Toussaint Triumph

That the Black Jacobins, one of the greatest of Caribbean histories, was ever published is thanks, in part at least, to one Henry Spencer


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

C. L. R. James (Allison & Busby)

That The Black Jacobins, one of the greatest of Caribbean histories, was ever published is thanks, in part at least, to one Harry Spencer, a teashop owner from Nelson, Lancashire.

In the summer of 1932, a hard-up Trinidadian journalist and political activist told him that he wanted to write a book about the slave revolution which destroyed the French colony of Saint-Domingue and created the independent state of Haiti. The problem was that he needed to go to Paris to do the research and did not have the £100 with which to do it. Days later, Harry Spencer produced £90 with the words “On to France, and if you need more, let me know.”

In the event, he didn’t. The research was done, the book published and a reputation made. Today, 60 years after its first appearance, The Black Jacobins has never been out of print and continues to inspire and enthrall readers.

The impecunious journalist was Cyril Lionel Robert James (universally abbreviated to CLR), born in Caroni, Trinidad, on 4 January 1901. The son of a headmaster and a book-loving mother, James was brought up surrounded by the works of Shakespeare and Thackeray. Not surprisingly, he did well at school, won a place at the prestigious Queen’s Royal College, and started teaching at the age of 19. But James was no bookworm. His other passions were cricket, athletics (he was Trinidad’s high jump champion) and politics. Mixing in Port of Spain’s intellectual circles, the young teacher had short stories and essays published locally before his first and only novel, Minty Alley, was written in the summer of 1928.

One of James’s many friends was the legendary Trinidadian cricketer Learie Constantine, who in 1932 was playing for Lancashire. Inviting him to come to Britain and stay in Nelson, Constantine enabled James to find work as a cricket correspondent, writing for the Manchester Guardian among others. But by now James was primarily interested in politics, and the ferment of 1930s London provided him with any amount of political causes. Pan-Africanism, the ideas of Marcus Garvey, the debates within the Marxist movement: James was involved in all the arguments of the time. He even still had time for cricket. As his publisher, Frederick Warburg, recalled: “If politics was his religion and Marx his god, if literature was his passion and Shakespeare his prince among writers, cricket was his beloved activity.”

The extraordinary story of how the slaves of Saint-Domingue, the world’s richest colony, had overthrown their European masters had long fascinated James. For him, it was an inspiring example of revolutionary self-liberation as well as a Caribbean antidote to what he saw as traditionally Eurocentric history. It was also pure drama, and fittingly his first treatment of the episode was a play, Toussaint L’Ouverture, which was performed in London in 1936. With his friend Paul Robeson playing the title role, James tried to bring to life the political dilemmas of the ex-slave who rose to become leader of the revolution. Alas, the play was more political than dramatic, and did not enjoy great success.

The legendary figure of Toussaint L’Ouverture remains at the centre of The Black Jacobins, arguably James’s best and most influential work. The compelling story of how he turned a mob of rampaging slaves – “as naked as worms” in his own words – into a deadly guerrilla force is told with considerable flair. James often achieves an almost epic quality in his narrative, as when he describes the burning of the canefields around the then capital, Cap Français:

For nearly three weeks, the people of Le Cap could barely distinguish day from night, while a rain of burning cane straw, driven before the wind like flakes of snow, flew over the city and the shipping in the harbour, threatening both with destruction.

James’s portrait of Toussaint reveals a complex character, at once heroic and pragmatic, shrewd yet gullible, a family man but not averse to romantic liaisons with female admirers. But, in true Marxist style, the historian is not just a biographer: he is also the analyst of conflicting social and economic forces. This approach gives James the perfect framework for exploring – and making sense of – the different and opposed groups which made up Saint-Domingue’s tinderbox society. The rich whites, the poor whites, the coloured freemen and freed blacks, as well as the vast majority of black slaves, all come under James’s scrutiny.

At the same time, the action moves deftly to and fro between Saint-Domingue and Paris, where the chaotic course of the French Revolution and the subsequent rise of Napoleon Bonaparte are lucidly described and dissected. The dramatic climax comes when Napoleon, scornful of “this gilded nigger”, sends the world’s largest ever naval force across the Atlantic to re-establish colonial order and slavery. Standing alone on a mountain peak, Toussaint watches the approaching vessels: “We shall perish. All France is come to overwhelm us.”

Toussaint was wrong. He was tricked, captured and sent to a freezing prison cell in the Jura mountains, from where a callous Napoleon ignored his pleading letters. But his troops, led by the ferocious Jean-Jacques Dessalines and aided by a devastating epidemic of yellow fever, finally drove out the French. Symbolically tearing the white from the tricolore, Dessalines created the state of Haiti – the Caribbean’s first independent nation state.

C. L. R. James went on to lead a long and rich life of political activism and writing, with cricket always at the centre of his interests. But it is probably for The Black Jacobins, his masterpiece of revolutionary triumph and personal tragedy, that he is best remembered. “He is, quite simply, the outstanding West Indian of the century,” concludes Caryl Phillips. And The Black Jacobins shows you why.

James Ferguson is the author of The Traveller’s Literary Companion to the Caribbean (InPrint Publishing/Passport Books/Ian Randle Publishers, 1997).