When we celebrate Emancipation Day, we need to acknowledge the crucial role played by the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) in helping to achieve the end of enslavement in the British colonies. So this is a good time to notice the first-time publication of a play about Toussaint L’Ouverture, the main revolutionary leader, by Trinidadian CLR James.
It is part of Duke University’s multi-volume series, The CLR James Archives, edited by Robert Hill. The play, according to James, was conceived in 1932, when he left Trinidad for England, and completed in 1934. It was performed twice in London in March 1936, with the famous African-American actor and singer, Paul Robeson, in the title role. Of course it is closely linked to James’s famous non-fictional account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, which appeared in 1938.
James’s play tells the story of the Haitian Revolution from 1791, when the massive rising of the enslaved began in the north of the rich French colony of Saint Domingue, to the moment when Toussaint—having died in a French prison-- Dessalines decides to lead a final campaign against Napoleon’s army for national independence. The central theme of the play is the conflict between two ideologies or world views, symbolised respectively by Toussaint and Dessalines.
In the play, Toussaint feels intense loyalty to revolutionary France, which had abolished slavery in all her colonies in 1794, ended her monarchy and proclaimed her adherence to Republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. For Toussaint, the formerly enslaved, who had seized their own liberty and defeated French, Spanish and British troops, were great fighters, but also ignorant men, because of enslavement and backward African traditions. Can such a brave but primitive rabble govern themselves, without the guiding hand of French civilization and authority?
Dessalines, on the other hand, has a simpler view of things: The blacks must win their freedom from enslavement and from French control at all costs and by any means. Only relentless fighting and (if necessary) the death of all French residents could guarantee these outcomes. No white person could ever be trusted to deal fairly with blacks.
For James, Toussaint is a tragic hero in the classical Greek (and Shakespearean) tradition, brought down by his own nobility, and by his great flaw: he cannot trust the Haitian masses and their determination to be free. In the last but one scene, dying of starvation and cold in a French prison, he exclaims: “Oh, Dessalines! Dessalines! You were right after all!” The play ends when the news of Toussaint’s death reaches Saint Domingue, with Dessalines declaring he will lead the final, bloody push for independence, along with Christophe and the mulatto Pétion. He rips the white band from the French tricolour and announces the new nation will be called Haiti.
Plays are meant to be performed rather than read, and, of course, I’ve never seen this one in production. (I have seen a 1993 student production, at the St Augustine campus, of a related but different play, titled The Black Jacobins, which was co-authored in the 1960s by James and fellow-Trinidadian Dexter Lyndersay). But I can easily see why many of the reviews of the 1936 production, while praising the sincerity of the writing, and the thrilling performance by Robeson, commented that the play was too wordy, lacking in dramatic verve and stagecraft.
But the many people interested in James, and the many admirers in particular of his The Black Jacobins, will welcome this first publication of his 1934 play. It includes Christian Hosbjerg’s well-researched introduction and annotations, and several other pieces related to the play which form the appendix to this volume.