Toussaint and the blacks were henceforth the decisive factors in the revolution…
I debated categorizing this post into classic tales. If only because C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins has been a phenomenally influential contribution to the history of slavery in the Caribbean as well as the history of European colonialism more broadly. Yet, I also considered this categorization because the story of the San Domingo slave revolt between 1791 – 1804 as well as the tragedy of ex-slave Toussaint turned leader of the revolt is an important and often neglected history, which is both parallel with and contingent on the French Revolution.
In other words, while popular history happily (as I remember it from High School) records the heroes of the French revolution, it sometimes (not always intentionally) buries these other histories that challenge the status quo of historical storytelling. To be sure, one can celebrate the important political and social ramifications of the French Revolution. But one must also recognize that even though the French might have pioneered some of the values of civilization—liberty, equality, and fraternity—they denied these very same values to their colonized subjects.
Indeed, while France was in the midst of overthrowing its monarch, preaching the now codified values of civilization, another revolution took place in the colony of San Domingo. This revolution, which was made up of black slaves, adopted these values of civilization. They saw themselves as French citizens. Indeed, if the white man could seize liberty, equality, and fraternity from the monarch, then so too could the slave from the white slave owners.
France and its new government up bourgeoise did not see it this way. The citizens of the colony were not French citizens, but property.
It took over a decade, but the people of San Domingo were eventually successful in expelling the white slave owners and in forming their own independent government. Of course, this did not come without a cost. As much as the hero of this tale, Toussaint, attempted a more “diplomatic” solution in gaining independence, ultimately independence arrived after a drawn-out war. France did not want to let go of its rich colony.
James’ The Black Jacobins is a powerful example of non-fiction that, at times, reads as an epic novel while at other times reads as a meticulous, detailed history imbued with the astucious, passionate voice of C.L.R. James. I name the political work of James’ The Black Jacobins as “the surfacing of history.”
All knew him from the few months before as old Toussaint. He shared all their toils and dangers. But he was self-contained, impenetrable and stern, with the habit and manner of a born aristocrat…
When histories suddenly surface, rupturing our established continuity, they often are tagged as “controversial.” I put this word controversy into quotations because only certain histories are labeled as controversial when they surface. By controversial, I mean to say that the legitimacy of their arrival is up for debate. For example, when we ask, why are we talking about this? Have we not moved past this? And in extreme cases, did this even happen?
When histories surface, they often produce ugly feelings or sentiments in the form of controversy.
The near three-hundred-year tenure of the Atlantic Slave Trade in the Americas, Caribbean, and Europe is scarcely bracketed as controversial because it is naturalized as a fact of history. It happened. And we like to say it happened so long ago that even its afterlife has ceded. We might feel good in acknowledging its pastness. We might feel ugly recounting it as fact.
But most often, when histories remain buried or are buried, calm or tranquil feelings are produced.
Yet, most importantly for countries like America or Canada that have inherited the “burden” of burying history, they produce heroes and icons that relieve the potential ugly feelings of their buried histories. For example, George Washington in America or Edgar Dewdney in Canada.
As such, the writing of history in the context of the Atlantic Slave Trade or Indigenous genocide is challenging because it often uncovers counter-narratives which in turn produce ugly feelings.
Indeed, as James infers, the writing of history tends to produce happy feelings in the sense that it prioritizes constructing mythologies of heroes, triumph, and progress. This is the difficulty, perhaps, of writing history because history is so often recounted as a story that intends to produce good feelings such as pride, patriotism, and love. As James poignantly puts it in the preface to The Black Jacobins, and I quote at length here:
The writing of history becomes even more difficult. 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 Thucydides 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 personification of the social forces, great men being merely 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 to make. Their freedom of achievement is limited by the necessities of their environment. To portray the limits of those necessities and the realisation, complete or partial, of all possibilities, that is the true business of the historian.
No doubt, James was influenced by thinkers that might be described as “historical materialists,” who have envisioned the role of the historian as much closer to the scientist than some might be comfortable with. If anything, this is because doing history was once as much about analyzing the “material” relations between groups of people that gave birth to revolutions as much as it was about interpreting textual evidence.
Nevertheless, what I find fascinating in this excerpt, and The Black Jacobins more broadly, particularly in the context of the traces of slavery in many of the southern states of America, is how history is materially codified, naturalized, or even legitimized through positive icons, figures, and heroes who produce happy feelings towards retroactive accounts of the past.
Eminence engenders enemies. The white revolutionary royalists had long ago marked Toussaint as enemy No. 1…
Perhaps we live in a contemporary moment steeped in the surfacing of controversial histories that continue to unleash a flurry of ugly feelings because they disrupt the continuity of our history that holds essences of liberty, equality, and fraternity so dear. Take Canada, for example. While “apologizing” for its long history of involvement in residential schools, claiming it has moved beyond this dark history, a new history surfaces, unsettling the good feelings that come with reconciliation: the 60s scoop. Reconciliation, a project that produces happiness, content, and peace, is undone by the afterlife of guilt. Canada thinks, then, that it must reconcile with these new histories that have surfaced. History is buried again and again by happy reconciliations.
While taking a tour of the Ottawa parliament building, the history of Canada is summarized in less than a minute. The tour guide explains that Indigenous persons helped build Canada. They contributed to the economy, to the infrastructure, and to producing the great, proud nation that is Canada. Whereas once Indigenous history was left out of Canadian history, it is now included to produce new happy feelings about Canada in the sense that Canada’s history is told as one of cooperation, teamwork, and collaboration.
The history of Indigenous genocide is once again buried.
Today street names, statues, memorials, and museums have become micro-battlegrounds of historical continuity as well as a display of ugly feelings in full force. For example, last summer the so-called right rallied in Charlottesville over the eventual removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee, who is a beloved confederate soldier and hero. Along with overwhelming near two-hundred Lee statues and dedications across America, hundreds of other Confederate soldiers, slavers, and lynchers are memorialized through street and road names as well as statues.
Happy feelings such as love are produced with these memorials. What happens, however, when the histories of slavery and anti-blackness surface, like a split in the Earth, toppling these statues?
A grotesque display of ugly feelings emerges, such as the hatred we saw in the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville. Unlike reconciliation, though, these ugly feelings attempt to bury the uncomfortability associated with these ugly feelings that swarm all these monuments in the surfacing of history.
Criticism is not enough. What should Toussaint have done? A hundred and fifty years of history and scientific study of revolution begun by Marx and Engels . . . justify us in pointing to an alternative course…
C.L.R. James writes Toussaint as a political and an intellectual hero of the black Jacobin revolution. Raised as a slave, Toussaint was never afforded a liberal education like the so-called fathers of critical theory and the politics of the left. Nevertheless, he guided the revolution like any other philosophical-political thinker of the next two and a half centuries.
Toussaint surfaces in The Black Jacobins as an important character to study alongside canonical revolutionary figures. This is the political work that C.L.R. James accomplishes in his history of San Domingo’s independence from France as a colony.