind love for France and its humanistic ideals. As always, freedom has come with a price for what was once the richest and most prosperous colony in the West Indies.
Profile Image for Andrew.
760 reviews
March 23, 2017
The history of a most significant revolution brought to light by C L R James. This was a revolution to make everyone free, not just a select few. One wonders at how different the world would be if the founders of Haiti had had been given an opportunity to establish themselves!
This for is for me is one of the best histories coming from the Caribbean! A book which brings the Haitian revolution and the characters involved to life.
Profile Image for Micah.
Author 6 books174 followers
October 3, 2017
How was this book a million times better on the second read than I remembered it being on the first?!?
Profile Image for Nicole Drapluk.
6 reviews3 followers
February 28, 2023
Truly incredible account of the Haitian revolution.

I had a bit of trouble following at the beginning of the book since I lacked foundational knowledge of the Haitian and French Revolution that would’ve been helpful. However as the book went on I overcame that relatively quickly.

The detail and verbiage by CLR James was extremely powerful and passionate, making this a great read. The determination and resistance of the Haitian people is inspiring and there is so much to take away from this book. As the first revolution of the third world, the Haitian revolution laid a foundation for future slave revolts, independence movements, and revolutions across the world. There are many strengths and weaknesses of Toussaint’s leadership to learn from. As we continue to study and prepare for revolution this is undoubtedly a book I will bring myself back to.
Profile Image for Steffi.
268 reviews226 followers
February 11, 2019
I wasn't too interested in third world liberation movements until quite recently when Ethiopians rid themselves of an oppressive regime (more on this later) right in front of my eyes, bringing to the fore the age old questions of class, identity and the potential for emancipation within one of the poorest countries which is deeply embedded in global capitalism and imperialism. So while there are 'no' parallels, I went back to this brilliant account - which is nothing less than a master piece - of the first revolution in the third world led by the former slaves 'Black Jacobins' in the late 18th century in San Domingo (Haiti) - Then again, CLR James' analysis on class and race in the Haitian revolution remain insightful and inspiring for any emancipatory political project.
Profile Image for ollie.
279 reviews2 followers
February 27, 2021
definitely recommended, very informative, very readable and straightforward- was surprised to learn how old this book was when i looked it up 1-2 chapters in. i have to tell on myself in two ways here, the first one is that i've read hardly any (maybe.. no?) straightforwardly historical texts, in the form of "here's what happened in this place at this time, in order" - and given you know, limited experience, i did think this was a great account of history. the second way is that i don't know very much about the french revolution and i think i would have gotten more from this if i'd had that context. but even absent that it's very good and interesting and id recommend
Profile Image for Alex.
294 reviews5 followers
June 2, 2012
Daniel Meltzer wrote a wonderful review of this book, which I agree with:

This book was excellent read. The strengths included breathtaking battle scenes, rousing rhetoric for freedom and against slavery, brilliant stories of liberation, and page-turning political intrigue. The weaknesses in the book come from self-defeating politics of discipline for the sake of discipline, and the heart-rending compromises that Toussaint L'Overture makes with people who see him and the republic he created as nothing more than slaves to be punished for their insubordination.

The utter brutality and injustice of slave ownership, and the barbaric treatment of slaves is scandalous. You will literally shake your head at the stories of how slaves were treated under the law in Haiti. A particularly unnerving example is the slavemasters filling a slave up with gunpowder and lighting a fuse, exploding the body of the slave, perhaps for punishment, but seemingly just as often because the slavemasters could. And the slaves began creating a series of low-level daily resistance to such a situation that is tragic and fascinating. "The majority of the slaves accomodated themselves to this unceasing brutality by a profound fatalism and a wooden stupidity before their masters. [...]Through the shirt of [a slave] a master can feel the potatoes which he denies he has stolen. They are not potatoes, he says, they are stones. He is undressed and the potatoes fall to the ground. "Eh! master. The devil is wicked. Put stones, and look, you find potatoes."

There is also a peculiar living of the slaves when they are so close to brutal death. The phenomenon of poisoning struck me particularly, which was apparently quite commonplace in Haiti before the revolution. Slaves used poison to alleviate their slavery at great expense of human life. Revenge poisoning by a slave of a slave master was common, as was the avoidance of splitting up families by poisoning all but one son of a slavemaster so that there would be but one heir. But so was other, more insidious poisonings. If it was heard that a master was to undertake more ambitious plantations, the slaves would poison one another until the numbers had been reduced to where such an undertaking would be impossible, in order to keep their workload down. Or if a kinder master were leaving town, some of the slaves and the property (cattle) would be poisoned, so that the master would have to stay to sort out the mess.

It is no wonder, given the ferocity of life for a slave, that when they organized insurrection, not just day-to-day resistance, they were ferocious themselves. I was dazzled by haunting images of the oppressed Haitians finding their revenge. "The slaves destroyed tirelessly[...]they were seeking their salvation in the most obvious way, the destruction of what they knew was the cause of their sufferings; and if they destroyed much it was because they suffered much. [...] "Vengeance! Vengeance!" was their war-cry, and one of them carried a white child on a pike as a standard. And yet they were surprisingly moderate, then and afterwards, far more humane than their masters had been or would ever be to them."

One particular passage left me breathless: that of Hyacinth. "Hyacinth, a bull's tail in his hand, ran from rank to rank crying that his talisman would chase death away. He charged at [the French] head, passing unscathed through the bullets and the grape-shot. Under such leadership the Africans were irrisistible. They clutched at the horses of the dragoons, and pulled off the riders. They put their arms down into the mouths of cannon in order to pull out the bullets and called to their comrades "Come, come, we have them." The cannon were discharged and blew them to pieces. But others swarmed over guns and gunners, threw their arms around them and silenced them."

Very quickly, the narrative of the Haitian Revolution is made into the narrative of Toussaint L'Overture. Toussaint's nickname and eventually surname, means "the opening," which refers to the skilled general's ability to tear holes through the lines of the French forces in the initial battles of the Haitian anti-colonial war, but also to the fact that he, like the author of this review, has a gap between his front two teeth. This is an adorable factoid.

There was much colonial political intrigue that I wasn't expecting. The slaves initially fought the French, and Toussaint allied himself with the Spaniards, the enemy of his enemy. England, smarting from a recent defeat in North America, also wanted new colonies. Spain had the best offer on the table, so the Haitian slaves fought both the French and the English. Then a revolution broke out in France, and the new republic abolished slavery and held that the Haitian slaves deserved freedom, a much stronger sentiment than Spain's promises. Toussaint and the slaves did a dramatic 180 degree turn, conquering the lands won for Spain back for the new French Republic, returning Spanish lands to France, losing land to the English, whom Toussaint expended a great deal of energy expelling from the colony. As the French revolution turned sour and the Jacobins were replaced by the Napoleonic forces of reaction, Toussaint and his slave army attempted to stay loyal to France. But Napoleon had no use for a colony without slavery, and Toussaint's slave army was forced to negotiate secretly with the English and fight off the French again, while the Spanish eagerly looked for a chance to take over. It was a pretty tense relationship with the major powers of Europe.

This was not the book I thought it would be. In ignorance, I had thought of the title of the book as an analogy, where the Haitian revolutionaries were akin to the Jacobins in France. As it turns out, Toussaint and his followers were in constant contact with the Jacobins, and saw themselves as fighting for the Jacobin revolution in France in one of France's colonies. This social revolution in France is borne out in Haiti. Unfortunately, the book spent a great deal of time describing Toussaint L'Overture avoiding social revolution, and attempting stability on the shakiest ground with conniving politicians that wished to see him back in chains. Toussaint was a brilliant general, to be sure, but he wanted to be a brilliant diplomat as well. This might have seemed practical at the time, but does not make for exciting reading, and is certainly not good revolutionary policy. Every inch that Toussaint gave, the French took a foot, and insulted the bravery of the slave army. Toussaint began to mold himself to the wishes of these conniving politicians, and this was especially distressing. He even went as far as executing his cousin Moises, who was leading insurrection against the French at a time when Toussaint was attempting to make conciliations that would have deeply compromised the freedom he had already won for his people. It is in these moments of weakness and betrayal that "the masses looked on, confused, bewildered, not knowing what to do."

But even Toussaint at his most bumbling knew of the inability to reenslave a free people. "We have known how to face dangers to obtain our liberty, we shall know how to brave death to maintain it." He was, for the most part a pretty amazing badass. He kept language about the slave trade in Haiti's constitution, so that slavers would continue to bring slaves to the Haitian shores, where he would free them from bondage. He invited slaves in the United States to escape to Haiti, where they would be free. He sent millions of francs to America to arm a militia to oust the European slave trade from Africa. And it was to his brilliant maneuvers on the battlefield that we credit the freedom of the Haitian black slaves, and the creation of the first black ex-colonial republic on the planet, and the second republic in the Western Hemisphere.

CLR James spends an unfortunate amount of time praising the discipline of the slave army in not destroying the material conditions that kept them in slavery. Though slavery was abolished, in order to prevent in the slaves the "slip into the practice of cultivating just a small patch of land, producing just sufficient for their needs," Toussaint "confined the blacks to the plantations under rigid penalties," with practices not unlike later feudalism, where a quarter of the produce was given to the laborers. "Toussaint knew the backwardness of the laborers; he made them work." "Losing sight of his mass support, taking it for granted, he sought only to conciliate the whites at home and abroad." There are also several remarks as to the discipline of the former slaves in not destroying property, when it was property that kept them enslaved. I am not impressed by morose discipline for the sake of discipline. CLR James wished to see in Toussaint and the Haitian revolution a Lenin figure, and Toussaint at his weakest, was able to give him that satisfaction.

The book takes a turn for the better just before the end, as the clutter of diplomacy with slaveowners and the compromise for the sake of discipline gave way to yet another war with France in the Haiti's war for independence. "neither Dessalines' army nor his ferocity won the victory. It was the people. They burned San Domingo flat so that at the end of the war it was a charred desert. [..."]We have a right to burn what we cultivate because a man has a right to dispose of his own labor, was the reply of this unknown anarchist.["]" "It was a people's war. They played the most audacious tricks on the French. [A French officer] heard at a musket's distance a low voice psaying "Platoon, halt! To the right, dress!" The French made their dispositions and waited all night for a sudden attack. When the day came, they found that they had been the dupe of about a hundred laborers. "These ruses, if one paid too much attention to them, destroyed one's morale; if they were neglected, they could lead to surprises."" The people of Haiti fought fiercely, not just with their lives, but with their deaths for freedom. "When Chevalier, a black chief, hesitated at the sight of the scaffold, his wife shamed him. "You do not know how sweet it is to die for liberty!" And refusing to allow herself to be hanged by the executioner, she took the rope and hanged herself."
Profile Image for Yuri Sharon.
211 reviews16 followers
November 30, 2022
It may be that this work has been a little oversold, but I was somewhat disappointed. I think a large part of my problem is that the story is more complex than I expected, filled with many unknown characters, and therefore is not always easy to follow. The shifting loyalties and allegiances often confused the players at the time – so how are we to fare at this remove? Napoleon was a bastard – that I understand. I also understand (and this is where the book succeeds) that the San Domingo revolution and the creation of Haiti is an event of world significance.
Profile Image for Misha.
5 reviews2 followers
April 4, 2009
Not only is Toussaint one of the most interesting persona in history, C.L.R. James knows how to make of that a legend. It is worth considering just how good James is, since I remain just slightly suspicious of some of the descriptions, which make of Toussaint a more than human character. But there are enough cold hard facts to dispel even the most bitter of us, and draw us into Toussaint's story.

Generally, I don't find histories to be gripping, but Toussaint's fight is the best kind of fight; few compare in importance and complexity, and few have been so ignored. His ideas may in some ways have helped us define freedom. I often think about his style of leadership and try to learn from it. And the way in which he imagined something and then made it happen with such single-minded energy captures me and accuses me.
Profile Image for Linn.
44 reviews11 followers
October 25, 2014
I have held a long fascination for Haiti, first because of voodoo, but then because it was the first really successful slave revolt in the history of the western hemisphere. The Black Jacobins was written in the 1930's, and it shows, but James has a sharp tongue and an even sharper eye for the hypocrisies of revolutionary France and their bourgeoisie. He lays the Haitian revolution out clearly from the heyday of the slave-owning San Domingo colony, through the start of the French Revolution, and to the bitter end of Dessalines' declaration of independence.

The last chapter, on the War of Independence, is a whopper and a half, and I frequently felt like throwing the book across the room and clawing at my own face because European politicians are BASTARDS, but in the end, I prevailed and didn't commit manslaughter, so bravo for me.
Profile Image for Lydia.
106 reviews12 followers
June 27, 2009
If you ever want to explore the sorrows that are the reality of today's Haiti, you should start with this book. The book explores the seeds of revolution in Haiti, the attempts by soldier/statesman L'Ouverture to diplomatically secure freedom for enslaved Africans in Haiti, to final military victory secured by Dessaline. It is a well written book about a country and people just written off by Nations of the Western Hemishphere and by France. The conditions and the brutality endured by the Africans at the hands of the French were every bit as brutal and crushing as the Africans endured in the United States and elswhere. The seeds of the problems of modern-day were sown during this period and in many ways the people are still suffering.
Profile Image for George Orton.
45 reviews2 followers
April 8, 2021
This was such an experience. Equal parts guide to the Haitian revolution / guide to starting your own revolution. One of those books that will always stay with me. Five stars all day long.
Profile Image for Gabe Steller.
129 reviews5 followers
March 16, 2022
Finally got around to reading this Classique, which was maybe the most commonly requested book out of the reserve stacks when i worked at Mudd.
While you might have to be a history or politics person to be fully all in, I found it real propulsive and even epic, with these little breaks where James will editorialize or rattle off a bit of biting sarcasm. Some of these are kinda like “bad ass” fodder for dorm room socialists but i feel like coming out of an actual 30’s caribbean radical they have a lot more weight.anyway we got stuff like:
“The cruelties of propter and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression” and “The rich are only defeated when they are running for their lives”
Correct statements!

James does a really excellent job with the set up though so you really understand what an insnane goddamn powerderkeg the island was, (the ratio of slaves to mixed/free black to whites to rich white boggles the mind) and the way every faction is just barely balanced, each one carrying a simultaneous advantage and disadvantage (The Mixed race people can travel to france and be educated while the poor whites are indentured, but the mixed people are still barred from certain positions and places etc). all leading to a ton of scheming a double crossing.

unfortunately that does include betrayals by the formerly enslaved generals against their own people, which are extremely disheartening and even more painful to read about than the the many massacres and tortures committed by all sides over the course of the book. Mostly it just solidifies the impression of San Domingo as a hell on earth from which everyone was deathly desperate to escape.

The more macro level facts (only completely successful slave revolt in history et al) remain pretty inspirational however and James does a good job of conveying how radically the world was turned upside down and how “ordinary people” proved themselves in incredible situations. The passage describing the Haitian Delegates appeal to the French parliament for the abolishment of slavery, which is then abolished in a unanimous vote is very moving.

My only real issue is some stuff thats clearly really dated, like the occasional weird and sus hagiography of Toussaint saying he and his wife lived forever in perfect harmony, and that there was always music and flowers in his room, like i guess ill take ur word for it on that stuff. worse he has a habit of referring to the enslaved Haitians as ignorant and backward and half savage, and like i get that they didn't get an education and they were severely traumatized but their not like wild animal jeezus. anywaaaaay overall still pretty great! 4.5 stars but lets be generous and give him the whole 5!
Thanks CLR!
Profile Image for Natalie.
314 reviews137 followers
November 17, 2012
Overall, a good history read, though I'm not without my critiques.

This book was originally written in 1938, and it kinda shows. (Man needs an Angela Davis revision NOW!) (People who regularly read my reviews are probably getting sick of this, but would it really be SO HARD to just write history as if women actually existed? Really?)

CLR James did a little too much editorializing for my tastes. I mean, dude. You're writing about the first successful slave revolt in world history. You don't need to actually point out that it's the coolest shit ever. It's the FIRST SUCCESSFUL SLAVE REVOLT IN WORLD HISTORY. At some points, I'd prefer him to just narrate the events and let them speak for themselves.

"The slaves rose up and got organized. Think about how cool that is! Isn't that cool?" Really only needed the first sentence to be gob-smacked with awe.

And he is a little free with tossing out names. Considering that most of the Haitians and all of the French actors have French names, I didn't always know which side of the story he was narrating. Boudet attacked Maurepas in some town. Who was on which side, exactly? So maybe a glossary of names could have been useful. And a map.

Still, it was riveting. This is one of the most bad ass events in world history. And also insanely tragic. And complicated. And James didn't shy away from any of that. He had an agenda, yes, but he just put it out there for you to assess, and took on a lot of hard arguments. And his narration was quite moving. He set out to describe the revolting slaves as people worthy of esteem and awe, and wow, was he successful. In the context of the colonial era in which the book was written, his proud defiance of white superiority and anti-imperialism is stirring.

I almost dropped the book when he described, in damning prose, the overwhelming vote of French politicians under Napoleon to RESTORE slavery. Like, people are already free, you voted that a while back, and now you're going to change your mind and RE-ENSLAVE THEM? One of those dramatic moments in history that makes it hard to overcome cynicism about humanity.

What I'm dying for now is the sequel. What happened after independence? How did Haiti influence events in the rest of the Caribbean? Give me MORE!

I'm taking recommendations.
120 reviews2 followers
March 20, 2020
A fascinating read. Great prose. L'Ouverture was a remarkable figure. James also does a very good job of explaining and contextualising the French Revolution (with all its v confusing factionalism) and how it played out in Haiti. In conclusion, the French = rats
Profile Image for Anthony Buck.
Author 3 books8 followers
November 16, 2020
I liked it but didn't love it. Its a very evocative read and you get a good feel for the characters involved. However, in places I found it hard to follow and in particular to relate certain events to a wider narrative.
Profile Image for Udeni.
74 reviews68 followers
August 19, 2019
The birth of Haiti is a story worth telling: it was the first black republic outside Africa, and the second post-colonial state of modern history. The USA was the first. CLR James’ history of Haiti is still a classic in decolonial histories. While some of the language is dated, the book has aged surprisingly well. The narrative is as tight as a thriller. His taut descriptions of key characters are unforgettable: the resolute Toussaint L’Overture, the conflicted Maximilien Robespierre, and the ruthless Napoleon Bonaparte. In tight, elegant prose, James takes us through the 12 year struggle of slaves in San Domingo to successfully resist and finally overthrow the French, Spanish and British forces. In James’ account, slaves have agency and vision. They are well able to interpret the false promises of their would-be allies:
“French republic, British constitutional monarchy, Spanish autocracy: though one might smile and another frown due to the exigencies of the moment, none troubled to disguise that in the last analysis, the Negro could expect either the overseer’s whip or the bayonet.”
Subsequent historians have argued that the economics, rather than slave agency, was the real reason for abolition of the slave trade. However, James’ argument that racial politics were invented by the European elite to justify their class-based interests is still relevant. Race-baiting continues to be a mechanism by which a US president continues to distract the media from his elite-friendly economic policies.
In the 1980 introduction to the book, James describes his delight at its continuing relevance: the black students of 1950s South Africa found contemporary relevance in the Black Jacobins’ class-based analysis of how the white elite used the mulatto freedmen against the black slaves. These students typed out sections of the book, copied them, and distributed them to their fellow protestors. James says “I could not help thinking that revolution moves in a mysterious way its wonders to perform.” The Black Jacobins is clearly more than the history of a revolution: it is a manifesto for freedom. James’ account of the collective strength of even the most powerless should inspire decolonising revolutionaries everywhere.
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