The narrative of the Haitian Revolution has (re-)emerged in spaces of discourse — there have been countless concerted efforts to introduce and re-introduce it, especially in academia. C.L.R James’ The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938), a history of the twelve-year revolution, then, serves to be an extremely useful, albeit extremely detailed, text for the purposes of these conversations. Placing the revolution in the context of the French Revolution, James also paid particular attention to the rise (and consequent fall) of slave-born Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led the revolt for almost its entire duration. Careful though James is to point out that Toussaint did not make the revolution, it is difficult to discern from the text that he is and was not held almost solely responsible for what was the first ‘successful’ Negro slave insurrection in history. In this essay, I would like to point to the ways in which James drew attention to the importance of communication, both on an individual, personal level, and on state governmental levels, to the revolution.
Toussaint was without a doubt the political and military genius that James pains him to be, but he was obviously not without fault. James frequently points to two major flaws: vacillation and secrecy, more so in the years leading up to the war for independence against Napoleonic France. When writing the San Domingo Constitution in 1801, he formed an assembly of six men – notably, none of these men were Black – that functioned as little more than a group of figureheads, for the document was “Toussaint L’Overture from the first line to the last, and in it he enshrined his principles of government” (James 1938: 263, emphasis mine). He went so far as printing it out, which was akin to etching it in stone at a time when the costs of printing were prohibitive, and at a time when “he had the censorship of all printed matter” (James 1938: 264).
Although James repeatedly refers to Toussaint’s despotism, he makes the curious observation that the revolutionary leader’s weakness was “not a moral weakness. It was a specific error, a total miscalculation of the constituent events” (James 1938: 291). Yet it cannot be possible to separate Toussaint’s strategic decisions from his personal politics; in this case, his decision to ratify a Constitution with little to no contribution, for instance, speaks to his reluctance to communicate with the masses and with his army. This can be further traced to his opinion of the Black people of San Domingo: even though he had no doubt they could be equal to, or even superior to the white coloniser, he did not trust them to reach [his] desired level of development—be it education, agriculture, political administration and all other aspects tied to economics—just yet. James never states it outright, but he does make it evident that Toussaint held the Black people of San Domingo in very low regard, socially and intellectually. Indeed, James concedes that “the policy he persisted in reduced the masses to a state of stupor” (1938: 286), and that “to bewilder the masses is to strike the deadliest of all blows at the revolution” (1938: 287).
It is thus this perception he had of his own people, and his vacillation, that had his army and the masses confused when Napoleon finally sent an expedition to the island to return it to its former glory—a glory that was almost solely dependent on the bodies of Black slaves. So invested he was in the prosperity of San Domingo, and rightly so, that James’ writing suggests that his priorities wavered between Black liberation and the protection of resources and property. Certainly, he never had any intention to make any agreement or concession that would condemn his people back to the life of slavery, but his ability to compartmentalise quite possibly made him think little of the psyche of the Black people of San Domingo, who still worked for white colonists after the abolition of slavery, albeit with payment.
Needless to say, Toussaint’s secret desire for political autonomy from France without actual independence did indeed bewilder the masses, and consequently (but not solely) led to his downfall and the decimation of the island after the war for independence. James writes that even the men closest to him—his brother Paul L’Ouverture, Dessalines, Moïse, Sontonax, Vincent and Christophe—eventually reached a point of frustration with or cluelessness about his decisions and his intentions, which caused severe fragmentation within the armed forces of San Domingo and inevitably, amongst the masses, who often looked to their long-time local leaders for guidance, even though they knew of Toussaint and his magnificent power.
Communication is obviously one of the most powerful tools of any political event, particularly a war, and Toussaint’s politics—perhaps even his ego— made him abysmal at it. It is, however, worthwhile to think about transnational communication throughout the twelve years, especially that between France and San Domingo, and the role it played, however seemingly insignificant, in the revolution. I was especially interested, therefore, in the communicative authority and power of a decree.
The text’s bibliography states that “it is impossible to understand the San Domingo revolution unless it is studied in close relationship with the revolution in France” (James 1938: 383). This is certainly true, and dense with detail as James’ book is, especially regarding administrative politics, it is necessary to understand both the events and the meeting room and documented machinations that were meant to determine the trajectory of both France and San Domingo, later Haiti.
The San Domingo revolts started the year it was decreed in French parliament that free Mulattoes—necessarily the children of free parents—were granted the right to vote. Although public knowledge in France, the decree never officially arrived in San Domingo, even though it left France. It was hardly a secret, for Governor Blanchelande wrote to France—three to four months after it had been ratified—“detailing the violet reception of the May decree by the planters” (James 1938: 79). Yet in the first half of 1792, the French government, after numerous back and forth arguments, granted the same rights as those of the whites to all Mulattos (April 4th 1792), many of whom were fighting with the white colonists in San Domingo. About the Black slaves, not a word was said. This silence was as informative as if it had been shouted from the rooftops and James correctly opines, “the slaves, ignorant of politics, had been right not to wait on these eloquent phrase-makers” (1938: 116). Indeed, although still a French colony, and heavily influenced by the beginning of the French Revolution, San Domingo often went about its political and economic affairs without much trans-Atlantic consultation. This explains why, even though it took several months for this decree to reach San Domingo—it was signed into law in April but only arrived in September—Sontonax found that the ‘Mulatto question’ had been solved, and the whites and Mulattos in most of San Domingo had begun to assimilate and get along, and they readily accepted the decree.
Yet on August 10th , 1792, while Sontonax was still on his way to deliver this very decree, the French masses stormed the Tuileries palace, imprisoned the royal family and put a new Parliament in place. This news only arrived in San Domingo in October, and caused an immediate fracturing in an already weakened society. Sonthonax, with the support of the Mulattoes due to his commitment to the April 4th decree, defeated the royalists on the island and banished them. This was an event created by communication crossovers and what would be considered delays today; in the space of a few months, Mulattoes were granted rights by two separate but co-dependent regimes, they found themselves in favour with the whites, and then at war with them. This inevitably took a heavy toll on Toussaint’s armies and the slave population of San Domingo, about whom nothing was said, but everything was heard.
Another similar sequence of events, built on a decree, took place the following year. In August 1793, Sonthonax, a right-wing Jacobin, declared the abolition of slavery in San Domingo in a bid to win Toussaint and his army back to France’s side, for they had deflected to the Spaniards. Toussaint, probably in his usual undemocratic style, made the decision not to join the French. James does not make it clear whether Sonthonax’s decision made its way to France, or even if it left San Domingo, yet on February 4th, 1794, France abolished slavery in all its colonies, and declared all inhabitants citizens regardless of colour—certainly, this was a decree that had been in the works long before Sonthonax’s own. Immediately, Toussaint turned his forces around and joined France’s side; although this may have been a surprising about-turn, it was an early sign of the high esteem Toussaint held the French government in, and perhaps even that of his later betrayal of Sonthonax, a trusted ally.
Again, this decree only arrived in San Domingo in May, three months after it was news in France. Morally, it hardly mattered because the abolition of slavery was the very point of the revolution, and even in those three months the insurrections continued. However, there is security in official documentation and ratification, and it is in this security that Toussaint placed his faith until the day he died. About this, James makes what I think is the most astute observation: “Toussaint was still thinking in terms of the decree of February 4th, 1794. The black revolution had passed him by” (1938: 321).
Toussaint’s apparent middle ground—determination to remain a colony, but with political autonomy—ultimately brought about his destruction, and he died before he could see Haitian independence, opposed as he might have been to it. James’ books recognises two important matters: firstly, it is one of the first and most significant attempt to defy Western silence and canon by insisting on telling the story of the Haitian revolution. Secondly, despite his obvious reverence of the brilliant revolutionary, he ‘deromanticises’ an overarching deification of Toussaint by repeatedly and deliberately bringing up his conviction that France would not re-introduce slavery to the colony, despite all evidence to the contrary. James addresses the confusion that Toussaint’s simultaneous brilliance and despotic silence that ultimately brought about Haiti’s independence and its destruction. Throughout, he weaves the narrative of European imperialism, such that he arrives, perhaps inadvertently, the condition of the postcolony that Mbembe so often talks about.
Finally: in the appendix, it is noted, “the small size of the islands made communication between the rural areas and the urban quick and easy” (1938: 392). There is no doubt this is true, and James’ text clearly narrates how quickly news moved across the island, just as it tells how long it took for news to travel between the colony and the colonial power. It is important to recall that three months or more was not necessarily too long a time for a decree to cross the ocean, and it is equally important to think about what this would mean for revolt today. In the 1930s, James recognised that the fight against white supremacy and imperialism was not over; over eighty years later, this rings true. Yet as Black people across the round use the Haitian Revolution and subsequent revolutions as a backdrop and a source of inspiration, there are phenomena that happened then that couldn’t happen now, despite them happening against an almost-identical system of white hegemony. Revolution today depends heavily on the rapid dissemination of information—three months of oblivion were both beneficial and useless to the revolution. Three months of oblivion in today’s global political climate, that speaks the empty rhetoric of peaceful coexistence and meritocracy in capital, is impossible for most, and a matter of life or death for all oppressed people. The importance of social media in revolution today perhaps plays that which decrees played in the Haitian Revolution, and I cannot help but wonder what James would write about revolution and global communications in the 21st Century.
James, C.L.R., The Black Jacobins (1938).