The Black Jacobins by C L R James

Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution

Allison & Busby, 1984, 426 p including 11 p Bibliography and 28 p Appendix plus i p Map of San Domingo, i p Contents, iii p Foreword and iii p Preface to the First Edition. First published in 1938.

 The Black Jacobins cover

C L R James was a Trinidadian historian and journalist whose book on cricket has been described by none other than John Arlott as the finest book written on the game. He was also a Marxist which if you didn’t already know could be divined here from the frequent use of the word bourgeoisie and many mentions of class. Note also, “The rich are only defeated when running for their lives.”

The San Domingo Revolution was the only successful slave revolt in history. It eventually led to the establishment of the state of Haiti. Toussaint L’Ouverture, who changed his name from Toussaint Bréda when he joined the revolt, was its undoubted hero. James says however that “Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint.”

San Domingo was a prodigious source of wealth for its white sugar planters and the merchants back in France who traded its product; wealth built on the backs of the slave workers imported from Africa, a slave trade which James says had turned Central Africa from peace and happy civilisation to violence and ferocity, the product of an intolerable pressure on the African peoples. Of those who dispute that statement we have, “Men will say (and accept) anything in order to foster national pride or soothe a troubled conscience.”

Before the revolt San Domingo was riven by differences; between the planters and the bureacracy, big whites, small whites, Mulattoes, blacks. (For some reason I couldn’t fathom James always capitalises the word Mulattoes.) For the small white with not much in the way of property, “race prejudice was more important than even the possession of slaves. The distinction between a white man and a man of colour was for them fundamental.” An illustration of the central importance of colour to San Domingan life was that, “They divided the offspring of white and black and intermediate shades into 128 divisions. The true Mulatto was the child of pure white and pure black, a quarteron was the child of a Mulatto woman and a white man. This went all the way down to the sang-mêlé of 127 parts white and one part black but who was still a person of colour. These distinctions exemplify “the justification of plunder by any obvious differentiation to those holding power.” I note here that James describes pure blacks as negroes. I suppose the usage was common in the 1930s when he was writing but it strikes an odd note now.

Free Mulattoes were able to save, to own property and eventually to lend money. Their threat was such that, “white San Domingo passed a series of laws which for maniacal savagery are unique in the modern world.” But the Mulattoes were too numerous and the colonists had to be satisfied with humiliations such as restrictions on dress, meetings, travel, and so on. Black slaves and Mulattoes hated each other, and those who were more white despised people with blacker ancestry. This internalisation of racial prejudice was still prevalent in the Jamaica of James’s present.

In 1789 San Domingo accounted for 11 of the 17 million pounds of France’s export trade. The beginning of British efforts to abolish slavery was an attempt to undermine this economic powerhouse. “The slave trade and slavery were the economic basis of the French Revolution.” The fortunes made, “gave to the bourgeoisie that pride which needed liberty and contributed to emancipation.” But then came the French Revolution and the ideals of liberté, egalité and fraternité, which took root in the fertile ground of the plantations.

When the uprising finally came James says that the slaves in their vengefulness were surprisingly moderate, far more humane than their masters had been, not maintaining it for long – unlike the systematic and enduring abuse the slaves had suffered. Toussaint himself established early a “great reputation for humanity, a very singular thing in the San Domingo of those days.” The crucial event for the sustenance of the revolt was the abolition of slavery by the Constituent Assembly in Paris, a reason for the slaves to cleave to revolutionary ideals thereafter.

Britain then promptly rowed back on the abolition of slavery and attempted to take over San Domingo. Under Toussaint the former slaves inflicted on Britain “the severest defeat that has befallen a British expeditionary force between the days of Elizabeth and the Great War.” The British lost more men in actual deaths than Wellington did to all causes in the entire Peninsular War, “‘her arm for six fateful years fettered and paralysed.'” Held by Toussaint and his raw levies Britain could not attack the revolution in France.

James has an undiluted admiration for Toussaint (along with Nelson and Napoleon one of the three outstanding personalities of the times) though admits his one fatal flaw. His allegiance to the French Revolution made him what he was; but in the end this ruined him. “His desire to avoid destruction was the very thing that caused it. It is the recurring error of moderates when face to face with a revolutionary struggle.”

The rise of Napoleon is seen by James as the bourgeoisie reasserting itself. Under Bonaparte it was the French intention to restore slavery on the island and their actually doing so in Guadeloupe that led to Haiti’s final independence. Toussaint’s blind spot had seen him acquiesce to the new French Governor, eventual imprisonment, transportation to, and eventual death in, France. It was Toussaint’s more ruthless deputy Dessalines who came to see independence was the revolt’s only hope.

James keeps describing the slaves and their culture as primitive (as he also characterises those of Africa.) Is this as a result of his Marxist view of history and its laws? He notes that slaves brought from Africa were compelled to master European languages, “highly complex products of centuries of civilisation.” There was therefore “a gap between the rudimentary conditions of the life of the slave and the language he used.” (Note also that inclusive – exclusive? – “he”.) It seems to me these sentiments are profoundly condescending – to African and slave alike.

Everything in the book is seen through the prism of Marxism, an approach which seems almost quaint these days as does James’s conclusion that salvation for the West Indies lies in Africa.

Aside:- For a fictional treatment of the slave revolution I would recommend the excellent All Souls’ Rising by Madison Smartt Bell. Having looked that up I discover Bell has published two subsequent books on the subject.

Pedant’s corner:- “All the slaves, however, did not undergo this régime.” (Not all the slaves underwent this régime,) “All of them did not submit to it.” (Not all of them submitted to it,) illtreatment (more usually it’s ill-treatment,) knit (knitted,) “adventurers seeking adventure,” (well, yes,) “72 million pounds’ weight of raw sugar and 51 million pounds of white,” (either use the apostrophe or not, don’t mix them,) the the, “both Hyacinth and another men” (man,) Francois’ (Francois’s,) Laveaux’ (Laveaux’s,) understod (understood,) acutal (actual,) Dessalines’ (Dessalines’s.) “It is a typical example of the cloud of lies which obscure the true history” (the cloud of lies which obscures,) “to neglect the race factor as merely incidental as an error only less grave than to make it fundamental” (as merely incidental is an error,) Maurepas’ (Maurepas’s,) Capois’ (Capois’s,) strewed (strewn,) Clairveaux’ (Clairveaux’s,) wirter (writer,) indpendent (independent,) a missing parenthetical end-comma, tonelle (tonnelle?)

God’s Work?

Words almost fail me.

After all, what can you say about an atrocity like this?

The triggering of the bomb took place after the concert had finished. The bomber must have known his targets included children. What on Earth can persuade anyone that the deliberate killing of children is justifiable? What sort of person can even contemplate that?

If it was the act of someone seeking a short cut to heaven what makes them think that a God worth following could ever condone such an act?

Not, anyway, a compasionate, merciful God, upon whom peace should be.

And if they think they are carrying out God’s will why in any case would a God need anybody’s help to work His purposes out? God is by definition omnipotent. Surely taking onto yourself the status of His helper/agent is blasphemy?

The response of the people of Manchester has been magnificent. Humanity trumping barbarism.

This post is for the dead, the injured, their families and all those with any connection to the aftermath of an act which was beyond despicable.

Bruges Canals

As well as fine buildings Bruges is replete with water and is sometimes known as The Venice of the North. I’ve never been to Venice but Bruges is certainly lovely, whatever.

The church in the background here is Bruges Cathedral, The Church of Our Lady:-

A Canal, Bruges

This shows the bridge from which the previous photo was taken:-

Canal and Bridge, Bruges

And this the view from the bridge to the other side:-

Canal, Bruges

View of same building left above from the opposite canal bank:-

Canalside, Bruges

And round the corner:-

Canal, Bruges

Canal and bridge:-

Bridge and Canal, Bruges

Canal:-

Canal, Bruges

Another bridge:-

Canal, Bridge, Bruges

Two Months on

The Switch cover
The Stars Are Legion cover

Two months seems to come round very quickly.

Yesterday The Switch by Justina Robson dropped onto my doormat.

It is the latest book for review in Interzone – to appear in issue 271.

Issue 270 arrived earlier in the week. That one features my review of Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion.

Markt (The Market Square,) Bruges

Some photos of the Markt (Market Square) in Bruges:-

Markt (Market Square) in Bruges

Markt (Market Square) Bruges 2

The statue you can see in the above photo – a seat for tired tourists – is of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, two local heroes from the 14th Century:-

Statue in Markt, Bruges

These horse-drawn carriages were offering trips round the city. At €50 each we gave that a bye. Shanks’s pony is better for you anyway.

Horse Carriages in Markt, Bruges

I liked this compasstower. It has a Deco feel (rule of three in the windows) but I suspect it is much earlier:-

Clocktower, Markt, Bruges

The Provincial Court takes up one side of the square:-

Square in Bruges

On the square’s south side lies the Belfry of Bruges:-

The Belfry, Markt, Bruges

Alternate view of the Belfry from its courtyard:-

The Belfry, Bruges, Alternate View

Bruges, Smedenpoort

Bruges (Brugge) in West Flanders in Belgium is a lovely small city with great buildings.

We entered it through Smedenpoort, a gatehouse built over what looked like may once have been a moat:-

Smedenpoort, Bruges, a Gatehouse

Smedenpoort from the city side of the gate:-

Smedenpoort, Bruges, City Side

View to right from bridge seen above:-

Canal (Moat?) Bruges

View to left:-

Canal (Moat) from Smedenpoort Bridge, Bruges

The streets into the centre were festooned with banners. I couldn’t quite make out what they were displaying:-

A Street in Bruges

The Untouchable by John Banville

Picador, 1997, 412p.

The Untouchable cover

The novel is the memoir of Victor Maskell, scion of the estate of Carrickdrum in Northern Ireland, an Art Historian, expert on Poussin; and a spy for the USSR since his time at Cambridge in the 1930s. His journal is written down as if for Miss Serena Vandeleur, a journalist who comes to him after his exposure to the press long, long after the Security Services had become aware of his treacherous activities. He thus bears a more than superficial resemblance to Anthony Blunt but doubtless the parallels are not entirely exact.

The attention here is incidental but Banville has previously had painting and painters as a subject – as in The Sea, Athena, The Book of Evidence and Ghosts. The focus here (obviously drawn from Blunt’s non-espionage career) is Poussin, specifically Maskell’s prized possession, The Death of Seneca, but, in keeping with the book’s theme of duplicity and subterfuge, there is a suggestion that the work is not genuine, or at least not by Poussin.

The novel is wonderfully written. Each sentence is in perfect balance; a work of art in itself, the text studded with unusual observations, “The silence that fell, or rather rose – for silence rises, surely?” or comments, “He was genuinely curious about people – the sure mark of the second-rate novelist,” and the occasional barb, “Trying for the common touch .. and failing ridiculously.” The literary allusions include a reference to Odysseus’s men drinking sea-dark wine.

There are subtle inferences to the insights of a spy, “He made the mistake of thinking that the way to be convincing is to put on a false front,” and the regrets of the trade, “It is odd, how the small dishonesties are the ones that snag in the silk of the mind,” and later, “It is the minor treacheries that weigh most heavily on the heart.” On encountering a tramp with a dog inside his coat Maskell tells us, “(I was) ashamed that I felt more sorrow for the dog than I did for the man. What a thing it is, the human heart.”

Maskell claims almost from the outset to have been disenchanted with the USSR, a feeling to which his visit there in the 30s only contributed, and that his controllers consistently misunderstood England (as he puts it.) “Much of my time and energy .. was spent trying to teach Moscow to distinguish between form and content in English life.” Despite his betrayals he says, “I was nothing less than an old-fashioned patriot.” In mitigation he asks, “who could have remained inactive in this ferocious century?” and avers, “We should have had no mercy, no qualms. We would have brought down the whole world.”

He receives the Order of the Red Banner (his medal glimpsed only once by him before being hidden away by his handler) for contributing to the Soviet victory at Kursk by transferring details, relayed from Bletchley, of a new German tank design. How much such information really affected that battle is of course debatable.

Some of the dialogue is representative of the times in which the book is set, “Mind if I turn off this nigger racket?” and “‘What’s the matter with the dago, sir?'” being cases in point.

One of Maskell’s defining features is his homosexuality (though he came to it late, after marriage to one of his University friends.) Of a lover of his he tells us, “Patrick had all the best qualities of a wife, and was blessedly lacking in two of the worst: he was neither female, nor fertile,” and further comments “(I ask myself….. if women fully realise how deeply, viscerally, sorrowfully, men hate them.)” He is of the opinion that in the fifties “to be queer was very bliss…. the last great age of queerdom.” The “young hotheads” of the narrator’s present day, “do not seem to appreciate, or at least seem to wish to deny, the aphrodisiac properties of secrecy and fear.”

Part of his early protection from wider exposure was that he was sent by the King to Bavaria after the war to retrieve some potentially compromising papers. A distant relation, he refers sardonically to the Queen as Mrs W.

He has a jaundiced view of humanity and at one point he describes the American system as “itself, so demanding, so merciless, undeluded as to the fundamental murderousness and venality of humankind and at the same time grimly, unflaggingly optimistic.”

His observation about his work on Poussin, that he was trying “to pull together into a unity all the disparate strands of character and inspiration and achievement that make up this singular being,” might be a description of the novel itself. In The Untouchable Banville has laid out for us a life in just such terms.

It is all a fascinating examination of the existence of a spy. As he ponders who it was who unmasked him – possibly twice – Maskell begins to question everything about his life but asides such as, “My memory is not as good as it’s supposed to be. I may have misrecalled everything, got all the details wrong,” and, “As to this – what? this memoir? this fictional memoir?” point to the unreliability of his account.

Brilliant stuff.

Pedant’s corner:- medieval, on first mention we have Petersburg but when Maskell travelled there, in the thirties – and indeed till the nineties – it was called Leningrad, as it is denoted a few pages late, an ambulance siren (in 1939? I’m pretty sure British ambulances had bells at that time,) a missing full stop at the end of a paragraph, “Not the kind of thing you expect to hear from a Harley Street consultant, is it.” (That’s a question so requires a question mark,) “men and women, girls, youths,” (so youths means males only?) Prince’s Street (Princes Street,) “what the Americans delightfully call the pinkie” (I think, my Irish friend, you’ll find they got that word from us Scots,) hoofs (in my youth it was always hooves,) a paragraph starting “Those were the,” and then stopping, the three words repeating at the beginning of the next paragraph – but the nrarrator had just stated his mind was wandering so this may have been intended to indicate that circumstance, for Maskell to be watching a Jean Harlow film in a cinema in the 1950s seems a bit unlikely as she died in 1937, some Highland lough (it’s loch, my Irish friend,) “She made me sit me down” (made me sit down,) slippers turn to sandals then back to slippers within two pages.

The Humber Bridge, Leaving Hull

The Humber Bridge from King George Dock, Hull:-

Humber Bridge from Hull

The exit from King George Dock is through a sea lock. A very tight squeeze! Looking directly down the ship’s side:-

Tight Squeeze

Other side of ship. Only centimetres of water between ship and lock side:-

Tight Squeeze 2

The sea lock:-

Hull sea lock 1

Lock emptying:-

Hull sea lock 2

Nearly at level:-

Hull sea lock 3

Finally moving off:-

Hull sea lock 4

Humber Bridge from Humber Estuary:-

Humber Bridge from Humber Estuary

I never did see the KCom stadium but on the way out of the Humber I spotted the very distinctive Grimsby Dock Tower (picture from Wikipedia):-

Grimsby Dock Tower

Some way beyond it were the four floodlight pylons of what looked very like a football ground which I assume must have been Blundell Park, home of Grimsby Town FC, though it seems the ground is actually in Cleethorpes.

Hull

For our trip to Belgium and the Netherlands we took the ferry from Hull across to Zeebrugge.

At Hull we got onto the ship, examined the cabin, no room to have a cat never mind swing one, then went up on deck.

Hull was surprisingly green but with some industry too.

Over the dockside rooftops I spotted what I thought might be a football ground with what appeared to be the word KCom on a stand. Was it the KCom stadium, the home of Hull City AFC (and Hull FC, one of the city’s two big Rugby League clubs) I wondered? But it looked too small.

It turns out that it was KCom I had spotted but it was KCom Craven Park, the home of the other Rugby League club, Hull Kingston Rovers.

KCom Craven Park

KCom Craven Park 2

In this zoom shot the end S of “Rovers” can be seen on the far stand’s seats.

KCom Craven Park 3

Some modern architecture in Hull:-

Building, Hull

I’m Back From Holland (and Belgium)

Just got back from a fortnight away. I’m knackered.

It didn’t help that I had a disturbed sleep on the ferry (due to the folk in the cabin next door) then the public address system boomed out at 7 o’clock British time.

The ferry crew kicked us off the ship at ten past nine and then we sat on the quayside for ninety minutes twiddling our thumbs. (Okay, we both actually had books we could read so it wasn’t all wasted.)

But it was as if passport control hadn’t realised there was a ship coming in. Either that or they don’t open up till ten o’clock. Most odd.

There had been no such problem at the other end. We just rolled off the ferry at Zeebrugge, went into a queue of about four cars at most, had our passports looked at and then we were off.

I took loads of photos. Goodness knows when I’ll get round to uploading them. There is still quite a few from the trips we did last summer I haven’t posted yet as I jumped to the cruise pictures – of which Honfleur is still to come here.

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