The Black Jacobins | C.L.R. James

Summary of: The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution
By: C.L.R. James


Step into the world of San Domingo, a colony built on the back of slaves, and witness how the French Revolution’s ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity ignited the flames of rebellion. The Black Jacobins dives into the complexities of societal structure, racial tensions, and the struggle for power. But at the heart of all this chaos, a resilient leader emerges: Toussaint L’Ouverture. This extraordinary former slave becomes the driving force behind the first successful slave revolt in history. In this summary, you will discover the societal challenges, the fight against oppressive forces – including European powers, and the powerful leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture that ultimately led to the independence of Haiti.

Social Classes in San Domingo

Learn about the social hierarchies and power dynamics in San Domingo during its prosperous slave colony days.

San Domingo was a prosperous slave colony, where the slaves were the ones who did all the work. The top of the social structure comprised the French bureaucracy, which included the governor of the island and his administrators. This group ran the colony on behalf of the French crown. Next were the “white” population, with the big whites being the most prosperous. They included the Europeans who owned the plantations where the slaves worked, and merchants who traded both the slaves and the crops they produced, but disliked the bureaucracy.

Under the big whites were the small whites, who were tradesmen, managers of slave estates, and professionals. Although in Europe they were seen as lower class, in San Domingo, they held power over people of color.

The mixed-race and “free” black population was the lowest in the social hierarchy, with about 40,000 people. They were denied rights and certain positions in society due to their skin color. For instance, a white man could trespass on the property of a mixed-race man and even seduce his wife, but if the mixed-race man complained, he risked being lynched. As a result, resentment built up in this class due to their lack of rights and privileges.

This summary highlights the various social classes and power dynamics that existed in San Domingo during its prosperous days as a slave colony. It sheds light on how skin color played a significant role in determining an individual’s position in society.

Resilience of African Slaves

The slaves were not passive victims of the African slave trade, as commonly assumed. Throughout their journey from their capture in Africa to their arrival and subsequent hard labor on the plantations in the Americas, they resisted their captors in a number of ways. They fought back so much at the ports in Africa, they had to be chained together for the entire journey. At the plantations, suicide was common, escape was attempted, and those who managed became maroons who formed groups in the woods and mountains and caused fear among the colonial settlers. However, their lack of a strong leader and commitment from the French led to the failure of slave revolts. Overall, these acts of resistance showcase how the slaves used their strength and resilience to resist their captivity.

The Revolutionary Ideals of French and San Domingo

The French Revolution represented the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, which moved the lower and middle-class French citizens to rebel against the autocratic monarch. This uprising soon spread to San Domingo, which shared the same ideals of political and economic rights. However, the issue arose when the revolutionary ideals claimed equality and liberty for all, including the mixed-race and slaves of the colony. The colonists couldn’t let this happen as they were against granting liberty and equality to the people with mixed-race and slaves. Despite the resistance, the people of color continued to demand their rights and launched rebellions under their leader Ogé, which was brutally quashed, leading to the slaves commencing their fight for liberty, equality, and fraternity. Though the French colonists were reluctant to grant these rights, the revolutionary ideals inspired the slaves to commence a rebellion, which marked a significant moment in history.

Toussaint L’Ouverture: The Great Slave Leader

Toussaint L’Ouverture, a slave in San Domingo, became a powerful leader who challenged slavery and racism in the French revolution. Being born into a privileged family allowed him to gain education and work as a steward of livestock, providing him with crucial administrative and leadership skills. He also possessed a strong command of his mind and body, and never compromised on his ideals. These qualities made him an ideal leader, inspiring the slaves to fight for their freedom and unite as a powerful force.

The Rise of Toussaint L’Ouverture

In 1791, the slaves of San Domingo revolted against their colonist masters, with initial victories due to their superior numbers. However, they lacked proper organization and leadership. Toussaint L’Ouverture joined the rebellion as a physician but soon became the main military commander. He hand-picked and trained a well-drilled unit, which grew in size as more and more slaves joined, becoming the strongest army in the revolt. Under Toussaint’s leadership, the slave revolt became a well-ordered and disciplined force, leading to eventual victory over the colonists. Though both sides committed terrible violence, the slaves were fighting for their freedom against a brutal system of slavery that had taught them the power of repression, violence, and murder. Toussaint’s rise to leadership proved crucial in the success of the revolt.

The Uncompromising Ideal

Toussaint L’Ouverture’s central ideal of abolishing slavery drove his actions throughout the San Domingo revolution. He allied with the Spanish monarchy to defeat the French, who backed the colonists against the slave revolt. When the French government abolished slavery in 1794, Toussaint switched sides to fight for the French and protect the newfound freedom vigorously. However, knowing the profit slavery brought to the European powers, he didn’t trust any of them and refused to be controlled by them. His unwavering commitment to his ideal eventually led to the end of slavery and the island’s independence.

Toussaint L’Ouverture’s Rise to Power

After the abolition of slavery, Toussaint L’Ouverture allied with the French Republic and fought alongside charismatic commissioner Sonthonax, defeating the British and internal enemies in San Domingo. He became the most powerful force on the island with a large and powerful army and the support of the masses.

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