James’ The Black Jacobins Chapter III

In this chapter, James describes the shifting balance of power in Haiti in 1789 – 91.

The French Revolution was having far-reaching effects. Suddenly, with the fall of the Bastille, the small whites in Saint Domingue, inspired by their brothers in Paris, made a determined grab for power. The wealthy bourgeoisie of the North angled for a new situation as well, while the Mulattoes were fighting, both through official and unofficial channels, to be covered under the blanket of the Rights of Man.

There were three divisions of whites in 1789, post-revolution:

# The Assembly of the North Province – wealthy merchants and bankers from LeCap
# The Assembly of St. Marc – called themselves the Patriots, condemned the usury of the northern bourgeoisie; when they couldn’t get the Mulattoes’ cooperation, they called for their extermination.
# The counter-revolutionary royalist bureaucracy.

All three groups hated the Mulattoes, yet needed their support. (pp. 66-67)

From James, p. 63:

bq. “The small whites, as soon as they heard of the fall of the Bastille, had deserted their friends the bureaucracy and joined the revolution.. There was only one hope for the bureaucrats — the Mulattoes, and the Governor instructed the commandants of the districts to adopt a new attitude towards them. ‘It has become more necessary than ever not to give them any cause for offence, to encourage them and to treat them as friends and whites.’ The retreat of race prejudice had begun.”

Prejudice had shifted out of expediency. In the vacuum of power, alliance with the Mulattoes was key. “The whites were only 30,000. The Mulattoes and free blacks were about the same, and increasing at a far greater rate than the whites.” (p. 64) The black slaves were not considered. It was seriously thought that revolution was not in their nature.

The wealthy and the bureaucrats of that colony, who had maintained a realistic and pragmatic understanding of the situation to which they were subjecting the blacks, sensed something was coming.

bq. “Now, nearly six months after [the fall of the Bastille], in face of the revolutionary small whites, and the extreme revolutionaries in the Colonial Assembly, wealthy San Domingo was following the bureaucrats and drawing nearer to the rich Mulattoes. God had undoubtedly made the black blood inferior to the white, the Exclusive was a monstrous imposition, the bureaucracy was a burden. But these owners of hundreds of slaves were already prepared to turn a blind eye to these century old tenets of their caste in face of the dangers they saw ahead.” (p. 65-66)

Meanwhile, the back-and-forth struggle in France between the idealists of the Revolution to admit Mulattoes and blacks to the community of free men, and the powerful financial interests of the colonial bourgeoisie, were sending shockwaves across the Atlantic. Count Charles de Lameth’s ostensible advocacy for enfranchisement caused an uproar among the whites of Saint Domingue

The National Assembly found itself caught between the interests of the maritime bourgeoisie and its own declaration of the Rights of Man. After all, “order” must be maintained in the colonies (meaning a state where Mulattoes remained disenfranchised); at the same time, there were powerful forces who felt that denying rights to people of color was not in keeping with the spirit of the revolution they had worked so hard to achieve. “At first the Right had it their own way, but the colonial question again and again split the bourgeoisie, made it ashamed of itself, destroyed its morale and weakened its capacity to deal with the great home problems which faced it.” (p. 70)

On March 8th, the National Assembly passed a decree that placed colonists and their property (i.e., slaves) under the special protection of the Nation. However, the decree also declared “all persons” above the age of 25 who met “certain property and residential qualifications” to be citizens. Ergo, the Mulattoes. The confusing decree caused a royal row in Saint Domingue and led to clashes between the whites and the Mulattoes. (p.73) “It was the quarrel between whites and Mulattoes that woke the sleeping slaves. (p. 71)

Vincent Og�, who, as a member of the Friends of the Negro (a Mulatto organization), had been present in the hall when the decree was issued, decided to take matters into his own hands. Og� got money from Clarkson in London and proceeded to purchase firearms in the US:. (p. 73) Unfortunately, Og� was no general. His torture and death (pp. 73 – 74) only served to heat up an already rapidly boiling cauldron of dissatisfaction.