The power of God or the weakness of man, Christianity or the divine right of kings to govern wrong, can easily be made responsible for the downfall of states and the birth of new societies. Such elementary conceptions lend themselves willingly to narrative treatment and from Tacitus to Macaulay , from Thuycidides to Green , the traditionally famous historians have been more artist than scientist: they wrote so well because they saw so little. To-day by a natural reaction we tend to a personification of the social forces, great men being merely or nearly instruments in the hands of economic destiny. As so often the truth does not lie in between. Great men make history, but only such history as it is possible for them to make. Their freedom of achievement is limited by the necessities of their environment.

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C L R James is a historian in the Marxist tradition and he is passionate about his subject. James was a Trinidadian and I knew him originally as a writer about cricket I kid you not and he has written one of the best books ever written about cricket Beyond a Boundary. The Black Jacobins was first published in and was one of the seminal works of the history of the African diaspora.

James was This is the classic account of the Haitian revolution; one of the most significant slave revolts. James was a writer and thinker who covered a wide range of issues. His love of sport led to books and writing on cricket; asking the question "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know? James was also a tireless political agitator over several decades.

He met and worked with Trotsky, Kenyatta, Nkrumah to name a few and was very involved with many of the independence movements of the mid twentieth century. In the French colony of San Domingo was the richest slave colony in the Caribbean. James very consciously wrote this as a blueprint for how to run a successful revolution, he was aware that there would be a movement towards independence and away from the current imperial powers.

Toussaint was a slave, not six years out of slavery, bearing alone the unaccustomed burden of war and government, dictating his thoughts in the crude words of a broken dialect, written and rewritten by his secretaries until their devotion and his will had hammered them into adequate shape. It is written almost in novel style, but the historical analysis is still there.

The slaves are the agents of their own emancipation and the story as it develops is gripping. This is a detailed historical text and is not a quick read and there are plenty of twists and turns.

The slave rebellion ultimately fought off attempts to overthrow it by the Spanish, British and the French. He did not survive to see the revolution safe and complete and was captured by the French and died in France. James argues against the prevailing historiography of the time. Traditionally it has been argued that the French expedition of which consisted of some 60 troops was only defeated by weather and yellow fever and the revolutionaries were inferior militarily and could only succeed with white officers, and that Napoleon was not trying to reinstate slavery.

James explodes all these myths. Napoleon had appointed his brother-in-law to lead the expedition and James tracked down extensive correspondence and pieced together the campaign.

It is clear that there was every intention by the French to reinstate slavery and James suggests that there is evidence of a plan to exterminate the whole non-white population hundreds of thousands of people and bring across new slaves from Africa because they would be less likely to rebel. James takes on a few myths; one in particular, that the abolition of the slave trade was due to the campaigning of people in Britain like Wilberforce and other anti-slavery activists. James does not demean their views, but he argues they were being used and the real reasons were economic.

San Domingo was an economic powerhouse, producing great riches for France and many of the slaves were being bought from the British.

Voices in Britain were beginning to question why the government was helping fund a French colony. From a capitalist perspective Adam Smith was already arguing that slavery was not an efficient economic system. It may have made and kept much of the aristocracy and establishment rich, but it was ceasing to make economic sense in terms of the growing industrial revolution. James brings the book up to date with an appendix written in the s linking the Haitian revolution with that of Cuba. He also does not detail the important role women played in the revolution.

He hints at their importance and later historians have begun to tell their story.


The Black Jacobins

He and his revolutionary army of self-emancipated slaves defeated the three great empires of the eighteenth century—Spain, England, and France—and finally won independence after a decade of struggle in Our rulers of course minimize the role of revolution in history, even the ones that brought them to power, for fear of highlighting the fact that fundamental change comes from social revolution. But they hold a particular animus toward the Haitian Revolution. In its time it directly threatened the slave empires in the new world. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it offered hope of insurrection for independence to the colonies subject to the European empires. It has always been a challenge to liberals and their counsel of piecemeal reform and gradualism, which rarely if ever delivers change, and instead promises a counter-model of class struggle and revolution. Even on the left, the Haitian Revolution does not get the recognition it merits.


The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution


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