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From editor@haiti-progres.com Mon Aug 27 10:35:34 2001
Date: Sun, 26 Aug 2001 22:50:48 -0500 (CDT)
From: =?iso-8859-1?Q?Haiti_Progr=E8s?= <editor@haiti-progres.com>
Subject: This Week In Haiti Vol.19No.23 08/22/01
Article: 125143
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

The Lessons of the Haitian Revolution: Selections from The Black Jacobins (First of two parts)

Haiti Progress, Vol. 19 no. 23, 22—28 August 2001

For the Aug. 17th anniversary of the beginning of the Haitian revolution 210 years ago, we return again this year to The Black Jacobins, the compelling account of the period by Trinidadian scholar C.L.R. James. Central to James’ account is Toussaint L’Ouverture, a former slave who rose to become the leader of rebel slave armies which, by 1801, had abolished slavery in both the eastern Spanish and western French colonies on the island, which James calls San Domingo. Toussaint became complete master of the whole island of Hispaniola, James writes, a territory nearly as large as Ireland, and he had become so in less than ten years. But he ruled the island as a colony of France, with which he believed he could not break allegiance.

James vividly depicts how Toussaint’s boldness, intelligence, energy, and sophistication made him one of the most outstanding leaders of all human history. But James, a scientific Marxist, also did not flinch from rigorously detailing and criticizing Toussaint’s huge errors, which led to his eventual capture and death in a prison cell in the French Pyrenees.. It is no accident that [Jean Jacques] Dessalines [one of Toussaint’s lieutenants] and not Toussaint finally led the island to independence, James writes. Toussaint, shut up within himself, immersed in diplomacy, went his tortuous way, overconfident that he had only to speak and the masses would follow.

James’ description reminds one of Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide, who has made himself a student and an apostle of Toussaint. Like his forebearer, Aristide tries to placate his enemies (futilely usually), abruptly switches allegiances and political directions, keeps his plans to himself, and makes decisions unilaterally, often without the knowledge or agreement of his supporters, advisors and allies.

But most striking of all is the similarity of their strategic visions, which can be summarized as resistance, but within the framework of and never challenging the existing world system. Just as Toussaint feared breaking with France and the colonial system of his day, Aristide fears breaking with the U.S. and today’s neoliberal order.If the international community is not for us, one thing is sure: We will fail, Aristide said in an interview shortly before his re-election last November (The Progressive, Jan. 2001). The international community in Haiti is shorthand for the G-7. Aristide is far from ready to take a revolutionary road like neighboring Cuba.

Similarly Toussaint strove to maintain the French connection as necessary to Haiti in its long and difficult climb to civilization, James explained. Convinced that slavery could never be restored in San Domingo, he was equally convinced that a population of slaves recently landed from Africa could not attain to civilization by ’going it alone.’

Of course, the newly freed masses of San Domingo, under Dessalines’ leadership, eventually realized that they did have to go it alone. They drove out the French, declared in 1804 the Republic of Haiti, the first nation of Latin America, which became the touchstone for slave emancipation and colonial liberation around the hemisphere, not only by setting an example, but by providing support to Simon Bolivar, the colonial liberator of South America.

Today, we live in a one superpower world, we are constantly told, but Aristide has a lot more alternatives than Toussaint had. Although Aristide recently visited and is expanding links with Cuba, nations like China, Venezuela, and others in the Mideast, Africa, and Asia have built or aspire to build economies and political systems independent of Washington’s doctrines and dictates. If Haiti must have support at least in the short term, why not seek it in these places? Because Aristide does not want to displease Washington. Placing false hopes on their resumption of aid, Aristide continues to allow the international community to meddle in Haitian affairs and destabilize his government, much as Toussaint allowed the French to easily undermine his regime.

Although participation and transparency were watchwords of the Lavalas movement as it crystalized in 1990, today confusion reigns. Politically, Aristide also seems to be committing the same blunders as his forerunner. His error was his neglect of his own people, James wrote of Toussaint, and could write of Aristide today. They did not understand what he was doing or where he was going. He took no trouble to explain. It was dangerous to explain, but still more dangerous not to explain. His temperament, close and self-contained, was one that kept its own counsel. Thus the masses thought he had taken Spanish San Domingo to stop the slave traffic, and not as a safeguard against the French. His silence confused them and did not deceive Bonaparte...

The same is true today with Aristide. Although he has sought to strike a deal with Washington, just as Toussaint tried with Bonaparte, Aristide is not trusted and never will be by U.S. imperialism, in either its Democratic or Republican guises. hrtJames’ The Black Jacobins shows us how Toussaint was defeated by misjudging events and people, vacillating in principle, and losing both the fear of his enemies and the confidence of his own supporters.

For the next two issues, we will reproduce extracts from the book’s chapter entitled The Bourgeoisie Prepares to Restore Slavery. The selection offers lessons from Haiti’s 1804 revolution which are particularly relevant to Haiti’s national democratic revolution, which began unfolding with Duvalier’s fall in 1986 and, despite coups, invasions, and betrayals, is still alive today. hrtThe chapter begins in 1801 with signs that France is preparing to reimpose slavery in the colony and remove Toussaint L’Ouverture as governor.

Toussaint was perfectly right in his suspicions. What is the rigime under which the colonies have most prospered, asked Bonaparte, and on being told the ancien rigime [former colonialist regime], he decided to restore it, slavery and Mulatto discrimination.

Bonaparte hated black people. The revolution had appointed that brave and brilliant Mulatto, General Dumas 1 , Commander-in-Chief of one of its armies, but Bonaparte detested him for his color and persecuted him. Yet Bonaparte was no colonist, and his anti- Negro bias was far from influencing his major policies. He wanted profits for his supporters, and the clamorous colonists found in him a ready ear. The bourgeoisie of the maritime towns wanted the fabulous profits of the old days. The passionate desire to free all humanity which had called for Negro freedom in the great days of the revolution now huddled in the slums of Paris and Marseilles, exhausted by its great efforts and terrorized by Bonaparte’s bayonets and Fouchi’s police.

But the abolition of slavery was one of the proudest memories of the revolution; and, much more important, the San Domingo blacks had an army and leaders trained to fight in the European manner. These were no savage tribesmen with spears, against whom European soldiers armed with rifles could win undying glory.

Occupied with his European campaigns, Bonaparte never lost sight of San Domingo, as he never lost sight of anything. His officers presented plan after plan, but the British fleet and the unknown strength of the blacks prevented action. Yet early in March 1801, a shift in his policy nearly compelled him to leave Toussaint in complete charge of San Domingo.

French and British bourgeoisies were in the middle of that struggle for world supremacy which lasted over twenty years and devastated Europe. Bonaparte aimed at India, and having missed his first spring by way of Egypt, he won over the Tsar Paul, and these two arranged to march overland and steal from the British what these had stolen from the Indians. Bonaparte could not fight in two hemispheres at once, and on March 4th [1801] he wrote a letter to Toussaint, a letter beaming with goodwill. 2 He had been busy, but now that peace was near he had had time to read Toussaint’s letters. He would appoint him Captain-General of the island. He asked Toussaint to develop agriculture and build up the armed forces. The time I hope will not be far when a division from San Domingo will be able to contribute in your part of the world to the glory and the possessions of the Republic.

But the British bourgeoisie, driven out of America, now fully realized the importance of India. Pitt, in collusion with [Tsar] Paul’s son Alexander, organized the murder of the pro-French Paul. 3 Seven days after the letter to Toussaint was written, Paul was strangled, and on the following day the British fleet sailed into the Baltic. When Bonaparte heard, he knew at once that Pitt had beaten him, and the Indian raid was off. The letter and instructions to Toussaint were never sent, and Bonaparte prepared to destroy Toussaint. It is Toussaint’s supreme merit that while he saw European civilization as a valuable and necessary thing, and strove to lay its foundations among his people, he never had the illusion that it conferred any moral superiority. He knew French, British, and Spanish imperialists for the insatiable gangsters that they were, that there is no oath too sacred for them to break, no crime, deception, treachery, cruelty, destruction of human life and property which they would not commit against those who could not defend themselves.

But though Bonaparte might shout nigger in the best slave- owning manner, more than anyone in France he divined the difficulties [of restoring slavery]. At first he had thought it easy. The colonists who had fled in the early days of the revolution thought of the slaves as a motley crowd of black brigands who could fly a the first sight of white men. How could such cowed and trembling niggers ever be anything else? They had defeated the British? Nonsense. That was fever. General Michel of the last Commission, who had not seen Toussaint’s armies in action, called his officers a collection of conceited incompetents.

But [French Generals] Roume, Pascal, and Vincent, all of whom liked the blacks and therefore knew what they were capable of, were against any expedition. Pascal said that the more enlightened of the blacks, i.e. those who had been free before the revolution, did not love Toussaint, but forty-nine-fiftieths of the population followed him blindly, regarding him as being inspired by God. Roume’s attitude was more astonishing. Roume was not even a Frenchman, but a creole from Tobago. Yet, despite his rough treatment at the hands of Toussaint, he still retained his belief in Toussaint’s devotion to France. He wrote that Toussaint had acted irregularly because of his fear of slavery. Let Bonaparte clothe him with full civil and military power and reassure him about the future. At the end of the war he could hand back the colony. 4

Malenfant, an old colonist who was now an official in San Domingo, was offered a post in the expedition. He drafted a memorandum full of praise for Toussaint and the laborers, and warned Bonaparte against the catastrophe he was preparing. When he met Leclerc, the Captain-General, a few days before the fleet sailed, Leclerc accused him of cowardice. All the niggers, when they see an army, will lay down their arms. They will be only too happy that we pardon them.

You are misinformed, General...

But there is a colonist who has offered to arrest Toussaint in the interior of the country with 60 grenadiers.

He is bolder than I, for I would not attempt it with 60,000.

He is very rich, Toussaint. He has more than 40 millions.

Patiently Malenfant pointed out to him that it was impossible for Toussaint to have this sum. Malenfant shared Roume’s opinion of Toussaint. He said afterwards that if Bonaparte had sent Laveaux to San Domingo with 3,000 men all would have been well. Toussaint was an eminently reasonable man, and he and Laveaux would have worked out a modus vivendi whereby French capital would have had full opportunity in the island. It was not to be. Leclerc pooh- poohed Malenfant’s remonstrances and dismissed him.

Bonaparte never had any such foolish ideas. Vincent had told him of the strength of Toussaint’s army, with its soldiers and officers tried and experienced by ten years of constant fighting, and the great soldier added more and more men to the force. So as to avoid too much talk, he distributed his preparations in every harbor in France, Holland and Belgium. The preliminaries of peace were signed on October 1st, 1801. Eight days after Bonaparte gave the word, and even the delay of adverse winds held up the expedition only until December 14th.

It was the largest expedition that had ever sailed from France, consisting of 20,000 veteran troops, under some of Bonaparte’s ablest officers. The Chief of Staff was Dugua, whom Bonaparte had left in charge of Egypt when he set out on the march to Palestine. Boudet had commanded the advance-guard of Dessaix, whose last minute attack had saved Bonaparte from a disastrous defeat at Marengo. Boyer had commanded the mobile guards which patrolled Upper Egypt; Humbert had commanded the expedition against Ireland. There were men who had experience of guerrilla warfare in La Vendie. General Pamphile de Lacroix, who sailed with the expedition and wrote a valuable history of the campaign and the San Domingo revolution, has left us his opinion. The army of Leclerc was composed of an infinite number of soldiers with great talent, good strategists, great tacticians, officers or engineers and artillery, well educated and very resourceful.5 At the last moment Bonaparte changed the command, putting his brother-in-law, Leclerc, at the head, a sign of the importance he attached to the venture. Pauline, Leclerc’s wife, and their son went with the expedition. She carried musicians, artists, and all the paraphernalia of a court. Slavery would be re-established, civilization restarted, and a good time would be had by all.

(To be continued)


1. Father of Alexandre pere and grandfather of Alexandre fils. France has erected a monument to these three in the Place Malesherbers, Paris.

2. Correspondence of Napoleon.

3. Eugene Tarli, Bonaparte, London, 1937, pp 116-117.

4. To the Minister. Les Archives Nationales. AF. IV, 1187.

5. Mimoires pour Servir.... Vol. II, p. 319.