Tuesday, 18 March 2014

A reflection of C.L.R James’ Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution

Ntombizikhona Valela

C.L.R James' The Black Jacobins documents the events leading to the Haitian Revolution and the revolution itself. In the Prologue of this book, James explains that one of his intentions of writing about this history is to not only point out the fact that African slaves could organize in the same way that the Americans and French did for their revolutions, but that this book would hopefully serve as a blueprint for African countries that were at the brink of independence from colonization. Through the story of Toussaint L'Ouverture, potential African leaders would draw some sort of ''inspiration'' to the kind of leadership that is required to get an independent state on its feet. In light of the time in which James as writing I would say that this book is a way of getting its reader to be hopeful about the where Africa could be after the post-colonial moment if quality leadership and political will are put to good use.

One of the things that I found to be quite striking about this book is the way James structured the story. By starting with the experience of the African slaves from their capture to their life journeying through the middle passage and finally reaching San Domingo (Haiti), I found that the dignity and humanity of these people was being restored to them. There are many historical accounts of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and there is universal belief that slavery is wrong and what happened to many Africans should not have happened. However, I have come across very few that allow, even force us to see African slaves as people. I found that the positioning of this chapter allowed me to constantly, as I read the book, to approach Africans as people first before slaves. The savage brutality they endured and pitting this against The Human Rights Charter and even the charters that were born out of the American and French Revolutions happening around the same time as the slave trade exposed how unjust this system was. This reinforced the power of representations even today where often the oppressed are criminalized or demonized in the media while brutality by the state is presented as justified in suppressing 'threats' to democracy or state institutions. When James' account further unravels as we read on, I found it quite striking that when he describes the retaliation of these slaves he says that their acts of revenge are far less brutal than what the slave owners and planters did to them. At first when I read this part of the book where James describes the revolts and the things the slaves did, I found myself slipping into an attitude of condemning the acts of the slaves, which goes back to the issue of representation and how throughout history it is often the oppressed that are the first to be accused of brutality without us ever investigating why the oppressed would react the way they have. I like the way James describes these revolts as a way of appeasing a passion that had been building up all these years. It was more than an "eye for an eye", but more of a "last straw" reaction to the treatment slaves in San Domingo had endured.

Throughout the book, the irony of the fact that two revolutions had taken place speaking of every person being entitled to rights never left me. I think the reason that this irony remains in the book is because James juxtaposes what is happening both in France and San Domingo. The beauty of this is that this not a literary technique he's using to tell his story but that it is simply a fact of history that both these events were happening at the same time. The French on one hand were asserting their human rights freedom, equality and fraternity while on one of their colonies these rights they thought fundamental were being denied to a group human of human beings. James points out that the justification was that black people were no different to mules, which is why I think James showing us from the start of the book that African slaves were human beings just like the French is important to the book and the Haitian Revolution itself. The slaves wanted to be free and everything that was on that island, in particular the plantation was a symbol of bondage which is why one of the things to be destroyed was the plantation- a view Toussaint did not agree with. He desired for slaves to take over the plantations. Toussaint’s way of seeing things reminded of why I feel African states have not progressed as they should have. The same systems are in place the only difference is that the colour of the people in charge is not the same. If we take South Africa as an example we see that inasmuch as apartheid legislation was struck down and we are all free on paper, not everyone has equal access to certain things like quality healthcare, education or decent employment. The Marikana massacre as well as the   death of Andries Tatane exposed the truth that the state is just as brutal as it was under apartheid.

I think this book succeeds, through not only showing the humanity of African slaves but through the way slaves organized themselves in carrying out the revolution, in exposing that blacks and whites are equal because of our shared humanity. The American, French and Haitian Revolutions are viewed as some of the greatest in history and this trumps the suggestion that black people are unable to carry out the same things that white people can. The secret meeting in the forests and the voodoo gatherings reminded me of the African slaves in Brazil who invented capoeira, a martial art that combines dance, acrobatics and music in order to not alert slave owners of their intentions to defend themselves in their attempts to escape slavery, hence the heavy dance influence. We are reminded (perhaps are enlightened) that Africans are just as capable of toppling an oppressive regime and establishing an independent African state without any assistance from outside forces. All that is required is good leadership and unity for a particular cause. I am weary of the fact that the revolution is centered a lot around Toussaint as I feel the masses are the hero of this story of the Haitian, more so than one man. However I do acknowledge the leadership of Toussaint and how it contributed to the success of Haiti's Revolution.


James, C.L.R., 1963, the Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, Ney York: Random House.