C.L.R. James’s Touissaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History. Adapted by Nic Watts and Sakina Karimjee. New York: Verso Books, 2023. 272pp, $24.95.
Guest review by Paul Buhle
This is quite a comic! A very intense treatment of the uprising in Haiti that paralleled and deeply involved the French Revolution and yet was treated for centuries as a mere sidebar to world events. Readers will need to think hard, even now, about the reasons why.
But your reviewer gets ahead of the story. This is the graphic adaptation of a play performed on the British stage with Paul Robeson, the phenomenal actor (also and otherwise mainly singer), during the mid-1930s. The author of the play, C.L.R. James, had emigrated from his native Trinidad to Britain in 1931, earned a living as a top-notch cricket reporter, but found himself immersed simultaneously in anti-colonial movements and in the Trotskyist corner of the political Left.
According to contemporary stage critics, the play came across too talky for the drama that it represented, perhaps inevitably: it could have required a cast of thousands. Then again, the subject had hardly surfaced by that time. James’s The Black Jacobins (1938), a parallel to W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction (1935), arose out of his research on the French Revoluition, then grew and grew. It was a story that had hardly been told at all. And if the book received respectable reviews, it fairly disappeared until reappearing as a textbook on campus campuses in the early 1960s. This was “Black History” written like a novel, one of the great successes of the time, definitely parallel to the reprinted editions of Black Reconstruction, one of the later editions introduced by none other than C.L.R. James.
Nic Watts and Sakina Karimjee fill the pages with dramatic dialogues (as well as monologues) that draw directly upon the play, and on many pages do not require a dense background. Here and there, we see a remarkable landscape or a vivid crowd scene, but speaking largely moves the story along. Neither the colonizers nor the colonized can be described as unified in their ideas and their actions. On the contrary, events play out with internal agreements astonishingly almost as volatile as between whites, blacks and mulattoes.
James, who also happened to be one of the very first non-white novelists of the English-speaking West Indies, never again had the time, energy or will to write a drama, nor did Robeson (who later captured the stage with his Othello) have the opportunity to play the great black revolutionary hero again. It was a one-time collaboration of giants, after all, but the artists have, in their way, captured both the sense of the play and its deepest meaning. Here, all the contempt of whites for their suppose “inferiors,” against the background of a French Revolution that supposedly broke down all the barriers of inequality. There, the rage of slaves who, contrary to stereotype, did not “go wild” but found their own way, choosing Toussaint as he chose them and following him to the death with a tolerance for suffering that seemed to whites unbelieveable.
Independent Haiti will, of course, be betrayed, by the U.S. among other world powers, isolated and punished for having the nerve to demonstrate the right and capacity for freedom from slavery. The persecution has not ended even now.
But at least the story has been told.
Enough said! Get the book!
Paul Buhle is the authorized biographer of C.L.R. James and editor of more than twenty non-fiction, historical comics.