A lecture by Paul Foot delivered on 12 July 1991 in London.
Transcribed by Adrian Leibowitz.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Well, we are playing once again the anniversary game here, 1791 to 1991. There was a very good example of that the other day, I don’t know whether you saw in the newspapers, that her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal was making a speech for the Observer newspaper to celebrate two-hundred years since the publication of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. It was the Tom Paine lecture, sponsored by the Observer and one of the quotes in The Rights of Man, which was not used on that occasion, which I picked out here, in which Thomas Paine said “Monarchy is a silly stupid thing. A play thing for the rich and a menace for the poor”. Now that’s the theme actually of The Rights of Man, Common Sense, Crisis Papers, most of Thomas Paine’s life was devoted to the destruction of monarchy. And it is part of what might be called the revolutionary necrophilia which runs through the ages, that is, that each age worships the revolutionaries of the past and loves revolutionaries provided only that they are dead. And the longer that they are dead the better for them. That is the usual state of affairs with people in our tradition, that are heralded by the existing society.
Now, what we are dealing with today is another notch up, if you like, in that process. You have revolutionary necrophilia, you also have a phenomenon called revolutionary amnesia – that is in which people forget altogether what has happened in the past. The Observer does not have a Toussaint L’Ouverture lecture. The Observer is celebrating its two-hundredth anniversary and when I rang up rather plaintively suggested that they might have an article on Toussaint L’Ouverture, on August the 14th, well August the 18th which is a Sunday, to celebrate the uprising in Saint Domingue in 1791, which after all was rather appropriate since the Observer was started pretty well about that time I was told that ‘we were looking too much into the past’ and ‘such a thing was absolutely out of the question’. I don’t know whether you have been reading the Observer, but every single thing in the colour supplement over the last six months has been heralding what happened in 1791. In other words they will remember everything, except perhaps the most important event of that year, more important even than the publication of The Rights of Man, I would argue. Perhaps more important than anything else in the whole history of the world, it’s no great exaggeration to say that, the events that started in 1791 in San Domingo in the West Indies.
And to get us there I’ll ask a few ‘O’ Level questions, I know you’re, this is the cream of the Marxist intelligentsia in this country and therefore you’ve all not only got ‘O’ Levels but also ‘A’ Levels and therefore the (questions will easily) answers will trip off your tongue as I (make) as I suggest the questions. I ask the question ‘Who abolished slavery?’ and in a great roar the answer will come back ‘William Wilberforce abolished slavery’. One of the most heroic and greatest feats in the history of Great Britain is that this grand old Christian gentleman and Tory MP, from Hull, somehow, struggling himself from factory to factory ... which he owned ... and, er ... treating the workers there ... well like ... like slaves – somehow himself by prodigious effort and enormous amount of prayer managed to abolish one of the great obscenities in the whole history in the human race. And he was assisted in that regard, and this also will be in your ‘O’ Level syllabus, by the youngest ever, Tory Prime Minister, William Pitt. The Tory Prime Minister of the day, together with Wilberforce drew up the first abolition bill for getting rid of slavery themselves. That is the Tory MP plus his friend and mentor, William Wilberforce drew up a bill to abolish slavery in 1792. It never did get on the statute book – but the answer is quite simple isn’t it – William Wilberforce abolished slavery and he was helped by William Pitt. And therefore, not only the great inventions and deeds of civilization have been of course created by grand bourgeois people but also the great reforms of history have been carried out by grand bourgeois people, the changes, the end of exploitation have been bought around by people like Wilberforce and Pitt.
And now we come, to get us to the destination where we want to start – we come to another set of questions with which the answer will be very, very familiar to you: ‘who discovered America?’ That’s absolutely ... everybody knows that, don’t they. ‘Christopher Columbus discovered America’. I mean it was annoying that there were about six hundred thousand people living there at the time who had apparently discovered it before him, but there’s no doubt that Christopher Columbus discovered America. That is he discovered it for the Spanish empire for whom he represented. He was an explorer and he represented the Spanish empire. He also discovered, in fact, the same year as he discovered America, or the year afterwards, I think, he discovered a paradise island, what he described as a paradise island. The closest thing to paradise on the face of the earth – he described it like that. And because it was so wonderful he called it, naturally, Hispaniola – that is, something that’s come out of Spain. Because it was so beautiful it was plainly something to do with the Spanish empire. This was the largest island in what later became known as the West Indies. The island itself of Hispaniola was about the size of Ireland; a fairly substantial size and when Columbus discovered it again there were about a million people living there in apparent reasonable peace and reasonable friendship with one another – they didn’t fight each other very often or anything like that. They weren’t trained in the advanced practices of white Christian civilization and therefore on the whole they didn’t fight each other. And the Spanish empire were so delighted with having got hold of this island which they thought might contain gold – as a matter of fact it hardly did contain any gold, but they thought it might – that they started in the most extraordinarily short period of time to exterminate the entire population. And I mean exterminate. There were a million people there in 1493 when the island was discovered, by 1520, certainly by 1550, there were no more than 50,000 of the million people there, simply because they had been put to work in the most brutal fashion known to the Spanish empire, which was perhaps the most brutal of all – although it’s a close run thing and we are not going to get worked ... have an argument now as to which was the most brutal of the empires. At any rate, the entire indigenous population of the country was destroyed. And the Spanish imperialists, some of whom had turned into colonists, were therefore faced with the awkward question of how they were to get the wealth out of a territory if there was no-one to get it out for them.
Now the time our story starts, Hispaniola is no longer called Hispaniola. It’s an island which is divided into two through the imperialist wars that have taken place in that part of the world – chiefly between the empire of Spain and the empire of France. The empire of Spain owned the eastern half of the island, which was called Santo Domingo. The empire of France owned the western half of the island, which was called Saint Domingue. Now, it was something to do with the relative life that was left in the two imperialisms, if you like, that the Spanish part had been left to rot. There were a hundred and twenty five thousand people there, cattle simply roaming about, pretty well nothing cultivated. But the French half, Saint Domingue ... remember now that this island, just in case you’re still floundering about wondering where the hell we are, this island is now called Haiti. And this island, Haiti, is now among the five or ten poorest places on earth, both in terms of the state of the people there and in terms of its production. Now in terms of its production, the western half of San Domingo, Saint Domingue, in 1789 just to take a year, a convenient year at which we might start, in 1789, was the richest place on earth. It produced two thirds of all the proceeds of the trade of France. France being perhaps the richest, or the second richest country in the world, one of the biggest empires in the world, two thirds of all its trade was provided by production from Saint Domingue. Something to do with mixture of climate made it an extremely cultivable place. And sugar, cotton, coffee, indigo, tobacco were produced in that part of the world more, easier and in greater numbers, in greater volume than in any other place on earth. Whole cities in France, Nantes for instance, Bordeaux, places that you would have visited on your holidays, were all dependent there, dependent almost entirely upon the trade which came from Saint Domingue.
Now this vast wealth was entirely dependent on one phenomenon. That is the phenomenon of slavery. I’m not going to go into it in any length because on this subject really we’re not in great difference with the people who produce great series’ on television and so on, nothing distinguishes us very much. Everybody regards slavery as an obscenity. Everybody – horrible thing that happened! I just want to give one or two figures to demonstrate the size of it. Between 1500 and 1800, three hundred years, before this ... just up to where this story starts, thirty million slaves were taken from the continent of Africa to the West Indies and to the so-called New World in the United States of America.
Now, thirty million, that sounds a lot anyway. If I tell you that the population of Britain at that time was a population of ten million – then what I am talking about is three times the population of Britain. That is equivalent to something like, to a hundred and fifty million people. An enormous percentage of the population of the whole continent of Africa were taken from relatively peaceful and friendly surroundings into a hell which it’s almost impossible to describe. I mean they were, you know about it, they were chained, put on the boats, they were the lucky ones, that the ones who died on the boats. They were treated as dogs, worse than dogs – worse more than animals and the slave trade was and certainly is accepted as being something unimaginably horrible in terms of the exploitation and horror. Nevertheless, the wealth in Saint Domingue at the time that we are talking about was entirely dependent upon this trade. There were in the island, this part of the island, thirty thousand whites, who were mainly either overseers, or part of the militia or the planters themselves; forty thousand mulattos – that is people of, what we would call today, probably wrongly ‘mixed race’, people who had come from a black mother usually and a white father and five-hundred thousand black slaves from Africa. That was the population, about six-hundred thousand people of Saint Domingue at these times. And two-thirds of the slaves in 1789, that were actually in Saint Domingue, had been born in Africa. There wasn’t you see a second generation, much of a second generation, or a third generation of slavery at that time; simply because there wasn’t time really to have children and the slave drivers were not particularly interested in slaves that had children – because it was a process which held up the business of labour which produced profit for them. Eleven percent of the population of Saint Domingue every year died. Eleven percent. Now you might say well what’s that figure mean? Well it means that more people died in Saint Domingue every year, as a result of the very high death rate among the slave population, than for instance died in Britain in the First World War. If you wanted to find a time when lots of people died in this country you would immediately think of the First World War. A horrible massacre of young men, that went on and on for four years. But a much smaller percentage of the population died then that died now.
Food was not provided. It was in the rules that food should be provided for slaves but on the whole food wasn’t provided for slaves. They worked a seven day week and an eighteen hour day, once they got to Saint Domingue in the fields picking the cotton, picking the coffee and generally getting the production out of the fields, that they had in their spare time to cultivate their own little patches in order to make vegetables for them to eat.
The crucial thing about them was that they were not entitled to any minds of their own. No thought – one of the most savage sentences was handed out to anybody who gave any education to any slave. Even religion was regarded as dangerous as far as the slaves were concerned. I mean they were allowed to be baptised, mass baptisms, the Catholic Church were allowed in for a quick baptism, mass baptism and then out again. That was the total amount of time they were allowed religion in case any nonsense about ‘eyes of needles’ and ‘people being made of one blood’ and all that kind of thing should get out in the business of people going to church. And the whole process, of course, was held together by sadism. There’s no other word to describe how it operated. It was held together by violence of the most savage kind. The slightest sign of disobedience, the slightest sign of independent thought, the slightest talking, the slightest disobeying of any rules of any kind was treated with the utmost savagery – which is detailed in some of the books that were written just before our story starts. Baron de Wimpffen, for instance, a great liberal gentleman from France who went out to Saint Domingue, was rather shocked to be sitting next to a delightful and beautiful hostess who at one stage in the meal, because she was dissatisfied with the taste of some of the food, ordered that the cook should be put in the oven with the next course. That was standard way in which the hostesses behaved at that time to show off to their friends from colonial France.
Now of course there were revolts. It’s not surprising. There were outbreaks of individual violence. But these were put down with such ferocity that they were never again countenanced. And the whole operation survived, on this notion of what I’ll call for the purposes of this afternoon, the conquerable mind. That is that the minds of slaves, the minds of these black people from Africa were conquerable, that is they were to be conquered and conquerable all the way through. It wasn’t only that there was savagery operated, it was also that they would never revolt. They could never revolt; it was not part of their makeup to do so. Those who say that, there are those who say that slavery was going to end anyway at some stage or other, you know these people who call themselves Marxists who say, who become the great determiners of what happened two or three hundred years ago. They become ... they decide what was going to happen. ‘Oh, well of course slavery was coming to an end anyway’ – my ... not at all the case. Slavery in Saint Domingue would have gone on and on and on; there was nothing in particular to stop it – a great many people were benefiting enormously from it and therefore it was likely to continue. One or two things happened which began to stop it. And the first thing that happened was the French Revolution of 1789.
Now when the revolution took place France was controlled by people who had a conscience. Do you know people with a conscience? That is people with some wealth, considerable wealth but also conscience. And there was a problem for them about slavery. Because many of the writings in the Enlightenment which led up to the French Revolution, of course were denouncing slavery in the most savage way. How dare ... this is hostile to everything that can possibly be regarded as human happiness, universal human happiness of mankind. All those great writers denounced it, the Abbé Raynal, Condorcet, Rousseau, all those writers denounced slavery in the most uncompromising fashion. But the problem is once they’d got office, these same people, people from the Enlightenment – enlightened people – who’d come in, they realised there was a conflict. Because most of their income, much of their wealth, came precisely from the trade with Saint Domingue, which in turn as I have described depended entirely upon slavery. Therefore there was this awful thing which you see all the time in bourgeois politicians, you can see sometimes the schizophrenic mind. Here’s a man called Charles Lameth, this is the exception, for instance, of one of the people who came into office immediately after the French Revolution:
“I am one of the great proprietors of San Domingo, but I declare to you that were I to lose all I possess there I would make the sacrifice rather than disown the principles which justice and humanity have consecrated.”
He said I’m prepared to renounce, actually history doesn’t reveal whether he did personally renounce, but other people were more sophisticated about the problem. ‘We’re against slavery, it’s vile, it’s outrageous, it’s inhuman, it’s barbarity between man and man, no question about it we’re against slavery – but what about our money? What about our wealth, our big houses?’ and so on. And therefore what are we going to do about it? And they made a compromise. You’ll have heard about compromises in politics – people always make it. ‘Politics is the art of the possible’ that’s Nye Bevan, you know, not somebody coming along from the right or anything. Politics is the art of ... we have to make a compromise ... we have to make a compromise ... have to make a compromise. We can’t declare the slaves free in Saint Domingue because that will cut off all our wealth. On the other hand we can’t do nothing about it because that will cut us off from all the ideas of the Enlightenment which led us into this situation, which to our great surprise we are now in charge of the country. ‘So what are we going to do? We are going to have a compromise.’ They had a compromise and the compromise was a decree which said that any mulatto – remember the figures, thirty thousand whites, twenty-five thousand mulattos, five hundred thousand black slaves – any mulatto in Saint Domingue whose mother and father were born in France should get French citizenship. That amounted to about naught point eight percent of the mulattos! Not of the population altogether, but naught point eight percent of the mulattos. And that was the great compromise introduced by the first phase if you like, the first bourgeois phase, or ultra-bourgeois phase, right wing phase of the French Revolution.
Now, no one was satisfied with the compromise – it was rather like the poll tax. Everybody was against it. It annoyed the mulattos, it annoyed the slaves, naturally because they got absolutely nothing out of it. But most of all it annoyed the whites. Now, anyone should dare to suggest, even that 0.8% of mulattos should get French citizenship was an outrageous situation. But the point about the decree is that it loosened the logjam, what appeared to be a logjam that existed in Saint Domingue. In other words, the notion that ‘the conquerable mind’, the idea of half a million people forever and ever obeying their masters was suddenly challenged. Even in that tiny degree challenged – the fact that there was a debate going on in the French assembly, the fact that the French revolutionaries were discussing what they are going to do about slavery seeps into the minds of many of the people, the slaves that are operating in Saint Domingue. And there takes place then, August the 14th, I hope you put a ring round it and see what you are doing on August the 14th and do something to celebrate the date. But August the 14th 1791, under, immediately under a man called Boukman there is an uprising in one of the plantations in the north. And before the planters know what is happening pretty well the whole of the north of the island is in conflagration. And I mean conflagration.
Because what happened, of course the brutality which had led to, all those years of brutality in slavery, led to the most brutal treatment, and you may say quite right too ... the most brutal treatment of the planters. They were hanged ... their great houses were burned and then of course as the planters got themselves together they went back and engaged in equal savagery wherever they could get hold of anywhere. In fact in some places – even in the places where they didn’t rise up, slaves were hung and killed just because others elsewhere had risen in an uprising. The uprising of August 14 was different to any other in ferocity to any other uprising that had taken place. But it was similar in this, that there was no leadership of it. It was entirely spontaneous – moving from place to place, armies growing up under different people with different ambitions. Squabbling with one another, the constant squabbling between the Generals. So, first the slaves through surprise got the upper hand in the north and then with the help incidentally of guns from Jamaica – which was then under British control – the French immediately, immediately recognising their common interest, sent over to British Governor of Jamaica asking for guns to help them, managed to get a much more disciplined force, managed to get their militia together and started to win against the slaves.
What happened then is, that in the small and relatively contented plantation of Breda, where the planters had broken the rules and started to educate a very small section of their slaves, there was a coachman ... son of a coachman ... and the coachman was one that was always taught to read, who was called Toussaint. He was called Toussaint because he was born on All Saints Day. Slaves only had one name and his was Toussaint and in 1791 – and this is for the benefit of all those youth worshippers who get increasingly to annoy me as I ... as the years go on – he was forty-six years old. And at that time had taken part in not in any protest whatsoever, not in any protest of any kind. He was one of the very few slaves who was able to read and he had time to think. He’d read the Abbé Raynal, who had perhaps written the most savage condemnation of slavery in Saint Domingue. He’d read the works of Julius Caesar, which I suppose assisted him a bit when he came to think of fighting the French.
And he joined the marauding rebel armies of the north – first as a medical auxiliary because he knew a little bit about medicine and increasingly as a leader and a negotiator. And within a matter of months he was ... had become, really by dint of the arguments with the squabbling generals, by the constant arguments that took place – chiefly verbal arguments in councils ... I mean ‘councils’ ... not elected councils but just great camp meetings ... great country mountain meetings in which masses of people came and listened to the debate. He asserted his authority over the other generals and one or two of the squabblers were put aside, and Toussaint became the spokesman for the slave army. So what you had was, the slave army, chiefly constituted in the north, militia assisted by troops which came from France, to assist the planters if you like – this is revolutionary France they are talking about – Commissioners and the like, chiefly to assist the planters and the two stand-off, if you like, is I understand the phrase we have to use this year. A stand-off between the slave army on one hand and the representatives of the planters on the other.
Now, Toussaint’s strategy was quite simple. His enemy was the colonial power, France. And therefore, anything that would help him in his battle with the colonial power was to be used. And in particular, he was assisted at that time from the reviving imperialism in Spain. Because Spain thinking ... ooh, slave revolt on the western side on the island – maybe the slaves will knock out the French, then we can move in and knock out the slaves, and then we can have the whole of the island. So they started to give guns to Toussaint. And he held all the northern harbours, all the northern ports and harbours of Saint Domingue for Spain, which owned the east ... which occupied the eastern half of the island anyway.
There is also incidentally and just interestingly in case anyone thinks these things are always clear and obvious, there was in if you like the slave mentality, the leadership of the slave mentality, a notion that there was something particularly wonderful about royalty. It’s something that if you read about the Peasant’s Revolt, actually finished off the Peasant’s Revolt, the idea that somehow – the King was alright but that everybody else, all these courtiers. You often see it, as a matter of fact, when people are criticising the royal family today: the Queen’s alright ... it’s all those people ... hangers on, you know and all those politicians I don’t like. The Queen’s alright. This notion was quite strong in the slave leadership ... even Toussaint felt like that a bit ... and therefore their feeling was not particularly moved by the ... activities ... the republican activities of the French Revolution. In so far as they were simply republican, directed against the King, then that seemed to Toussaint to be something that he didn’t particularly ... and he was impervious therefore to the seductive advances of the French Commissioners, the republican Commissioners which had gone out there. Sonthonax, General Laveaux, people like that, who were republicans and went originally to put down the slave revolt, began increasingly to say to Toussaint and to say with increasing sincerity it seemed ‘look, why are you enemies of France? France are on your side – why are you accepting guns from Spain, when all Spain want to do is to smash you down?’
And all through the year 1793, there’s a stand-off going through 1792, all through the year 1793, this argument, this debate, about what the central strategy of the slave army should be ... should it be (with) against ... to continue against colonial and republican France or should it seek to change its views in the light of what was happening in Europe?
Well the fact is that in 1794, the whole strategy changed. The strategy of supporting the Spaniards changed and came on to the side of France. Now why? What’s the explanation for that change in strategy? The first, and the crucial explanation, by far the most important explanation is what was going on in revolutionary France – it’s the explanation which is ... makes this story so very exciting for us today. It deals a little bit with the question ‘are white people always racialist?’ If that question is true ... if the answer to that question is yes ... ‘white people are always racialist’ then there’s not much hope for us, is there? Not much advance – the whole world condemned all the time, I suppose, to a permanent race war. Are white people always racialist? One answer comes out of the shift in strategy Toussaint and the slave army, in 1794. And the reason was this – the attitude of the French Revolution, 1794, you remember was shifting ... you know it had reached its peak ... it reaches its peak in the first few months of 1794 – it has moved ... it has been a shifting revolution all the time. Those people that I talked about earlier that were actually the planters, that had the plantations in Saint Domingue, people of that kind were being pushed aside and in their place new more rigorous revolutionaries were being put in place, and held ... held in place by, for the first time in history, or the first time in history certainly since London in the 1640s, the common people – the so-called common people, the people underground, the people without property, the sans culottes, beginning to come onto the historical stage. That was happening there. One of the results of that is this that the French Revolution, the language if you like of the revolution had directed itself against what it called ‘the aristocracy of wealth’, or for that matter ‘the aristocracy of religion’ – it had directed itself against those two things. But also crucial to the whole of that thinking, so inspiring to us today, was the notion also of the ‘aristocracy of the skin’.
Now in 1794, February, at the very peak of the Revolution Saint Domingue was asked to send three delegates to the French Convention. The French Convention – and I repeat it again, controlled by the Jacobins, by the Mountain, by the left if you like – was asked to send three delegates. And they sent three, a black man, a mulatto and a white man came to represent Saint Domingue at the Convention. And the description there, in the account from the Convention gives us a clue as to why the strategy of the armies in Saint Domingue began to change.
“Since 1789 the aristocracy of birth and the aristocracy of religion have been destroyed; but the aristocracy of the skin still remains. That too is now at its last gasp, and equality has been consecrated. A black man, a yellow man are about to join this Convention in the name of the free citizens of San Domingo.”
The three deputies of San Domingo entered the hall. The black face of Bellay and the yellow face of Mills excited long and repeated bursts of applause. Lacroix (of Eure-et-Loire) followed:
“The assembly has been anxious to have within it some of those men of colour who have suffered oppression for so many years. Today it has two of them. I demand that their introduction be marked by the President’s fraternal embrace.”
Next day, Bellay, the Negro, delivered a long and fiery oration, pledging the blacks to the cause of the revolution and asking the Convention to declare slavery abolished. It was fitting that a Negro and an ex-slave should make the speech which would introduce one of the most important legislative acts ever passed by any political assembly. No-one spoke after Bellay. Instead, Levasseur (of Sarthe) moved a motion:
“When drawing up the constitution of the French people we paid no attention to the unhappy Negroes. Posterity will bear us a great reproach for that. Let us repair the wrong – let us proclaim the liberty of the Negroes. Mr. President, do not suffer the Convention to dishounour itself by a discussion.”
The assembly arose in acclamation. The two deputies of colour appeared on the tribune and embraced while the applause rolled around the hall from members and visitors.’
Well there was no discussion and slavery was abolished on February the third 1794 by the French Convention.
Now news travelled slowly, especially from France to Saint Domingue when you are controlling a slave army which is out of touch with communications in the north. And therefore, it took a long time – no-one knows when the news of that act of the Convention – arrived with Toussaint L’Ouverture. But he probably heard it about May 1794. And on May the fourteenth 1794 he declared a complete shift in all his strategy. He changed his allegiance from the Spanish to the French. Seized exactly the same harbours that he’d taken for the Spanish up in the north, for the French. Declared himself for revolutionary France and took a second name. He took the French name L’Ouverture: the opening to liberty. The opening not only to liberty but the opening to an alliance between revolutionary France, who have declared us free, revolutionary France and revolutionary Saint Domingue. The word L’Ouverture has those two meanings – that’s why he called himself Toussaint L’Ouverture. And it’s true ... the truth is that it was in the nick of time that he did change his strategy because the second reason why he was considering changing his strategy was what was going on in Britain.
And here now, we come back to our old friends William Wilberforce and William Pitt. Now I told you that in 1792, Wilberforce and Pitt moved a motion that slavery should be abolished. And in April 1792 an amendment was moved by the supporters of the great British planters of Jamaica and places of that kind. The amendment is a familiar one, which we come across all the time in parliamentary politics, that the bill should be passed in its entirety, with the addition of one word ... gradually. In other words, that slavery should gradually be done away with – that’s practical Fabian politics, isn’t it, which gets things done. Well, that was passed in April 1792, so actually they did have something there which said that they were for abolition of slavery. Then how long was gradually? How long was it to be? And one answer to that question was this:
That Britain had now declared war with France and had observed what was going on in Saint Domingue. Namely, there was a slave revolt that wouldn’t go away. In fact it seemed to be gaining in strength all the time – and it even had a leader and a negotiator who was capable of negotiating with French Commissioners out there. And it looked as though that France was involved in a very serious situation. Now here is the crucial point. Wilberforce and Pitt were one-hundred percent against slavery, but the chief reason they were against slavery is that the main profits from slavery were going to the French. You see, there’s two points – and you can imagine them waking up at night and worrying about it: one, the obscenity of all those black people being yoked and put into the galleys and being taken and killed on the way and being thrown into the sea and thousands of people dying in the sea, and all that kind of thing. That’s obscene! That would wake you up at night. But even worse it would wake you up at night if somebody else is getting the profit from it.
And this is the key problem that ... it was in Saint Domingue, was French, it was by far the biggest place where any profits were coming from slavery. And the British were running the slave trade! Those were Christian British people, captains singing ‘Oh God our help in ages past’ as they chuck the bodies into the sea. The British were actually providing the material, the human material, whereby the French were making extreme profits. Now that was ... that has the bitterness, the passion ... if you like ... the passion of a Christian factory owner, in Hull. The feeling, you know, like ... I remember, do you remember the passion about the atrocities in Kuwait, during the war. The passion ... how ... passionately people got so worked up about the atrocities. The same bourgeois passion ... switch on passion ... switch that one on. Passion! Why? Because the other thing that’s been switched off is the oil. Switch off the oil ... switch on the passion!
Now you see ... exactly the same thing here. They would have gone on being in favour of slave trade for the rest of their lives if only their competitors had not been making profits from it. And therefore the situation in Britain changed. The situation among the bourgeoisie, the rulers ... the rulers of Britain changed. And ... there was a war ... there was a war. What happened was that a British expedition was sent to San Domingo to take San Domingo both from the slaves and from the French. It was the biggest expedition that had ever left British shores. You don’t read about it in the history books. A much bigger expedition, by the way, than the expedition that went to the Peninsular war. You’ll have all read the Peninsular war. Discuss. Discuss Wellington’s campaign in the Peninsular war. Was it successful? Discuss its military tactics. Three hours. You remember, you’ve all dealt with that. What you haven’t dealt with is, what about the thousands and thousands of people that were sent to San Domingo by the British in 1794. And fought against the slave army from 1794 to 1798, in one of the biggest wars of that time that the British had ever been engaged in. No-one really knows anything about that.
But I can tell you this – that during the period of that war the Abolition Society, the great movement to get rid of slavery, in this country practically petered out. Grateful to Robin Blackburn’s book, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, in that he has spelt ... for the first time ... gone into this in great detail and spelt out exactly what happened. There were two more attempts in 1795 and 1796 to get a bill through parliament – both of them were unsuccessful – neither of them were enthusiastically supported by the Prime Minister – the Abolition Society, that is the slave abolition society met twice in the three years between ’95 and ’97. In ’97 it didn’t meet at all and from 1792 to 1800, one million slaves were taken on British ships from Africa to the West Indies and the so called New World. That’s what happened in that period. All that enthusiasm and passion about slavery just dried up. Because for a moment ... a long moment ... for four long years of warfare ... it seemed ... the eyes of the British bourgeoisie gleamed with the prospect that they would get hold of the cotton and the indigo and the sugar and the coffee of Saint Domingue and the slaves that made it profitable, that made it so profitable. And therefore their attitude changed. And therefore, of course, what Toussaint can see – Jacobin France is freeing slaves but the British are coming to restore slavery and that is one of the reasons why he changed ... he changed his allegiance. 1794 to 1798 is the war with the British.
In all military campaigning you won’t read of more extraordinary military exploits than were conducted by that slave army. They could move forty miles a day to the British ten. I mean, they could move with supplies at a speed which would leave the British lumbering in the back. And this was the greatest expeditionary force ever sent – with all the history of British imperialism behind it, all the history of British militarism behind it unable to deal at all with this slave army. And what’s extraordinary about Toussaint himself is not only his vitality and his ability to command his army in these circumstances, but also his extraordinary humanity.
He wrote to Brigadier General John White, very accurately named, Brigadier General John White ... his attitude ... who was in charge of the British forces.
“You have demeaned yourself in the eyes of this and future generations in allowing one of your commanders, the cowardly Lapointe to issue this order which could not have been issued without your knowledge: ‘No quarter for the brigands – take no prisoners’. And that in spite of the fact that I have given instructions to my commanders to treat all prisoners with humanity. I am only a black man, I have not had the advantage of the fine education the officers of His Britannic Majesty are said to receive, but were I to be guilty of so infamous an act I should feel I have sullied the honour of my country.”
That was Toussaint to Brigadier White. I mean you shouldn’t write to Brigadier White if you’re a black man anyway but to be able to write like that indicates the kind of man he was and on April the 14th 1798 the British had had enough and Toussaint led a victorious march into the capital Port-au-Prince. The British had lost eighty thousand men in that expedition, forty thousand dead and forty thousand wounded or laid low forever by disease. That is more than the total lost in the Peninsular war and the British were driven out of Saint Domingue never to return again.
And this story is only understood by understanding the constantly shifting background of the French Revolution. French Revolution has reached its peak and the French Revolution is in decline. And as the French Revolution comes into decline so all those people who had benefited from slavery now felt (not) unashamed to talk about their benefits of slavery. And now started to talk openly about the need to restore slavery in San Domingue. And they sent another Commissioner, a different kind of Commissioner to the ones that had been sent to treat with Toussaint when the Mountain was in charge of the Convention. They sent now the Directory, the people that took on after Robespierre and the others. The Directory, the five reactionary people who took over, sent another Commissioner called Hédouville, who fomented war between the Mulattos and the Blacks.
The Mulattos, if you like, had always played the role ... if you like ... that the middle class play in the class battle, the weathercock that blows with the wind. The Mulattos ... as ... are almost detectable when the revolution in France is at its peak and allied with the forces of the slave army, the Mulattos hundred percent with the slave army. As the thing begins to subside the Mulattos, under very, very powerful and rigorous General called Rigaud ... a very, very find General ... broke off and under the influence of French bribery and French manipulation started a war against Toussaint L’Ouverture’s black army, which was perhaps of all this story the most awful and fratricidal war which went on all the way to 1801, and it wasn’t until January 1801 that the Mulatto army was finally defeated. And Toussaint, in order to celebrate his victory over the Mulattos, marches into the Spanish side of the island ... quickly conquers the Spanish side of the island ... and enters now victorious (army) into Santo Domingo.
So, the position at the start of 1801 is that he has beaten off the first counter attack of the French Republic to his revolt. He has beaten ... when I say he, I mean he and the slave army, the slave army ... have beaten the full might of the biggest expeditionary force ever to leave the British Empire, he has beaten the Spanish Empire, he has beaten the Mulattos bribed by the French and he has abolished slavery. Not a bad job for nine years, I think you’ll agree!
But ... and for a very short time then you have a period, 1801 to 1802, a short peace, in which the whip is banned, hours are controlled – nine hour day; the devastation of production, which of course has taken place in the period of the war, is, very quickly starts to be made good. In fact, I’m against describing utopias – and it certainly wasn’t a utopia ... ridiculous to describe it as a utopia. Nor could it conceivably have been described as a democracy. There were very few elections that took place anywhere at all. Toussaint L’Ouverture certainly as far as I know was never elected in any capacity what so ever. But it is extraordinary how just in the very short period of time, between 1801 and 1802, when he was left alone by the various imperialisms which he’d defeated, there was at that time something (which) completely different to anything that had taken place before. In the mind of Napoleon that had to be stopped as soon as possible.
‘Napoleon’ – this is quotation from Ralph Korngold’s book on ... called Citizen Toussaint – ‘Napoleon asked what colonial system had produced the best results. He was told the system prevailing before the Revolution. Then, said Napoleon, the sooner we return to it the better’. And in much more determination that the Directory ... the Consulate ... the ... Napoleon set about the business of restoring slavery in Saint Domingue. He wrote to Decrès, the Minister of Marine, who was putting together an expedition to leave for Saint Domingue, “Everything must be prepared for the restoration of slavery, this is not only the opinion of the metropolis, but is also the view of England and other European powers. I am for the whites”, he said – “because I am white. I have no other reason”. Well he had plenty of other reasons, as a matter of fact, but he didn’t want to explain them. But that kind of argument appealed very much to the enemies of Napoleon, who were then ... at any rate in theory ... the British.
And you’ll all have read in your examinations and history books, you’ll have read about the Peace of Amiens. You know, there was a peace in the middle of the Napoleonic war. There was a peace 1801, first of October there was a peace signed at Amiens. On the fourteenth of December, the same year, a French expedition sailed to restore slavery in Saint Domingue. One of the greatest French expeditions that had ever left the shores of France. Headed by General Dugua, General Humbert, who put ... who had actually tried to spark off the revolution in Ireland. General Boudet, of the Nile. General Boyet of the Nile – the hero of the Vendée, put down the peasants uprising in the Vendée. All these great Generals of the Revolution were in the expeditionary force that went to put ... to restore slavery and to knock out the ... revolution, the uprising led by Toussaint L’Ouverture.
General Leclerc, Napoleon’s own son-in-law, declared ... who was put in charge, he was put in charge of the expedition and you can’t show greater faith in an expedition than putting your son-in -law in charge of it – said this: “All the niggers when they see an army will lay down their arms”. And the orders to the army as to what was to happen when the niggers have laid down their arms were as follows:
‘All women who had consorted with blacks were to be executed; all education and discussion among blacks to be ended. There was to be no truck with any talk of rights of the blacks who have spilled French blood.’
Now, Toussaint L’Ouverture, remember this, had declared himself for Revolutionary France. He had seen himself as part of the French Revolution. He was, as he said himself he was, a Black Jacobin. And he watches the greatest, huge expeditionary force, standing on one of the peaks in the northern Saint Domingue, watches this great expeditionary force coming – to do what? And it’s obvious that it’s coming to restore slavery. And therefore he has to realign once again. He has to think again about his strategy.
And the last terrible chapter of this story is another dreadful, bitter war between this expeditionary force and the slave army during the first six months of 1802. After February, March 1802, five thousand of this great French force were in hospital and five thousand were dead. You’ll have read – if you read about this at all which you don’t, but if anyone had ... well you don’t in ordinary bourgeois history you don’t read about it at all – but if you do, you’ll have read that the French army did very well but it was laid low by Yellow Fever. You’ll read that this great force went there, they all got Yellow Fever and then they all came back again, that’s what you’ll read. What you won’t read is that in battle after battle just as the British had failed to cope with the fantastic power and force and energy of the slave army, so the French were unable to do so.
And one of the reasons why the French were unable to do so is that they noticed that whenever they came up against a fortress, or whenever they came up close against the slave army they were greeted with the most wonderful renderings of precisely the songs which they were meant to be singing. So they would come up to Crête-à-Pierrot, the fort which was held by Dessalines, for months and months in a massive siege (of the French) of the fort in the centre of Haiti there, in the centre of Saint Domingue. And they would come up and about to sing La Marseillaise when suddenly the most magnificent blast of La Marseillaise would hit them from inside the fort ... the Ça Ira, the great songs of the French Revolution would come back at them from people – they would say “well ... that’s our song. What are they singing? That’s our song. What are they singing ‘Allons enfants de la patri’? We are ‘enfants de la patri’! Why? How are these people, who are not enfants, they are the niggers singing these things to us.”
It confused people. It worried the ordinary soldiers that were sent out there. And, what worried them, of course, much more than that was that the military tactics and the military competence and the ability to handle weapons, and so on, was much, much, much greater than anything they had ever encountered before. So of course they resorted as all great armies do when they’re beaten in the field, they resorted to treachery. And what they did was they called on Toussaint to a meeting to say “let’s, let’s discuss this. It’s been a bit of a mistake. Let’s discuss this as a joint French people. Let’s discuss it” So, like a fool and advised not to do so by his advisors Toussaint went for a meeting with General Brunet on June the seventh 1802. And as he walked into the meeting he was immediately surrounded, disarmed and his bodyguard killed and he was imprisoned, put on a ship to France and imprisoned in a deep and dark dungeon in the Jura, on the Swiss border.
And of course the idea was, and you’ll get this in all bourgeois mythology, is that all revolts are led by agitators. That agitators arise with great powers, powers which are something to do with the devil. Satanic, satanic powers which converge all in one person. And all you have to do is lop the head off the person – take the person away and all those powers leave the masses. That’s always constant, isn’t it. There’s strike – whose leading it! Whose ... find someone – execute them! And the strike will go away. Now this was the feeling about the slave revolt. And they were right in a way – that Toussaint L’Ouverture was the most remarkable person, but of course he was not the slave revolt. The slave revolt, the slogan of the slave revolt was ‘Liberty or Death!’ – which was exactly the position they were in. They either got rid of slavery or they died. And that was the strength of the slave revolt from the very first moment it started to be organised. And therefore the slave revolt continued after the imprisonment of Toussaint L’Ouverture. It continued, as a matter of fact with much greater ferocity. All that humanity which I described earlier, deserts the generals that take over from Toussaint L’Ouverture. General Christophe, General Dessalines, people of that kind. All those ... these people don’t show the humanity if you like. And why should they after all, when they have behaved that way to the leader who did show humanity? And therefore, the French, by the end of 1802, were driven out of Saint Domingue, and ever since then, Saint Domingue, Haiti for all the terrible things that imperialism had done to it, for all the unimaginable exploitation and poverty that exists there. Ever since then, Haiti has been ... Saint Domingue, whatever you want to call it, has been an independent country and there has never been a slave in that island since that time.
Now that is the position ... just come back to those early questions that I asked. Slavery was abolished not by William Wilberforce. He had opposed the slave uprising. He’d opposed the slave uprising. He was opposed to the movement to get the British Army out of Saint Domingue because it was supporting slavery. Wilberforce was opposed to it. He hated radicals and revolutionaries of every kind, Wilberforce did. And in particular he hated Toussaint L’Ouverture. The man who represented in action all those passionate speeches which he’d made in the House of Commons was utterly detested. And therefore, the first lesson, the first and elementary lesson which flows up these two hundred years is that slavery wasn’t abolished by some bourgeois Tory MP, some bloody factory owner it was abolished because the slaves emancipated themselves. I mean, Marx uses that word ‘emancipate’ when he talks about the emancipation of labour in the famous declaration, the First International. But the slaves actually did emancipate themselves, the emancipation, the end of slavery starts with the victory of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s army. It goes on and on and on and it goes on for another several decades before the black slaves of the south of America have to fight a civil war to get rid of slavery there – but the self-emancipation is the central lesson. And the second central lesson so crucial to us is that they won it, they emancipated themselves, because they made common cause with the common people of revolutionary France.
There are some books. Not many. There’s one in the Left Book Club called Citizen Toussaint by Ralph Korngold who is the biographer of Robespierre. That’s a very good book indeed. There’s a rather quaint little book which you might find by the Reverend John. R. [B]eard, Doctor of Divinity, 1853, The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture. A rather nice little book, not you understand about the French Revolution, of course, but it is a rather nice little book. There is a book by Wenda Parkinson called “This Gilded African”, which isn’t a bad book, came out about ten years ago. And we’ve got this wonderful history of slavery now by Robin Blackburn, which fills in some of the gaps that I’ve tried to fill in there; but a million miles, and Robin will ... not at all mind if he’s here ... he will forgive me at once for saying it, a million miles the best book, by far the best book about this question is the one that is called The Black Jacobins, by C.L.R. James – the man responsible for getting Frank Worrall captain of the West Indies cricket team. I tried to think of something more important about him to say, I mean he was a Trotskyist for many years but he did actually achieve in West Indian cricket the rights of the Blacks to control their own cricket. Anyone interested in that, whatever you’re interested ... C.L.R. James was the most magnificent writer. And this book which comes out in the late 30s, C.L.R. James from the Trotskyist tradition – writing a book about the mingling of the two revolutions – there it is – available – you can get it here. Anybody who hasn’t read that really has to testify to the almighty in some way or other.
Now, Toussaint L’Ouverture himself, he died of pneumonia in that prison in the Jura, on the 4th of April 1803. And he died alone and old and nobody knows where he’s buried. As far as I know, there’s no plaque, there’s no burial ground, there’s no tomb, there’s no mausoleum, there’s no mummification. And that point was a point which interested the young poet William Wordsworth in 1803, who was himself tremendously inspired by the French Revolution – but his revolutionary enthusiasms were just on the turn in 1803. Just beginning to turn to the hideous reaction in which it ended up in the later period of the century. And somebody came along and he said, “You know, Toussaint L’Ouverture is dead, somewhere in Switzerland we know not where. He’s died and he’s not even buried somewhere.” And Wordsworth wrote what I think is his greatest sonnet. It’s one which you might not have learned by heart at school because I’m afraid to say that there is no reference in it to daffodils.
TOUSSAINT! Thou most unhappy man of men!
Last updated on 6.7.2013