The Black Jacobins


An interesting historical account, The Black Jacobins, by C.L.R. James, examines the Haitian (San Domingo) Revolution of 1791-1803. Throughout the book, James takes an original look at revolution by analyzing revolutionary potential and progress according to economic and class distinctions, rather than racial distinctions (note1).

James intriguingly interweaves the goings on of the French Revolution with the Haitian Revolution, and relates the events and influences of each to one another. San Domingo is the ultimate French colony, and also the focal point of the African slave trade for the French empire. Because of this, France's struggles with the United States, Britain, and within its own varying social classes, invariably affect the progress of the revolution in San Domingo. Because, for James, class distinctions are stressed over those of race, he sees the French Revolution as not only a background, but a heavy influence on the Haitian Revolution as well. Events such as the proletariat uprisings and the taking of the Bastille have heavy impacts on the Slaves of San Domingo.

The Black Jacobins also focuses on Toussaint L'Ouverture as the revolutionary spearhead and organizational leader. L'Ouverture's life and his leadership of the revolution are examined as well as the revolution itself. He is credited with uniting the revolutionary forces, as well as leading many of the most important battles. His influence, as well as that of the French Revolution, is a main propellant of the book. He spearheads the revolution nearly to the end when he is captured, and then some of his most powerful generals, Moise and Dessalines, complete the revolution.

Over the course of the text, L'Ouverture comes to act almost as a tragic hero, and this is where the fine line between accurate history and historical literature is blurred, because although The Black Jacobins is probably the best account of the revolution that exists, it can seem idealistic at times. This idealism might be one reason it has become such an influential book. It has become a touch stone for thinking about the decolonization struggle.


Class and Economic Distinctions vs. Racial Distinctions

Undeniably, yet not blindly Marxist, James follows an interesting path through the book. James shows in detail how colonialism creates many separate and distinct social classes in San Domingo. These social classes then become the basis for personal alliance to one group or another throughout the revolution. His examination of this social structure espouses a similar theory to that of W.E.B. DuBois in his essay, "The Evolution of the Race Problem." DuBois argues that "the problem of the past, so far as the black American was concerned, began with caste;" "men came to the idea of exclusive black slavery by gradually enslaving workers, as was the world's long custom, and then gradually conceiving certain sorts of work and certain colors of men as necessarily connected."1 If racism's roots are in societal structures, then James does a particularly good job of documenting the evolution of a race problem in San Domingo.

Obviously, blacks were brought to San Domingo as slaves, but James explores the complex class divisions on San Domingo. The classes were divided up into "big whites," "small whites," "mulattoes," "free blacks," and "slaves."2 These sundry classes create the often-shifting social structure of San Domingo, which structures itself, in James' view, according to economic needs of different classes, rather than racial divisions. One example of this is the leaning of the mulattos towards whoever presently holds the power. The mulattos were typically free and land owners, and, therefore, they wanted to maintain their social standing and, thus, their power. They would support the French if it looked like they were going to succeed in putting down the revolts because they already had a favorable standing amongst the white ruling class. If the slaves started doing well though, they would shift their support to them so that they would be able to benefit in the reorganized social structure.

The alignment with power was important throughout the revolution. In April 1972, "the white Patriots in Port-au-Prince were being besieged by a composite army of royalist commandants, white planters, brown-skinned Mulattoes, and black slaves, none of them constrained but all for the time being free and equal partners."3 He recognizes too that the rich were probably just waiting for the restoration of order to put the slaves back in their places. In May 1792, "the white were all tumbling over each other to give rights to the Mulattoes" for assistance against the uprising slaves, but it was too late to quell the slave revolution.4

As this implies, James believed economic forces to be more influential than racial boundaries. This does not dismiss the presence of racism though--it simply shows that greed for economic and class status are often more important than race distinctions, and can also influence the implementation of race prejudice. By the end of the revolution, racism is prevalent, and it basically results in the devastation of all whites and many mulattos on the island. This happens because of an elite that continually tries to re-implement the old order and establish their elite class again. As James says, "Those in power never give way, and admit defeat only to plot and scheme to regain their lost power and privilege."5

Benefiting from Status

Toussaint L'Ouverture does not just happen to become the main leader of the San Domingo Revolution. He is the perfect man for the job, because he has benefited from his position in slave society more than most slaves. James refers to a book that L'Ouverture was reading prior to becoming a revolutionary leader; he kept going over a passage that read, "A courageous chief only is wanted. Where is he?"6 This, initially, reminds us that L'Ouverture can read--which is something most slaves cannot do. Because he can read, this means he lives a privileged life--as far as life in slavery can be privileged.

James examines the small privileged class of slaves. He distinguishes the house-servants who "gave themselves airs and despised the slaves in the fields" as the "upper servants." True, these upper servants were "trained like monkeys…but a few of these used their position to cultivate themselves, to gain a little education, to learn all they could."7 They could see the unfairness and brutality of the social system on certain classes of their people, but they also benefited from the unevenness of the system. Thus, having been brought up with all the advantages of the society, they can later lend their services to serve cause of oppressed people.

According to James, "the leaders of a revolution are usually those who have been able to profit by the cultural advantages of the system they are attacking, and the San Domingo revolution was no exception to this rule."8 L'Ouverture learned military tactics, "sophisticated" speaking and writing techniques, and leadership dynamics throughout his servitude that later were crucial to his successes in leading the slaves to independence. This is similar to the role Clare Savage plays in No Telephone to Heaven. She benefits from a good Jamaican education, her and her father's light-skinned benefits in the U.S., and then from a college education in England. There is a difference too. Clare does not become a leader of the Jamaican troop she joins; she actually seems to have difficulty becoming a part of it because of her educational history.


How much a postcolonial subject assimilates to the colonial culture is always a confusing subject. It is impossible for a colonized person to preserve only his culture. It is also impossible for him to completely assimilate into the colonizer's society. How much Toussaint L'Ouverture became French is an interesting question to try to answer.

L'Ouverture had the privilege to be raised as a house servant whose workload was much less than, and whose "benefits" were much more than, those of the field servants. He was allowed a fairly well rounded European education. As discussed above, he was able to learn military tactics, leadership qualities, and how to act "civilized," or "sophisticated." All these traits surface when he takes control of the guerrilla freedom fighters. He did not lead the slave armies so much as guerrilla bands, as he led them as European armies. James even claims that "Toussaint made himself into a whole cabinet like a fascist dictator, except that he actually did the work."9 The fact that he acted as a fascist dictator is a prime example of his partial assimilation, and the fact that he actually did the work is a prime example of how he continued to differ from European customs.

Indeed, "Toussaint always addressed the blacks as French citizens," and would ask his people, "what would France think if she learns that your conduct was not worthy of true republicans?"10 L'Ouverture strove until the end to maintain the connection with France. In drawing up a new constitution, he intended to authorize the slave trade, "because the island needed people to cultivate it." The difference being that when they landed, they were to be free men. He also longed to sail to Africa "with arms, ammunition, and a thousand of his best soldiers" to put an end to the slave trade, and "make millions of blacks 'free and French.'"11 This is reminiscent of Olaudah Equiano and his effort to "civilize" Sierre Leone after he assimilates into British culture (note2). So, L'Ouverture attempts to stay true to France through the end, and is eventually tricked, imprisoned in Europe, and killed, leaving the revolution to be finished by other leaders, such as Moise and Dessalines.

Authorial Intent

As an account of a revolution, The Black Jacobins recounts the process of emancipation in Haiti. Emancipation in other countries has happened both in similar ways and different ways. Abolitionists influenced the lawful ending of slavery in Britain and the United States, while revolutions happened in many other former colonies of empires. Obviously, since this book is an account of a revolution, it is a revolutionary book.

Since James claims that one purpose of the book is to "stimulate the coming emancipation of Africa," and since the story itself follows the pattern of a typical tragedy, the question of how historical, and how literary the book are come into play. James undoubtedly uses historical sources and documents everything properly, but the structure of the book and the fact that it reads like a story lead one to question its authenticity (note3). The idea of whether texts are historical or literary is explored in depth on the Literary Style versus Historical Accuracy page.

Also integral to the idea of the intent of an author is the Audience to which he is writing. Interestingly, this further clouds the question of an author's or a person's assimilation. Postcolonial subjects have no choice but to communicate with the colonizers with the language and methods of the colonizer. This makes it hard to discern between exactly how much an author has appropriated the dominant culture, and how necessary it is that he write in the dominant way.


1.Economics Over Race:

Of course, race came to play a quite important role in the revolution, but James stressed the economic and class divisions that led to this particular racism. This is further explored in the dialogues section of this page.

2.Olaudah Equiano:

Equiano's attempts to bring literacy to the people of Sierre Leone are examined in Tropicopolitans, by Srinivas Aravamudan. A chapter of this book is dedicated to "Equiano and the Politics of Literacy." In this chapter, Aravamudan capitalizes on the fact that "the most significant generic development of the century was, of course, the elevation of the novel from a scandalous to a moral genre."12 Focusing on this fact, as well as Equiano's life, Aravamudan explores the paradox of whether Equiano actually triumphed over slavery, or continued to agree with, and go along with, colonial commerce. The chapter doesn't claim that Equiano is either a revolutionary or a sell out, but tries to illuminate the effects that nationalization had on him and on society by looking back on his life. It looks at both Equiano's use of literature to instigate emancipation, as well as his attempts to bring literacy to the people of Sierre Leone. By examining Equiano's intertwining with Christianity, capitalism, and colonialism, Aravamudan shows the reader just how complicated Equiano's position was.

3.The Black Jacobins as a story:

C.L.R. James originally intended to write fiction.13 Also, even though the Black Jacobins is an historical study, it was originally written as a play. Even when in novel or historical essay form though, it still exhibits many traits of a tragedy. Toussaint L'Ouverture, the "hero" of the Haitian Revolution, meets tragic ends. As Malick Ghachem notices in his book review for All Souls Rising, L'Ouverture comes to these ends by possessing a typical Aristotelian flaw. James utilizes literary techniques in his telling of a true story. This is, again, similar to Olaudah Equiano, and his narrative is examined on the Literary Style versus Historical Accuracy page. This comparison between historical accuracy and literary style are not meant in any way to demean the importance of the books, but it is necessary to examine these two facets of writing in concert to understand how they intertwine and affect the impact of the work.

Books about C.L.R. James:

C.L.R. James is an extremely important thinker, writer, and historian. The Black Jacobins is thought by many to be the definitive account of the Haitian Revolution, and James has influenced infinite theories of Marxism, history, and political activism. Many books have been written about him, and I thought I would tell you about just a few.

C.L.R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary, by Paul Buhle, is an interesting "intellectual biography, strictly speaking, but also by necessity a political and cultural portrait."14 It follows James from his childhood in Trinidad to "The Old Man in His Study."

The C.L.R. James Reader, edited by Anna Grimshaw, is an excellent collection of works by James. This book includes the original play, The Black Jacobins. It draws on work James did in and about Trinidad, Britain, America, and the African Diaspora, spanning his entire career. Grimshaw actually began this book with James near the end of his life, so it has input from him about some of what it should encompass and include.

C.L.R. James's Caribbean, edited by Paget Henry and Paul Buhle, includes "Portraits and Self-Portraits," textual explorations, and intertwines many writings by and about James and his ideas. Other authors include Selwyn Cudjoe, Sylvia Wynter, Neil Lazarus, and there is an interview with George Lamming.


***Here is a biography of CLR James that is excellent. It's pretty long, but very inclusive.

**The Black Jacobins: a Class Analysis of Revolution is a short and concise essay on a political discourse page focusing on theories of colonialism and postcolonialism.

***A fine site on the history of Slave Resistance in the Caribbean.


The Black Jacobins is more of an historical text than a literary text; however, as evinced by the dialogues it is involved in, it leads to numerous discussions between literature and history.

Vicki examines more about teaching history through literature on her teaching page designated for that idea. If you choose to use it as a historical background to another text (like Oroonoko or Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative) you should also have students gain a little knowledge of the French Revolution, (here's a link to the French Revolution homepage, where you can link to a good brief history of the revolution) because there are many references to and correlations with it throughout the book. Just a quick summary should do them well enough.

Also, The Latin American Resource Review has a list of excellent texts that would be helpful for teaching about literature and history together.


1.DuBois, W.E.B. "The Evolution of the Race Problem." Political Thought in America: An Anthology. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc., 1992, 375.

2.James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins. New York: Vintage Books, 1989, 33-42.

3.Ibid., 109.

4.Ibid., 127.

5.Ibid., 127-128.

6.Ibid., 25.

7.Ibid., 19.

8.Ibid., 19

9.Ibid., 159.

10.Ibid., 154.

11.Ibid., 265.

12.Aravamudan, Srinivas. Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688-1804. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999, 233.

13.Phillips, C. "Mariner, Renegade and Castaway." New Republic, 5 August 1996, 35. Buhle, Paul.

14.Buhle, Paul. C.L.R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary. New York: Verso, 1988, 1.


Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

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Last Updated: 4-16-2001