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The Great Haitian Revolution

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Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History

Text by C.L.R. James
Adapted and Illustrated by Sakina Karimjee and Nic Watts
Paperback RRP £14.99 / ebook RRP £10 / 272 pages / 10 October 2023 / ISBN 9781788737906 / Published by Verso


The end of slavery started in what was then San Domingo. In 1791, the enslaved people of the most prized French sugar plantation colony revolted against their masters. For over twelve years, against a backdrop of the French Revolution, they fought an epic black liberation struggle for control of the island. Theirs was the first and only successful slave revolution. It was the creation of Haiti as a nation, the first independent black republic outside of Africa, and an international inspiration to the persecuted and enslaved. This is the impassioned and beautifully drawn story of the Haitian Revolution and its incredible leader: Toussaint Louverture.

The text of this graphic novel is a play by C. L. R. James that opened in London in 1936 with Paul Robeson in the title role. For the first time, black actors appeared on the British stage in a work by a black playwright. The script had been lost for almost seventy years when a draft copy was discovered among James’s archives. Now this extraordinary drama has been reimagined by artists Nic Watts and Sakina Karimjee.

In 1934 C. L. R. James, the Trinidadian intellectual, and
political activist, wrote Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History. The play was staged for two performances in the Westminster Theatre in London’s West End by the Stage Society, a private club, to avoid Theatres Act censorship laws. The cast included the American star Paul Robeson, it was the first time black professional actors starred on the British stage in a play written by a black playwright.
The play was subsiquently lost for decades until the rediscovery of a draft copy in 2005 by histiorian Christian Høgsbjerg
while working in the archives at the University of  Hull. At the end of his trip to the archive, Høgsbjerg opened a file labelled Toussaint Louverture to find with astonishment the typescript of James’s play. The play was published for the first time in 2013 by Duke University Press.
It is perhaps the last major piece of James’s work to be published.
In 1789 the French West Indian colony of San Domingo supplied two-thirds of the overseas trade of France and was the greatest individual market for the European slavetrade. It was an integral part of the economic life of the age, the greatest colony in the world, the pride of France, and the envy of every other imperialist nation. The whole structure rested on the labour of half-a-million slaves.

August 1791, after two years of the French Revolution and its repercussions in San Domingo, the slaves revolted. The struggle lasted for 12 years. The slaves defeated in turn the local whites and the soldiers of the French monarchy, a Spanish invasion, a British expedition of some 60,000 men, and a French expedition of similar size under Bonaparte’s brother-in-law. The defeat of Bonaparte’s expedition in 1803 resulted in the establishment of the Negro state of Haiti which has lasted to this day.

The revolt is the only successful slave revolt in history, and the odds it had to overcome is evidence of the magnitude of the interests that were involved. The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organise themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day, is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement.

C.L.R. James, taken from the preface to the first edition of The Black Jacobins 1938
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One thought on “The Great Haitian Revolution

  1. Thank you — an amazing story which fully deserves to be remembered and refreshed in this way. I’m sorry I cannot come to the discussion or see your exhibition about it.

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