Review of The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James

CYRIL LIONEL ROBERT JAMES. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: The Dial Press, 1938. Pp. xi, 396. $3.75.



The Black Jacobins is the seventh and most famous work written by C.L.R. James, the late Afro-Trinidadian historian, journalist, playwright, professor, social theorist, and essayist. It is a vivid and nuanced historical narrative of the San Domingo Revolution, popularly known as “the only successful slave revolt in history,” and its “courageous leader,” Toussaint L’Ouverture, from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to the declaration of independence for Haiti in 1804. Written in anticipation of widespread African decolonization, with sincere Marxist-socialist leanings and a defining sense of solidarity for oppressed peoples, The Black Jacobins is widely hailed as a classic critique of imperialist and colonialist historiography. James immerses himself in the complex transatlantic drama of the protracted San Domingo Revolution, all while keeping his pen on the pulse of the longue durée; as he makes clear with poignant references to Abraham Lincoln, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and, in the amended edition, figures like José Martí, Fidel Castro, and Patrice Lumumba, the tumultuous plight of Haitian Independence was not an isolated historical event. Rather, it was one of the most dramatic, edifying, and formative chapters in an enduring struggle for global liberation.


For sources, James has synthesized archival material from France, Britain, and San Domingo, particularly Les Archives NationalesLes Archives Ministère de la guerre, Les Archives Ministère des Colonies, Les Archives Ministère  des Affaires étrangères , La Bibliotheque National, La Mission du Général Hédouville, The Public Record Office, and The British Museum. In these archives we find the dictated correspondence of Toussaint L’Ouverture to French agents, commissioners, and governors (namely, Laveaux, Sonthonax, Vincent, Pascal, Raimond, and Roume), European ambassadors and generals (namely, Maitland, Hédouville, and Leclerc) and various French administrators (including the Foreign Minister, the Directors, and the First Consul). The archives also include official government reports, published pamphlets, trial records (of Polverel and Sonthonax), colonial dispatches, and the unpublished letters of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The proceedings of the French revolutionary Assemblies are found in the archives of the government-sanctioned newspaper Le Moniteur Universel. James uses first-hand memoirs, such as those written by Sir John Fortescue, Pamphile de Lacroix, Isaac L’Ouverture, and Lemmonier-Delafosse, to recreate the military campaigns of the revolution. For information on San Domingo before the revolution, James relies upon travel accounts, memoirs, and histories written by contemporaries like the German explorer Stanislaus De Wimpffen and the English politician Bryan Edwards. To better understand social and political events across the Atlantic, James synthesizes secondary literature, both modern and contemporary, from the French historical school of the French Revolution. Similarly, he combs through biographies of Toussaint as well as literature on such topics as the French colonial trade, the mulattoes, the slaves, and the abolition of the British slave trade. All of this literature is summarized in an eleven page bibliography at the end of the monograph.


For the study of San Domingo, James favors the anticolonial histories of Haitian scholars like Antoine Michel and General Nemours. Like his former student, the late historian and statesman Eric Williams, James deplores the official approach of Oxford scholarship to the abolition of slavery and the slave trade—epitomized by the works of Reginald Coupland and Thomas Clarkson—for its “smug sentimentality, among other vices.” For the subject of British abolition, James and Williams both prefer the work of the American historian Lowell Joseph Ragatz, The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean. The abolitionists, like the Russian Toussaint biographer Anatoli Vinogradov and several mulatto historians from the nineteenth century who harbored biases toward Toussaint (most notably Saint-Remy and Beaubrun Ardouin), represent for James a “thorough misunderstanding of the question.” These authors have exaggerated the violence that Toussaint sanctioned against mulattos in the western and southern provinces and overstated the formal education that many of the black revolutionaries received, “thereby ruining the greatest lesson of the revolution.”

Notwithstanding these individual foils, The Black Jacobins is first and foremost a wholesale revision of colonialist and imperialist interpretations of the Haitian revolution. Since France officially lost the colony of San Domingo to Jean-Jacques Dessalines and the Haitian rebels in the early nineteenth century, the historical narrative has been dominated by European scholars with white, aristocratic (Tory and counter revolutionary), Francophone, colonial, and imperial sympathies. For James, these historians are epitomized by the likes of Lothrop Stoddard and Colonel H. de Poyen, who argued, among other points, that black revolutionaries only succeeded in San Domingo as a result of yellow fever outbreaks during the rainy seasons, that black and mulatto revolutionaries were naturally inferior warriors (and could only succeed when commanded by white officers), that the black upper-class held white female colonists against their will and raped and abused them (for no white women would actually prefer the company of a black man), and that reinstating slavery was never the objective of the First French Republic of Bonaparte. Alongside these specific lies are the general colonial arguments about the importance of slavery as a civilizing mission. As James states, “there is no limit to the brazenness of these imperialist historians.”

The Francophone Atlantic:

To understand the Haitian revolution, readers must first appreciate the importance of the Caribbean colony of San Domingo (also known as Saint-Dominique) to the Francophone Atlantic world. French peoples first arrived with English settlers on the isle of Tortuga, above the western half of the Spanish island of Hispaniola in the year 1625. After fifty years of cohabitation, piracy, and sporadic warfare with both the Spanish and the English, the French settlers moved their capitol to the city of Port-de-Paix on the mainland in 1676. In 1697, the Spanish negotiated ongoing hostilities by granting the French government full rights to the western half of the island in the Treaty of Ryswick. This western portion became the colony of San Domingo. Although the French occupied and lost many Atlantic colonies throughout the early modern era—namely, Antigua, Dominica, Nevis, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Louisiana, Martinique, Guadalupe, St. Lucia, and French Guyana—San Domingo was by far their most profitable. Like Jamaica for the English, San Domingo was the “crown jewel” of the national economy. Through a collaboration between the transatlantic slave trade and the sugar plantation complex, the colony made France exceedingly wealthy.

San Domingo Slave Society and the Maritime Bourgeoisie:

Like their English rivals, the French government passed legislation that maximized and directed the flow of national emoluments to the mother country. They forbade colonists from refining their own raw materials and trading with other European nations, they passed high import duties on foreign goods, they encouraged settlement, and they demanded that all colonial goods were shipped in French vessels. Meanwhile, coffee, indigo, and sugar production on the island were maintained by an appalling system of terror and violence. James lists many of the brutal tortures that slaves underwent as a result of transgression or prejudice. Among the most gruesome are stories of black slaves being plugged in the anus with gunpowder and combusted. Others were tarred with sweet molasses and buried in the sand up to their necks so that roving insects would eat their faces alive. In fact, there were so many variations of torture that colonists developed their own shorthand for distinguishing between them. “The four post,” “the ladder,” and “the hammock” were only three.

In short, the extraordinary profits of the French maritime bourgeois based out of Nantes, Bordeaux, and Havre during the early-modern era (known as the ancien régime in France) were reassured, on a daily basis, by acts of unimaginable cruelty. The Negro Code of 1685, passed into law by Louis XIV, was designed to ensure humanitarian treatment and place legal restrictions on punishments that slaves could receive, however, the horrors of the Le June case of 1788 revealed that these laws had been completely unenforceable. African slaves found themselves toiling in a rigid caste system of 128 racial categories, ranging anywhere from full-blooded blacks to sangmêlé, with 127 of 128 parts white; they sweated in the tropical sun, under the fast-paced, hazardous, and labor-intensive activities of sugar cultivation; and many of them preferred to poison their loved ones and commit infanticide upon their children (if the women were not sterile from shock, depression and overwork) rather than endure the harsh realities of the San Domingo plantation complex. A few individuals—like the slave Padrejean in 1676, the slave Mackandal in 1757 and the wealthy, free man of color Vincent Ogé in 1790—led rebellions; but, nonetheless, the initial slave uprising of 1791 were completely unprecedented.

The Rise of Revolutionary Fervor:

After the American Revolution eliminated colonial markets for the maritime bourgeoisie of the English Atlantic, the French colony of San Domingo drastically increased in importance. Its production tripled, as did its economic potential. The period after the American Revolution put the English and the French in almost constant warfare, of which San Domingo was often the cause and the prize. Simultaneously, revolutionary fervor was entering the Atlantic waters. Abolitionist agitators in France, like the Society of the Friends of the Blacks, emerged in Paris in 1788 to protect the rights of enslaved peoples. Enlightenment authors like Guillaume Thomas Raynal were calling for “courageous leaders” and a “Black Spartacus” to rise up against state tyranny; and, one year later, the French Revolution was ignited with the storming of the Bastille, the Bourbon monarchy was overthrown, and working class peoples proclaimed the triumph of “liberty and equality” against the age of feudalism and the ancien régime.

Summary of the San Domingo Revolution:

The San Domingo revolution began approximately three years after the storming of the Bastille. The initial slave uprising of 1791, led by the Vodou houngan (and possible Muslim) Dutty Boukman, initiated a war between black slaves and the white colonists in the northern plains and cane fields. After Boukman was killed, the new leaders of this revolution—Jorge Bissaou, Jeannot Bullet, Jean Francois, and Toussaint Bréda (not yet L’Ouverture)—organized rebel slaves into military units and continued to fight. The new revolutionary government in France, led by the Girondins or Brissotins, were not quite radical enough to meet the demands of these black rebels to abolish slavery. After some failed attempts at negotiating for individual pardons and their freedom in French society, these leaders embraced patronage from the Spanish colony on the eastern half of the island. From the Western Cordon in Spanish San Domingo, these four black leaders fought a war against the white colonists in the west.

When Robespierre, compelled by the sansculottes in Paris, took power for the Jacobins in the French government, the National Convention invited three deputies from San Domingo to plead the case of the slave rebels before their official audience. Among these was the black delegate known as Bellay. After hearing each of the deputies speak, and being swept up in waves of passion, the National Convention voted to abolish slavery in the Atlantic colonies in 1794. Toussaint, ever faithful to the French government and the egalitarian ideals of the revolution and its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, cut his ties with the Spanish government and returned to French San Domingo to lead the slaves against the colonists and the maritime bourgeois. Bissaou, Jeannot, and Francois remained loyal to the Spanish government and were dispersed among other Hispanic colonies in the Caribbean.

At this point, the colony of San Domingo was embroiled in a proxy war that emulated the political climate of France. The revolutionaries, known as the red brocades, included “small whites” and rebellious slaves. These individuals fought against the counter-revolutionaries, known as the white brocades, the royalists, or the Patriots, which included propertied whites, many free people of color, many free mulattos, and the agents of the maritime bourgeois. When the revolutionaries turned out victorious, many of the white colonists fled the country and became émigrés, henceforth agitating against the Haitian revolution from afar. Meanwhile, free mulattos in the west and southern provinces—the product of centuries of colonial mixture between black slaves and white planters—formed their own armies under the leadership of  figures like André Rigaud, Alexandre Pétion, Beauvais, and Pinchinat.

While the white brocades were being subdued by revolutionary forces, led by Toussaint in the north, the British decided to use their ongoing war with France as an excuse to invade and seize the lucrative colony of San Domingo. They landed sieges in the western and southern provinces—planning to advance northward via the Artibonite river—and a second phase of the Haitian revolution was begun. During this phase, Toussaint and his officers in the north organized the Haitian slaves into formal regiments and fought against the British. Similarly, the mulattos in the south and the west continued to fight against the encroachment of the British in their provinces. Although they had never joined forces, Toussaint and the mulatto armies saw themselves upholding the liberal ideals of the French revolution; the blacks did not want a return to slavery, and the mulattos did not want to remain inferior to white colonists. On the argument that slaves were being stolen across the eastern border, Toussaint captured and annexed Spanish San Domingo in the name of the French republic in 1795.

The revolutionaries eventually expelled the British from each of the Haitian provinces, after significant losses on both sides. By this time the Jacobin regime had fallen in France and the administration of the Directory had begun. The government sent a colonial commissioner named Hédouville to negotiate the reorganization of San Domingo, still a colony but under the leadership of Toussaint. Unfortunately, Hédouville sowed seeds of discord between the mulatto armies of the south and the west and the black armies of the north. As a result of this political intrigue, a third conflict was begun, whereby Toussaint was forced to campaign against the mulattos, commanded by Rigaud, and expel them from the island. Despite orders, many of the mulatto supporters were slaughtered by Toussaint’s officers in the process. Many of the highest ranking mulattos fled to France, awaiting their chance to return to the colony and exact vengeance upon their oppressor.

After defeating the white colonists, the counter-revolutionaries, the émigrés, the British, and the mulattos and free blacks in the south, the Haitian Revolution was still not complete. San Domingo remained an overseas possession of the French nation, and the home government was becoming more and more conservative. Bonaparte rose to the throne, declared himself the First Consul, and set about erasing the political victories of the French Revolution. He considered allowing Toussaint to remain the colonial leader of San Domingo; but, when his imperial plans for capturing India from the British were occluded, the importance of re-instating plantation slavery in San Domingo became vital. Despite the arguments of French commissioners who assured Bonaparte that slavery could never work again in San Domingo, Bonaparte reinstated slavery in the other Atlantic colonies (like Guadalupe) and dispatched an excessive military campaign under General Lecrelc to defeat Toussaint and retake the colony.

The Haitian revolutionaries were now engaged in the final and most violent stage of their prolonged struggle for independence. Completely outnumbered and outgunned, with many émigrés, mulatto and black leaders (like Clairveaux, Laplume, and Maurepas), municipal leaders (like Cesar Telemaque of Le Cap), and former free peoples quitting to the French, Toussaint and his armies burnt their port cities and retreated to the mountains to engage in guerrilla warfare and scorched earth tactics. They fought the French armies with hit-and-run warfare in the provinces, awaiting the arrival of the raining season in April. Jean-Jacques Dessalines held up in the fort at Crête-à-Pierrot, from where his forces mowed down the French assaults. Toussaint, ever loyal to the French nation, was persuaded to surrender at the capital of Cap-Français (Le Cap). He and his family were whisked away on a ship to France. He was imprisoned in the Fort-de-Joux in the Jura Mountains, where he died at the age of 57 from starvation, cold, and sickness.

After Toussaint’s incarceration and death in France, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, and other figures led the Haitian revolutionaries to complete independence. For the first time since the slave uprising of 1791, a Haitian constitution was drafted and it was publicly declared that irrevocable independence from France was the only acceptable outcome of the conflict. As specific leaders were killed or won over to the French, petty chieftains, maroon leaders, and common slaves continued to rise up en masse. Leclerc was killed by yellow fever and his draconian successor Rochambeau was willing to resort to savage measures, such as drowning 1,000 black citizens alive in the harbor at Le Cap, to suppress the revolutionaries. Unfortunately for the French, these savageries became the cause of unity among black slaves and gens de couleur soldiers, who formed an alliance and finally succeeded in expelling the French from the island of Hispaniola.

James on Toussaint L’Ouverture:

Toussaint L’Ouverture was the soul of the Haitian revolution. Readers will get the sense from James that he represents the title figure, the quintessential Black Jacobin. At first, he was a reluctant leader, protecting his master’s plantation and refusing to engage in the slave revolt led by Dutty Boukman. However, from the moment that he threw off Spanish patronage to the moment of his surrender at Le Cap, Toussaint expressed unwavering fealty to the egalitarian ethos of the French revolution. His devotion to “equality and liberty” outlasted even the French assembly and the National Convention; as James demonstrates, his grasp of Enlightenment rhetoric and principles superseded that of even the greatest learned scholars, Pericles, Paine, Jefferson, and Marx. As an ex-slave, a black individual living in a slave society, and a military general on the front lines of a fiery war, Toussaint understand the stakes of liberty in a way that was much more authentic, and much more personal, than any armchair philosopher.

After a decade of leadership, like a biblical martyr, Toussaint was betrayed and died before his people achieved their freedom. His reign was all the more remarkable because he was an aging (45 at the time of the initial revolt), illiterate (he could read but not write), formally uneducated, Catholic who could barely speak French. He had risen to the highest ranks of the most profitable Caribbean colony in the late eighteenth century, and his name was spoken alongside the names of figures like Napolean Bonaparte and Horatio Nelson. Toussaint dictated tactful and eloquent correspondence to some of the most powerful men in the Western world, and they responded with praise.

James invests himself sincerely in understanding Toussaint’s mentality as a revolutionary figure, as well as understanding the causes of his downfall. As someone who constantly looked to France for answers and assurance, Toussaint maintained a drastically different perspective than the majority of the slaves who formed the rank-and-file. He was constantly negotiating political relationships with the Americans, the French, the British, and the white émigrés. He could not be persuaded to abandon the lost cause of the French revolution, nor could he be persuaded to execute white colonists and mulatto dissidents, and redistribute former plantations. Pressure to perform these actions led Toussaint to make controversial decisions which were never properly communicated to his people. A few of these decisions included abandoning defenses in Spanish San Domingo, executing the revered black leader Moïse, and expelling the beloved commissioner Sonthonax. Eventually, Toussaint became so removed from the masses, and his intentions became so obscure to them, that many ex-slaves and revolutionary leaders began to see him as a dictator and encouraged his removal from power.

As James concludes, “it was in method, and not in principle, that Toussaint failed.” Toussaint was right in thinking that “the race question was subsidiary to the class question in [global] politics,” but he was wrong to focus on global class struggle, in unity with the distant French republic, while completely ignoring the imminent racial realities in San Domingo. When Toussaint cavorted with white colonists, the black ex-slaves could not understand his actions. As James states, Toussaint allowed “the masses to think that their old enemies were being favored at their expense.” By socializing with upper-class white society, and surrounding himself by white and mulatto officials, he “committed an unpardonable crime in the eyes of a community where whites stood for so much evil.”

It seems appropriate that the Haitian revolution was finished by a man like Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Unlike Toussaint, Dessalines had absolutely no faith in the French government or the productive potential of the white émigrés. He was not only willing, but he was eager to massacre French prisoners of war, as well as white colonists, dissident mulattos, and free blacks who opposed him. He was eager to call for absolute independence from France, and he was quick to seize and redistribute all of the former plantation properties and resources. He was a brilliant military general, even more uneducated than Toussaint, who, at the very least, was tutored by his godfather Pierre Baptiste. Most importantly, Dessalines was a hardened ex-slave who bore the scars of the rigoise whip beneath his revolutionary epaulets. He had absolutely no pretensions about maintaining poise, respect, or reverence in the eyes of Europe.

Mulatto Betrayal:

Rigaud and the mulatto leaders of the south and the western province became the Judas’ of the Haitian revolution in what James calls “one of the greatest tragedies of San Domingo.” In this story there is both a missed opportunity for union among two groups who had common cause to fear European imperialism, and a lesson about the divide and conquer stratagems of the white imperialists. European powers, British and French alike, played mulatto and black forces against one another whenever possible, and, since the initial revolution in 1791, mulattos were “wavering continuously.” Rigaud eventually sided with the French, hoping to maintain the racial privileges that colonial society afforded to him and his people. After returning with Leclerc to conquer San Domingo, he was deemed useless, imprisoned by his supposed allies, and sentenced to exile. Through their internalized racial prejudice, many free black and mulatto citizens were like Rigaud; they could not see their common victimhood with black laborers at the heels of European hegemony. As James argues, “mulatto instability lied not in their blood but in their intermediate position in society.”

The Sansculottes of San Domingo:

At times, The Black Jacobins can read like an intellectual and political biography of Toussaint; but, while James is no doubt fascinated by the inner workings of Toussaint, this focus is more for narrative convenience than historical honesty. Borrowing from the French historian Georges Lefebvre, who argued that “the real leaders of the French Revolution were nameless, obscure men, far removed from the legislators and the public orators,” James assures us that the real heroes of the Haitian revolution were the unnamed throngs of ex-slaves, petty chieftains, maroon, and common laborers. Like the lower-class sanscullotes of Paris, who conspired in closed workshops and darkened streets, the ex-slaves gathered in the torched cane fields near Limonade and the isolated foothills of the Grand Cahos. They were the sinews of the revolution. They were powered by an ardent desire never to return to slavery, and they died by the thousands in order to make that dream a reality. When leaders like Toussaint were compromised by their allegiance to France, and mulatto and free black officials were divided by bribes, promises, and their own fear, masses of “obscure creatures” emerged from the plantations in order to shoulder the mantle of the Haitian revolution.

Critiques and Comparison:

As the historian Laurent Dubois has said about The Black Jacobins, James “convincingly demanded that historians take the Haitian Revolution seriously as an event of global significance.” In pursuing this goal, James has created a classic, anticolonial text that is timeless. The scope of what he has achieved in the context of the Haitian revolution is simply dumbfounding, the liberties of his imagination are inspiring, and his broad commentaries on the intricacies of writing history are awe inducing. If there can be any fault with this text, it is that historians now know so much more than James did in his own day. Decades of literature about the African past of slaves and acculturation in the New World have prevented authors from approaching plantation slavery as a tabula rasa, as James does. Discussions about “day-to-day” resistance and petite versus grand marronage have encouraged authors to examine slave agency and not just violent uprisings. Finally, decades of literature on class analysis and postmodern thought have encouraged leaders to interrogate the motivations of each historical actor, not just main figures like Toussaint and Leclerc. In The Black Jacobins, James is too often content to allow groups to remain undifferentiated, namely mulattos and black laborers.

In his review, Dubois draws attention to another theme that has not been adequately explored in historiography since the publication The Black Jacobins. James states in passing that the capital of the French Revolution was financed by the slave trade, a claim which is strikingly similar to Eric Williams’ argument in Slavery and Capitalism that the slave trade financed the capital of the industrial revolution in England. However, while both Eric Williams and C.L.R. James are in agreement that the activists and revolutionaries of Britain and France do not deserve the credit for abolition and emancipation in the colonies, they do not agree on why. Arguing for economic determinism, Williams states that the slave trade and slavery failed because they had become unprofitable. Arguing for human agency, James states that the slave trade and slavery failed because proletarian slaves were united under charismatic leaders who, despite having no formal education, embodied the universal lessons of the revolution. Together, these individuals risked everything they had in order to seize their freedom.


The Haitian revolution was a protracted, turbulent, multiethnic, and multinational drama that lasted thirteen years and cost an untold number of lives. It was enacted by a dramatis personae of British, French, African, American, and mixed-race individuals. It was defined by shifting allegiances, foreign intrigue, extra-national pressures, and the fundamental desire for liberation from enslavement. As James states, “it is impossible to understand the San Domingo revolution unless it is studied in close relationship with the revolution in France,” and, after reading The Black Jacobins, it becomes clear that the Haitian revolution succeeded where liberty in France ultimately failed. As the French revolution descended into paranoia, the reign of terror, and the restoration of absolute monarchy, the Haitian revolution persisted against one enemy after another. From colonists, to émigrés, to the British, to mulatto armies, to the Spanish and the French, masses of ex-slaves upheld the revolutionary, Enlightenment promise of “liberty and equality” for the Atlantic world.

The Black Jacobins is an outstanding text because James combines the discipline of an historian with the passion of a revolutionary and the storytelling talent of a journalist. Like a trained sociologist, he is always aware of the big picture, and he never misses an opportunity to reflect on contemporary circumstances. Indeed, the work is not only a story about a revolution; it is also a philosophical manifesto about revolutions themselves, their potentials and their dangers. Above all else, The Black Jacobins is a powerful text because James knew why he was writing. The lessons of the Haitian revolution were important in his day because global imperialism, particularly on the African continent, was vaunting its exploitation of wealth under the banner of civilization. “In reality, it was strangling the real wealth of the continent—the creative capacity of the African people.” In the late eighteenth century, the revolutionary call for “liberty and equality” in the Atlantic world needed freedom from bondage more than the maritime bourgeoisie needed their money. Today, international socialism needs the unique energies of the masses more than corporations need profits and the plutocracy needs cheap labor.

* For more work written by this author, please visit his personal blog, The Zamani Reader: A History Blog from a History Student.


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