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Haiti’s Revolutions and Revisions- An Interview with Charles Forsdick and Christian Høgsbjerg

Haiti’s Revolutions and Revisions: An Interview with Charles Forsdick and Christian Høgsbjerg

Originally published: Black Agenda Report by Public Archive (May 27, 2020)   | 

Toussaint stressed that freedom was something that had to be fought for and taken from below by the masses themselves.

In Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions (Pluto) Charles Forsdick and Christian Høgsbjerg have produced what is arguably the most important biography of Louverture since CLR James’ magisterial Black Jacobins was first published in 1938. Kicking against the contemporary anti-Black and anti-radical revisionism that downplays the historical importance of the revolution while dismissing the significance of Louverture himself, Forsdick and Hogsbjerg’s short monograph is urgent, timely, and strikingly well-written. They have also created a sort of supplement to the book, editing The Black Jacobins Reader (Duke), an excellent collection of essays, commentaries, and primary source material that provides additional context and critique for the writing, production, and circulations of James’ classic history.

Charles Forsdick is James Barrow Professor of French at the University of Liverpool and the author Victor Segalen and the Aesthetics of Diversity (Oxford University Press, 2000), Travel in Twentieth-Century French and Francophone Cultures (Oxford University Press, 2005), among other works, and he has published widely on colonial history and postcolonial literature, travel writing, and Haiti, the Haitian Revolution, and the representations of Toussaint Louverture. Christian Hogsbjerg is a Lecturer in Critical History and Politics at the University of Brighton. He is the author of C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain (Duke, 2014) and Chris Braithwaite: Mariner, Renegade, and Castaway (On Our Own Authority!,  2017), as well as numerous essays and articles. Hogsbjerg’s research interests focus on Caribbean history, the black presence in imperial Britain, the black experience of the British Empire, and CLR James.

The Public Archive: Why Toussaint Louverture–and why now? And what led you both to historical projects on Black radicalism?

CH: When we are thinking of the origins or roots of contemporary movements like #BlackLivesMatter, the Haitian Revolution represents a foundational, inspirational moment but one of also wider world-historical impact and importance–“the only successful slave revolt in history,” as George Padmore first put it–and so as the most outstanding leader to emerge during that revolutionary upheaval Toussaint Louverture will always retain relevance and iconic significance.  From 1793, when Toussaint dropped his name Breda and became “Louverture” and began calling for universal “general liberty” he began to define freedom in more radical terms than anyone else. As he put it at one point when critiquing liberal French republicans of the time –“we will obtain another freedom, different from the one you tyrants want to impose on us.” Fundamentally, Toussaint stressed that freedom was not a gift or something that could be bestowed from above, by tyrants–but it was something that had to be fought for and taken from below by the masses themselves.  

There is a quote from James Baldwin in the superb 2016 film I Am Not Your Negro,  directed by Haitian director Raoul Peck, “When any white man in the world says “Give me liberty or give me death,” the entire white world applauds. When a black man says exactly  the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.”  History is a little bit more complex than that, but Baldwin has a point. For fighting for liberty in colonial Saint-Domingue, Toussaint Louverture was judged a criminal by Napoleon, captured, deported and left in an isolated prison in the Fort de Joux near the French Alps, where he died in 1803. We were privileged to be able to reproduce David Rudder’s calypso “Haiti” (1988) in The Black Jacobins Reader, and the opening of that speaks eloquently to Baldwin’s point:

Toussaint was a mighty man 
And to make matters worse he was black
Black and back in the days when black men knew
Their place was in the back

Yet the intriguing complexities of Louverture–the sense he was a tragic hero who lost his way and before his capture by the French became in a sense the representative of an emerging new black ruling class in Haiti, need teasing out and exploring as well–and this can also help us to better understand the wider revolutionary process underway historically–and also help illuminate some of the subsequent fates of anti-colonial leaders of nationalist revolutions in the twentieth century.

My interest in historical projects on Black radicalism in part came from the anti-racist and anti-fascist activism that I was involved with, campaigning against the fascist British National Party while an undergraduate and post-graduate student in Leeds in the late 1990s and 2000s, as well as anti-war and anti-imperialist activism around the Stop the War movement at the time of Bush and Blair’s neo-colonial “war on terror.” My reading of C.L.R. James and The Black Jacobins  opened up this rich hidden history of Caribbean revolt and black British resistance that seemed an immense and timely “resource of hope” amidst the horror of things like the Iraq war and occupation–and also James’s Marxist approach was a timely antidote to contemporary prevailing intellectual fashions then underway in cultural history. I then began my doctoral work on C.L.R. James’s time in 1930s Britain at the University of York in 2004, building on a MA dissertation on the same topic at the same institution back in 2002, and this only further reinforced my sense that there was still so much work to be done in the fields of resistance among the enslaved and colonized across the Caribbean as well with respect to the history of black British radicalism.

Having the honor of editing James’s play Toussaint Louverture: The story of the only successful slave revolt in history  for its first ever publication in 2013 with Duke University Press as part of their C.L.R. James Archives series drew me into reading further about revolutionary history in Haiti. (The play is currently being adapted into a graphic novel by Nic Watts and Sakina Karimjee with Verso). When Pluto got in touch about writing a popular biography of Toussaint for their “Revolutionary Lives” series it seemed an obvious project for Charles and myself to undertake alongside our editing of The Black Jacobins Reader, not least because Charles and myself had already collaborated to co-write an essay together recovering the story of Sergei Eisenstein’s doomed attempt to make a film about the Haitian Revolution starring Paul Robeson. I think we both had a sense that there had not been a decent easily accessible political  biography of Toussaint Louverture for a while, at least not in English, one that took him seriously as a great anti-imperialist fighter who could still inspire radicals today, and which could register and take account of the new research and writing in Haitian revolutionary studies that has emerged since James’s great work.

CF: Christian and I came to these projects from different perspectives–but serendipitously our trajectories converged and we were able to collaborate on the article about Eisenstein for History Workshop Journal, the Black Jacobins Reader  and finally the biography of Louverture in Pluto’s “Revolutionary Lives” series. I had read C.L.R. James’s history of the Haitian Revolution long before I would develop a research interest in French colonial history and the so-called “French Caribbean.” I came back to the topic in 1998, in the year of the 150thanniversary of the abolition of slavery in the French colonial empire. I grew increasingly frustrated that the state-endorsed commemorative practices followed a predictable pattern (we would see the same in Britain in 2007, the year of the so-called “Wilberfest”), foregrounding abolition as a legislative, philanthropic process (embodied in French in figures such as Victor Scholecher) and downplaying, even denying the agency of the enslaved. James outlines the process in The Black Jacobins: “Sad though it may be, that is the way that humanity progresses. The anniversary orators and the historians supply the prose-poetry and the flowers.” Edouard Glissant described the 1998 celebrations in France along similar lines as a “Franco-French affair”–and this extended to the treatment of Toussaint Louverture, presented in that year’s events (when a plaque to him was unveiled in the Paris Pantheon) as a French Republican general and not as the Haitian freedom fighter who led a struggle against France, Britain and Spain that would lead to emancipation not only from the shackles of enslavement but also from those of colonial oppression. That process of domestication and gallicization fits into a longstanding assimilation of Louverture into more self-congratulatory narratives of French republicanism (there were even plans to Pantheonize him in 1989)–narratives that tend to deny the shortcomings of the French Revolution when it comes to questions of ethnicity (colleagues with whom I have collaborated in the ACHAC public history group call this “fracture colonial”) and also fail to acknowledge the singularity of the Haitian Revolution in its quest for universal emancipation.

In the late 1990s, when I was working on Edouard Glissant’s work in the context of ongoing research on exoticism and diversity (I’m currently editing a collection of translations of his later writings for Liverpool University Press), I knew he had written a little-studied radio play on the Haitian Revolution in the late 1950s, subsequently published as Monsieur Toussaint. It is a remarkable piece of theatre, in which the dying Louverture, imprisoned by Bonaparte at the Fort de Joux in the Jura, relives his past with his cell haunted by figures from Haitian history. For Glissant, this was a key work, the first clear articulation of what he would call a ‘prophetic vision of the past’, and an attempt to reflect in terms of spatial performance (the initial radio play became a stage version) on pan-Caribbean solidarity–it’s important to note that the first version of Monsieur Toussaint was written in 1959, the year that Glissant established, with Paul Niger, the Front Antillo-Guyanais pour l’Autonomie, as a result of which Charles de Gaulle prevented him from leaving France to return to the Caribbean until 1965. The play is a radical work in that it demonstrates how Louverture–even if, as its title suggests, he had been stripped by Napoleon of the trappings of his rank and returned to anonymity–transcended the confines of his prison cell to ensure that the incendiary nature of the Revolution continued. In a conference paper in 1998, I read Glissant’s work in relation to James’s 1936 drama–for which I then had to rely not on Christian’s 2013 edition with Duke University Press but on what is actually a version of the 1967 rewriting included in Errol Hill’s 1976 edition of eight Caribbean plays, A Times and a Season.

This initial work led me to focus on cross-cultural representations of Louverture more generally, a project that took on encyclopedic proportions as I realized how the revolutionary has been instrumentalized in so many different contexts in the two centuries following his death. The corpus I assembled included novels, poetry and plays; it extended to the visual arts and cinema; it now encompasses comics and video games–there is even now a Toussaint Louverture liqueur, and his image is emblazoned on barbecue aprons and mugs.  This proliferation of representations suggested to me a translatability, even an acceptability to Louverture that we do not associated with Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the revolutionary leader and liberator whose standing has always been greater in Haiti itself than elsewhere–and it was that translatability that led me to ask a series of questions about Louverture’s revolutionary legacies. Does the reproducibility of his image suggest that, like that of Che, his incendiary impact will slowly be exhausted in a process of neo-liberal appropriation, or are there flashpoints–like James’s engagement with Haiti in the 1930s–when those revolutionary afterlives are aligned with contemporary struggles and reignited? The context of #BlackLivesMatter, Rhodes Must Fall and other international activist movements aimed at challenging Afriphobia whilst demanding reparations suggest that this might be a particular moment in which Louverture frees himself again from the chains of more limiting, conservative representations. Our collaboration needs, I think, to be read in that context.

Your biography of Louverture has two major points of historiographical engagement. The first is with James’ classic study; the second with what you call a “conservative revisionism” that has offered some serious critiques of not only James’ work, but also of certain interpretations of Toussaint Louverture and the project of the Haitian Revolution. Two questions emerge from these engagements. First, in what ways did The Black Jacobins both open up and delimit your own attempts to tackle Louverture’s life? Second, what is the nature and origins of this conservative revisionism and how have you responded to it?

CH: We felt it was important to defend and restate the main underlying thesis of The Black Jacobins, including the way in which the French and Haitian Revolutions were intrinsically intertwined throughout, and James’s analysis of Toussaint Louverture in particular as a “black Jacobin.” We had a sense that there would be few other scholars attempting to do such a thing, for doing so meant swimming against the stream of two dominant strands of thought in academia which not only reject such an approach theoretically but also in many ways felt emboldened by some of the new research that has come to light about the Haitian Revolution since James wrote his pathbreaking work back in 1938. Firstly, rightly, there has a growing attention to the African roots and dynamics of the Haitian Revolution among historians–but accompanying this has been a sense among many that we should avoid too much of an allegedly “Eurocentric” focus on the impact of the Enlightenment and the ideas of the French Revolution, which James is said to have overstated at the expense of a recognition of the “African” ideologies of both kingship and also that of vodou –the latter a strong theme in Madison Smartt Bell’s 2007 biography of Toussaint Louverture. Yet the very title of James’s work – Black  Jacobins–shows James was arguably well aware of the importance of the “Africanness” of the revolution in terms of ideologies of kingship and so on, and also of vodou as a revolutionary ideology–“the medium of the conspiracy” he called it in his work. One strength of James’s work was his clear grasp that one of the most important processes during the revolution was that over the course of the struggle old ideas of “kingship” began to give way to a new discourse of “liberty and equality,” and these ideals became embodied as a powerful material force in the black revolutionary slave army under Toussaint’s leadership. The ideals of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789 and the National Convention’s abolition decree of 1794 fired Louverture’s rhetoric when addressing his own fighters. On 18 May 1797, in an Address to soldiers for the universal destruction of slavery,” for example, Louverture declared: “Let the sacred flame of liberty that we have won lead all our acts … Let us go forth to plant the tree of liberty, breaking the chains of our brothers still held captive under the shameful yoke of slavery. Let us bring them under the compass of our rights, the imprescriptible and inalienable rights of free men. [Let us overcome] the barriers that separate nations, and unite the human species into a single brotherhood.”

Secondly, there have always been attempts to downplay Toussaint’s political radicalism–perhaps he was a ”black Girondin” rather than a “black Jacobin” for example–but there has been a more recent conservative revisionist turn in historiography, epitomized for us by the recent otherwise quite impressive biography of Toussaint Louverture by Philippe Girard. For Girard, it is time to drop the idea that “Louverture was the idealistic herald of slave emancipation” and “the forefather of an independent Haiti.” Rather, as Girard tells us, “above all, he was a pragmatist … [concerned above all with] personal ambition … his craving for social status was a constant. Educating himself, seeing to his children’s future, making money, gaining and retaining power, and achieving recognition as a great man: he never wavered from the pursuit of these ends. He was a social climber and a self-made man…”

Our work fundamentally challenges Girard’s argument here. Though new sources have come to light since James wrote, for example revealing Toussaint’s status as a slave-owner in pre-revolutionary Saint Domingue, he was not–and never claimed to be–a revolutionary until the revolution erupted in the last dozen years of his life. As a black person living in a non-revolutionary situation in a barbaric slave society most of his life, where black people could be killed on a whim by white people as a matter of course, with little (if any) chance of any legal or other repercussions, sheer survival and existence  represented in itself a form of resistance. Girard himself relates one incident relating to Toussaint that happened while walking back from the Mass one day with his prayer book: “According to the story, which he shared ten years later, ‘a white man broke my head with a wooden stick while telling me ‘do you not know that a negro should not read?’” Louverture prudently begged for forgiveness and slipped away, a decision that likely saved his life. But he kept his blood-soaked vest as a reminder and neither forgot nor forgave. Running into the same man years later, after the outbreak of the slave revolt, he killed him on the spot.

Moreover, once the Haitian Revolution began in 1791, as we argue it is surely a little odd to maintain that Louverture was “above all” a “pragmatist” concerned with “personal ambition,” “social status” and “making money.”  Such a person, it might be suggested, would be an unlikely person repeatedly to risk life and limb by putting themselves on the frontline of a black slave army fighting under the banner of “Liberty or death”–and indeed, would be the least likely person to be able to inspire others to follow him into battle under such a slogan. If Louverture had wanted money and status above all, there were surely safer ways to try and secure them, even once the revolt had begun. Indeed, rather than seeing Louverture essentially as a “self-made man,” we would re-iterate the point made by James, who stressed that on a fundamental level “it was the revolution that made Toussaint.”

Incidentally, Philippe Girard in his review of our work in the New West Indian Guide for some reason avoids engaging with the substantive critique of his work that we make, instead accusing us of “ideological bias,” arguing “historians normally comb archives and then follow the sources wherever they may take them. Forsdick and Høgsbjerg proceed the other way around, beginning with a wish ‘to reassert the incendiary political implication of [Louverture’s] life, actions, and revolutionary political thought’…” Quite how one is supposed to start historical work researching the leader of the greatest slave revolt in world history without having any pre-existing “ideological” preconceptions is unclear, and indeed James in The Black Jacobins  dismissed the kind of ultra-empiricist approach apparently favored by Girard as a completely inappropriate method when writing revolutionary history. As James put it, historians who try to be “fair to both sides” in a revolution tend to miss not only “the creative actions and ideas of the revolutionary forces” but even “the clash of an irresistible conflict, of suddenly emergent forces pursuing unsuspected aims” which overtly reactionary historians can sometimes give a clearer sense of.

CF: Unlike Christian, who is a historian, I have always come to James as a student of France and as someone who has emerged from a British tradition of “French Studies.” According to a sort of methodological nationalism, my disciplinary background is one that has often had a mimetic relationship to intellectual traditions in France, often failing to question either the ethnolinguistic assumptions of much French thought or the ethnocentric emphases of revolutionary historiography. My more recent work–notably on Pierre Nora’s Lieux de mémoire– has attempted to reveal colonial blind spots and contribute to the decolonization of French intellectual histories. For me, the experience of reading James’s Black Jacobins  was inevitably central to this work–and I suspect his uneven reception in France, at least until recent years when scholars such as Matthieu Renault have made the importance of his work so much more accessible, reflects the highly disruptive nature of his thesis. It overturns so many assumptions in France, not least those that for many years reduced the Haitian Revolution to a poor tropical imitation of its more serious French counterpart, some exotic sideshow to the events in Paris. The visibility of Haiti and its Revolution still remains limited in France, and knowledge of the country–past and present–has until recent years been surprisingly partial. James reminds us that at certain points in the 1790s, the center of gravity of revolutionary struggle was focused in Saint-Domingue; he demonstrates that the Haitian revolutionaries were able to imagine possible futures–not least relating to universal emancipation–that were, in the terms deployed by Michel-Rolph Trouillot–“unthinkable” for their French counterparts. Building on these reflections, we can suggest that the tensions between universalism and ethnic diversity with which France still grapples are rooted in the historic failure to acknowledge Haiti and its Revolution–a failure cemented by the massive debt imposed on the country in 1825 in return for recognition of its independence, a debt that was only paid off in 1946 and that led in part to the chronic underdevelopment of independent Haiti.

In relation to your specific question about conservative revisionism in the area of revolutionary historiography, this needs to be read in a much wider frame of re-figurings of Louverture. Historical characters associated with legend inevitably lend themselves to a greater malleability. This was as true in the interwar period, when James was researching The Black Jacobins, as it has been more recently. Let’s not forget that James’s version of the Haitian revolutionary is just one of a number that emerged in the 1930s. We tend to retain the more progressive ones of these–Césaire’s anti-racist rendering of Louverture in his Cahier d’un retour au pays natal; Jacob Lawrence’s pictorial interpretation, in the context of the Harlem Renaissance, in the 42 panels of his remarkable Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, now at the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans–and then conveniently forget others, most notably the reading of Louverture as a ruthlessly ambitious dictator in Die Revolution von Saint Domingue(1930), by the Nazi historian Erwin Rusch. More recent readings of Louverture that deny his revolutionary ambition and claim that he was committed to protecting a status quo (and his own interests within that status quo) may be associated with a long-standing French historiographic tradition in this area. Pierre Pluchon’s Toussaint Louverture: Un révolutionnaire noir de l’Ancien Régime (1989) argued, for instance, as its subtitle suggests, that Louverture was an Old Regime revolutionary, seeking to replace white with black rule in an attempt to maintain colonial order.

In your introduction to The Black Jacobins Reader you argue that The Black Jacobinsis “much more than a book” and you describe it as part of a “text-network” made up of a series of “translations without an original.” What do you mean by this–and what are the texts (and contexts) that produced The Black Jacobins? How does this enhance our understandings or interpretation of  The Black Jacobins?

CF: The idea of the “text-network” made up of a series of “translations without an original” is one we borrow from Susan Gillman’s highly suggestive study of The Black Jacobins  included in an excellent collection of essays edited by Peter Hulme and others, Surveying the American Tropics. Gilman in turn adopts the concept from the classicist Dan Selden. In a 2010 article in Ancient Narrative, Selden had challenged the ways in which studies of the “ancient novel” tend to privilege an understanding of single-authored texts to detriment of reading works as evidence of a “multiplicity of different versions, in a wide variety of different languages, retailored to fit a host of different cultural contexts.” A figure we might use to understand such forms of production and dissemination is that of the rhizome, central to Caribbean thought as a result of its adoption by Edouard Glissant in Poétique de la Relation  and other writings. We suggest in the Reader that to read The Black Jacobins  rhizomatically has major implications for the ways in which we understand the text and its impact. On the one hand, it allows us to undermine any cult of authorship: despite the distinctive nature of his writing, James’s writing of his work was openly dialogic, the result of conversations with a range of interlocutors including, for instance, Haitian diplomat Auguste Nemours and James’s compatriot Eric Williams; at the same time, the text includes fragments from a plethora of sources, published and manuscript–we still need a comprehensive critical edition of The Black Jacobins, identifying in detail the material on which James drew and the differences between editions.

The answer to your question is provided as a result in large part by Rachel Douglas’s The Making of the Black Jacobins (Duke University Press, 2019), a meticulous study of the ways in which James engaged with the history of the Haitian Revolution across six decades of his life. These rewritings stretch from the first mention of Toussaint Louverture in his 1931 article in The Beacon, written even before he had left Trinidad, critiquing the pseudoscientific racism of Sidney Harland, to a series of articles, lectures and other engagements in his later years. In a literal sense, The Black Jacobins– drama or history–is a profoundly unstable text, and this not only because of the multiple versions that exist, with, as David Scott has demonstrated, often very different emphases. Already, within James’s own writing practice, we see evidence of transgeneric translation, as a narrative that began life as a play is transformed into a history (in which traces of Shakespearean tragedy of course persist). But his engagement with Haiti spills beyond these works. Anyone who explores James’s wider oeuvre or who visits his archives at UWI St-Augustine, Columbia University or elsewhere will be struck by the recurrence of references to Haiti, in articles, lectures, book reviews, prefaces, correspondence. The Haitian Revolution was a result catalytic to James’s thought at the beginning of his career, during the initial six-year period in Europe that Christian studies so well in his C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain (2014), but continued to play an important role in his thinking for the rest of his life–a process within which there is a clear evolution in attitudes to the meanings of the Revolution and crucially to the agency of various actors within it.

Reading The Black Jacobins as a “text-network” also means reflecting on the role of translation in its production and dissemination. There is the hidden work of translation by James himself as sources in languages other than English (primarily French) were processed and assimilated as a result of his original research; as we explain in the introduction to the Reader (and as Rachel Douglas explores in more detail in The Making of the Black Jacobins), the book itself has also been translated into multiple languages (we include translations back into English of the prefaces to the French, Italian and Cuban versions, written by Pierre Naville, John Bracey and Madison Smartt Bell respectively), all of which have contributed to the afterlives not only of The Black Jacobins itself, but also of the Haitian Revolution more generally.

Also let’s not forget transmedial translations, a particularly good example of which is Lubaina Himid’s engagement with Haiti via her reading of C.L.R. James in 1980s Britain (this is studied in detail in the recent Liverpool University Press book, Inside the invisible: Memorialising Slavery and Freedom in the Life and Works of Lubaina Himid). In Himid’s work, I’m particularly interested in Toussaint L’Ouverture, a mixed media portrait of the revolutionary leader from 1987 recently acquired by the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. It uses a collage of words from contemporary newspaper headlines–“RACIST”, “TORTURE”, “ABUSE”–to underline the contrast between the promise of universal emancipation won by the Haitian Revolution and the persistence of inequalities relating to race and ethnicity in the modern world. “The news wouldn’t be news,” Himid wrote in the piece, “if you had heard of Toussaint L’Ouverture.”  In short, reading the book not as a static, single volume but as a “text-network” helps us understand how it functions and inspires as a classic of revolutionary historiography.

CH: Reflecting on the writing of The Black Jacobins  in 1980, C.L.R. James noted “my West Indian experiences and my study of Marxism had made me see what had eluded many previous writers, that it was the slaves who had made the revolution.” It is critically important to understand something of the interwar period–historically, politically, culturally–to make sense of the writing of The Black Jacobins, whether James’s experiences of the 1919 mass strike in colonial Trinidad and the subsequent growth of the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association as a mass nationalist organization, through to his campaigning for “West Indian Self-Government” and wider Pan-African liberation while in Britain in the 1930s, his reading of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution  in Nelson, Lancashire, while supporting a mass strike of cotton workers in 1932, through to his witnessing mass demonstrations and strikes against fascism while researching the Haitian Revolution in Paris in 1934, his building of solidarity with the Ethiopian people at the time of Mussolini’s war in 1935, and with the Spanish Revolution in 1936 and the Caribbean Labour Rebellions of the late 1930s–with much of the research undertaken while Haiti itself was under U.S. military occupation. Stuart Hall– to whom The Black Jacobins Reader  is dedicated–once well described how “what is riveting … is the way in which the historical work and the foregrounded political events are part of a kind of seamless web … they reinforce one another.” It is important to recall that James was writing in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution–and like many black colonial subjects he was greatly inspired by that process–and the wider revolutionary movements that shook Europe in this period–outlined in James’s own work World Revolution, 1917-1936– meant that ideas of “revolution” and the importance of revolutionary history, questions of revolutionary theory, organization, strategy and tactics and so on had an urgency and relevance then that that they have not had subsequently. James as a “black Bolshevik” identified as strongly with the Russian Revolution as the “black Jacobin” Toussaint Louverture did with the French Revolution, and James’s sense of the degeneration that had accompanied the rise of Stalin by the 1930s gave him an insight into how the degeneration of the French Revolution with the rise of Napoleon in a fundamental sense had betrayed the hopes of Haitian revolutionaries.  As Charles has already mentioned, the way the work then gets revised by James over the course of his life amid the changing contexts and the breakthrough of decolonization is something explored well by Rachel Douglas in her new work, The Making of The Black Jacobins.

You also make the point that although it sometimes feels as if The Black Jacobins has dominated the historiography of the Haitian Revolution since it was first published in 1938, the reality was and is somewhat more complicated. How so?

CHThe Black Jacobins  in the first edition was an expensive hardback, and so was either passed hand to hand by activists (there is a fantastic story of James trying to ensure Louis Armstrong’s copy of the work was passed on to Martin Luther King in 1957 for example) or perhaps read in a university library.  In that sense, while figures such as the Jamaican Pan-Africanist Amy Ashwood Garvey could hail it in 1940 as “the most revolutionary book on Toussaint L’Ouverture,” it could be ignored by most of the wider Western historiography of the Haitian Revolution–just as the first edition of Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery in 1944 was more or less ignored by British historians. This said, it was read and did begin to make it into the footnotes of some of the more radical historians, including Eric Hobsbawm’s work The Age of Revolution, and including in Haiti itself thanks to the 1949 French translation by Pierre Naville.  It was not really however until the rising Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. meant there was a market suddenly for a Vintage paperback edition in 1963 that helped the work shape the thinking of a new generation of both activists and scholars during the 1960s and 1970s, just as Capitalism and Slavery  began to be taken more seriously by the wider historical establishment in Britain with the 1964 edition of that work–slowly both books became more and more impossible for even bourgeois scholars to ignore any longer.

CF: This is an important question. The Black Jacobins  now has all the trapping of a classic: a popular Penguin edition (prefaced by James Walvin, and recently selected by The Left Book Club as its choice in January 2020); the multiple translations I’ve referred to already; now an academic “reader” devoted to it… But let’s not forget that the first edition of the book risked disappearing from view and had a relatively limited impact. 1938 was, in retrospect, not the best moment for The Black Jacobins  to appear, in part because imminent global conflict would deflect (temporarily at least) from the pressing debates about anti-colonialism to which James was responding and contributing, in part because its publication coincided with James’s departure for the USA. It might also be argued also that the first edition was premature in terms of its contribution to debates about postcolonialism and neo-colonialism, phenomena with which Haiti engaged–as Nick Nesbitt has so eloquently suggested–150 years before they would become hallmarks of the ideology and praxis of the second half of the twentieth century.

Until the second edition of The Black Jacobins  appeared in 1963, the book was an underground, more confidential form of intervention. It was a new generation of readers from the Caribbean–George Lamming in particular, Walter Rodney as well–who encouraged James to revisit and republish his work, which appeared in the new Vintage edition to which Christian has alluded, with the postface “From Toussaint Louverture to Fidel Castro” situating it in a new context of contemporary political struggle. Despite James’s own focus on the Caribbean at that time, The Black Jacobins  then spoke to a range of movements, local and global, that transcended the Caribbean: Black Power, anti-apartheid, tricontentinentalism; but it also served as a point of reference for an emerging group of historians–David Geggus, for instance, whose PhD produced in York in the 1970s remains the definitive account of the largely disavowed place of British troops in the Haitian Revolution–committed to granting Haiti the place it merits in accounts of what Hobsbawm called the “age of revolution.” In a bibliography that is still expanding of lives of Louverture or histories of the Revolution (I eagerly await Sudhir Hazareesingh’s Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture, for instance, due to appear in the Autumn, as well as the graphic novel of James’s play currently being drawn by Nic Watts and Sakina Karimjee), James’s account has retained its central role–it remains the initial text that I recommend to students wishing to understand the place of Haiti in world history. Additional archival sources have been uncovered, new theses explored, but no other account competes with James’s for its breadth and incisiveness of analysis and for the ways in which it captures the persistently incendiary meanings of the Revolution for those seeking to imagine what David Scott has called possible postcolonial futures.

Another question on circulation. How was The Black Jacobins taken up in the Caribbean and Africa?

CH: This is a fascinating question, and one that surely requires more research –I once came across a reference to “Toussaint Louverture clubs” in existence in colonial Trinidad in 1938, but my sense is that these were short-lived middle class literary societies and it seems unconnected to James or his work. George Padmore worked to ensure The Black Jacobins  was known among anti-colonial activists in colonial Africa and the Caribbean, writing a widely republished review praising the work and aimed to send a few copies to Pan-Africanist contacts in West Africa–perhaps the most notable reader of the work to emerge out of this milieu would have been Kwame Nkrumah. Intriguingly there was a copy of the French edition in the library of Frantz Fanon. James himself testifies to the impact of the work in apartheid South Africa among students, while Thabo Mbeki once stated that after he read The Black Jacobins, he knew that apartheid would ultimately be defeated. Many radical intellectuals and writers of the 1960s and 1970s aside from Mbeki engaged with it deeply–whether one is talking about Walter Rodney, George Lamming, Stokely Carmichael, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o or the circle of young black Caribbean radicals in the C.L.R. James Study Circle in Montreal, Canada that David Austin has written about. James’s 1967 revised play The Black Jacobins  was produced and staged in Nigeria of course, and the circumstances of this have been discussed extensively by Rachel Douglas.

CF: Yes, this is a question that interested us greatly while we were preparing The Black Jacobins Reader– and we both concluded that considerably more research is required. We were grateful to Matthew Smith for his chapter on Haiti in British West Indian thought before The Black Jacobins  was published. It is clear that after  its publication, James’s book has predominated. Christian mentions the presence of Les Jacobins noirs  in Fanon’s library–and I’m particularly interested in this Francophone postcolonial engagement. Césaire clearly knew James’s work and cites it in passing in his Toussaint Louverture:La Révolution française et le problème colonial (just as James would cite the Cahier d’un retour au pays natal  in the 1963 postface to The Black Jacobins). The two men met in Cuba at the Havana Cultural Congress of 1968–Andrew Salkey memorably describes the encounter in his Havana Journal  and James devotes a fragment to Césaire in his unpublished autobiography. Another dimension of this story is the reception of The Black Jacobins  in Haiti itself. We have tantalizing glimpses of James’s interactions with Haitian historians, notably Etienne Charlier, author of the classic Marxist history of the Revolution in Aperçu sur la formation historique de la nation haïtienne, and Jean Fouchard, for the English translation of whose Les Marrons de la Liberté (The Haitian Maroons: Liberty or Death) James wrote a preface in 1981, the year after Fouchard’s death. It is unclear whether James ever travelled to Haiti–it seems unlikely–but he definitely had plans for a visit in the 1950s when he also alluded to a possible Haitian translation of his work. I’m not one for counterfactual history, but it is striking to speculate on the impact that translation might have had had it appeared in Duvalier’s Haiti.

What is the theoretical, and perhaps methodological, importance of The Black Jacobinsto debates concerning the history of capitalism and slavery?

CH: Stuart Hall once wrote that James in The Black Jacobins  was the first to center Atlantic slavery in world history–so in this sense the importance of James’s work to these debates is self-evident. Certainly, James’s short discussion on the economic roots of British parliamentary abolitionism formed the essential outline of Eric Williams’s more famous and lengthy contribution in this field–as Williams himself acknowledged, though in my opinion James’s grasp of the modernity of colonial slavery and the slave ships and plantations thanks to his underlying theoretical grasp of the uneven and combined nature of capitalist development meant his analysis of the exact relationship between capitalism and slavery is more sophisticated than that of Williams in many respects. Personally I have also been struck by James’s pioneering class analysis of the enslaved themselves–part proto-proletariat, part proto-peasantry while also recognizing that in many ways they were also part proto-consumers, long before slavery scholars coined these terms. More broadly, James was the first to stress the importance of the Haitian Revolution to the wider transition from feudalism to capitalism in terms of Marxist historiography, and so the work formed the central part of his wider lifelong intellectual contribution which was, as he saw it, to explain the relationship of black people to “Western Civilization.”

CF: Yes, the genesis of The Black Jacobins and Capitalism and Slavery (or at least the thesis on which it was based) are so closely intertwined that James once claimed he and Williams co-authored parts of each text. James was, however, one of the first to see the plantation as an early expression of the logic of capitalism, a testing ground for the nineteenth-century developments of the industrial revolution. Thanks to the work of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, we now have a much clearer evidence base to track how slavery and capitalism would be subsequently linked. But at a more fundamental level, James shows how the dehumanization of enslavement transformed the enslaved into capital. The first chapter of The Black Jacobins  remains one of the most searing statements of this historical reality, but the text also shows an interest in the economic underpinnings of the Revolution–in Louverture’s pragmatism (his re-imposition of the plantation can be seen as a form of state capitalism) but also in the alternatives of agrarian self-sufficiency and devolved ownership proposed by Louverture’s nephew Moïse. James’s growing interest in Moïse (and in Louverture’s decision to execute him) predominates in his later engagements with Haitian revolutionary historiography, as Rachel Douglas demonstrates in her analyses of the 1967 dramatic rendering of The Black Jacobins – and reflects his growing commitment to a history from below that moves away from over-privileging of the heroes, from what Maryse Condé dismissed as “conventional reactionary bric à brac.” There, for James, economic history meets Shakespearean tragedy as it is clear that the failure to grasp the implications of ignoring Moïse’s alternative model reveals Louverture’s fatal flaw.

You suggest that James was aware of the methodological and archival limitations of The Black Jacobins, especially concerning the focus on Louverture. Can you say more about this–about James’ own critiques, and about how other writers have extended or revised James biographical-historical method?

CH: James as a good historian was of course always aware that new sources would emerge in archives which would necessitate the revision of this or that specific aspect of his argument, but he also felt–rightly in my opinion–that the foundations of his argument would be in a sense “imperishable.” I would therefore not want to draw the kind of strict demarcation between the 1938 version and the 1963 revised version of the text that for example David Scott has done in his fascinating work, Conscripts of Modernity. My sense is that within The Black Jacobins  there is of course the romantic focus on anticolonial revolt which gives it is epic quality as a work of historical literature–but Scott in Conscripts of Modernity  is mistaken to place James’s focus on tragedy as only coming through in the later 1963 edition, with the additional paragraphs in the closing chapter.  When James wrote his play Toussaint Louverture  in 1934, he portrayed Toussaint as a tragic hero of colonial enlightenment, and there is an important sense in which James discusses the Haitian Revolution as a bourgeois revolution, though this line of argument is muted somewhat–no doubt James wanted to inspire those fighting for colonial liberation, not depress them. Some of James’s later critiques of The Black Jacobins  in some senses are about his own slight political move away from the classical Marxist framework which made it such an outstanding work of “total history,” towards the more popular “history from below” approaches which for example inspired James’s student Carolyn Fick in her own important work, The Making of Haiti: The Saint-Domingue Revolution from below.   Yet though James once suggested that he might rewrite The Black Jacobins  as The Black Sans culottes  if he was going to start all over again, the fact he did not ever re-write or re-title later editions of the work suggests to me he always retained at least some of his old Leninist instincts about the importance of revolutionary leadership for successful revolutionary struggles into his old age.

CF: Your question is central to the progressive rewriting in which James engaged. I agree with Christian that that process was both organic and dialogic, and does not include any of the sudden volte-faces that some accounts of this engagement sometimes imply. The Black Jacobins  is rooted in the intensive archival work that James conducted in Paris, often between cricket seasons when his work as a journalist was in abeyance. But he continued to rethink these sources and to reassess his interpretation of them. Already in the 1950s, in his correspondence with Etienne Charlier, the possibility of a history of the Revolution “from below” was clear, and this became particularly apparent in the later 1960s when James revisited his dramatic version of The Black Jacobins. He articulated these shifts in the series of 1971 lectures at the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, in particular in the one entitled “How I would rewrite The Black Jacobins,” in which he states that Louverture might ultimately be granted little more than a walk-on part in a new version of the book. James was inspired here by the new historiography of the French Revolution–in particular the work of Lefevre and Soboul, the second of whom presented the sans-culottes as a social class, a proto-proletariat who played a key role– and stated that he would seek to focus more on the “2,000 leaders to be taken away” about whom Leclerc warned Napoleon following the arrest of Louverture. The IBW lectures were published for the first time in Small Axe in 2000, and in an excellent afterword, Anthony Bogues suggests that they allow us to “think with  and then beyond  James”–I take this as meaning that the lectures allow us not only to understand the organic development of James’s thought, but also to locate The Black Jacobins  in relation to a range of other interpreters of the Haitian Revolution–Carolyn Fick, John Thornton, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Laurent Dubois, Matthew Smith, Johnhenry Gonzalez– who are in dialogue with James, who complement and on occasion challenge his work.

Can you say something about the editorial process behind The Black Jacobins Reader? What are the origins of the project and what guided your decisions about how to frame it, what to include and not include?

CH: The Black Jacobins Reade r emerged out of a one day London Socialist Historians Group conference I co-organized back in 2008, to mark the 70thanniversary of the work–the fact the book only appeared in late 2017, just before the 80thanniversary, tells you something about the lengthy gestation period and editorial process involved in putting this together. I think as editors we wanted a mix of classic original material relating to the book that had never been published in English before (the gem I think here being the transcript of James’s 1970 radio interview about the work with Studs Terkel, which we discovered relatively late on), a range of new scholarship relating to the book, some of which we had from the conference, some of which we solicitated afterwards, and then some more personal contributions by leading activists and scholars of the Haitian Revolution testifying to the works importance and impact.  Selma James played a very helpful role here, soliciting the contributions from the two imprisoned Black Panthers, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Russell Maroon Shoatz on our behalf. We were constrained by length–it is some 400 pages–from including much more, though we remain thankful to the editors of Duke for giving us the space and length we needed to include everything we did.

CF: Christian knew of my work on the re-figurings of Toussaint Louverture and I was pleased when he invited me to collaborate on bringing together the Reader. The 2008 London conference was a lively, highly significant event, bringing together–as is customarily the case with workshops and conferences devoted to James–academics and activists. The reader captures some of its commitment to bridging the artificiality of that divide. We were keen to fill a gap in the existing literature by producing a volume entirely devoted to The Black Jacobins– previous volumes, such as C.L.R. James: His Intellectual Legacies  edited by Selwyn Cudjoe and William Cain,had dedicated sections to the book, but we felt that more sustained attention was required. Christian has described the balance we sought between first-hand accounts of the influence of James’s work and more conventional academic studies; to these we added our detailed introduction, on the genesis and afterlives of The Black Jacobins, and various appendices (a section we might have expanded had we had more flexibility). Our aim was to bring together contributions into a book that could be used equally by students, scholars and activists. We wanted to show that The Black Jacobins  is a living document, one whose meanings continue to evolve. And we were profoundly aware of the company we were keeping in the C.L.R. James Archives series published by Duke University Press, a collection dedicated to presenting to a contemporary audience, in its breadth and diversity, the work of one of the great intellectual figures of the twentieth-century.

You dedicate Toussaint Louverture to Robert A. Hill and Janet Alder and Hill provides an introduction to The Black Jacobins Reader.What role has Hill played in the development of both projects? And Alder?

CHRobert A. Hill has been a very important mentor to me personally in terms of C.L.R. James scholarship, and this together with his editorial expertise and outstanding record of scholarship on the African diaspora and Pan-Africanism in particular were absolutely invaluable when it came to all the editorial work I have done with the Duke University Press C.L.R. James Archives series, from theToussaint Louverture  play through to World Revolution. For The Black Jacobins Reader, for example, originally Charles and myself had envisaged including as many as possible original reviews the 1938 edition received in full–it was Robert A. Hill who understood this would make the book too big in size–I think the phrase he used was “over-egging the cake” or something–and so we then decided to cut this section out and just include extracts from some of the reviews in our introduction–a decision that we came to see made very good sense. It was an honor for us to carry his foreword to The Black Jacobins Reader  given his profound understanding of the work–and the fact he gave us the honor of co-editing such a work as The Black Jacobins Reader made it only right that we acknowledged him when we came to write Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions.  

Janet Alder’s brother Christopher–a black former paratrooper–was killed while in police custody in Hull in 1998–the same year I started University as an undergraduate and so I have seen Janet tirelessly and courageously campaign for justice for her brother for over twenty years in the face of enormous pressures. Her indefatigability here as a campaigner for “Black Lives Matter” long before the hashtag was born for me stands as reminiscent of that shown by the Haitian revolutionaries, and so in that sense I felt the dedication to her was most appropriate. The fact that much of her campaigning has taken place in the city to which William Wilberforce was once the MP only further highlights some of the continuities between the racism born of colonial slavery and the racism which continues to kill in the present day.

CF: I echo Christian’s gratitude to Robert A. Hill, who provided patient, wise counsel throughout our preparation of the Reader  and was a great supporter of our collaborative work. As literary executor of the C.L.R. James estate and eyewitness of much of the context to The Black Jacobins  that interested us, he never let his personal investment in the project impede our own ambitions for the volume, and it seemed only natural that we would subsequently dedicate the Louverture biography to him. The parallel dedication to Janet Alder was a mark of our respect for her indefatigable commitment to uncovering the truth about her brother’s unlawful killing, despite the harassment to which she has been subject herself. Colonial slavery, for whose abolition Louverture fought, has clear contemporary afterlives, and we were keen to link historical and contemporary struggles in this way.

You invoke the Kreyòl saying tou moun se moun (“everyone is a human being”) in your discussion of the politics of race and citizenship in Haiti after 1804. What does this expression mean in the context of 1804 and what are the lessons that that phrase–and Haiti, in the immediate aftermath of independence–offer us now? Importantly, you also appear to suggest a sort of historical redemption of Jean-Jacques Dessalines.

CF:Tout moun se moun–“every person is a human being”–was a refrain common in Haiti from the moment of independence. A radically egalitarian principle suggesting that all lives matter and that everyone has the right to dignity, it was more recently adopted as the title of Aristide’s 1992 autobiography, written just before he was ousted from power for the first time the previous year. The idea of universal emancipation fed into the aspirations underpinning Haitian sovereignty and were enshrined in Dessalines’s 1804 constitution. In Haiti, Louverture is known as the “Precursor,” Dessalines as the “Liberator”–and it is Dessalines who was tasked with consolidating the gains of the Revolution and defending them against multiple threats. Post-independence, Haiti has struggled to defend this principle, often in the face of external interventions such as the U.S. occupation of 1915-34 or the damaging impact of the UN stabilization mission (known as MINUSTAH) following Aristide’s second ousting, with the introduction of cholera and accusations of other human rights abuses. At the same time, the totalitarian, despotic excesses of the Duvalier regime reveal how the principle has been equally challenged by internal forces. The often-repeated observation that Haiti is the “poorest country in the Western hemisphere” perpetuates a sense of dependency. What we regularly ignore is what Haiti can teach the rest of the world, not least how we are dependent on it for the vision of a universal emancipation that the American and French Revolutions could not even imagine, of a radical equality that threatened the logic of slavery and colonialism as much as it now threatens that of neo-liberal capitalism.

One reservation I’ve always had in working on Toussaint Louverture is that focus on his life, achievements and afterlives is often to the detriment of the attention that Dessalines himself merits. Louverture is somehow acceptable and translatable in ways that his former lieutenant (and, as Gabriel Debien and subsequently Jacques de Cauna and Philippe Girard have suggested, someone who had been enslaved by Louverture’s son-in-law) still is not. In that sense, we may create analogies between the two Haitian Revolutionaries and other pairs of radicals, notably MLK and Malcolm X. I have often stated in my writing and teaching that there are over 200 biopics of Napoleon and none of Toussaint Louverture. We need to remember, however, that there are dozens of biographies of Louverture but as far as I’m aware none of Dessalines in English (and very few in French, with most of these published in Haiti, by authors including Timoléon C. Brutus and Gérard M. Laurent, meaning they have limited distribution). This despite the fact that in Haiti it is Dessalines who is a lwa  in the vodou pantheon, that the national anthem is known as the Dessalinienne… Dubroca produced a scurrilous biography of Dessalines in 1804, which was translated into English, German and Spanish (his equally defamatory life of Louverture was also popular at the time). Subsequent representations–even by African American authors–have tended to perpetuate the stereotype of Dessalines as a fierce and brutal figure. Julia Gaffield, who edited an excellent collection of essays on Dessalines’ 1804 constitution (a copy of which she uncovered while doing doctoral research in the National Archives in Kew) is currently working on a manuscript entitled Jean-Jacques Dessalines: Freedom or Death,  due to appear with Yale University Press, and has also made available online as the “Dessalines Reader,”a valuable collection of archival materials relating to her subject. There is a pressing need also for a political biography of Dessalines, one that avoids the excesses of past hagiography or demonization, and can be seen as part of wider project of reparative history of race and resistance.


The Public Archive was initiated to serve as an accessible clearinghouse of historical essays, archival sources, and informed contemporary journalism on Haiti. The Public Archive compiles links to documents freely accessible through the digital collections of libraries and repositories as well as open-access online periodicals, academic journals and newspapers.

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