Two hundred and twenty-seven years ago on Aug. 21, the French colony of Saint-Domingue erupted in a giant slave rebellion. It would mark the beginning of 13 years of revolution, culminating in the 1804 declaration of independence of Haiti, the first nation in Latin America.
Eighty years ago, a Trinidadian scholar named C.L.R. James published an account of that first and last successful slave revolution, entitled “The Black Jacobins.” The work has become the definitive English-language account of the period.
This week, in recognition both of the revolution and James, we present James’ account of the 1791 slave uprising signaled by the famous vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman, on the outskirts of today’s Cap Haïtien. This upheaval in the French colony, which was already in turmoil after the French Revolution of 1789, began the revolution led by former slaves like Toussaint Bréda, who later became Toussaint Louverture, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines.
James’ many footnotes detailing his sources have been omitted, and some paragraphing has been added to ease reading. We have retained James’ references to the colony as San Domingo.
We encourage any reader who has not read the book to do so, and anyone who has, to return to it. Rarely has any writer so concisely presented and effectively analyzed one of history’s most pivotal class struggles.
This extract comes from the chapter entitled “The San Domingo Masses Begin.”
The slaves worked on 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. By hard experience, they had learned that isolated efforts were doomed to failure, and in the early months of 1791 in and around Le Cap, they were organizing for revolution.
Vodou was the medium of the conspiracy. In spite of all prohibitions, the slaves traveled miles to sing and dance and practice the rites and talk; and now, since the revolution [of 1789 in France], to hear the political news and make their plans. Boukman, a Papaloi or High Priest, a gigantic Negro, was the leader. He was headman of a plantation and followed the political situation both among the whites and among the mulattoes. By the end of July 1791, the blacks in and around Le Cap were ready and waiting. The plan was conceived on a massive scale, and they aimed at exterminating the whites and taking the colony for themselves. They were perhaps 12,000 slaves in Le Cap, 6,000 of them men. One night the slaves in the suburbs and outskirts of Le Cap were to fire the plantations. At this signal the slaves in the town would massacre the whites and the slaves on the plain would complete the destruction. They had traveled a long, long way since the grandiose poisoning schemes of Makandal.
The plan did not succeed in its entirety. But it very nearly did, and the scope and organization of this revolt shows Boukman to be the first of that line of great leaders whom the slaves were to throw up in such profusion and rapidity during the years which followed. That so vast a conspiracy was not discovered until it had actually broken out is a testimony to their solidarity. In early August the slaves of Limbé, then and to the end of the revolution one of the storm-centers, rose prematurely and were crushed. This Limbé rising showed that it was dangerous to delay. Three days after, representatives from parishes all over the plain assembled to fix the day. Deputies on their way to Le Cap for the first session of the Colonial Assembly, to begin on August 25th, met throngs of slaves on the road who abused and even attacked them. On August 21st, some prisoners were taken and de Blanchelande, the Governor, examined them himself the next day. He did not get much from them, but he understood vaguely that there was to be some sort of rising. He took precautions to safeguard the city from the slaves within and he ordered patrols to cover the outskirts. But these whites despised the slaves too much to believe them capable of organizing a mass movement on a grand scale. They could not get from the prisoners the names of the leaders, and what precautions could they take against the thousands of slaves on the hundreds of plantations? Some of the white rabble in Le Cap, always ready for loot and pillage, were revealed as being connected with a plot of some sort. De Blanchelande was more concerned about these than about the Negroes.
The slaves destroyed tirelessly… and if they destroyed much, it was because they had suffered much.
On the night of the 22nd [in fact, Aug. 21], a tropical storm raged, with lighting and gusts of wind and heavy showers of rain. Carrying torches to light their way, the leaders of the revolt met in an open space in the thick forests of the Morne Rouge, a mountain overlooking Le Cap. There Boukman gave the last instructions and, after Vodou incantations and the sucking of the blood of a stuck pig, he stimulated his followers by a prayer spoken in creole, which, like so much spoken on such occasions, has remained. “The god who created the sun which gives us light, who rouses the waves and rules the storm, though hidden in the clouds, he watches us. He sees all that the white man does. The god of the white man inspires him with crime, but our god calls upon us to do good works. Our god who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us. Throw away the symbol of the god of the whites who has so often caused us to weep, and listen to the voice of liberty, which speaks in the hearts of us all.”
The symbol of the god of the whites was the cross which, as Catholics, they wore around their necks.
That very night they began. The slaves of 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. Each slave-gang murdered its masters and burned the plantation to the ground. The precautions that de Blanchelande had taken saved Le Cap, but the preparation [of the uprising] otherwise had been thorough and complete, and in a few days one-half of the famous North Plain was a flaming ruin. From Le Cap the whole horizon was a wall of fire. From this wall continually rose thick black volumes of smoke, through which came tongues of flame leaping to the very sky. For nearly three weeks the people of Le Cap could barely distinguish day from night, while a rain of burning cane straw, driven before the wind like flakes of snow, flew over the city and the shipping in the harbor, threatening both with destruction.
The slaves destroyed tirelessly. Like the peasants in the Jacquerie or the Luddite wreckers, they were seeking their salvation in the most obvious way, the destruction of what they knew was the cause of their sufferings; and if they destroyed much, it was because they had suffered much. They knew that as long as these plantations stood, their lot would be to labor on them until they dropped. The only thing was to destroy them. From their masters they had known rape, torture, degradation, and, at the slightest provocation, death. They returned in kind. For two centuries the higher civilization had shown them that power was used for wreaking your will on those whom you controlled. Now that they held power, they did as they had been taught. In the frenzy of the first encounters they killed all, yet they spared the priests whom they feared and the surgeons who had been kind to them. They, whose women had undergone countless violations, violated all the women who fell into their hands, often on the bodies of their still bleeding husbands, fathers and brothers. “Vengeance! Vengeance!” was their war-cry, and one of them carried a white child on a pike as a standard.
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 revengeful 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 the revolution gained territory, they spared many of the men, women, and children whom they surprised on plantations. To prisoners of war alone they remained merciless. They tore out their flesh with red-hot pincers, they roasted them on slow fires, they sawed a carpenter between two of his boards. Yet in all the records of that time there is no single instance of such fiendish tortures as burying white men up to the neck and smearing the holes in their faces to attract insects, or blowing them up with gun-powder, or any of the thousand and one bestialities to which they had been subjected. Compared with what their masters had done to them in cold blood, what they did was negligible, and they were spurred on by the ferocity with which the whites in Le Cap treated all slave prisoners who fell into their hands.
As usual, the strength of the mass movement dragged in its wake revolutionary sections of those classes nearest to it. Free blacks joined them. A planter of Port Margot had taught his black foreman to read and write, had made him free, had left him in his will 10,000 francs, had given to the foreman’s mother land on which she had made a coffee plantation. But this black raised the slaves on the plantations of his master and his own mother, set them on fire, and joined the revolution, which gave him a high command.
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.
They were fortunate in that the troops in Le Cap were few, and de Blanchelande, afraid of the slaves and the white rabble in the town, preferred to act on the defensive. One attack was made by the regulars, who drove the slaves before them, but de Blanchelande, yielding to the nervous fears awakened in the city, recalled the detachment. This left the revolution master of the countryside. Gaining courage, the blacks extended their destruction over the plain. If they had had the slightest material interest in the plantations, they would not have destroyed so wantonly. But they had none. After a few weeks they stopped for a moment to organize themselves. It is at this period, one month after the revolt had begun, that Toussaint Bréda joined them, and made an unobtrusive entrance into history.