The Black Jacobins, Haiti, and Ethnicity as a Keyword

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During the beginnings of revolution-era Haiti, notions of ethnicity and ethnic identity proved to be significant factors as it initially acted as a catalyst in progressing the movement of a free black nation but eventually evolved into an obstacle in truly forging the different peoples together, as illustrated in C.L.R. James' novel and play, The Black Jacobins.

File:Haitian revolution.jpg
An artistic depiction of Hatian Revolution. The Revolution and military conflict in San Domingo was largely caused by racial struggles between African descent slaves, free Mulattos and white European colonists.


The History and Background of Haiti

The birth of the country of Haiti was formed through years of turmoil and violence caused by the Haitian Revolution. The Haitian Revolution was initiated in the small French colony formally known as Saint-Domingue. This colony was originally a piece of the Spanish island called San Domingo until French pirates claimed ownership of the western third of the island which came to be known as Saint-Domingue. In 1791, a revolution against the French by the black slaves caused an irreversible overthrow of the white elites in society.

Background of Haitian Revolution

The Saint-Domingue French colonists sought after the solid establishment of sugar plantations in order to become wealthy. Unable to efficiently produce the sugar cane themselves, black slaves were utilized in order to gain riches. The excruciating task of producing sugarcane proved to significantly decrease the life of a worker. As many slaves died frequently, the white plantation owners had to continuously import new slaves. Many of these imported slaves were inadequetly treated as they were abused, medically neglected, and overworked.

There was also an established social caste in the Saint-Domingue colony. There were three different peoples. The free whites, the mullatos, who were free men of color, and the enslaved blacks who were generally imported from Africa. The enslaved blacks outnumbered the whites and mullatos 8 to one. There were high racial tentions between these groups. The Mulattos, despite being considered free men of color and placed higher in society, were not fully accepted by either the blacks or the whites. The blacks envied the mullatos as they received better treatment and education.

The Revolution

The slaves had initiated what the white masters had lived in fear of: rebellion. During the rebellion a particular man rose up to become the leader in which would lead to the establishment of the country of Haiti. Toussaint L'Ouverture had assembled a mighty number of former slaves in order to revolt against their once oppresive masters. Although many slaves wished to pillage, mutilate, and murder the white population, Toussaint openly discouraged such acts. Although he had lead his people to victory, he was betrayed by a man named Jean-Jacques Dessalines who took his place and crowned himself as the new ruler. He then declared that there would no longer be a Saint-Domingue but in its place would be the free country of Haiti.



Main Claim and Sub-claims on The Black Jacobins, Haiti, and Ethnicity

During the beginnings of revolution-era Haiti, notions of ethnicity and ethnic identity proved to be significant factors as it initially acted as a catalyst in progressing the movement of a free black nation but eventually evolved into an obstacle in truly forging the different peoples together, as illustrated in C.L.R. James' novel and play, The Black Jacobins.

In a racially divided society of San Domingo which contained African-descendent black slaves, free Mulattos and white European colonists, the new ethnic identity of Haiti sought to achieve higher goals of unity and freedom through the means of Revolution, led by the former slaves themselves. However, the newly formed nation ultimately did not succeed in eliminating the class differences and racial struggles due to some of the different ethnic characteristics, such as religion, where Voodoo and Christian practices were divided, and slavery background that mostly created a large gap between the former-slaves black population and newly emerged Mulatto elites.

Racial Divisions

File:Mulatto.jpg
Depiction of a Mulatto child with a white European settler and African-descent black parents.
The racial boundaries that divided the people of Haiti in the pre-revolutionary era can be described as division into four main groups of people: the whites, the free people of color, the black slaves, and the maroons. The whites numbered approximately 20,000 and can be also be divided into two other sub-divisions: the planters, and "petit blancs" [1]. The planters were those with the majority of the power as they owned many of the plantations and slaves. Though they did favor revolution, they were pro-slavery as their wealth depended on it. The white planters desired freedom from the rule of the French which restricted them to economy dependency and trade with only the French nation. In addition, the "petit blancs," who were the artisans of the time, were also pro-slavery as they viewed certain free blacks as a treat to their economic security.
Another distinct group of the time was the free people of color, who numbered about 30,000 in 1789 [2]. Similar to the previous group, they too can be seperated into two subdivisions: the Mulattoes, and those who had purchased their freedom. The group titled Mulattoes can be defined, in this context, as children of white Frenchmen and slave women. Many times those in this racial group were given freedom as a result of guilt on the part of the white father and sometimes favored by them. The other free blacks had bought their freedom and become relatively stable in terms of their finances. Often times they too owned plantations and slaves, which many times resulted in heightened hostility with the slaves. The free people of color were prominently pro-slavery and were constantly striving to be more "white" in terms of the social status, ridding themselves of any trace of African heritage whether it was religion or language.
The third major group is the black slaves, numbering up to 500,000 and outnumbering the free people [3]. The black slaves were treated brutally under harsh conditions, and like the previous groups can be separated into two categories: domestic slaves and field hands. The domestic slaves were not put under as difficult as situations as the field hands but they too were forced to fulfill the will of either their while or mulatto slaves. The field hands, were seen at the time to be of very low value and because they could simply be replaced their was almost no effort to help sustain slave life.
The maroons were the last group defined in this time period. The maroons, were a group of run-away slaves who had held true to their African heritage and hid in the Saint-Domingue mountains.
The significance of these distinct groups in the rise of the revolution and the later simmering of movement is shown through James' "The Black Jacobins." The presence of racial superiority of the whites in Haiti is evident through out the prologue as each situation that is presented shows the societal roles that both white masters and black slaves take on and also show how they interact. This is shown specifically in "THE HOTEL,"in which the White Man states, "He had the effrontery to say that if our blacks could not vote, and could be counted in the census, then there were mules and horses in France who could be counted in their census" (70). The difference between the Mullato and black slaves is also show through the character of Maire-Jeanne who experiences certain advantages due to her racial standing. This relationship is clearly described by Hedouville as he states that, " But here was the problem: the mulattoes, being half white, educated and privileged, have always felt themselves superior to the blacks. The blacks, being slaves, have always envied the mulattoes. They have never trusted each other. But both the mulattoes and the the blacks trusted Toussaint. And since the while representatives from San Domingo also urged that Toussaint was loyal to France - we had no choice! With the support of the whites, the mulattoes and the blacks, Toussaint could control the Colony - for France" (79). Though the groups were divided by race, they were united under one man and one idea, Toussaint. It wasn't long however, before this unification was overcome by the preexisting racial divisions. As Hedouville himself states later, "Until he [Toussaint] is removed there is no freedom for anybody else in San Domingo.

Religion: Voodoo and Christian identity

James' explores the social tensions regarding religion as another component of Hatian revolution-era ethnic identity.
These tensions were most notably between the people practicing Voodoo and Christianity. With origins dating back to the 16th Century, the Voodoo religion emerged as a fusion of West African Vodun and Catholic practices. The religion's complex origins contributed to controversy (and social turmoil) involving the identity of those practicing Voodoo.
In The Black Jacobins James illustrates the social stigmas, stereotypes and connotations of Voodoo practice. Religion became a topic of controversy in the establishment of Haiti as a free black nation, particularly because Christianity was so closely associated with European ethnic identity. When Haitian revolution leader Toussaint Louverture was succeeded by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, becomes angered over voodoo practice. "No more of that drumming. No voodoo. Anybody in my detachment who practises Voodoo will be shot on the spot. No Voodoo and none of that drumming" (102). To which a fellow Haitian leader, Henri Christophe argues that "Whey have you stopped the drumming? When Toussaint was Governor, he gave those instructions, but those days are over...all the French generals say that people can drum and dance voodoo as they like...as a matter of fact, in the old dsya, they say, you were a great voodoo dancer yourself, General Dessalines" (102). Through this exchange James captures two generals grappling with what role Voodoo plays in the ethnic identity of Haiti and what it connotates socially. Under revolutionary leader Louverture, Catholicism was established as the state religion; however, with Louverture no longer in power, Voodoo played a significant role in the development of Haitian ethnic identity.

Slavery in Haiti and Ethnicity

File:Slavery Punish.jpeg
A depiction of African-descent slave being punished by a white European-descent man. Although black slaves became free men in Haiti after the Revolution, their lack of education and lack of political understandings further increased the ethnic boundary between themselves and the newly-emerged elite class of Mulattos.


Racial division between the white Europeans, free Mulattos and African-descent blacks escalated during the Haitian revolution due to the institution of slavery that had existed in San Domingo.
In his analysis of the term “ethnicity”, Henry Yu defines the word as “cultural traits…utterly divorced from the workings of the physical body, defined as ‘race’” (Yu 103). In the contemporary western society, ethnicity is widely used as a term to describe one’s cultural and environmental aspects of identity, as a movement to step away from defining the physical traits of races, which its usage had often led to segregations. It is further discussed that subsuming term race, “under the broader category of ethnicity was both significant attempt at offering a solution to racial conflict and a sign of the persistent difficulties with distinguishing between the two” (Yu 104). Considering the fact that identifying an individual with physical skin color, such as blacks, whites, etc, had often been associated with slavery and racial struggles and segregation, race is a term that now contains a significant sense of negative connotation. In this respect, usage of ethnicity is regarded as a way to bridge and mend racial struggles, as well as acknowledging and appreciating the different cultures between people.
However, in Haiti during its revolution, ethnic differences had also developed as a stumbling block to bring unity and peace between its residents, due to the issue of slavery in the island. African-descents in Haiti, during their colonial period were labored in European owned sugar cane plantations as slaves for generations. However, Mulattos, the mixed race between blacks and white Europeans, were not put into slavery, but received some education and formed what could be considered as middle class between the elite European and African slaves. Difference between “slaves” and “free-men” in these two groups of people was something greater than the physical attributes of race, but deeply affected ethnical aspects of cultural background, environment that they were raised and educated in, and social life styles. This is most exemplified in Mulatto’s reaction during the Haitian Revolution that was led by Toussaint Overture and many other former African-descent slaves. Mulattos found little cause to join the blacks to acquire freedom and autonomy, and some even sympathized more with European colonists.
Slavery thus assumed a significant role in dividing these two groups of people and continuing the class struggles even after the Revolution itself. As former slaves, most African-descents had no or very little education and their lives were most centered on rural subsistence farming. This meant that blacks, who were the key figures in Revolution and acquiring the independence from European colonists, had miniscule involvement in politics, commerce and diplomacy. Thus, the Mulattos, who were raised with European-styled education and acquired wealth and land, emerged as the new elite class in independent Haiti. C.L.R James's The Black Jacobins depicts a scene where few former-slaves are moving a heavy piano and performing other tasks that are similar to the work of slaves for their superiors. One of the men moving the piano, Marat, expresses that "in France, the slaves do not move pianos anymore...they make the old Counts and Dukes move them" (74), complaining that little has changed about their lives even though they are not literally slaves anymore. Another character, Orleans, explains "Liberty-Equality-Fraternity" as "Liberty is when you kill the mater; equality, he's dead and can't beat you again; and fraternity...what is fraternity?"(75) proving that these former-slaves have very little education and knowledge to reduce the difference and gap between the more educated Mulattos. Although slavery was abolished and eliminated after the Revolution, the very class distinction and struggles remained between the new peasants and elites. Little involvement and representation of major black population in Haitian politics thereafter could also be blamed for French and some Mulatto’s attempt to reestablish slavery back in to the newborn nation, which would have undermined the whole cause of the Revolution and the independence.


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