Laurent Dubois on THE BLACK JACOBINS

“Reading The Black Jacobins, Seven Decades Later.” NACLA Report on the Americas 42:2 (March/April 2009): 38-42.

+ It says the story of the French Revolution was also the story of a Caribbean revolution, and thus changes how we think we know about the past, about the history of democracy and revolution, the history of Europe and the Americas (unless, of course, you read it when young, so that it was the base of things).

+ New information we yave since James wrote this book: Toussaint was a freeman, not a slave, at the beginning of the revolution; the “mulatooes” were a very complex group with multiple political projects and affiliations; the enslaved also had a complex and varied political philosophy. We also know more about the influences of African cultures, philosophies, and histories on the course of events in Saint-Domingue. But this is still the best book on the Haitian revlution, says Dubois.

+ It caused the writing of an Atlantic history — that emphasizes connections among continents — and that also decenters Europe, paying close attention to the ways the central pillar of the Atlantic world, the slave trade and slavery, shaped life and ideas in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. And it reminds us that the enslaved were always actos and thinkers, not just workers or victims. The Haitian revolutionaaries would not accept the idea of slavery, so they crafted an idea of rights that was actually universal, not only putatively so.

+ That is why the revolution was an epochal and global event, to which we are all linked. The slave trade and slavery were the basis of the French Revolution, announces James early in the book. He quotes Jaurès, one of the few historians of the French Revolution, pointing out that the fortunes created by the slave trade gave the bourgeoisie the pride that needed liberty and thus contributed to human emancipation. This claim parallels Eric Williams’ in Capitalism and Slavery that the slave trade laid the foundation for the Industrial Revolution in England.

+ Willliams’ claim on England has been widely discussed, but not James’ on the way the Atlantic plantation economy and the slave trade shaped social life and political thought in France. “The provocation issued byJames in this passage still awaits a full fledged response.” (40)

+ James is also curious about the influence of France on Saint-Domingue. Raynal, critical of European imperialism, had wondered when there would be a “Black Spartacus” … and James says this caused Toussaint to try to be that person. But did Toussaint actually read Raynal? Louis Sala-Molins says not: Raynal also has racist passages and could not have been the inspiration for Toussaint. He says Black revolutions were their own thing, not Enlightenment derived (Sala-Molins has always insisted that the Enlightenment worked either to openly justify or wilfully overlook slavery). (But Dubois seems to agree more with James.)

Good for my purposes (selling my project) here is the point that slavery and the slave trade were “central pillars” and not side issues / imperfections in modernity / something to grow out of / etc.

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