The Black Jacobins, Haiti, and America as a Keyword

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History of Haiti

File:San Domingo.jpg
The Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) was a period of brutal conflict in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, leading to the elimination of slavery and the establishment of Haiti as the first republic ruled by people of African ancestry.

Precolonial Early History and Dominion

Haiti occupies one-third of the island of Hispaniola, discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492, but inhabited by indigenous people called the Taino Indians long before his arrival. The Spaniards exploited the island for gold, enslaving the locals and infecting them with smallpox. French buccaneers settled the western side of the island and before long, Spain and France were at odds over who owned this piece of land. The Treaty of Ryswick of 1697 bequeathed the western third of the French and the remainder to the Spaniards. It quickly became the richest French colony in part because of the enslaved African's physical input, but also their knowledge about the crops of coffee, sugar, and indigo [2].

Revolution and Independence

When word of French 'Liberte' spread to the island, slaves desired freedom. The slaves of Saint-Domingue revolted in 1791 and inspired future Haitians to rebel. Also, the Jacobins in France sought to abolish slavery in all the French colonies. Toussaint l'Ouverture was a former slave who rose to importance within the uprising, he drove out Spanish and British invaders who threatened the stability of the colony. Yet, The French Emperor |Napoleon kidnapped and imprisoned l'Ouverture where he later died. A general of Toussaint's took the reins, a |Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who was declared emperor. Dessalines exterminated the remaining whites, and independence was declared in 1804. Struggles for power continued, and Dessalines was assassinated in 1806. A long succession of coups have marred this countries history, climbing up to 32 in it's 200-year history [3].

America as a Keyword

"America" by Kirsten Silva Gruesz

Kirsten Grueszs’ short essay analyzes the keyword ‘America’, asks how people should define it, and talks about the discourse associated with it. Gruesz looks at “America” as a literary term as well as a cultural term, and how these ideologies and viewpoints change from region to region. She points out that the word America technically means the area from the Yukon to Patagonia, but many people associate America with the United States as a misnomer. A sub claim within the essay is how the term is viewed by many people, who originally named it and what name is most fitting? Africans view “America” as the “land of the blacks”, the Vikings see it as the “Land of Darkness”, and its current meaning is the “race of races”. Gruesz looks close into this question and states that “these discoveries have led to the radical proposition that the name “America” comes from within the New World rather than being imposed on it”. This quote makes a great point that the keyword itself is different depending on who analyzes it, and what time frame is being examined. Because this cultural term is used and viewed by many groupd of people, defining it is harder than it appears.

Multiple Meanings

The United States as of 1794. The region south of the Missouri River and west of the Mississippi seems well mapped, but north of the Missouri is the legend "Unexplored Country."
  • The entire hemisphere from the Yukon to Patagonia
  • A shortened form of the United States of America's name
  • A U.S. citizen
  • The 'race of races', a common people melting pot
  • Different possible Origins:
  1. After the explorer Amerigo Vespucci
  2. After John Cabot's patron, Richard Ameryk
  3. From the Viking's word 'Mark'or 'Maruk' for "Land of Darkness"
  4. Moor or African word for "land of the blacks"
  5. Nicaraguan or Mayan for a 'gold rich' district in their territories
  • Now synonymous with the USA, terms like 'Americanization" and "Americanism" symbolize the United States culture. Also because of this, America has come to mean 'homogenization and consolidation'
  • Devil's definition- the term 'Americans' are referred to as being better, those who are not considered American are seen as wicked.
  • Many more contemporary meanings can be found | here


The origin of the term "America" is unclear. No one really know who first discover the land or where the name came from.

America as Found in "The Black Jacobins"

Thomas Lear

|Mr. Tobias Lear - The American Consul of San Domingo

-Tobias Lear is an interesting character to explore when it comes to understanding how C.L.R. James is depicting the keyword America.

Seen in the play, the word America is used to refer to the United States of America rather then the Americas as a whole (here the United States to refer to what James calls America). There can be many reasons for this, James could be using this usage to highlight how United States is already becoming the dominate power of the new world. He could also be employing this usage to separate San Dominico/Haiti from the United States. What is interesting it not how he uses the word but how the word American is depicted. A central character that can be seen representing the United States is Mr. Tobias Lear. First introduced to him, this is what we hear:

When he first enters the room:

1st Servant says “ Can we get anything for you?”
Lear: No. Everything looks satisfactory
1st Servant: May I get you anything to drink, sir?
Lear: No. I am expecting guest. When they arrive. . . Ah, it that is General Maitland or General Hedouville, show them in at once. Anybody else, send them away.

What does this say about how James is representing the United States? Lear seems focus on making a good appearance, everything looks in order, he is not drinking. Is the United States that worried about appearance? His last sentence is interesting “Anybody else, send them away.” The representative for America must limit his appearances making sure he seems busy, emphasizing his high status.

In a few lines later:

Lear greets General Maitland the Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces in San Domingo the narrator states “he is obviously nervous”

This next part states to set up the atmosphere of Lear’s with General Maitland or should I say Maitland’s conversation with Lear. After all this prep work, he is still nervous to face the Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces. This illustrates how even as the dominate power of the Americas the United States is still afraid of Britain, even after claiming independence, it still seeks approval from it former leader.

"The Black Jacobins" Claims & Evidences

The Black Jacobins
[1] C.L.R. James

"The Black Jacobins" by |C.L.R. James

The Black Jacobins is a historical play that examines the Haitian revolution and its intertwining with the |French Revolution between 1790-1805. The opening act occurs in the French colony of San Domingo, when Toussaint L’Ouverture organizes the revolt of Black slaves against the French. The play discuses France struggles with the US, Britain, its countries revolution and the retaliation of the slaves as a product of that. Toussaint doesn’t want to flee to America because they still have slaves, yet doesn’t want to become an independent colony because support from France is essential. This then analyzes the question, ‘what is freedom?’ Although this revolution was a defining moment in history for black slaves, negative treatment such as abuse and threat, still occurred by the French. Overall, the Haitian Revolution was greatly impacted by the French Revolution. When the British invaded San Domingo, black slaves led by Toussaint decided to fight for the French if they would free all slaves. Toussaint’s leadership appealed to slaves, which then made him a leading figure. With dialogue and historical background, James illustrates this in his play.

Main Claim

Though America did not make a large appearance in the Black Jacobins, its influence and presence was nonetheless apparent. America only enters the play in the scene with Tobias Lear, the American consul in San Domingo, and Generals Maitland and Hédouville of England and France, respectively. Prior to the entrance of the two Generals, Lear was seen as "obviously nervous" (79) and was making sure that everything in the room was prepared for when the generals arrived. When they did arrive, they were both presented with an air of authority and composure, seemingly contrasting against the almost "weak" Lear of America. However, as the play continued on, the credibility of the two generals decreased. General Maitland, after the French general left, speaks to Toussaint's generals and tells them that "Governor L'Ouverture can establish himself as King" and that "His Majesty, King George the Third of England would welcome as his brother, His Majesty King Toussaint L'Ouverture the First of San Domingo." (81) Maitland then says that "America will throw its weight in support of this policy" (81) showing the authority he feels he assumes over San Domingo and the consul of America. Also, General Hédouville is later seen with Marie Jeanne as his mistress and he does not discuss his intentions in San Domingo during the generals meeting. America, on the other hand, embodied by the consul Lear, is merely attempting to "consult with one another about this fantastic Negro, this Toussaint L'Ouverture" (79) In this sense, the two generals are portrayed negatively when compared to Lear and acting as foils to America and its intentions and ideals in the Caribbean with respect to the French or the English. Because of this comparison, America is almost presented as the one who should make the decisions in this "neutral territory" (79) as they are the most credible of the three countries.

Sub Claims

Slavery in America
1. America was invented before it was discovered. Slavery in America created the modern idea of freedom. The French idea of freedom was not the same as the American sense of freedom. Freedom in America was not imposed by the French idea of freedom; rather it was created in opposition to harsh American slavery. Haiti had freedom before the United States
a. They could be independent and go to America but America had slaves.
With this form of increased slavery, the America's, especially San Domingo begins the fight for freedom. The conditions created by this "modern" form of slavery only reinforced the need form freedom. San Domingo was one of the first to get it, but even so, they where not really free. The small island grated them their freedom, but the countries around them did not grant them this same right, so in a sense they were still not truly free.
2.Limited freedom – they still have to do work, its just whole they are doing the work for.
a. Not slaves, but fellas to do heavy work. "I am a soldier. I am free. What is the use of being free and having to move a piano? When I was a slave I had to move the piano. Now I am free I have to move the piano." (74)
b. "I am against taking anything from the British, either from general or from king. They don't own us. They can give us nothing. That is what I am against. But that we should declare ourselves free from the French; that we should make San Domingo a free and independent country; that I am for." (83)
c. "We don't become independent because the British will help us. We do it because the country belongs to us. We have made it what it is, and we alone can make it what it can be. Nobody else can." (83)
d. "Toussaint: What we want is protection. We want to be protected by France. We want to learn from France. France will send capital and administrators to help us develop and educate the country.
Vincent: This is something entirely new. America has become independent but America is a big country and...
Toussaint: You mean that Americans were free men and not slaves. They were white and not black." (90)
e. "Toussaint: ... In San Domingo we are an outpost of freed slaves. All around us in the Caribbean black men are slaves. Even in the independent United States, black men are slaves. In south America black men are slaves... I intend to take one thousand soldiers, go to Africa and free hundreds of thousands in the black slaves trade there and bring them here, to be free and French" (90)
3. The Americas invented our modern understanding of slavery.
a. “Some had known and accepted slavery for hundreds of years. But as soon as they came here and saw only black men from Africa were slaves, and because they were black could be nothing else but slaves, one thought became dominant in their minds – freedom! …For unless you do, this island will be an island of blood and graves.” (77)
4. The United State's concept of freedom was conceived elsewhere before the creation of the the country.

Related Sources

  1. This is a video on music artist Wyclef Jean on Haiti's earthquake.
  2. Wikipedia's take on the Haitian Revolution.
  3. Webster University displays different essays and works dealing with the Haitian Revolution.
  4. Haiti was the first black republic in the world.
  5. PBS video: Égalité for All: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution
  6. Student explains the history of the Haitian revolution.

Page Workers

-Jade;  "The Black Jacobins" and "America" gloss 
-Thuan; Edit passages and help piece sound coherent & Images
-Milan; The Black Jacobins main claim and support 
-Titus; Choose Relevant Keywords to Link to
-Cory; The Black Jacobins sub claims and support  
-Kate; America as a Keyword & History of Haiti & Images & Embedded Links