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8933: This Week In Haiti Vol.19No.23 08/22/01 (fwd)
"This Week in Haiti" is the English section of HAITI PROGRES
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"Le journal qui offre une alternative"
* THIS WEEK IN HAITI *
August 22 - 28, 2001
Vol. 19, No. 23
THE LESSONS OF THE HAITIAN REVOLUTION
SELECTIONS FROM "THE BLACK JACOBINS"
(First of two parts)
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
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
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
régime under which the colonies have most prospered, asked
Bonaparte, and on being told the ancien régime [former
colonialist regime], he decided to restore it, slavery and
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 Fouché'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  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
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
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 Vendée. 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 père and grandfather of Alexandre fils.
France has erected a monument to these three in the Place
2. Correspondence of Napoleon.
3. Eugene Tarlé, Bonaparte, London, 1937, pp 116-117.
4. To the Minister. Les Archives Nationales. AF. IV, 1187.
5. Mémoires pour Servir.... Vol. II, p. 319.
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