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The Black Jacobins

Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution

By C.L.R. James
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  • Contains 14 key ideas
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The Black Jacobins 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.

Key idea 1 of 14

The very prosperous French colony of San Domingo was sustained by the brutal practice of slavery.

In the late seventeenth century, France acquired the colony of San Domingo (modern-day Haiti) in the West Indies. Over the next century, this colony was to prove very prosperous for the French. Its soil was fertile, allowing crops like indigo, cotton, sugar and coffee to be grown.

Yet, there was a problem: to grow and harvest these crops, a huge amount of labor was needed, and this wasn’t readily available. The original native population of the island had all but been wiped out by European colonists, and the climate made it almost impossible for European laborers to carry out the back-breaking work.

The solution to this problem was to use African slaves. In San Domingo, along with the other European colonies in the Americas, huge numbers of African people were forcibly transported from their homelands to work as slaves. The scale of the slave trade was enormous; by the late eighteenth century, there were about half-a-million slaves in San Domingo alone.

Life for the slaves was incredibly brutal. Although the French government laid down rules about how they must be treated, these rules were more often than not ignored. The colonists saw the slaves as their property to do with as they wished. They forced the slaves who worked in the fields to do incredibly exhausting tasks from dawn until dusk in the intense heat.

They also subjected their “property” to the most inhumane treatment. Punishments for even the smallest of misdemeanours were harsh, and whippings and beatings became very common. For worse crimes, the punishments were horrific; for example, there were even cases of slaves being filled with gunpowder and blown up.

This violent and degrading system kept the colony of San Domingo prosperous in its raw materials, allowing many settlers to become very rich.

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