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Volume 5.2 1997
ISSN 1048-3721
This page was last updated on 03/15/99


Malick Ghachem
Book Review


In an interview many years after leaving his native Trinidad in 1932 for England, the country in which he was to write The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James observed: "I arrived in England intending to make my way in the world as a writer of fiction, but the world went political and I went with it."1 The Black Jacobins, first published in 1938, has long been recognized as a classic work in the Marxist historiographical tradition and as the most significant product of James’s turn towards the "political" after 1932. But it is perhaps less commonly appreciated that James’s text, while still the greatest historical account we have of the Saint Domingue (Haitian) Revolution of 1791-1804, was written very much in the literary spirit its author felt he was forsaking when he departed the Caribbean for a life as an engaged man of letters in England.

To some extent, the fictional quality of James’s narrative derives from the very political foundations intended to lend it scientific rigor and predictive power. Anyone reading the book today with even the slightest exposure to what has been happening in the historiography of the French Revolution for the past thirty or so years can only wince at James’s repeated invocations of an eighteenth-century "bourgeoisie." But it would be a serious mistake to leave the issue at that, for The Black Jacobins transcends the anachronistic analytical categories in which it was conceived, categories largely drawn from Trotsky’s doctrine of the "permanent revolution." Far from being a crudely Marxist account of the Saint Domingue Revolution, James’s text departed from the party line in important respects, particularly in his championing of popular religion as a genuine and legitimate agent of revolutionary change. Furthermore, James himself was far from naïve about the extent to which his book was a product of its time. In the original preface, he movingly juxtaposed "the stillness of [the] seaside suburb" in which he wrote his history with the "the booming of Franco’s heavy artillery, the rattle of Stalin’s firing squads and the fierce shrill turmoil of the revolutionary movement striving for clarity and influence":

Such is our age and this book is of it, with something of the fever and the fret. Nor does the writer regret it. The book is the history of a revolution and written under different circumstances it would have been a different but not necessarily a better book.2

This was not the voice of a writer unaware that the historical and literary impulses have always been closely related.

On a somewhat different level of analysis, however, the book as a whole seems to have been conceived in the figurative terms of a classical drama with a very traditional "literary hero" as its center: Toussaint L’Ouverture.3 In fact, The Black Jacobins originally appeared in 1936 as a play (Toussaint L’Ouverture) starring Paul Robeson and was intended as an intervention in the debates over the British labor movement’s response to the Ethiopian crisis of that year.4 James and Robeson had made plans to bring the production from the West End to Broadway, with each playing Toussaint on alternate days, but James’s limitations as a playwright combined with political differences between the costars to bring this vision to an early and disappointing end. Still, the modus operandi of this early work lived on in the book-length history, most obviously in James’s portrayal of Toussaint as a tragic character plagued by a classical Aristotelian hamartia (or flaw). James explained his hero’s ultimate failure in terms of a chronic inability to trust in and communicate with the masses of slaves for whom he eventually sacrificed his life.

By almost any standards, the events that transpired in the French colony of Saint Domingue between 1791 and 1804 were tailor-made for literary apotheosis. Known in the eighteenth century as the "Pearl of the Antilles" because it was the richest producer of coffee and sugar anywhere in the world, Saint Domingue was the linchpin of the French commercial empire and a focal point of the African slave trade that sustained that empire. Periodic slave uprisings had begun to disturb the Caribbean island as early as the late seventeenth century, but these were rather easily put down by the colonial administration or were aborted for lack of coordination and supplies. In fact, until the eve of the revolution, the French monarchy seems to have had much more trouble containing insubordination on the part of the mercantile, administrative, and legal communities who inhabited the main towns on the northern and eastern coasts of the island. Many of these settlers were alienated in one way or another by the crown’s effort to impose a monopoly on exports and to dictate the laws governing social and political life in the colony. In 1791, inspired by the fall of the Bastille, a full-scale slave rebellion broke out, capitalizing on divisions both within the political classes and between the mulatto and white populations. This revolution, which resulted in the establishment of the independent nation of Haiti in 1804, has largely been identified with the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, a slave from one of the plantations in the northern part of the island.

It is to C.L.R. James’s enduring credit that he inaugurated what now seems to be a tradition of novelistic histories of the Saint Domingue Revolution. Like The Black Jacobins, these accounts have placed Toussaint at the center of the story. Slave life in eighteenth-century Saint Domingue was based almost entirely on an oral culture, and the relative lack of documentary records has left historians facing one of two options: either to frame their accounts around Toussaint’s experience (itself largely unconfirmed by primary sources), or to rely on the wealth of French texts from the period, such as Moreau de Saint-Méry’s monumental account of the colony on the eve of the French Revolution.5 Given such a state of affairs, it may not be altogether surprising that historical novelists have found in Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Saint Domingue Revolution an especially congenial subject. In 1957, the Cuban writer Aléjo Carpentier’s novel about the uprising, The Kingdom of this World, was translated into English.6 Most recently, the American novelist Madison Smartt Bell has published a massive account of Toussaint’s war entitled All Souls’ Rising, the first volume of a projected trilogy and a finalist for the 1995 National Book and PEN/Faulkner Awards.

As a work of historical reconstruction, All Souls’ Rising is a remarkable achievement. Bell has clearly done a great deal of primary research on the revolution in many archives and libraries. In an interview, he acknowledged the importance of Moreau de Saint-Méry’s account in his preparation for writing the novel and highlighted its author’s finding that no less than 64 different racial permutations could be found among the colony’s inhabitants.7 Bell is fascinated by the multicultural melting pot that was Old-Regime Saint Domingue and by its presumed parallels to contemporary America. This latter comparison, however, seems to be little more than glib opportunism in the absence of any extended argument. Several critics have taken All Souls’ Rising to task for what they feel is a gratuitous use of violent imagery, a reaction not unlike that met by Simon Schama’s bicentennial history of the French Revolution, Citizens.8 It is hard to avoid the impression that Bell is interested in Saint Domingue in large part because it appears to be a microcosm of the problems of contemporary racial and ethnic conflict, an orientation that constitutes both a strength and a weakness of the novel as a whole.

In The Black Jacobins, James wrote that "[it] is impossible to understand the San Domingo revolution unless it is studied in close relationship with the revolution in France."9 Ever since, the problem of racial perspective has plagued almost all attempts to write the history of the Haitian Revolution. In a fascinating, gritty lecture delivered in 1974, James noted the criticisms he himself had received on the part of black readers who interpreted this statement to mean that the Saint Domingue Revolution was entirely derivative of and essentially reducible to its French counterpart. For James, the connection was as much a historiographical as a historical one. It was, he said, the "great school of [French revolutionary] historiography," from Aulard to Mathiez, Jaurès, Lefebvre, and Soboul, that inspired his labors and provided explanatory and narrative models to follow in a West Indian context. But there is no doubt that James also believed the metropolitan revolution to have exercised a profoundly empowering effect on the slaves, and one of the central tensions in The Black Jacobins is the conflict between this view and the notion, expressed in equally adamant terms, that the slaves’ own agency made the Haitian Revolution possible and drove it forward.10

All Souls’ Rising attempts to navigate the controversial water between these two poles by alternating chapters written from the point of view of the slaves with chapters describing the experiences of the colonists. The tactic initially seems an effective, even powerful resolution of the problem of perspective, but by the middle of the book the convenience of this strategy becomes self-defeating. The feeling is not unlike that of watching a television soap opera in which scenes of the protagonist alternate every few minutes or so with footage of the villain. But of course the Saint Domingue Revolution was simply too messy to suffer the imposition of this sort of mechanical formula. Furthermore, it could be argued that Bell’s descriptions of the slaves’ dilemmas appear mildly patronizing and artificial when compared with the more convincing portrayals of the colonists (grounded as those portrayals undoubtedly are in primary and secondary research).

The difficulty is reflected in a key passage in the first part of the novel, where Bell advances a theory about the origins of the 1791 uprising. A small group of plantation owners holds a secret meeting outside of Le Cap (as the commercial capital of the island was known) to plan a conspiracy against their fellow proprietors and settlers. The owners appear to gamble on the possibility that by organizing a secretly controlled slave uprising, they can intimidate their fellow colonists into granting the plantation owners greater authority in the running of the colony. Armed with this additional power, the owners seem to hold out the hope that they can then clamp down on their plantations and eliminate the threat of a genuine slave uprising. Bell makes Toussaint the agent of this conspiracy, appointed to mediate between the slaves and the owners who attempt to manipulate them. The result is all too predictable: the uprising gets quickly out of hand, and before they know it the plantation owners are facing a full-scale rebellion.

There are several problems with this theory. First, to the best of my knowledge, there is absolutely no evidence that any such conspiracy actually took place. This would not ordinarily be an overwhelming problem in a work of historical fiction, but Bell places so much faith elsewhere in his novel in a mimetic approach and manifests a scrupulous attention to local detail that the lapse here seems wholly out of place. Second, as C.L.R. James would surely have observed, the theory comes close to trivializing the agency of the slaves by portraying the 1791 uprising as the product of internal settler disputes. It may well have been Bell’s intention merely to highlight the relationship between white divisions and the possibility of a slave revolution. But the conspiracy theory on which All Souls’ Rising rests goes much further than that and casts something of a shadow on those many passages in the novel where Bell takes great care to portray the movements and decisions by which the slaves themselves secured their freedom.

One could locate other difficulties in the novel, such as recurring instances of stilted dialogue and a weakness for trite descriptions of the physical environment of Saint Domingue. But All Souls’ Rising deserves to be taken seriously. Bell has invested an enormous amount of research and reflection in the writing of this book, and when the trilogy is complete it will likely stand as an impressive, perhaps even heroic record of the Haitian Revolution. That would be an achievement in and of itself, but it would also serve as a fitting tribute to the legacy of C.L.R. James.


1 Cited in Caryl Phillips, "Mariner, Renegade and Castaway," New Republic 5 Aug. 1996: 35.

2 C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins (New York: Random House, 1963) xi.

3 This understanding of the book has been sketched in a sensitive and important essay by Kara M. Rabbitt entitled "C.L.R. James’ Figuring of Toussaint-Louverture: The Black Jacobins and the Literary Hero," in C.L.R. James: His Intellectual Legacies, eds. Selwyn Cudjoe and William E. Cain (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1995) 118-35.

4 Anna Grimshaw, ed., The C.L.R. James Reader (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992) 6-7.

5 Moreau de Saint-Méry, Description topographique, physique, civile, politique et historique de la partie française de l’isle Saint-Domingue (Paris: 1797).

6 I would like to thank Chris Schmidt-Nowara for bringing this reference to my attention.

7 Carl Schoettler, "The Fire Still Burns," Baltimore Sun 17 Apr. 1996: E1.

8 These criticisms have apparently had little effect on Bell’s plans for the subsequent two volumes. See Bell’s story, "Looking for the General," in the latest issue of Granta: Best of Young American Novelists 54 (Summer 1996): 23-35.

9 James 383.

10 The latter view is privileged in the most recent history of the revolution: Carolyn E. Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1990).

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