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More from James… to page 56

This is the kind of thing about C.L.R. James’ writing that I have problems with: In a section where he writes of the horrific punishment meted out by a paranoid planter named LeJeune, this statement appears:

23, “The judges, after a thousand delays, returned a negative verdict.”

Okay, I know the writer is showing disdain for the one-sided justice of the day, but the hyperbolic prose weakens his usefulness as a source of information. Were there really 1,000 delays? Did this extend for days, weeks, years? What kind of delays? What was their nature?

I know this seems like a minor point, but after James has presented more than a page of details about the case, encountering a sloppy statement like this feels rather jarring.

Aside from that, I’m appreciating James more as he sets the stage for the revolution. Through page 61, he is describing the political and economic forces that led up to the French and Haitian revolutions.

In Haiti, among the plantation owners, James describes a culture of indulgence and mercantile tunnel-vision. Plantation owners were anxious to squeeze every drop they could out of Saint Domingue so that they could earn enough money to retire to France. This intentionally rootless existence gave rise to a singular debauchery that has overtones of the squalor that is extant in Haiti’s cities today.

The flow of money and the virtual isolation from the homeland produced a wave of corruption so powerful that even priests were swept up in it, some openly living with mistresses.

Many nationalities co-existed here, and many of the residents were criminals or failures in their own lands. In Haiti simply having white skin meant respect and the opportunity for a clean start.

Of course, the issue of one’s “whiteness” was complicated when mulatto children started becoming numerous. To preserve the white’s superior status, mixed-breeds were classified through a system of 128 gradations of Negro. A man could be 127 parts white and 1 part black and still be considered black. “In a slave society, the mere possession of personal freedom is a valuable privilege, and the laws of Greece and Rome testify that severe legislation against slaves and freedmen have nothing to do with the race question. Behind all this elaborate tom-foolery of quarteron, sacatra and marabou, was the one dominating fact of San Domingo society – fear of the slaves.”

James’ description of the Mulattoes’ growing influence reminds me of the Scots and the Jews. Like them, the Mulattoes came to dominate economically by being thrifty, smart, and by quietly acquiring wealth and property and squeezing out the whites who were struggling to keep up. Though James doesn’t mention it, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Mulattoes didn’t also give preferential treatment to others of their group.

The Mulattoes were not only gaining power and influence, many of their children were being educated in France, where there was no race prejudice, and every black who touched French soil was considered free. How galling, then, to come back to Saint Domingue and experience such degradations as not being able to sit at the same table as a white guest in one’s own house! Little wonder that Mulattoes eventually participated in the hierarchy of disdain, each man with some white ancestry feeling himself superior to the man with less. “It all reads like a cross between a nightmare and a bad joke.”

The colonists knew what they were doing. Most of them realized that they couldn’t have the same level of success without slave labor. But they were little inclined to change course out of any moral outrage given that the colonists were becoming fabulously wealthy. San Domingue’s export business was in its highest gear by 1787, producing a staggering amount of sugar, coffee, cocoa, indigo, sisal, cotton, and other products that were also considered very high quality. The only problem was with France’s unilateral trade restriction, or Exclusif, which forbade the colonists from trading with anyone but France.

Economic forces play a major role at this point. The maritime bourgeoisie in France were profiting hugely by the slave trade and the advantages from the Exclusif. The wealth that let French merchants build fleets of ships gave them a sense of power and privilege that led directly to the French revolution. The colonists, on the other hand, were losing vast amounts of potential income and were unrepresented in France, which left them looking for advantage.

Meanwhile, the British, alarmed at the growing wealth and power that was being acquired in San Domingue, saw that the economy there was entirely dependent on the continuing influx of black labor, and so sought to cripple French commerce by outlawing the slave trade. High-minded protestations aside, the Brits stood to gain tremendously financially by the ban.

It is at this point in reading James that I am once again struck by how powerful a factor money is in setting national and personal policy. Simple economics by itself doesn’t drive policy. If it did, and Adam Smith is correct, then slaves would have been freed long ago. Rather, the perceived threat of economic devastation or the greedy lure of vast profit seems to be major forces in shaping world history. Human beings’ failure to understand the nature of trends, to patiently trust the law of countervailing forces, leads them into a panicked response when they see certain indicators pointing against them.

On p. 55, James claims that these are the forces which shaped the destiny of San Domingue in the revolutionary era:

  1. The deplorable nature of slavery itself
  2. British interest in wrecking French commerce
  1. The tension between the French maritime bourgeoisie and the colonists themselves.

    “Mirabeau indeed said that the colonists slept on the edge of Vesuvius, but for centuries the same thing had been said and the slaves had never done anything.”

    “Slavery seemed eternal and the profits mounted. Never before, and perhaps never since, has the world seen anything proportionately so dazzling as the last years of pre-revolutionary San Domingo.” Sounds a lot like the hubris that was prelude to the Titanic disaster.

    Finally, on p. 56 – “Of the half-a-million slaves in the colony in 1789, more than two-thirds had been born in Africa.” This is startling for several reasons. The rising numbers of African-born slaves meant more slaves who weren’t completely broken, and therefore more likely to rebel. The unprecedented influx of slaves in those years (James reports 40,000 a year from 1787 onward) meant that crueler measures had to be instituted to keep them in line. There was no time for the “seasoning,” as it was called, where slaves would have time to get used to the temperature and harsh working life. More slaves died, piled up amongst the trash; life became cheap. It was a vicious circle of cruelty, death, and resentment. Add to this more educated Mulattoes coming from France, more wealthy planters leaving San Domingue in the hands of their managers, and more slaves being able to save enough money to buy their freedom and you have a recipe for disaster. Everyone in the colony was oppressed by someone. Everyone had something to gain by a shift in the power structure.

    The final straw may have been the French Revolution. I’ll get to that tomorrow…