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The Black Jacobins to page 20

I’m reading today from The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James, Vintage edition. James was a Trinidadian professor who wrote this book in 1938 and updated it slightly in 1962. The version I’m reading was printed in 1989, the year of James’ death. It is a well-regarded history of the revolution, and considered James’s masterpiece.

Although I’m only a short way into the book as of this writing, the tone has put me off as a bit strident and overly political. Bob Corbett writes that James “was a strong Marxist scholar,” an assertion borne out in Benjamin Graves’ essay on the book. Still, the research is reputed to be solid and I hope to find good information here.

Politics aside, James’s descriptions of the brutal realities of the slave trade are eye-opening, as is the report on page 5 that the French brought white engag�es to Haiti along with black slaves. These engag�es – indentured servants “who would be freed after a period of years” – apparently couldn’t take the heat and hard work, and so blacks became the predominant import. On page 10, James quotes Girod-Chantrans, a Swiss, who in 1785 described the harsh conditions of slave life and the “pitiless” attitudes of the plantation managers.

On page 19, he describes the backgrounds of Toussaint and Christophe. “Christophe, afterwards Emperor of Haiti, was a slave – a waiter in a public hotel at Cap Fran�ois, where he made use of his opportunities to gain a knowledge of men and of the world.” James also tells of Toussaint’s father being an African king, a biographical anecdote which is probably apocryphal, according to Korngold. (Toussaint himself claimed Pierre Baptiste Simon as his father, not his godfather as James asserts.)

Also on page 19 is this: “The leaders of a revolution are usually those who have been able to profit by the cultural advantages of the system they are attacking…”

Something to keep in mind as I read the news of Haiti today…