Posted: 23 April 10
Aimé Césaire, the late, great Martinican poet and activist, once noted that it was in Haiti that the “colonial problem” was first posed in all its complexity.1 In 1492 the tropical Caribbean island was “discovered” for the Spanish Empire by Christopher Columbus, a discovery that resulted in the half a million strong existing indigenous Taino population being all but exterminated within a generation as a ruthless search for rivers of gold led only to rivers of blood. Columbus had described “Ayiti”, as the Taino had called it (“Land of mountains”), as a “paradise”, and promptly therefore renamed the island La Española—or Hispaniola—”coming from Spain”. But for the Taino, their hopes of finding paradise were irredeemably lost. In the words of the historian Laurent Dubois, Haiti was “the ground zero of European colonialism in the Americas”.2 In the light of this, the catastrophe that has befallen its people in the wake of the earthquake in January 2010 seems a particularly cruel echo of the devastation of over 500 years ago. Indeed one could not help but be reminded by the sight of US marines (once again demonstrating that “military occupation” is the only form of the “humanitarian intervention” understood by the rulers of the American Empire) that the “colonial problem” highlighted by Césaire continues to haunt Haiti and remains as far away as ever from a meaningful solution.3
Yet Césaire also noted that while the knot of colonialism may have been first tied in Haiti, the Haitian people were also one of the very first peoples to untie it. The Haitian Revolution, which began in 1791 and culminated in Haiti’s declaration of independence on New Year’s Day 1804, saw the birth of one of the world’s first post-colonial nations. It is only with some appreciation of the world-historical importance and inspiration of the Haitian Revolution that one can begin to understand why Western imperial powers have tied a tight neocolonial noose around Haiti ever since.4 I will aim to not only give a sense of something of the power and glory of the Haitian Revolution itself, but also pay tribute to the magisterial work that for the very first time elevated it to its rightful place in modern world history: The Black Jacobins by the Trinidadian Marxist historian Cyril Lionel Robert James, first published in 1938. CLR James (1901-1989) was, of course, more than just the author of The Black Jacobins. A towering Pan-Africanist intellectual and activist, he was also a pioneer of the modern West Indian novel, a literary critic, playwright, sports writer and, perhaps most critically, one of the 20th century’s outstanding representatives of the revolutionary democratic tradition of “socialism from below”.5
Nevertheless, The Black Jacobins, one of the grandest of “grand narratives” ever penned, stands as perhaps James’s magnum opus and has long won for itself the status of a classic, and not simply among Marxists. As the historian James Walvin notes, The Black Jacobins not only “remains the pre-eminent account” of the Haitian Revolution “despite the vast accumulation of detail and argument advanced by armies of scholars” since, but also stands as the ideal “starting point” for understanding the experience of slavery in general.6 It is impossible to do justice to The Black Jacobins or the Haitian Revolution itself, and the continuing profusion of scholarship about them, in a short article like this.7 Rather this article aims to encourage readers who have not yet already had the privilege of reading James’s masterful classic of historical literature to do so, for The Black Jacobins, as the best possible introduction to the Haitian Revolution itself, stands as a timeless and indispensable reminder of the inspiring revolutionary spirit and tradition of the Haitian people, a rich resource of hope they will need to draw strength from now as much as ever.