“Reading C.L.R. James’s brilliant account of the Haitian Revolution could not come at a more appropriate time. Written in 1938, The Black Jacobins remains arguably the most powerful historical narration of a revolutionary struggle that continues fundamentally to affect us today. It traces the history of the army of rebellious slaves in the French colony of Saint Domingue (Haiti) as is defeated the imperial armies of France, England, and Spain, finally declaring the independent nation of Haiti in 1804.
In the late 18th century, Saint Domingue was the “Pearl of the Antilles,” the richest colony in the world, the centerpiece of France’s mercantile empire, and the greatest individual market for the transatlantic slave trade—all of this resting on the labor of half a million enslaved men, women, and children. In 1791, inspired by the French Revolution, they revolted under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, who embodied the revolutionary fervor of his people and who forms the central tragic-heroic figure of James’s dramatic narrative. James’s riveting account tracks the tension between the empowering influence of the French Revolution’s call for “liberty, equality, brotherhood” on the slaves, and the slaves’ own agency in driving the Haitian Revolution forward against seemingly insurmountable odds.
James’s great insight in The Black Jacobins was to demonstrate the centrality of the Haitian Revolution to any understanding of the imperialist and racist bases of modern capitalism. By tracing how the slaves were first enthused by France’s revolutionary rhetoric, then came into conflict with its commercial and class underpinnings, James probes a structural dynamic of race and class, of freedom of commerce versus freedom of humanity, that continues to impact our own societies today.
James wrote The Black Jacobins on the eve of World War II as a defiant call to resisting racism, fascism, and all forms of oppression. Today, eighty years later, the history he recounts of a people who steadfastly claimed their humanity, and the form in which he recounts it, give us potent tools to do the same.”
Associate professor of Art History