Friday, February 26, 2010

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Chapter 8, "The White Slave-Owners Again"

Toussaint wanted Laveaux out, though not out of hostility. Toussaint wanted to take over as commander-in-chief. He encouraged Laveaux to return to France as a representative of the colony in the Convention.

Laveaux was needed there anyway as a reliable voice against slavery. With the demise of Robespierre and the Jacobins in 1795, France got a new government more strictly responsive to propertied interests. The merchants and expatriate planters resumed agitation for bringing blacks back under subjection in the name of imposing order.

Sonthonax, who had returned as governor, was both a loyal republican and an ardent supporter of the blacks in San Domingo. His attempt to assert his prerogatives as governor put him into conflict with the mulatto oligarchy led by Rigaud in the South. Toussaint, appreciating that Rigaud remained faithful to the Republic, had advised Sonthonax to leave the situation alone while the colony was at war. But Sonthonax sent a commission anyway to put Rigaud's troops under central control and arrest suspected anti-republican plotters. The two whites among the commissioners sent by Sonthonax handled the situation badly, and ended up provoking a revolt and massacre. Sonthonax's subsequent attempts to reduce the territory under Rigaud's authority yielded only more resistance and led Rigaud to seek support from Toussaint.

The San Domingo colony prospered under Sonthonax's governorship. He was hostile to any reconciliation with the former slave owners - far more so than was Toussaint, who he made commander-in-chief.

17 August 1797 -- Toussaint forces Sonthonax out. This was a sudden turn, which puts in some doubt Toussaint's explanation that he had to move to forestall a longstanding Sonthonax project to massacre the whites of the colony and gain independence. James argues that both Sonthonax and Toussaint would have been well aware of the growing strength of the reactionary allies of the exiled planters in France, and would have come to see that securing the liberty for blacks depended on independence. For Toussaint, however, the safest route to independence was to temporize by making a sacrificial lamb of Sonthonax.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Chapter 7, "The Mulattoes Try and Fail"

The mulatto minority resented the prominence of ex-slaves in republican San Domingo. The mulattoes sought leadership for themselves, and saw independence from France and its revolutionary government as a way to bring about their end. They would have been just as happy to see the return of slavery, as well.

The republican government of the island under Laveaux perceived that the ex-slaves were their most trustworthy allies, and Laveaux especially favored Toussaint. The ex-slaves generally reciprocated this faith in Laveaux and the republican government, and this was particularly true of the astute and well-informed Toussaint.

On March 20, 1796, the mulattoes under Valette staged a coup d'etat in Le Cap; Laveaux and other republican leaders were arrested. Toussaint was ready for the blow. He quickly had his agents raise the black laborers of the district against the coup, and sent a strong detachment from his army to back this up. The coup collapsed in short order, and Laveaux officially raised Toussaint to his second-in-command.

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Chapter 6, "The Rise of Toussaint"

The British invaders had ample supplies and cash. The republican forces lacked both, but they prevailed because they made up for this with motivation. The black ex-slaves who comprised the core of their army were fighting to preserve their freedom.

Character and approach of Toussaint -- personally reserved and taciturn, authoritative if not authoritarian, emphasis on direct personal intervention in battles and resolution of disputes and rebellions, merciful to defeated enemies. Became the de facto leader of San Domingo.

Toussaint's political priority was economic recovery. This required reconciliation with white planters and restoration of their estates when possible -- the planters had needed experience and expertise. It also required keeping laborers on the plantations -- the government restricted their movement, although it also imposed regulations on planters to ensure that they were paid.

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.

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.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Chapter 3, " Parliament and Property"

The big whites were initially the main supporters of the revolution, with the most intransigent leaders coming from the indebted planters, but small whites joined them as news of the events in France reached San Domingo. With white creoles unified in support of revolution, the colonial administration began cultivating ties to mulattoes, who were already facing attacks from the revolutionaries. In response, the small whites redoubled their repression based on a frankly eliminationist ideology. The large whites, alarmed by the the growing political dominance of of the small whites, began to edge away from the revolution and towards closer ties with mulattoes and the administration.

Three provincial assemblies in North, West, and South Provinces; Colonial assembly in St. Marc. Small whites dominated the St. Marc assembly; large planters from the densely populated north plain and Le Cap merchants increasingly withdrew from it and consolidated their power in the assembly of the North Province.

Meanwhile, in France, the Constituent Assembly stalled the issue of mulatto rights throughout 1789 and into 1790. Planters, the maritime bourgeoisie , and conservatives under their influence led by Barnave, resisted action. Even when the assembly issued a decree on the colonies on March 8th, they temporized on the issue of mulatto rights, declining to specify whether mulattoes otherwise qualified by age and property were to be included in the franchise. Abolition of slavery itself was not even on the table, although the fear of it was at the core of the tenacious resistance of the colonists and their advocates to the slightest concession on mulatto rights.

Events in San Domingo: suppression of St. Marc Assembly by royalist colonial administration, abortive mulatto revolt led by Oge, a mulatto who had risen to political prominence in France.

In the midst of growing popular agitation about the king and queen's attempts to flee Paris and the news of Oge's death, the assembly took up the debate on mulatto rights again. After several days' debate, a compromise resolution was agreed on May 15th to grant the franchise to those whose parents were both free and who were otherwise qualified. The appointed colonial commission and the bureaucrats refused to implement the decree, however. In July, the conservatives under Barnave used the flight of the king and queen to seize executive power. They suppressed a subsequent popular revolt in the streets (the massacre of the Champ de Mars) and successfully pushed a cowed assembly to rescind the decree on September 24th.

Amid the to-and-fro of the struggle in France, the struggle between the big and small whites intensified in San Domingo. Moreover, whether inspired by the fighting between the whites or the news about mulatto rights, the black slaves themselves were ready to revolt.

Although James constantly refers conflicts and programs back to class interests, he insists on the capacity of individual actors to shape political outcomes. See, for example, 75: "If the king and queen had been political abstractions and not flesh and blood, they would have lived and died as constitutional monarchs with immense power. But they looked upon all their concessions as merely temporary, and plotted ceaselessly with foreign powers for armed intervention."