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DOI: 10.5235/L&H.6.2.

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(2012) 6(2) Law and Humanities 197216

Human Rights and Radical Universalism: Aim


Csaires and CLR Jamess Representations
of the Haitian Revolution
Philip Kaisary*

Toussaint LOuverture and the Haitian slaves brought into the world more than the abolition
of slavery.1
CLR James

The Haitian Revolution of 17911804 led to the establishment of Haiti as the worlds irst
independent Black Republic and has long held a fascination for a diverse array of writers,
artists and intellectuals. The 12-year revolutionary war of independence in the French
colony of Saint-Domingue was, by turns, subsequently represented as a slave rebellion,
an anti-colonial war, and a race war. Initially it shocked the Western world, reshaped
the debates about slavery, accelerated the abolitionist movement, precipitated rebellions
in neighbouring territories, and intensiied both repression and anti-slavery sentiment
on both sides of the Atlantic.2 The Haitian Revolution must thus be accounted for as a
world-historical event of paramount signiicance.3
*

1
2

Assistant Professor in Law, University of Warwick Law School, UK. The author would especially like to
thank Benita Parry for her advice and encouragement with this article, Marcus Wood, Charles Forsdick
and Neil Lazarus for their incisive comments on earlier drafts, and the two anonymous reviewers for their
constructive criticism.
CLR James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint LOuverture and the San Domingo Revolution (irst published
1938, rev edn 1963) (Penguin, 2001) 321.
The best study of the impact of the Haitian Revolution on the politics of the Atlantic World, on slave
resistance, on liberation struggles throughout the Americas, and on the Revolutions demographic impact
on the wider Caribbean is: David Patrick Geggus (ed), The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic
World (University of South Carolina Press, 2001). The works that best contextualise the Haitian Revolution
in the history of Atlantic slavery are: Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque
to the Modern, 14921800 (Verso, 1997), The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery 17761848 (Verso, 1988), and
The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights (Verso, 2011). The most up-to-date
scholarly history of the revolution is Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian
Revolution (Harvard University Press, 2004).
See Nick Nesbitt, Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment (University
of Virginia Press, 2008); Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (University of Pittsburgh

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However, in his new study, Human Rights and Constituent Power: Without Model or
Warranty, Illan rua Wall notes the absence of consideration of the Haitian Revolution in
human rights discourse:
Traditional human rights histories often talk of the French and American revolution as crucial
moments when human rights are irst brought into being; equally they mention the abolition
of slavery as a fundamental moment in the emergence of the tradition. Curiously, however,
these histories rarely mention the third revolution, one that combined both human rights
with anti-racism.4

Central to Walls argument is his contention that the absence of Haiti along with the
overemphasis on abolition reveals much about the imaginal structure of human
rights.5 Walls reading of the Haitian Revolution should be situated alongside a wave of
recent important works that have sought to construct an alternative narrative of human
rights.6 This article will suggest that the works of Aim Csaire and CLR James have a
prominent role to play in such a construction, and the argument thus impinges on discussion of the relationship between the Enlightenment and contemporary human rights
discourse. Robin Blackburn has explicitly framed the question such discussion seeks to
address: is the relationship marked by continuity or by rupture?7 And, further, what
might examination of ideas from the historical peripheries of international legal knowledge reveal about the nature and origins of contemporary notions of human rights?
Might consideration of not only the Haitian Revolution, but also the myriad forms and
mediums of slave resistance, cause us to re-examine the argument that universal human
rights spring from the revolutionary bourgeois templates of possessive individualism,
free labour and self-interest maximisation (the same sources that eventually made slavery obsolete through the abstraction of labour power)?
At the outset, it is instructive to note that work addressing the historical and ideological signiicance of the Haitian Revolution has also been pursued outside the discipline
of legal studies. In his recent work, The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and
Human Rights, Robin Blackburn notes:

Press, 2009); and Doris L Garraway, Lgitime Dfense: Universalism and Nationalism in the Discourse of
the Haitian Revolution in Doris L Garraway (ed), Tree of Liberty: Cultural Legacies of the Haitian Revolution
in the Atlantic World (University of Virginia Press, 2008).
4
5
6

Illan rua Wall, Human Rights and Constituent Power: Without Model or Warranty (Routledge, 2012) 15.
Ibid, 16.
Ibid, 15. Notable examples of such works include: Balakrishnan Rajagopal, International Law from Below:
Development, Social Movements and Third World Resistance (Cambridge University Press, 2003); Micheline
Ishay, The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era (University of California
Press, 2008); Helen Stacey, Human Rights for the Twenty-First Century: Sovereignty, Civil Society, Culture
(Stanford University Press, 2009); and Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Harvard
University Press, 2010).
Robin Blackburn, Reclaiming Human Rights (2011) 69 New Left Review 126, 126.

Aim Csaires and CLR Jamess Representations of the Haitian Revolution

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[H]istorians have begun to study the [Haitian] revolution as an event in the history of ideas,
and of the moral imagination, as well as a dramatic political episode with a wide impact.8

The works of Laurent Dubois and Nick Nesbitt are prominent amongst those playing
a key role in advancing the argument that the Haitian Revolution, unlike the American
and French Revolutions, marked a watershed in the history of human rights. Thus, for
Dubois, the Haitian Revolution was the most concrete expression of the idea that the
rights proclaimed in Frances 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen were
indeed universal,9 whilst for Nesbitt, Haitis construction of a society without slavery,
one of universal and unqualiied human right to freedom, properly stands out as Haitis
unique contribution to humanity.10
However, if the project of grappling with the implications of the Haitian Revolution
has only lately begun in North American and European academe, the works of Aim
Csaire and CLR James have long since articulated a case for the representation of the
story of the Haitian Revolution as an assertion of a nascent human rights within the context of twentieth-century anti-imperialist struggle in Africa and the Caribbean. Csaires
and Jamess texts thus problematise abolition as a node of standard grand narratives of
human rights in which freedom is rendered as a gift, an act of humanitarian generosity
that is alleged to stand as among the three or four perfectly virtuous acts recorded in the
history of nations.11 Instead, Csaire and James recall the enslaved as participatory subjects in a struggle for rights and assert a revolutionary black consciousness that instructs
us to imagine a radically universal human rights discourse.
This article will suggest that both Jamess Black Jacobins and Csaires Cahier dun
retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to My Native Land), the founding poetic
text of the ngritude movement, spoke to the singular imperative of African and Caribbean decolonisation via representations of the Haitian Revolution that articulate a
radical project of universal freedom that do not reductively present us with a simpliied
or idealised human rights revolution. I will thus seekto elaborate Nick Nesbitts claim
that
Csaire, like C.L.R. James before him, never shied away from the insight that the world-historical importance of the Haitian Revolution lies in its transcendence of any identity-based
politics to politicize instead the idea of the universal human right to be free from enslavement.12
Blackburn, The American Crucible (n 2) 176.
Dubois (n 2) 3.
10 Nesbitt (n 3) 10.
11 WEH Lecky quoted in David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World
(Oxford University Press, 2006) 234. For a discussion of freedom as a gift in the context of abolition
see Marcus Wood, The Horrible Gift of Freedom: Atlantic Slavery and the Representation of Emancipation
(University of Georgia Press, 2010), esp 334.
12 Nick Nesbitt, The Incandescent I, Destroyer of Worlds (2010) 41 Research in African Literatures 121, 124.
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Hence, I am suggesting that the determined revalorisations of Haitian history that these
texts present are founded in an anti-colonial discourse imbued with a radically enlightened universalism. Moreover, Csaires and Jamess determined revalorisations of Haitian
history, it will be argued, share similar preoccupations with the representation of black
agency and the pioneering of a collective black memory that could challenge the seemingly ininite number of narratives in black history emphasising the status of the black
subject as victim. Yet at the same time, their celebrations of the Haitian Revolution were
always premised on universal ethical and political values, fashioning out of the story
of Haitian self-liberation a universalism that undermines racially exclusive notions of
human rights. Csaires and Jamess texts thus serve as correctives to the over-emphasis
on the abolition of slavery in traditional human rights narratives that have imbibed the
terribly convincing and very joyful lies of the agency and moral rectitude of the glorious
white patriarchal philanthropists.13
In the foreword to the 1980 edition of his seminal historical text on the Haitian
Revolution, The Black Jacobins, James retrospectively wrote the following in order to
underscore his intentions:
I was tired of reading and hearing about Africans being persecuted and oppressed in Africa, in
the Middle Passage, in the USA and all over the Caribbean. I made up my mind that I would
write a book in which Africans or people of African descent instead of constantly being the
object of other peoples exploitation and ferocity would themselves be taking action on a
grand scale and shaping other people to their own needs.14

James, at one stroke, repudiates the white archive of Atlantic slavery by refusing a history predicated upon assumptions of black passivity, exploitation and powerlessness.
Moreover, Jamess statement of intent highlights the challenge to their ontological and
legal codiication manifest in the action of the Haitian slaves: instead of being the objects
of other peoples exploitation, the Haitian rebelsdemonstrated by their actions the falsity
of their categorisation as property and object. In effecting subjectivation, Csairienne
ngritude should also be interpreted as a means of confronting this same problem, since
in the midst of a plethora of narratives that emphasised black victimhood, Csaires
ngritude signiied not only a political and aesthetic theory, but also, in the words of
Benita Parry,
a textually invented history, an identity effected through igurative operations, and a tropological construction of blackness as a sign of the colonized condition and its refusal.15

Wood (n 11) 16.


James (n 1) xv.
15 Benita Parry, Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique (Routledge, 2004) 45. For a deinition of tropological revision in relation to African-American literature and culture, see Henry Louis Gates, Jr, The Signifying
Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (Oxford University Press, 1988).
13
14

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201

Thus, for Csaires historical/cultural ngritude, as opposed to Senghors essentialist


version,16 Haiti was fundamental as the site of original and powerful refusal:
o la ngritude se mit debout pour la premire fois et dit quelle croyait son humanit.
[where ngritude stood up for the irst time and said it believed in its humanity]17

Thus, despite their different forms and languages, it is instructive to consider Jamess
history, The Black Jacobins, irst published in 1938, alongside Csaires ngritude poem,
Cahier dun retour au pays natal, irst published in 1939. In the appendix essay to the second edition of The Black Jacobins published in 1963, James quotes from Csaires Cahier
at length in order to make explicit some of the connections between their projects. This
he does by praising Csaires Cahier, the inest and most famous poem ever written
about Africa, for making a union of the African sphere of existence with existence in the
Western world, for linking historically and logically mankinds past to mankinds future,
and for offering a vision of independent African being and an integrated humanity.18
By these means Csaire and James offer emancipatory visions of decolonisation that
promulgate the liberation of the subject and reveal an assertion of universal freedom to
be shared among all races and peoples, thereby challenging the notion that the values of
universal human rights are exclusively Western values.
The analysis that follows pays particular attention to the means by which the character of Toussaint and other heroic igures, sometimes historical and sometimes archetypal,
were starting points for Csaires and Jamess efforts to communicate the historical fact
of black agency, its contemporary and future possibility, and the universalist discourse at
the heart of the Haitian Revolution.

AIM CSAIRE: NGRITUDE AND UNIVERSALISM


That ngritude holds within it an astute philosophical critique of contemporary human
rights discourse and its foundations, and posits a radical alternative, might seem surThough it is commonplace to distinguish between Csaires and Senghors versions of negritude on these
grounds, the critic A James Arnold suggests that their views only latterly diverged. See A James Arnold,
Modernism & Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aim Csaire (Harvard University Press, 1981) 3640,
186.
17 Aim Csaire, Notebook of a Return to My Native Land / Cahier dun retour au pays natal [1939], trans
Mireille Rosello with Annie Pritchard (Bloodaxe, 1995) 9091. I am aware of the many dificulties of
translation presented by Csaires complex and idiosyncratic poetic voice and his use of non-standard
French. In the course of preparing this article I have therefore familiarised myself with the following other
translations of the Cahier: Aim Csaire, Return to My Native Land, trans John Berger and Anna Bostock
(Penguin, 1969); Aim Csaire, Return to My Native Land, trans Emile Snyder (Prsence Africaine, 1968);
and the version in Aim Csaire, The Collected Poetry, trans Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith (University of California Press, 1983) 3285. For a useful summary of the issues raised, see the Translators Note
and Glossary in the 1995 Bloodaxe edition, 13747.
18 James (n 1) 311, 314.
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prising at irst, given its alleged limitations. Ngritude has been much maligned and
frequently misunderstood. Consider, for example, J Michael Dashs article, Marvellous
Realism: The Way out of Ngritude.19 Sketching what he perceives to be the essential
difference between Marvellous Realism and Ngritude,20 Dash argues that the limitation of ngritude lies in its inability to see beyond the tragedy of circumstance and
hence its alleged inability to celebrate the cultural inheritance of slavery.21 Thus, while
conceding that ngritude correctly recognised the double alienation of the black man,
on a politico-economic level as well as on a psychological and cultural level, he maintains that a totally un-creative attitude to the past renders it incapable of addressing
the problem of psychological regeneration.22 But whereas ngritude, according to Dash,
could not move beyond the negativity of committed protest, marvellous realism allows
for the lowering of the Third World personality. This negative view of ngritude has
now been reinforced by the Croliste groupMartinican writers Patrick Chamoiseau,
Raphal Coniant and Jean Bernabwhose writings have propelled a depreciation of
both ngritude and Csaire.23 However, in the context of an ongoing debate, I will argue
that ngritude cannot be so comprehensively dismissed.24 By re-reading Csaires highly
imaginative representations of Haitian history in the Cahier, I attempt to show how historical/cultural ngritude, in opposition to a Senghorian essentialist version, enabled the
installation of black achievement, yet transcends racial particularism and challenges the
received genealogy of human rights. My interpretation is thus guided by Edward Saids
ascribing to ngritude a universalism that distinguished it from mere identity politics
which he regarded as an impoverishing politics of knowledge based only upon the assertion and reassertion of identity, an ultimately uninteresting alternation of presence and
absence.25
The Cahier is not a simple rewriting of history from the perspective of the colonised
other; nor does it fall foul of that other accusation that has been levelled at ngritude:
the retrograde desire to recover an idealised but now vanquished identity. Rather, it
constitutes a textual intervention that lays claim to a re-energised subjectivity and promotes critical participation in the process of decolonisation, refusing to ignore or to be
held prisoner by the traumas of colonial history. Csaires Cahier politicises history and
boldly demands that we rethink received narratives, urgently demanding the recuperation of peripheral ideas and events from the margins of history. Hence in the Cahier,
19
20
21
22
23
24

25

J Michael Dash, Marvellous Realism: The Way out of Ngritude (1974) 13 Caribbean Studies 57.
Ibid, 65.
Ibid.
Ibid.
See Richard DE Burton, Two Views of Csaire: Ngritude and Crolit (1996) 35 Dalhousie French Studies
135.
The reception of and debate over ngritude has produced an extensive bibliography. For an overview
see Nick Nesbitt, Ngritude in Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr (eds), Africana: The
Encyclopedia of the African American Experience, vol 4 (Oxford University Press, rev edn 2005).
Edward Said, The Politics of Knowledge (1991) 11(1) Raritan: A Quarterly Review 17, 24.

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Csaires transformative aesthetics enable a once debilitating past to emerge as rich with
regenerative potential for the present, as a source of renewal and liberation. Consider the
triumphant and closing lines of the Cahier:
le grand trou noir o je voulais me noyer lautre lune
cest l que je veux pcher maintenant la langue malique de la
nuit en son immobile verrition!
[ the great black hole where I wanted to drown a moon ago
this is where I now want to ish the nights malevolent tongue in
its immobile revolvolution!]26

These enigmatic lines indicate the formal radicalism of Csaires text; and although their
metaphor-laden poetics lend themselves to multiple interpretation, they speak of the
omission of black agency in the white archive, and the way in which the Haitian Revolution transports the speaking subject from death-desiring despair (grand trou noir o je
voulais me noyer) to a resolve to recover black achievement out of which a truly universal freedom might emerge (je veux pcher).
***
Csaires Cahier has been the subject of many readings over the years, and its status as
a classic Francophone text of decolonisation has been long established.27 More recently
Christopher L Miller has written of the Cahier that
No other text, before or since, has done so much to review and rethink the French Atlantic
the Cahier both inhabits the oppressive logic of the Atlantic triangle and suggests a way out
of it.28

Escape from the legacies of Atlantic slavery accounts for the many readings of the poem
stressing its powerfully afirmative narrative, in which the black diasporic poetic subject
experiences an awakening of consciousness. For instance, Gregson Davis writes:
Self-knowledge pursued mercilessly and aggressively has led to both psychic liberation and
empowerment. The inale of Cahier is grand and heavily orchestrated. The speaker now
Csaire (n 17) 1345.
See eg Arnold (n 16) 13368; Andr Breton, Un grand pote noir, Preface to Cahier dun retour au pays
natal (Prsence Africaine, rev edn 1971); Dominique Comb, Aim Csaire: Cahier dun retour au pays
natal (Presses Universitaires de France, 1993); Maryse Cond, Cahier dun retour au pays natal: analyse
critique (Hatier, 1978); Thomas Hale, Structural Dynamics in a Third World Classic: Aim Csaires Cahier
dun retour au pays natal (1976) 53 Yale French Studies 163; Abiola Irele, Aim Csaire: Cahier dun retour
au pays natal (New Horn Press, 1994); Lilyan Kestloot, Comprendre le Cahier dun retour au pays natal
dAim Csaire (Editions Saint Paul, 1982).
28 Christopher L Miller, The French Atlantic Triangle (Duke University Press, 2008) 325.
26
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assumes the mask of a triumphant apostle of freedom who is envisaged as ascending to a
paradise in which racism is inally left far behind.29

I wish to suggest that this awakening also entails a political birth of the subject that recuperates the actions of the Haitian slaves in closing the gap inherent in the inadequation
between the slaves political exclusion and the universal rights of man.30 Csairienne
ngritude thus presciently identiied a gapor conlictbetween competing theories
and praxes of human rights that is notably missing from traditional accounts of human
rights history.31 Such a reading of the poem is not incompatible with Nesbitts notably innovative line of analysis in Voicing Memory, in which he argues for the Cahiers
inherent ambiguity or double character as opposed to its unilinear developmental
process charting a movement from submission to freedom,32 since embedded within
the emancipatory politics of Csairienne universalism is space for ambiguity, conlict
and multiplicity.
Various misreadings of Csaires work have been highlighted by Christopher L Miller,
who maintains that critics who conlate Senghors and Csaires conceptions of ngritude (Widely held views of Csaire make him much more like Senghor than he should
be), incorrectly catalogue the Cahier as an inlexibly doctrinaire manifesto.33 Writing
about the competing conceptions of these two founding fathers of ngritude, Nick Nesbitt has provided a distilled and perspicacious analysis. Whereas Senghors essentialist
interpretation of ngritude argued for an unchanging core or essence to black existence,
he argues that Csaire saw the
speciicity and unity of black existence as a historically developing phenomenon that arose
through the highly contingent events of the African slave trade and the New World plantation
system.34

This distinction has not always been appreciated by critics who denounce both as essentialists and applaud hybridity as the appropriate theoretical perspective, while others
29
30
31
32
33
34

See eg Gregson Davis, Aim Csaire (Cambridge University Press, 1997) 57.
Nick Nesbitt (ed), Toussaint LOuverture: The Haitian Revolution (Verso, 2008) xlv.
For a detailed explication of differential human rights, and human rights multiplicity as a challenge to
traditional human rights histories, see especially Wall (n 4) 144.
Nick Nesbitt, Voicing Memory: History and Subjectivity in French Caribbean Literature (University of Virginia Press, 2003) 77.
Miller (n 28) 328.
Nesbitt (n 24) 193. Instructively, Nesbitt also notes: In addition to its historical importance, Csaires
coining of the term Ngritude possesses a philosophical dimension later developed in the work of Fanon
and Sartre. Theoretically, and in contradistinction to the uses and abuses that the term would undergo
in succeeding decades, Ngritude in the Cahier possesses a decidedly objective status. That is to say, Csaire
refuses to presuppose the existence of a self-identical, autonomous black subject, and instead describes a
self-alienated subject that is forced to confront, as if in a mirror, its own unfreedom and predetermination
in a racist society (196). Maryse Conds important essay Ngritude csairienne, negritude senghorienne
(1974) 48 Revue de literature compare 409 also explains the vast differences that distinguish the two poets.

Aim Csaires and CLR Jamess Representations of the Haitian Revolution

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deplore Csairienne ngritude for its alleged blindness to the Caribbean itself, or its
Afrocentrism, hyper-romanticisation of Africa and an obsession with returna criticism often made without suficiently recognising the poems questioning of the very
possibility of return.35
A response to these allegations, and especially to suggestions of the poems alleged
militant Afrocentrism, is, I suggest, to be found in a close reading of the poems ambiguous nature and drawing attention to the importance it attaches to the Haitian Revolution
as a foundational world revolution, rather than a regional event of signiicance only for
Africa and Africans, and as an assertion of subjective rights that laid down a remarkable challenge to a colonial world-system and its attendant legal discourse that regarded
slaves as chattel. Therefore my own reading of the Cahier seeks to emphasise the representation of the Haitian Revolution offered by the poem via the symbolic presentation of
Toussaint, and the view of ngritude as a concept positing the negation of subjugation
not through the celebration of racial or strategic essentialism but via a radical spiritual
and political project of black, as well as universal, liberation.
***
For Csaire the Haitian Revolution was a conirmation of what he later termed ngritude in action.36 Speaking with Ren Depestre in 1967 Csaire explained that:
Haiti represented for me the heroic Antilles, the African Antilles. I began to make connections
between the Antilles and Africa, and Haiti is the most African of the Antilles. It is at the same
time a country with a marvellous history: the irst Negro epic of the New World was written
by Haitians, people like Toussaint Louverture, Henri Christophe, Jean-Jacques Dessalines 37

In the Cahier Csaire puts Haitis revolutionary history to work towards the construction
of a coherent and empowering subjectivity that recovers an assertion of rights crystallised in the drama of a monumental episode of anti-imperialist struggle. Csaires route
to this goal is via an imaginative portrayal of the heroic persona of Toussaint LOuverture
and his climactic moment of great ironic tragedy: his death whilst imprisoned in the
French Jura mountains at Napoleon Bonapartes command. The circumstances of Toussaints death have proven to be particularly ripe for artistic and literary reinvention,
although a great number of these reinventions have blandly represented the event in
the tenor of mournful melodramaWordsworths sonnet To Toussaint LOuverture in
which Toussaint is represented as a whitewashed generic martyr to freedom is a good
Miller (n 28) 329. See also Edouard Glissant, Aim Csaire: The Poets Passion, trans Christopher Winks
(2008) 27 Small Axe 119, 120.
36 An Interview with Aim Csaire conducted by Ren Depestre (1967) (trans Maro Riofrancos) in Aim
Csaire, Discourse on Colonialism [1955], trans Joan Pinkham (Monthly Review Press, 2000) 90.
37 Ibid, 90.
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example of this approach.38 However, the recalling of Toussaints death to present memory in the Cahier departs from these many prior descriptions by imaginatively recasting
Toussaints death as a politically enabling myth. The poems narrator, who here adopts an
inclusive revolutionary rhetoric that encompasses disenfranchised and alienated blacks
throughout the Atlantic diaspora, is thus empowered to initiate his own movement
towards disalienation, and to demand ownership not of property rights but of a communal cultural and historic inheritance:
Ce qui est moi aussi: une petite cellule dans le Jura,
une petite cellule, la neige la double de barreaux blancs
la neige est un gelier blanc qui monte la garde devant une prison
Ce qui est moi
cest un homme seul emprisonn de blanc
cest un homme seul qui die les cris blancs de la mort blanche
(TOUSSAINT, TOUSSAINT LOUVERTURE)
[What is mine too: a small cell in the Jura,
the snow lines it with white bars
the snow is a white gaoler who mounts guard in front of a prison
What is mine
a man alone, imprisoned by whiteness
a man alone who deies the white screams of a white death
(TOUSSAINT, TOUSSAINT LOUVERTURE)]39

The repeated refrain Cest qui est moi (What is mine) emphasises an act of imaginative possession and the canto is also remarkable for the repetition12 times in allof
la mort (death). But in the context of myth, death is not terminal. Instead, it is part of
a circular chain of birth, death and resurrection:
La mort dcrit un cercle brillant au-dessus de cet homme
[Death describes a brilliant circle above this man]40

The Cahier thereby pays homage to the regenerative possibilities of the spirit of Toussaint
as a black revolutionary leader who became a heroic martyr to liberty. The imprisoned
and dying Toussaint epitomises struggle and suffering, but rather than portraying him as
a black Christ, Csaire re-creates Toussaint in the mould of a Nietzschean tragic hero,41
William Wordsworth, To Toussaint LOuverture (irst published 1802) in Marcus Wood (ed), The Poetry
of Slavery: An Anglo-American Anthology, 17641865 (Oxford University Press, 2003) 233. For a reading of
Wordsworths poem in terms of its appropriation of Toussaint, see Marcus Wood, Slavery, Empathy, and
Pornography (Oxford University Press, 2002) 2305.
39 Csaire (n 17) 9093.
40 Ibid, 9091.
41 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy [1872], trans Shaun Whiteside (Penguin, 1993) 5154.

38

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a technique that Csaire would later draw on in his representation of the archetypal
anti-Promethean, Nietzschean character of the Rebel in his play Et les chiens se taisaient
(And the dogs were silent).42 Although there is a religious quality to the symbolism of
Toussaints fate, la mort toile doucement au-dessus de sa tte (death stars gently above
his head), it is a poetic mysticism far removed from Christianity.43 Here, death is not
redemptive, rather it acquires its own volition. It dominates the prison, and is equated
with symbols of evil: the gaoler, the snow, and whiteness itself. Death represents a destin tenace (tenacious destiny) that is both romanticised, la mort est un oiseau bless
(death is a wounded bird), and stripped of false beauty, soubresauts de mort ige
(spasms of clotted death).44
Csaires treatment of the death of Toussaint reverberates with Freuds concept
of the death wish and Nietzsches self-sacriicing tragic hero, as well as the mythology
of Haitian vodou.45 As a complex composite and symbolic representation, Toussaint
may thus also be seen as a site for the exploration of the connections between Hellenic
and Haitian cultures. By extrapolating from Wole Soyinkas claim that the West African Yoruba and Haitian vodou deity Ogun is best understood in Hellenic values as the
totality of Dionysian, Apollonian and Promethean virtues,46 the critic Keith L Walker
reads Csaires Toussaint as exemplifying the characteristics of Ogun.47 This reading of
Csaires representation of Toussaint, with its emphasis on his cultural syncretism, helps
to unveil a igure who embodies the gravitas of a universal tragic hero charged with the
responsibility for awakening the subjectivity of the narrator of the Cahier. As such, the
mythic paradigm that Csaire ascribes to Toussaint is that of the fertility myth following
the pattern of the dying and reviving god, adapted for Csaires project of ngritude by
the substitution of the reviving god in lieu of the revived narrator and a revived people.48 As an inspirational poetic paradigm that ruptures the division between subject
and object, Csaires Toussaint is a startling textual instantiation of the radical element
in human rights. It is among Csaires many achievements that he created an artistic
language not in order to aestheticise the past, nor only to protest against past injustices,
but rather, without idealising it, to make the past an avenue for pursuing universal emancipation in the present.

42
43
44
45
46

47
48

Aim Csaire, Et les chiens se taisaient (Prsence Africaine, 1962).


Csaire (n 17) 9091.
Ibid, 9093.
For a reading of Csaires poem Le pur-sang (The Thoroughbreds) via the surrealists adoption of Freud
see Arnold (n 16) 8588.
Wole Soyinka quoted in Keith L Walker, Art for Lifes Sake: Rituals and Rights of Self and Other in the
Theatre of Aim Csaire in Paul Carter Harrison, Victor Leo Walker and Gus Edwards (eds), Black Theatre:
Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora (Temple University Press, 2002) 200.
Walker, ibid, 200.
For an overview of the paradigm of the fertility myth see Laurence Coupe, Myth (Routledge, 1997) 2042.

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CLR JAMES: THE BLACK JACOBINS


The representation of the history of the Haitian Revolution as an assertion of a nascent
human rights discourse in order to promote the anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth
century in Africa and the Caribbean is also the impetus for CLR Jamess The Black Jacobins, which remains the seminal biographical construction of Toussaint as a historic black
hero. The signiicance of The Black Jacobins as a dissenting text is made clear by James
himself, who in the foreword to the 1980 edition of the text recounts how he had learnt
that mimeographed copies of sections of the text had been in circulation in apartheid
South Africa during the 1950s.49 The text is also widely known as a classic of Marxist
historiography, a precursor to EP Thompsons thesis of history from below, as well as
a touchstone for thinking about decolonisation. It is one of my contentions here that
Jamess reading of the Haitian Revolution also supports recent arguments for mounting
a fundamental critique of the received wisdom of traditional human rights historiography from the perspective of Third World social movements and resistance.50 Under
consideration will be the productive capacities and the limitations of Jamess emphasis
on representing Toussaint as a great man who dominated the world historical stage.
It is suggested that although this was to prove a magisterial means by which to vindicate black agency in history, it is a technique that stands in contradiction to the texts
celebrated values. In this regard, the texts little known predecessor, the play, Toussaint
Louverture, which James wrote in 1936 and was performed on the London stage to mixed
reviews with Paul Robeson and CLR James himself in the lead roles, indicates some of
the dificulties of representing Toussaint.51
Perhaps the most striking feature of The Black Jacobins relates to its imposing narrative style, which was directly inspired by a novel, not an historical work, Tolstoys War
and Peace. As the critic Robert Hill notes,
Like Tolstoys War and Peace, which describes the epic story of Russias struggle during the
Napoleonic wars, James account of the Haitian Revolution expresses a parallel national vision
for the West Indies.52

James (n 1) xvii.
See eg Rajagopal (n 6).
51 There is no published edition of the original version titled Toussaint Louverture. The version referred to
here is the revised version renamed The Black Jacobins included in Anna Grimshaw (ed), The CLR James
Reader (Blackwell, 1992). Fionnghuala Sweeneys recent article The Haitian play: CLR James Toussaint
Louverture (1936) is a welcome critical intervention which argues that a document held in the MoorlandSpingarn Research Centre is a copy of the text that formed the basis of the 1936 performance. Fionnghuala
Sweeney, The Haitian Play: CLR James Toussaint Louverture (1936) (2011) 14 International Journal of
Francophone Studies 143.
52 Robert A Hill, CLR James: The Myth of Western Civilisation in George Lamming (ed), Enterprise of the
Indies (Institute of the West Indies, 1999) 255.
49
50

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209

The book is also reminiscent in tone of Trotskys history of the Russian Revolution,
and indeed, Cedric Robinson has noted, Jamess history framed the Haitian Revolution
against the Bolshevik model.53 Finally, that stylistically it also recalls Michelets history
of the French Revolution should not surprise the reader, given Jamess enthusiastic selfimmersion in the writers of the French historical school of the French Revolution, of
whom for James, the greatest of them all is Michelet.54 Each of these inluences reveals
something of the aesthetic taste and ideological direction favoured by James. Furthermore, Jamess casting of Toussaint LOuverture as a tragic igure, and his insistence
on reading the Revolution through the prism of tragedy, in its literary generic sense,
prompts urgent questions about the tensions between the employment of an elite European historiographic mode that at times occludes the Haitian masses in the interests
of a great man history, and the writing of a suppressed non-European history.55 Even
though James does provide a class analysis of slave society in pre-revolutionary SaintDomingue, it is fascinating to examine The Black Jacobins as a classic text of Marxist
historiography that narrates the Haitian slaves radical transmutation of the French
Rights of Man, despite an approach that is at times akin to the traditions of a Victorianstyle biographical history.56
This fraught ideological relation irst makes itself known to the reader in Jamess
preface to the 1938 irst edition of The Black Jacobins. This remarkable, and contradictory, two-and-a-half page preface contains an unforgettable statement of the purpose
and methodology of the project. James indicates that the work will necessarily be biographical, since according to James the Haitian Revolution was
almost entirely the work of a single manToussaint LOuverture The history of the San
Domingo revolution will therefore largely be a record of his achievements and his political
personality. The writer believes, and is conident the narrative will prove, that between 1789
and 1815, with the single exception of Bonaparte himself, no single igure appeared on the
historical stage more greatly gifted than this Negro, a slave till he was forty-ive.57

But although James characterises Toussaint as a great man he will not allow that he is
also a tragic hero in the greatest sense of the term. In the climactic chapter, The War
of Independence, James writes that Toussaint was in a lesser category than his literary
comparators, Prometheus, Hamlet, Lear, and Ahab.58 Jamess construction of a ictitious
Toussaint to sit alongside his favourite tragic heroes stands out as a peculiar moment
53
54
55
56
57
58

Cedric J Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition [1983] (University of North
Carolina Press, rev edn 2000) 314.
James (n 1) 331.
Ibid, 2357.
This contradictory duality is the point of departure in Grant Farred, Victorian with the Rebel Seed: CLR
James, Postcolonial Intellectual (1994) 38 Social Text 21.
James (n 1) xviiixix.
Ibid, 236.

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in the text. What James achieves by his deliberation on the extent of Toussaints greatness is far from clear, although it should be recognised that by imagining Toussaint in
conjunction with classical Greek tragedy, Shakespeare and Melville at the very forefront
of his mind, James was making a radical statement for the time, even if we may read this
today as symptomatic of a troubling deference to the Western literary canon.
Jamess representation of Toussaint is nothing if not contradictory. In his essay Tradition and the West Indian Novel, Wilson Harris inds Toussaintjust too slippery for
James to be able to pin him down with real authority:
Toussaintand this is the curious almost unwitting irony of the workemerges not because
he its in where James wants him to stand, but because he escapes the authors self-determination in the end. James seeks to smooth over a number of cracks in building his own portrait
but each signiicant law he wrestles with begins to make its own independent impact.59

However, Toussaint would also appear ultimately to escape Jamess control as he resides
at the centre of two irreconcilable historical methodologies. Whilst attempting to stay
loyal to his developing adherence toMarxism, James was also reluctant to relinquish his
affection for the notion of the great individual who single-handedly makes history. Thus
in the preface James evokes and then reigures Marxs famous phrase from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it
under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered,
given, and transmitted from the past.60

The rewording makes explicit his intention to write a great man history:
Great men make history, but only such history as it is possible for them to make.61

This tension between a Marxist and a tragic approach to writing the history of the Haitian Revolution lares up intermittently throughout the text. It becomes particularly
apparent in the analysis of Toussaints ultimate failure, which is attributed to his lack of
communication with the masses and his generals, as well as to his calamitous decision to
order the execution of the radical revolutionary Mose, who was also his own nephew
an episode which James pithily analyses with the verve of a true polymath:

Wilson Harris and AJM Bundy, Selected Essays of Wilson Harris: The Uninished Genesis of the Imagination.
Readings in Postcolonial Literatures (Routledge, 1999) 149.
60 Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1851] in David McLellan (ed), Karl Marx:
Selected Writings (Oxford University Press, rev edn 2000) 329.
61 James (n 1) xix.

59

Aim Csaires and CLR Jamess Representations of the Haitian Revolution

211

It was almost as if Lenin had had Trotsky shot for taking the side of the proletariat against the
bourgeoisie.62

Thus, Jamess Marxist analysis of Toussaints failure sits in uneasy contrast with the many
accounts of his successes: Toussaints astonishing accomplishments as an administrator
were not achieved through cooperation with the people but rather because Toussaint
made himself into a whole cabinet like a fascist dictator, except that he actually did the
work.63 At other times Jamess desire to represent Toussaint as an individual bestowed
with extraordinary abilities appears to reveal lapses of judgment when dealing with historical sources:
[Toussaint] was as completely master of his body as of his mind. He slept but two hours every
night, and for days would be satisied with two bananas and a glass of water.64

But this implausible account of Toussaints endurance is more revealing of Jamess


humour than of any insight into the historical beingthe image of the man with his
two bananas and a glass of water parodying the prior racist representations of Toussaint
and of jungle blacks. However, ultimately Jamess iguring of Toussaint as a mythopoetic hero and an extraordinary individual must be recognised as serving to intensify
the inherent tension between the revolutionary politics of the work, which recovers a
narrative of radical Enlightenment that annunciates an assertion of rights, and its elitist
occlusion of the masses.65
In order to clarify my own reading of James, it is necessary at this juncture to specify
my dissent from David Scotts analysis in Conscripts of Modernity, his book-length study
of The Black Jacobins. According to Scotts thesis, one that is repeatedly stressed, the
political potentiality of anti-colonial theory and praxis has for many years now been an
anachronism, out of date and out of tune with our radically changed circumstancesa
fact that, he claims, has not been suficiently acknowledged. Scott offers detailed and
nuanced close readings of Jamess book, paying careful attention to the irst edition of
1938 and the extensive revisions made to the 1963 second edition. What he discerns is a
shift from a mode of anti-colonial Romanticism in the 1938 edition, to an anti-colonialism circumscribed by a tragic sensibility in the 1963 edition, from which he concludes
that by the time of the 1963 second edition, James foresaw the political limitations of
anti-colonial narrative. In his attentive critique of Scotts thesis, Chris Bongie notes that
Scotts anti-teleological appeals to the future tend to come across as purely rhetorical

Ibid, 2301.
Ibid, 130.
64 Ibid, 202.
65 Kara M Rabbitt, CLR Jamess Figuring of Toussaint Louverture: The Black Jacobins and the Literary Hero
in Selwyn Reginald Cudjoe and William E Cain (eds), CLR James: His Intellectual Legacies (University of
Massachusetts Press, 1995).

62
63

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gestures,66 due in large part to Scotts denial of the emancipatory potential of proleptic
alternatives to anti-colonial Romanticism on account of our age of politically impossible options.67
Whether Scott writing in 2004 truly speaks for James writing in 1963 is doubtful.
The 1963 edition of The Black Jacobins contains a powerful afirmation of the politics of
revolution, resistance and struggle in its appendix, From Toussaint LOuverture to Fidel
Castro. Here James states that he does not link Toussaint LOuverture to Fidel Castro
simply because both led Caribbean revolutions, and nor is the link a convenient or journalistic demarcation of historical time.68 Instead, James insists that [w]hat took place in
French San Domingo in 17921804 reappeared in Cuba in 1958,69 and while conceding
that [w]hat will happen to what Fidel Castro has brought into the world no one can
say,70 he asserts that the project of anti-imperialist struggle in the Caribbean has decisively brought something new71 into the world, which signiies that the work of man is
not inished.72 Jamess 1963 appendix essay thus articulates a vision of anti-imperialist
struggle carried out by, in Walls phrase, radical subjects of resistance and rights,73 that
speaks to an uninished political project of freedom, nationhood and self-determination,
animated by the claims of universal liberty and equality. Its politics, I maintain, cannot
be reconciled with Scotts proclamation that there no longer exist foundations for political commitment of any kind.
***
Jamess interest in Toussaint LOuverture had been long-standing. One of his earliest
essays, The Intelligence of the Negro, published in The Beacon in August 1931, invoked
the greatness of Toussaint LOuverture, and it foreshadows the kernel of what would
become Toussaints heroic characterisation in The Black Jacobins.74 Again in Beyond a
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74

Chris Bongie, Friends and Enemies: The Scribal Politics of Post/Colonial Literature (Liverpool University
Press, 2008) 262.
David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Duke University Press, 2004)
185.
James (n 1) 305.
Ibid, 305.
Ibid, 321.
Ibid, 326.
Ibid, 313.
Wall (n 4) 21.
Jamess article was a rebuttal of the pseudo-scientiic claims made by a British medical doctor, Sidney
Harland, in his article Race Admixture, in the previous issue of The Beacon. In his article Harland had
advanced the argument, common in the 1930s, that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites and were
therefore unit for self-rule. In his article Harland also ranked Toussaint LOuvertures intelligence as being
in Class F. Jamess response destroys Harlands argument, revealing scientiic incompetence, ignorance
and dishonesty. At the close of his polemic James then invokes the memory of Toussaint LOuverture,
emphasising his intellectual and ethical commitment to liberty, his military genius, his remarkable
diplomatic skills, and his statesmanship. The igure James sketches is a recognisable precursor to Jamess

Aim Csaires and CLR Jamess Representations of the Haitian Revolution

213

Boundary James explained that shortly after his arrival from Trinidad in 1932 in the
Lancastrian English town of Nelson:
West Indian history now began to assume a new importance. Stuck away in the back of my
head for years was the project of writing a biography of Toussaint Louverturethe leader of
the revolt of the slaves in the French colony of San Domingo. This revolt and the successful
establishment of the state of Haiti is the most outstanding event in the history of the West
Indies. I had not been long in Nelson before I began to import from France the books that I
would need to prepare a biography of Toussaint.75

Instead of a biography, however, Jamess irst literary engagement with the Haitian Revolution was a stage play in which he revealed an awareness of the role of the ordinary
slaves and slave culture in the Haitian Revolution, as well as the pre-eminence of Toussaint.76 And although it could not be said that Jamess stage play reads the history of the
Haitian Revolution from below, the script does initially pay considerable attention to
the masses, and attempts to ascribe to them the vital political function of becoming the
active agents of their own liberation. One of the irst stage directions in the script reads:
In the play it is possible that crowds may assemble at the back and be spoken to from the
back of the main central area. Crowds say little but their presence is felt powerfully at all critical moments. It must be felt, dramatically, and be projected as essential to the action in the
downstage area.77

Here James tries to use an anonymous crowd, labelled as either The Slaves or The People, to effect a sense of catastrophic drama, as did Csaire in installing a chorus drawn
from myths ancient and modern in Et les chiens se taisaient (And the dogs were silent),
yet his play fails to achieve the tragic register that we ind in Csaires drama.
At the start James is resourceful in attempting to represent the people, an emphasis
that is not sustained as the script descends into melodrama, with each character crudely
representing either an ideological or diplomatic position. And indeed Anna Grimshaw
has claimed that the dramatic structure collapses due to the disappearance of the masses.78 The play opens with an interplay of voices and montage through which James
evokes the dehumanising capacity of slavery in a ritualistic representation of a slave
work gangthe revolutionary songs alleged by some historians to derive from the Bois
Caiman vodou ceremony which sparked the initial revolutionary uprising of 1791:
Toussaint in The Black Jacobins. CLR James, The Intelligence of the Negro: A Few Words with Dr Harland
(1931) 1 The Beacon 6; Sidney C Harland, Race Admixture (1931) 1 The Beacon 25. See also Scott (n 67)
7981.
CLR James, Beyond a Boundary [1963] (Serpents Tail, 2000) 119.
Fionnghuala Sweeneys article is the most up-to-date work on Jamess play, and includes consideration of
its textual and performance history. Sweeney (n 51) 143.
77 James (n 51) 308.
78 Anna Grimshaw, CLR James: A Revolutionary Vision for the 20th Century (1991) (cited 7 March 2008),
www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/biograph.htm#copyright.

75

76

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Eh! Eh! Bomba! Heu! Heu!
Canga baio te!
Canga moune de le
Canga, do ki la
Canga, li79

These famous words are accompanied by drums, recalling the subversive power of
vodou. Later, the status of a number of slaves is contrasted with the privileged position
of an unnamed white lady at a hairdressers. The climactic moment of the barbershop
scene, the ladys small cry of disappointment as one of her curls is accidentally undone
by an attending slave,80 recalls the horriied face of the white woman who inds a Hottentots skull in her soup tureen in Csaires Cahier. Although both scenes resonate with
uncomfortable gender stereotyping, they do illustrate the presence of resistance within
the hollow decorum of slave holding and colonial society.81
In both the history and the play, the transmutation of the French Revolution in
the colony is successfully represented as driving the revolution in Saint Domingue, yet
this is achieved at the expense of the revolutions indebtedness to earlier leaders of slave
and maroon insurrections in the colony. An anonymous speaker in the play, to whom
James attributes a consciousness of international solidarity, announces to the masses at
the Bois Caiman forest vodou ceremony, which is already teeming with insurrectionary
potential, that:
The white slaves in France are ighting their masters you must join your brothers in revolt,
we must ight.82

Signiicantly it is Dessalines, not Toussaint, who is ready to rise to this call to arms:
Dessalines: (He looks up with determination and hate on his face. He raises a ist to the sky
and shouts.) We will kill them all. Every one.83

Dessalines rage is contrasted immediately with Toussaints cautious and intellectual


approach. Whereas Dessalines is represented as emerging from the thick of the insurrection at its earliest stages, Toussaint is absent, his knowledge of revolution reaching
him through his reading of the anti-slavery priest Abb Raynal. In a sense, Toussaint and
Dessalines function as dramatic foils: although portrayed as a supreme military tactician and soldier, Dessalines is brutish and uneducated, animalistic and threatening, his

James (n 51) 69.


Ibid.
81 For a defence of patriarchal position-taking in Aim Csaires anti-colonial discourse see Parry (n 15)
4243.
82 James (n 51) 71.
83 Ibid.
79
80

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215

speech semi-broken. By contrast, Toussaint is characterised as intelligent and learned,


his eloquence and Dessalines inarticulacy raising questions relating to the problems of
authenticity of language and dialogue in a ictional reconstruction of history. This problem is compounded by the limited lexicon and range of tone and expression that James
grants Dessalines, as for example in his response to the uprising of October 1791:
Dessalines: Revolution in France. Revolution in San Domingo. Freedom for slaves. Kill master. Burn down plantation.84

Dessalines speech, which re-creates the staccato diction associated with racist constructions of faux black idiot characters, fails to stage the breakdown of language in a moment
of extreme drama. Nor does James ind a convincing dramatic voice for Toussaint.
Thus, the frequently lengthy stage directions and information about the protagonists
are not integrated as articulations of character and dialogue expressive of interactions
between characters. For example, the transformation of Old Toussaintas his wife calls
himinto a near invincible military general and charismatic leader of an extraordinary
struggle for freedom from slavery occurs in just one stage direction:
In Act I, Scene I, he was a very human person assuming by instinct an authority that the situation demanded. Now he is every inch a soldier in command.85

I have already argued that the play fails as an historical reconstruction; and because the
characters labour under the weight of conveying ideological position-taking and diplomatic manoeuvringconsider the scenes in which Toussaint protects his former master
and orders the execution of his own nephew Mose86 it fails also as a drama. Yet it
should be noted that Jamess representation of Toussaint as a heroic igure is a revolutionary conceptual move that remains beyond the pale for human rights historiography.
Wall has argued that the fact that the writers of human rights histories in the main continue to look to the great white abolitionists rather than a Toussaint (orgod forbid!a
Dessalines) is indicative of an ideological blindness at the heart of human rights:
People who betray their own powerful side and thus discover the humanity of the other
subjected side are the human rights heroes.87

Within such a conceptual apparatus there will never be room for Toussaint, Dessalines
or any of the Haitian slaves who were the active agents of their own liberation. Instead,

Ibid, 72.
Ibid, 75.
86 Charles Forsdick, Reiguring Revolution: The Myth of Toussaint Louverture in CLR James and Edouard
Glissant (1999) 2728 New Comparison 267.
87 Wall (n 4) 24.

84

85

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sullied by self-interest and violence88 they are relegated to the margins in order that the
illusory moral perfection of mainstream human rights discourse might be maintained,
whilst the radical human rights alternative that they offer is ignored.
Peter Hallward has recently argued that,
Of the three great revolutions that began in the inal decades of the eighteenth century
American, French and Haitianonly the third forced the unconditional application of the
principle that inspired each one: afirmation of the natural, inalienable rights of all human
beings. Only in Haiti was the declaration of human freedom universally consistent. Only in
Haiti was this declaration sustained at all costs, in direct opposition to the social order and
economic logic of the day. Only in Haiti were the consequences of this declarationthe end
of slavery, of colonialism, of racial inequalityupheld in terms that directly embraced the
world as a whole. The declaration of Haitian independence thereby dealt the myth of white
supremacy a mortal and thus unforgivable blow.89

The Haitian Revolution tested and superseded the ontological and political assumptions of even the most radical writers and intellectuals of the Enlightenment, and it
constituted a powerful example of black capability that challenged the prevailing racist
discourses of the time. These historical facts, and the radical possibilities they open, have
been long overlooked within human rights discourse, but were not lost on Aim Csaire
and CLR James, who engaged themselves in writing, inventing and recuperating Haitis
revolutionary history at particular moments when the colonial world was beginning to
mobilise anti-colonial struggles and black intellectuals were engaged as theoreticians,
and often as activists, participating in liberation movements. Hence, their representations of the Haitian Revolution were informed by the political ethics of universalism and
anti-colonial sentiment, and were motivated by the desire to demonstrate and celebrate
black agency. The political urgency of their texts has not diminished with time; they
resonate with an acute relevance for a recuperation of what is radical in human rights,
and they remain sources with which to critique the material and political realities of our
present, and to imagine a different future.

88
89

Ibid, 25.
Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment (Verso, 2008) 11.
Emphasis in the original.