The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History A PLAY IN THREE ACTS
By C. L. R. JAMES
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One INTRODUCTION
| CHRISTIAN HØGSBJERG
In 2005, early in my research for a doctoral thesis on C. L. R. James's life and work in 1930s Britain, I went to inspect the Jock Haston Papers at the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull, in the north of England. Like James, Haston had been a Trotskyist in Britain during the 1930s, and listed among the Haston Papers was a file entitled simply "Toussaint Louverture." 1 Daring to hope to discover perhaps a programme from the original 1936 production of James's play about the Haitian Revolution, a rare enough and valuable find in itself, I decided to save examining this file until the end. After several hours spent wondering at some of the forgotten struggles and squabbles revealed among the minutiae of internal documents relating to the tiny early British Trotskyist movement, I finally rewarded myself by turning to the intriguing folder. Opening it up, I found to my amazement a yellowing mass of thin oilskin paper headed "Toussaint Louverture: The story of the only successful slave revolt in history." All that was missing from what I recognised immediately as the long-lost original playscript was its author's name on the front—C. L. R. James.
At that moment, the extraordinary providence of the find dawned on me in a way that must have eluded those historians of British Trotskyism who over the years had gone through the Haston Papers. It is not clear how James's play about the Haitian Revolution ended up with Jock Haston (1912–86). Haston had broken from the Communist Party in 1934, and he had set up a discussion group sympathetic to Trotskyism. Around 1935–36, Haston's group met for discussions with the three British Trotskyist groups then in existence, including James's Marxist Group, then part of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). It is possible that, during these discussions, James gave a copy of Toussaint Louverture to Haston, who may well have seen the play performed.
It is hard to overstate the significance of the discovery of James's original playscript—the last major missing piece of his writing yet to be published. The play should not be seen as an early preliminary work superseded by the publication of James's classic history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, in 1938. Rather, as Robert Hill first suggested to me, Toussaint Louverture must be seen as the indispensable companion work to The Black Jacobins. The play is a literary supplement to the magisterial history and had allowed James to give his imagination full rein. In the play's portrayal of Toussaint, "the first and greatest of West Indians," it might be argued that James demonstrates the full tragedy and heroism of this world-historical individual in a more powerful way than in both his history and in his later co-written play about the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins (1967), which evolved out of Toussaint Louverture.
The production of Toussaint Louverture in 1936 at the Westminster Theatre in London is also of considerable importance for the light it sheds on imperial metropolitan culture in 1930s Britain, or rather the radical counterculture that has always existed in the "dark heart" of the British Empire. The presence of that gentle giant of stage and screen, the black American star Paul Robeson, alongside other black actors from the Caribbean and Africa, meant that the two performances of Toussaint Louverture on 15 and 16 March 1936 were the first time that black professionals had ever performed on the British stage in a play written by a black playwright. Back in 1926, Robeson had told an interviewer that he dreamed "of a great play about Haiti, a play about Negroes, written by a Negro, and acted by Negroes ... of a moving drama that will have none of the themes that offer targets for race supremacy advocates." Ten years later, Robeson clearly gave his all in his portrayal of Toussaint. Toussaint Louverture was to be "the only play in which Robeson appeared that was written by a writer of African heritage."
Although James's play has been celebrated as a pioneering production in the history of black British theatre, and an important moment in the history of African and Caribbean theatre, Toussaint Louverture also stands as an outstanding contribution to what the late Trinidadian dramatist and scholar Errol Hill once described as "the revolutionary tradition in black drama," a "tradition of writing and producing plays that deal directly with black liberation." This revolutionary tradition dates at least as far back as the Haitian Revolution itself, for after Toussaint seized the power to rule as black Consul in Saint-Domingue, James noted in The Black Jacobins that "the theatres began to play again, and some of the Negro players showed a remarkable talent." In the 1820s, William Henry Brown, a West Indian seaman domiciled in New York who seems to have experienced the wider wave of slave revolt and national liberation that swept across the Caribbean during the 1790s, formed the African Company and founded a small theatre for black Americans. In 1822 Brown wrote and produced what was billed as "an entirely new play ... called Shotaway; or the Insurrection of the Caribs," about the Second Carib War of 1795–96 on St. Vincent, led by the Carib chief Chatoyer. As Shane White notes, "This was the first African American dramatic production," and Shotaway drew from the New York Spectator the comment that "it seems that these descendants of Africa are determined to carry into full practice the doctrine of liberty and equality, physically by acting plays, and mentally by writing them." Though no text of the play has been found, as Errol Hill notes, "in the 1820s, there were over two million black slaves in America," so "the staging of the struggle of Chatoyer and his tribe could be interpreted as a vivid antislavery statement," making King Shotaway, the title role, "the first revolutionary hero in black drama." As James would later insist, West Indians have "straight plays bursting out of our history."
The wider historic importance of James's own play Toussaint Louverture and its production in Britain in 1936 emerges then not simply from the remarkable talent of its own cast, drawn from across the African diaspora and with Paul Robeson in the title role, nor from its immediate audience, which would have included such Pan-African figures as George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, and Eric Williams. For at the heart of James's play was a pioneering recovery of the collective memory of the historic experience uniting people of the African diaspora: the experience of enslavement and the resistance to it. This introduction will begin by exploring the conceptual and ideological formation that led James to write such a play about the Haitian Revolution, "the most epic struggle to end slavery in the Americas."
Conceiving Toussaint Louverture
"The play was conceived four years ago and was completely finished by the autumn of 1934," James writes in his author's note in the original 1936 programme of Toussaint Louverture. In the crucial year of 1932 the thirty-one-year-old aspiring novelist decided to leave his native colonial Trinidad for the Mother Country of imperial Britain. Unlike the manuscripts James brought with him from Trinidad—a soon-to-be-published biography, The Life of Captain Cipriani: An Account of British Government in the West Indies (1932), and the novel Minty Alley (1936)—Toussaint Louverture was actually composed in Britain. Yet if a play about the leader of the Haitian Revolution therefore stands as the defining literary work born out of James's experience of the "voyage in," such a project was fundamentally inspired and shaped by James's earlier environment, the colonial Caribbean society in which he was born and grew to intellectual maturity.
C. L. R. James was, in the eloquent words of George Lamming, "a spirit that came to life in the rich and humble soil of a British colony in the Caribbean." Certainly the fact that James wrote a play so soon after leaving would not have surprised those closest to him back home. The young James had involved himself in amateur dramatics soon after leaving the elite school to which he had won a scholarship, Queen's Royal College (QRC), a place where he recalled "we learned Shakespeare, Goldsmith, Shaw" and other famous dramatists "of high morality." In 1919, he landed a job at a private school in Port of Spain as an English teacher, and he took his passion for drama into the classroom. A friend from QRC, William Besson, recalled:
Nello told me he was going to stage "The Merchant of Venice" in a cinema in Port of Spain; and he actually got his pupils to learn Shakespeare and put on the show. But unfortunately the people of Port of Spain had not reached the stage to appreciate that.... I took a young lady ... to see the play and there was just a sprinkling of people in this huge cinema. But Nello pressed on. The play was staged in front of the curtain and his pupils performed the whole of "The Merchant of Venice." So there you see, when Nello read Shakespeare it wasn't just a book he was reading but he saw life behind it, and he had to present that life.
In the 1920s, James became secretary of the Maverick Club, a social club independent of the white colonial elite; he later recalled how "for the most part we were Black people and one brown ... we would give concerts." Kent Worcester notes that "at the age of 21, he directed an operetta, Gypsy Rover (and played a jester); at the age of 28, he directed Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme for the Maverick Club." Paul Buhle has described how after James returned to QRC to teach English and History, "he staged with his class a full public version of Othello. It drew an enthusiastic response, and James went on to write a now-vanished drama about local life and to produce it with his students, for the public." James's cultural activism throughout the 1920s was increasingly accompanied by a growth of political consciousness, expressed in support for the growing nationalist movement around the social-democratic Trinidad Workingmen's Association (TWA), led by the charismatic self-declared "champion of the barefoot man," Captain Arthur Andrew Cipriani. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, James was at the forefront of "the Trinidad Awakening" by contributing implicitly anticolonialist short stories to Trinidad and The Beacon, both literary journals with nationalist leanings. "My hitherto vague ideas of freedom crystallised around a political commitment: we should be free to govern ourselves," James later recalled.
While teaching at QRC, James began to research the rich, hidden history of the Caribbean. "I was tired of hearing that the West Indians were oppressed, that we were black and miserable, that we had been brought from Africa, and that we were living there and that we were being exploited." James remembers he was "one of the pioneers" in introducing "West Indian history" in school, something not then on the official curriculum. One friend from the Beacon group, Ralph de Boissière, later recalled James's early "opposition to colonialism had a solidly grounded historical base, something that none of us possessed" and that "C. L. R. delivered telling blows with history." No doubt mindful of the plight of Haiti itself—since 1915 under American military occupation—James was soon "reading everything" he could on the Haitian Revolution, including a couple of books written by British writers during the 1850s, including Reverend J. R. Beard's short 1855 biography of Toussaint. However, he was grievously disappointed not to find any books of "serious historical value" while in colonial Trinidad. James remembered his reaction on reading one "very bad" biography of Toussaint, Percy Waxman's The Black Napoleon: The Story of Toussaint Louverture (1931): "What the goddam hell is this?"
Insult was added when Dr. Sidney Harland, a "distinguished scientist" from England who was at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad, "foolishly took it upon himself to write an article proving that Negroes were as a race inferior in intelligence to whites." James wrote, "I wasn't going to stand for that and in our little local magazine I tore him apart." Harland's 1931 article "Race Admixture" utilized Francis Galton's Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences (1869) to assert different classes of intelligence linked to such features as race. Harland had also brought Toussaint Louverture into his discussion, ascribing his intelligence as best befitting Class F, "the lowest of the superior classes." James sprang to Toussaint's defence to expose this "absurdity," and his glorious counterblast to Harland's racism, "The Intelligence of the Negro," published in The Beacon in August 1931 (and reproduced here in the appendix), stands as his first written appreciation of Toussaint's astonishing achievements. Robert Hill has rightly emphasised "the over-riding vindicatory nature" of James's discussion of Toussaint in 1931, noting that "in the context of the domination of European colonialism, vindication was ... a cultural and ideological necessity."
Vindication of black accomplishments in the face of racism then provides the first underlying motivation for James's Toussaint Louverture, and David Scott in his important and insightful work Conscripts of Modernity has noted that "Haiti has very often played a prominent role" in "black vindicationist discourse." Scott cites as an example an extraordinary lecture given in the 1850s by the black American Reverend James Theodore Holly, "A Vindication of the Capacity of the Negro Race for Self-Government, and Civilized Progress," which hailed the Haitian Revolution as one of the "noblest, grandest, and most justifiable outbursts against tyrannical oppression that is recorded on the pages of the world's history." James's second motivation in conceiving Toussaint Louverture was also a vindicatory one, and he was concerned with what he later called (in the title of a pamphlet) "The Case for West Indian Self-Government." He had begun work researching and writing a "political biography" of the Twa leader Captain Cipriani, and in this work James would tear into the British government's line of "self-government when fit for it," demonstrating that the recent growth of the Twa was proof, if proof was needed, that the black majority societies of the Caribbean had always been manifestly "fit" to govern themselves. James's championing of Toussaint in "The Intelligence of the Negro" was critically part of this wider struggle for West Indian sovereignty and self-determination.
Amidst the rising movement for West Indian self-government in 1920s Trinidad, James could not have also failed to register the power and inspiration of either the Harlem Renaissance or Garveyism. Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, had played a pathbreaking role in the attempt to develop an indigenous Caribbean theatre. Garvey wrote three plays that were performed on consecutive nights in Kingston, Jamaica, in August 1930: The Coronation of an African King, Roaming Jamaicans, and Slavery—from Hut to Mansion, which "described the horrors of slavery and the slave traffic, the agitation for freedom, emancipation, and progress thereafter."
James was also aware that others had written plays about Toussaint. As Percy Waxman had noted in The Black Napoleon, the great radical French Romantic historian Alphonse de Lamartine had "composed a poetical drama with Toussaint as its hero," a play that was staged in Paris in 1850. Indeed, despite its weaknesses as a work of historical scholarship, Waxman's The Black Napoleon itself evoked some sense of the dramatic clash of personalities involved and even the Haitian Revolution's world-historic significance: "For the first time in the world's history an enslaved people had succeeded in gaining their own freedom."
After arriving in London in March 1932, James moved in May to the Lancashire cotton town of Nelson to stay with the family of his fellow Trinidadian, the professional cricketer Learie Constantine. Though in Nelson officially to help Constantine write his autobiography, it would be Constantine who first helped James publish The Life of Captain Cipriani: An Account of British Government in the West Indies, with a local printing firm in Nelson, Coulton & Co. James recalls how after sending it "back to the West Indies," he felt "free to get down to my own business. I had a completed novel with me. But that was only my 'prentice hand ... the real magnum opus was to be my second novel."
However, it was James's play Toussaint Louverture that materialised instead of a second novel; he tells us, "Fiction-writing drained out of me and was replaced by politics." As a result of his tireless campaigning for West Indian self-government in Britain, West Indian history remained of central importance: as he recalled, "in the back of my head for years was the project of writing a biography of Toussaint Louverture.... I had not been long in Nelson before I began to import from France the books I would need to prepare." By the time James left the Constantines in late March 1933 in order to return to London and work as a cricket reporter for the Manchester Guardian, he had begun turning his historical research on the Haitian Revolution into a play.
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