Tuesday, February 9, 2010

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Chapter 4, "The San Domingo Masses Begin"

The slaves revolt, and for James the story is a didactic opportunity; again and again the events are made to illustrate sweeping statements about revolutions and mass movements.

The first sentence of the chapter, for instance, 85-86: "The slaves worked the land, and, like revolutionary peasants everywhere, they aimed at the extermination of their oppressors. But working and living together in gangs of hundreds on the huge sugar-factories which covered the North Plain, they were closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time, and the rising was, therefore, a thoroughly prepared and organized mass movement." I suspect there was some intra-leftist dispute about the value of the Haitian revolution which James is scoring points on with this.

87: "The slaves on the Gallifet plantation were so well treated that 'happy as the Negroes of Gallifet' was a slave proverb. Yet by a phenomenon noticed in all revolutions it was they who led the way."

88, on the violence of the revolting slaves being ultimately more restrained than the violence of their masters: "And yet they were surprisingly moderate, then and afterwards, far more humane than their masters had been or would ever be to them. They did not maintain this vengeful spirit for long. The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression. For the one aims at perpetuating resented injustice, the other is merely a momentary passion soon appeased." (As far as immediately revolutionary violence is concerned, I think he has a sound point. But then the revolution becomes institutionalized and has its own prerogatives to defend ...)

89: "As usual the strength of the mass movement dragged in its wake the revolutionary sections of those classes nearest to it. Free blacks joined them... The Mulattoes hated the black slaves because they were slaves and because they were black. But when they actually saw the slaves taking action on such a grand scale, numbers of young Mulattoes from Le Cap and round about rushed to join the hitherto despised blacks and fight against the common enemy."

106, on the willingness of the leaders of the revolt to betray their followers back into slavery: "Political treachery is not a monopoly of the white race, and this abominable betrayal so soon after the insurrections shows that political leadership is a matter of program, strategy and tactics, and not the colour of those who lead it, their oneness of origin with their people, nor the services they have rendered."

22 August, 1791: the revolt begins. Organized under the leadership of the voodoo priest Boukman, slaves set fire to plantations throughout the North Cape and killed their masters. Le Cap remained in the colonists' control, but they made no sustained attempt to use their troops to regain control in the countryside.

Toussaint Breda joins the revolution about a month on, with the two sides at an impasse. James sketches his character and attributes, particularly his broad acquaintance with the world and its political and economic forces.

Main leaders: Jean Francois and Biassou. Both imposed tight discipline on their troops. Biassou was more impulsive and hotheaded, Jean Francois cool and deliberate. Toussaint joined Biassou's band as a doctor and close advisor.

Colonists' reaction was to kill slaves indiscriminately, whether involved with the revolt or not. This consolidated the allegiance of slaves to the revolt -- some 100,000 had joined the movement within a few weeks.

In early August, the mulattoes in the West province had also revolted. They were let militarily by Rigaud and Beauvais, both veterans of the American War of independence, and politically by Pinchinat.

Royalists and large whites joined forces with the mulattoes against the Patriots (white revolutionaries) of Port-au-Prince and defeated them in battle. Both the royalist leader de Jumecourt and the Patriot Caradeau offered full rights for mulatto support, but were refused. The mulattoes had the upper hand, and were able to secure an agreement for equal rights with the only major concession being the deportation of their maroons who had joined them.

Rioting in Port-au-Prince instigated by the small white leader Pralotto upended the ratification vote on November 21st. The mulattoes retreated from the city and again joined forces with their rich white and royalist allies, but now the mulatto leaders also brought in the slaves of the West Province on their side. After a sharp battle, with particularly heavy losses among the slaves, the small whites were beaten back into Port-au-Prince and besieged there. In the aftermath, the big whites in the west were eager to cement their alliance with the mulattoes, hoping to put an end to a revolution that they had tired of. But the mulattoes never shared this strategic objective, and still saw prospects for securing their position from the revolution. 110: "The royalists had hoped to use the Mulattos. Now they found that they had been used instead."

Alliances varied from region to region. In the south, after an agreement fell apart (thanks in part to the scheming of Caradeau), mulattoes gained the upper hand against whites, so the whites incited a slave revolt against mulatto rule. In the north, mulattoes were also stymied in their attempts to secure a concordat of rights, so many joined the slave revolt.

The Commisioners sent by the National Assembly arrived in late November and attempted to make peace. The slave leaders were willing to end the revolt and help subdue their followers back into slavery in exchange for the freedom and political rights for 400 leaders -- later reduced even to 60 by Toussaint -- but the colonists refused. This decided for Toussaint that compromise was impossible, that the only way forward was to fight for freedom for the entire slave population.

Late in 1791, the Legislative Assembly (note: elected later than the Constituent Assembly and more left in orientation) in France revived the debate over granting the Rights of Man to mulattoes. Two key factors: (1) increasing suspicion of the Patriot faction, which it had become clear was angling for independence in order to shed themselves of debts (this was especially significant for the maritime bourgeoisie) -- the mulattoes were seen as a loyal counterweight against them; (2) the already agreed pacts between whites and mulattoes in San Domingo.

Decree of April 4th granted full political rights to mulattoes, but changed nothing about the status of slaves. Heeding this, Toussaint starting training the core of a rebel slave army.

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