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The Black Jacobins

Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution

By C.L.R. James
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The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C.L.R. James

The Black Jacobins traces the remarkable history of the revolution in the French colony of San Domingo (modern day Haiti). It describes the events that helped the revolution become the first successful slave rebellion in history.

In particular, The Black Jacobins views the events through the prism of the revolution’s greatest figure, Toussaint L’Ouverture. It shows how he, a former slave who was inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, successfully defeated the European empires and helped to destroy the brutal practice of slavery in San Domingo.

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Key idea 1 of 13

The “free” population in San Domingo was made up of various competing social classes.

In San Domingo, the slaves did all the work, which made the colony prosperous. Above them were a whole host of social classes which profited from this labor.

At the top of the social structure were members of the French bureaucracy, which included the governor of the island and his administrators. They ran the colony on behalf of the French crown.  

Then there was the “white” population of San Domingo, which numbered approximately 30,000 people.

The most prosperous colonists were the big whites. These included the Europeans who owned the plantations on which the slaves worked. They became very rich from the crops that were produced. Also included in this class were the merchants who traded both the slaves and the crops the slaves produced. They disliked the bureaucracy because it had the monopoly on power in the colony.  

Under the big whites social class were the small whites. These were the poorer members of the European community and included the managers of the slave estates, tradesmen and professionals like draftsmen and carpenters, as well as unskilled laborers. Many of these people came to the colony because here the color of their skin made them important. In Europe they were seen as the lower classes, but in San Domingo they held power over the people of colour.

Then there was the mixed-race and “free” black population, which numbered about 40,000 people. Although many of these people were hard working and prosperous, they were denied rights or certain positions in society due to the colour of their skin. For example, a white man could trespass on the property of a mixed-race man and even seduce his wife, but if the mixed-race man complained, he ran the risk of being lynched. Resentment therefore built up in this class at their lack of rights and privileges.

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