The following is an illuminating lecture by Paul Foot on the Haitian slave revolt where he challenges the perception that British goodwill ended slavery. The lecture is based on C.L.R. James’ classic study The Black Jacobins. There is also an excellent documentary on this topic titled Egalite for All: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution.
Paul Foot – The Haitian Slave Revolt of 1791 (57:27): MP3
Paul Foot vividly describes how the most successful slave revolt in history, which began in 1791, came to be closely allied to the events of the French Revolution and how each in turn influenced the other.
Taking self-emancipation as his main theme, Foot also challenges the idea that it was William Wilberforce, the British Tory MP and factory owner, that brought about the abolition of the most brutal and systematic regime of bondage and exploitation.
On the contrary, it was the San Domingo slave army itself, brilliantly led by their General, Toussaint L’Ouverture that made the greatest contribution to the ending of slavery. Over twelve years this Caribbean revolution defeated the French slave owners, Spanish colonists, a British expeditionary force, a native mulatto army and finally, Napoleon’s army. Through this struggle, independence was won in what had been France’s most profitable colony, which today we know as Haiti.
In a talk lasting one hour Paul Foot brings the lessons of these events to life, encompassing an array of hidden history in a compelling and humorous way.
7 thoughts on “The Haitian Slave Revolt”
Characteristically illuminating and inspirational Foot’s like will not grace the political stage again.
I would highly recommend his final work,The Vote:How It Was Won and How It Was Lost.
The humorous touches in this oration on L’Ouverture help make the message sparkle with Foot’s customary insight.
The joke re-Columbus “discovering” America reminded me of Flip Wilson’s take on the same topic.
Leaving grammar school aged 35 Columbus visits Queen Isabel to tell her of his America project.
“If I don’t discover America there’s not gonna be a Benjamin Franklin,or a star-Spangled Banner,no land of the free,and the home of the brave,and no Ray Charles.”
On hearing there’d be no Ray Charles the queen panics,”no Ray Charles….Ray Charles,you gonna find Ray Charles? He in America?”
Isabel runs through the castle screaming for Ferdinand,”Chris gon’ fine Ray Charles.He goin’ to America on that boat.What you say?”
She writes him out a travellers cheque and Chris runs to local Army and Navy store before armed with three used ships,two pairs of fatigues,some shades and ships’ supplies inc.chicken sandwiches,3 cans Vienna sausage,5 cases of Scotch,and a small 7-Up he leaves for America.
Great lecture, however we should not completely romanticise the Haitian revolution; which ended under huge pressure from international forces (Napoleon himself order not only a blockade). However, as well pointed out by James in The Black Jacobins the class issue was not overcome by the independence revolt. For a great perspective of this I strongly recommend the novel ‘The Kingdom of this World’ by one of Latin America’s finest writers Alejo Carpentier.
The Kingdom of this World is not history. A. Carpentier’s book could just as easily been written by a member of the KKK.
Just before mutiny sets in on the voyage Chris arrives in the New World.
It’s a big holiday in America that day,a big holiday called “Not-having-Been-Discovered-Yet-Day”.All the Indians on the beach,they are celebrating.They got sandwiches,sixpacks,3/4 bags of whatever it is they putting in the pipe.Chris leans over the rail of the ship,he says,”Hey y’all.Y’all.Where is this?”
Fine little Indian girl….fine little West Indian girl standing there on the beach.”Why what’s yo’ name? What the hell you want,comin’round here in dem ships?” “My name is Christopher Columbus.I’m a discoverer.I’m going to discover y’all”.Little Indian girl says,”We don’t want to be discovered.You can’t discover nobody if they don’t want to be discovered.You better discover your ass away from here.”
As Chris tries to land the Indians are throwing rocks,spears,flaming arrows,tree trunks….yelling out a bunch of profanities ’bout Chris’s mother and everything.
As the crew takes fright Chris orders them to turn the boat around.”We’ll make a map and give it to the pilgrims,” he says.
“The pilgrims’ll fix their ass!”
Curiously Trotskyites like Foot and C L R James have been drawn to the “Black Jacobins” but not the French ones!
This notwithstanding the fact that by 1792 the tricolor banner had replaced by the red flag of social revolution!
Lest we forget Lenin called the Bolsheviks the Jacobins of the twentieth century.
Could it be that such writers like to distance themselves from the violence and sadism that seem to come as the inevitable sequel to such social upheavals?
Perhaps we should research more carefully the roles revolutionaries like Condorcet and Paine played in the French Revolution.Just whose cause were they advancing?
Likewise were we to more closely examine the roles played by Lenin and Trotsky in the Russian Revolution we would find that neither were adverse to dealing severely with the enemies of their revolution.
In this sense the French Revolution bore the hallmarks of the English one that preceded it and the Russian one that came later.
In all three nationhood and religion were attacked on the pretext of curbing the tyranny of kings and priests.When this was achieved a much harsher despotism ensued.
Neither official historians nor Trotskyite ones have satisfactorily explained how in all three cases what followed the apparent dawn of new life when it was bliss to be alive was always despotism,ennui and the sapping of the national spirit.
Could it be that the pre-eminent actors in both revolutions like Condorcet and Paine in relation to the French and Lenin in the Russian
I have a crush the size of Jupiter on Thomas Paine, so he cannot possibly have been responsible for any wrongdoing or demoralizing stuff anywhere.
And, unfortunately, dealing harshly with the former oppressors who have so recently been vanquished seems the only way to put the fear in any who might want to follow in their footsteps. The rub seems to be that it doesn’t last… or the perks were so outrageous that the greedheads simply redouble their efforts to set things back the way they want them.
I’m very big on not killing, not harming, even enemies, but the fundamental reality is that killing or harming is sometimes the only way to stop their killing and harming. Above all, stopping that is imperative, and, indeed, when the motive intention is to stop the killing and harming, it isn’t killing or harming, it is stopping the killing and harming.
It’s my firm belief that religions spring from the urges of the nonviolent to find other means of stopping greedheads from killing and harming, and they once worked to some extent, but, clearly, that is no longer the case. The killers and harmers, the greedheads, simply became religionists and continued on their merry way.
The only thing extant that I feel holds out the remotest chance of solving this bane of the entire history of humanity, is the Zeitgeist Movement.
99 Love-object and American friend of the French Revolution Tom Paine had a sense that the ongoing project had been usurped by terrorists from its earliest days.He pleaded in vain for the lives of the King and Queen to be spared and the butchery to cease.
More acute observers came closer to naming the external sources of the Jacobin terror that was then in full swing.Some noticed strong parallels with the Gordon Riots in London earlier in the decade.The Jacobin insurrection in Paris seemed to these observers to replicate on a larger scale the earlier London disorders down to the storming of the Bastille prison and the unleashing of the criminals.
While Foot names British jealousy of fabulous French profits on the back of the slave trade as being a reason for their doomed intervention on San Domin,it should be noted also that in geostrategic terms (often skirted in Marxist history)France and America were both viewed by Britain as dangerous economic and political competitors in the eighteenth century.
France,eschewing the British free trade model in favour of protectionism,had unfairly according to economists like Adam Smith,become by the early 1780s a greater manufacturing nation than England.
British intelligence and the East India Company were not going to stand idly by while competitors to British global free trade domination usurped them.Both France and America for such reasons had to be checked by means of internal sabotage and subversion.
Such means to power are not unknown in Trotskyite circles so that one wonders why historians like James and Foot spent so little time studying the devices developed in the Venetian style by London’s financial oligarchy to counter the American and British threat.Such devices are still powerfully with us today and explain some of the glaring textual aporia in both official,especially official British,and Marxist accounts of major historical events.
British historians adopted the lie still taught in schools today that the French Revolution was a fight won by left radicals over right monarchists.Contemporary witnesses like Thomas Jefferson on the other hand saw British destabilizing efforts behind the Jacobin terror and saw them similarly engaged in fomenting the brief war with England several years later in 1812.
For Jefferson the British sought to “anarchise by gold governments they could not overthrow by force.”
There seems a willed blindness at work when Marxist historians with narrowly proletarian explanations for social change omit the controlling role of financial oligarchies in such change.
Then again Marx himself was very much a product of the British East India Company’s Haileybury school of political economy.Maybe this explains at least some of the aforementioned textual aporia?
Had you woken up with Tom Paine on that morning in 1789 when it was bliss to be alive before the terrorists had taken over you might have had cause to celebrate.
Along with Paine you might well have fallen out of love with the course of events that followed though!