Wednesday, February 17, 2010

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Chapter 5, "And the Paris Masses Complete"

The Legislative Assembly sent a combined army and National Guard expedition to San Domingo, along with right-wing Jacobin commissioners Sonthanax and Polverel, to enforce mulatto rights and suppress the slave revolt. But the army commander Desparbes conspired with local royalists instead of leading the army against the slaves, thus sparing the revolt while it was still weak.

In the meantime, the Girondin-led government in France went to war against Austria. The royalists conspired for a defeat by foreign monarchies, and the Girondins lacked the nerve to crack down on them, so a new popular revolution in August, 1792 deposed the monarchy, overthrew the Girondins, and created a new parliament, the National Convention. This body was far more representative of popular opinion that its predecessors, and thus more supportive of a thoroughgoing assault on privilege and slavery.

Sonthanax found the whites had already agreed to mulatto rights, and he aggressively brought mulattoes into the government. When news of the August revolution reached San Domingo, Sonthonax backed the local revolutionaries in suppressing the royalists and deporting Desparbes. After this respite, the troops under their new commander Laveaux set about subduing the slaves. War with Spain and England, however, meant he had to be called back on the verge of success to defend the coast.

Galbaud, a new governor sent from France, conspired with the whites who were unhappy with mulatto influence to attempt an overthrow of the revolutionary government. Sonthanax called in and armed the slaves around Le Cap for support, and suppressed the rebellion. Thousands of whites fled, and white domination in San Domingo was broken for good.

Sonthanax was unable to retain the liberated slaves to protect Le Cap, however -- they joined the rebel slaves in the hills. Meanwhile, many of the remaining slaves in the north abandoned their plantations, while the remaining white royalists went over to the Spanish. Lacking any other source of support, Sonthanax declared abolition on August 29, 1793.

The rebel slave leaders all allied themselves with the Spanish and monarchical counter-revolution. James argues, not altogether convincingly, that for Toussaint alone this was a tactical expedient, and his strategic aim of completely liberating the slaves remained unchanged. Toussaint's 1792 offer to Laveaux to come over to the French side in exchange for declaring the slaves free is supposed to be evidence for this tactical flexibility (125). But when Sonthonax did declare emancipation on August 29, 1793, Toussaint still did not switch sides (128-129). James makes out that he failed to do so because Sonthonax lacked the legal authority to emancipate the slaves (137), and shows that Toussaint did finally rally to the French cause when word of the National Convention's emancipation of the slaves reached the island. But this authority had been just as lacking in 1792 as it was in 1793, and in the meantime the British forces with whom Toussaint was allied were sweeping all before them and promising to reimpose slavery. The indifference of the other rebel leaders to liberation is also contradicted by Jean Francois's threat to use the promise of freedom to bolster his forces -- a threat which actually helped provoke Sonthanax's decree in the first place.

From 1793 into early 1794, Toussaint captured most of the northern part of the colony on behalf of the Spanish. A British expedition landed in the West province in September 1793. By the year's end, they had taken hold of all of the west and most of the south. In June, 1794, they captured Le Cap.

February 4th, 1794 -- Convention abolishes slavery in the colonies.

When the news of abolition reached San Domingo in June, 1794, Toussaint switched sides, routed the Spanish (and their rebel slaves allies), and pushed the British back to the West province.

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