CLR James

Toussaint alone among the black leaders, with freedom for all in mind, was in the early months of 1792 organising out of the thousands of ignorant and untrained blacks an army capable of fighting European troops.” CLR James

CLR James

C. L. R. James’s book, The Black Jacobins written in 1938 celebrates the life and achievements of Toussaint L’Ouverture who was a charismatic and hugely influential leader of the Haitian Revolution of 1791 to 1804.

The Black Jacobins begins with the European conquest of the New World and their occupation of the island that would become Haiti. Having annexed the island and renamed it Hispaniola, the Spaniards rapidly decimated the native population through exploitation and inhumane treatment. To make up for the loss of labour it was deemed necessary to import enslaved people from Africa to work the plantations. Spain, England, and France battled over control of Hispaniola over a number of years and finally in 1679, the island was divided between Spain and France. Spain retained control of the eastern side of the island and the French won control of the western part.  The French turned San Domingue into, “the most profitable colony the world had ever known”. According to James, by 1789, its plantations produced half the world’s coffee, 40 percent of its sugar, and a host of lesser commodities like indigo. Over two-thirds of France’s trade flowed in and out of San Domingue and the colony became the envy of all the other imperial powers.

James writes that San Domingue became a vast killing field where life was sacrificed for profit. The enslaved people resisted their exploitation. Many fled to the mountains to form what became known as maroon bands. The rebellion began among those who laboured on San Domingue’s plantations. They worked in large labour gangs in the fields and sugar factories. Commanders were appointed from among the enslaved people to oversee the work and it was this layer of commanders who organised the revolt and provided military leadership.

The advent of the French Revolution ignited the hope for freedom among the enslaved people of San Domingue. James writes, that they “had heard of the revolution and had construed it in their own image: the white slaves in France had risen, and killed their masters, and were now enjoying the fruits of the earth. It was gravely inaccurate in fact, but they had caught the spirit of thing. Liberty. Equality. Fraternity”. 

One French abolitionist, Abbe Raynal, wrote: “Already there are established two colonies of fugitive Negroes, whom treaties and power protect from assault. Those lightnings announce the thunder. A courageous chief only is wanted. Where is he, that great man whom Nature owes to her vexed, oppressed and tormented children? Where is he? He will appear, doubt it not; he will come forth and raise the sacred standard of liberty. This venerable goal will gather around him the companions of his misfortune. More impetuous than the torrents, they will everywhere leave the indelible traces of their just resentment. Everywhere people will bless the name of the hero who shall have re-established the rights of the human race; everywhere will they raise trophies in his honour”.

This passage was read over and over again by Toussaint Breda, a literate freed slave and overseer on the Breda Plantation who had acquired at least one plantation and slaves of his own. At first, Toussaint Breda watched the rising from a distance, protecting the plantation and its mistress from harm. Finally he decided to join the ever-expanding slave army and eventually came to an unalterable decision from which he never wavered and for which he died: “Complete liberty for all, to be attained and held by their own strength”.

Toussaint trained a professional army of his own, utterly loyal to him and fired by their commitment to liberation. He acquired training and guns, and waited for the French National Assembly to decide where it stood on slavery. He discarded his old slave last name, Breda for his new one, L’Ouverture—meaning the opening to liberty: “Brothers and friends. I am Toussaint L’Ouverture, my name is perhaps known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want Liberty and Equality to reign in San Domingo. I work to bring them into existence. Unite yourselves to us, brothers, and fight with us for the same cause”.

In 1794 France granted freedom and citizenship to all blacks in its Empire. Toussaint became a Black Jacobin, committed to the French Revolution and the abolition of slavery. His army grew to immense size, its ranks drawn from emancipated slaves and maroon bands that rallied to the French after the decree of emancipation.  Toussaint gathered around himself the ex-slave generals who would in due course determine the future of the island. They were unstoppable in their assault on the British and Spanish. “All the French Blacks, from the labourers at Port-de-Paix demanding equality to the officers in the army were filled with immense pride at being citizens of the French Republic ‘one and indivisible’ which had brought liberty and equality to the world”. Their determination and allegiance was so firm that, James declares, “The British and Spaniards could not defeat it. All they could offer was money, and there are periods in human history when money is not enough”.

Spain was quickly defeated, and granted its half of the island to France. By 1795 Laveaux, the French general Governor of Saint-Domingue from 1793 to 1796 during the French Revolution and Toussaint were in control of San Domingue. Faced with the challenge of rebuilding the society ravaged by four years of warfare, Toussaint attempted to maintain the plantation system by using the former slaves as wage labourers paid in money and a percentage of produce. Acknowledging their education and previous experience, Toussaint appointed whites to government posts and even allowed “big whites” to retain ownership of their great estates. He also tried to prevent the freed slaves from breaking up the plantations.

For almost a decade Toussaint faced counterrevolution both at home and abroad.  Free men of color, who saw rulership as their right and “big whites” who sought the re-imposition of slavery had to be repressed. At one point the governor was kidnapped. He was liberated by Toussaint. James writes that Laveaux, “to the astonishment of all and the unbounded joy of the Blacks … proclaimed Toussaint Assistant to the Governor and swore that he would never do anything without consulting him. He called him the saviour of constituted authority, the Black Spartacus, the Negro predicted by Raynal who would avenge the outrages done to his race”. Toussaint’s appointment was confirmed by France.

Under Napoleon’s leadership France plotted Toussaint’s demise in order to reintroduce slavery on the island. Toussaint on the other hand, in faithful service to France carried on a campaign against the British whose forces he destroyed but he also saw the need to unite the entire island under his leadership. In a letter declaring his allegiance to France but also his willingness to defend the colony from slavery he hoped that “France will not revoke her principles…. But if, to re-establish slavery in San Domingue, this was done, then I declare to you it would be to attempt the impossible: we have known how to face dangers to obtain our liberty; we shall know how to brave death to maintain it”.

After suppressing various rebellions, Toussaint commanded the entire colony. Napoleon confirmed Toussaint as governor and commander-in-chief of San Domingue. But convinced that Napoleon aimed to restore slavery, Toussaint prepared the island for military defence and launched an enormous reconstruction plan to prove that it could be just as productive a colony under a free labour regime as it had been under slavery.

Caught between his commitment to the French Revolution and his commitment to liberty Toussaint hesitated to openly declare resistance to France and fight for independence. When a vast French fleet landed Toussaint could not raise the masses and instead had to rely solely on his military forces. The Black generals led a furious guerrilla war against the French troops, outsmarting them, wiping out thousands. Eventually Toussaint was lured into a meeting, captured with his entire family, placed in chains, and sent aboard a ship for imprisonment in France. On boarding the ship, Toussaint said, “In overthrowing me, you have cut down in San Domingo only the trunk of the tree of liberty. It will spring up again by the roots for they are numerous and deep”.

 Napoleon jailed Toussaint high up in the cold French mountains. He died alone on April 7, 1803, killed by “ill-treatment, cold, and starvation” betrayed by France—the country to which he had remained loyal, upholding its standard of liberty and equality. The fight for independence to preserve liberty then fell to the generals Toussaint had trained. The French waged a war that aimed to kill off the existing workers who resisted and replace them with docile new slaves. Fired with their new goal of independence to preserve liberty, the Black army and labourers decimated the French. Independence was declared a year later in 1804 and the island was renamed “Haiti”.

“But what men these Blacks are! How they fight and how they die! One has to make war against them to know their reckless courage in braving danger when they can no longer have recourse to stratagem. I have seen a solid column, torn by grape-shot from four pieces of cannon, advance without making a retrograde step. The more they fell, the greater seemed to be the courage of the rest. They advance singing, for the Negro sings everywhere, makes songs on everything. Their song was a song of brave men… “(Delafosse’s memoirs)

“We should not forget that the freedom you and I enjoy today; that the freedom that eight hundred thousand colored people enjoy in the British West Indies; the freedom that has come to colored race the world over, is largely due to the brave stand taken by the Black sons of Haiti…. When they struck for freedom… they struck for the freedom of every Black man in the world.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (Frederick Douglass, great black abolitionist)


TOUSSAINT, the most unhappy man of men!
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den;—
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.

(Written by William Wordsworth 1770-1850 shortly before Toussaint’s death in prison)

It is said that the Haitian Revolution was the first and only successful slave revolution in human history. The struggle produced heroic leaders, especially Toussaint L’Ouverture who together with his revolutionary army of self-emancipated slaves defeated the three great empires of the eighteenth century—Spain, England, and France. The struggle cost many lives including Toussaint’s but independence was finally won in 1804 and the way was paved for the abolition of slavery.