CLR James’ is known for The Black Jacobins, but few are aware that he also wrote a play about the Haitian Revolution. Now, Nic Watts and Sakina Karimjee have brought it to life in a graphic novel. rs21 member Matthew Cookson spoke to them both.
The Haitian Revolution of 1791 to 1804 is one of the most inspiring events in history, which saw hundreds of thousands of mainly enslaved people overthrow their oppressors and defeat the imperial powers of France, Britain and Spain. The key leader of this successful slave uprising was Toussaint Louverture, who marshalled the oppressed in a number of political and military victories.
The story of the revolution was captured by the Caribbean historian CLR James in The Black Jacobins (1938), a history which has been feted on the left and in academic circles for decades. However, before he published this, James had written a play documenting the history of the revolution and Toussaint.
Now that script has been turned into a graphic novel, Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History, which has been superbly adapted and illustrated by artists Sakina Karimjee and Nic Watts.
I met with Nic and Sakina just before the graphic novel was due to be published to discuss the work, the Haitian Revolution and the story’s relevance to today.
‘What attracted us to adapting the play was the story itself,’ said Sakina. ‘A big part of our motivation is that this is a secret history. Outside of sections of the left so many people have never heard of Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution. In Britain, the mainstream narrative around how slavery ended is about William Wilberforce and white liberal politicians deciding to end slavery.’
‘Eric Williams, the historian and first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, wrote, “British historians write almost as if Britain had introduced negro slavery solely for the satisfaction of abolishing it.” What’s great in this graphic novel is we show the reality of how slavery was abolished, which was due to the resistance of the enslaved themselves. What’s very exciting about this story is that it shows the most oppressed, downtrodden people fighting back and winning a victory against the most powerful colonial nations of the time. That amazing victory from below is still an inspiration to us now.’
‘The idea for the book started about ten years ago after I read The Black Jacobins for the umpteenth time. It is an amazing book but it is an incredibly complex history, which is difficult to follow. So I had an idea to create a graphic novel based on The Black Jacobins. I was excited about the prospect of bringing this amazing, world historical event to a wider audience.
‘The Haitian revolution is well represented in academic writing to a certain extent, but there’s virtually nothing on it in popular culture. Sakina said that we needed a script rather than trying to adapt a history book. So we did some research and learned that this play, lost for nearly 70 years, had been found recently and was about to be published, which was an amazing moment of synchronicity.
‘The play was written a few years before James wrote The Black Jacobins, but it was only staged once, in London in 1936 with the singer and actor Paul Robeson playing Toussaint. It was the first time in Britain that black professional actors starred in a play written by a black playwright, so it has an important part in British theatrical history.
‘After that production, the script was lost for decades, which is a big part of the reason why people won’t have heard of it. It was rediscovered by the historian Christian Hogsbjerg in 2005 while he was working in the archives at the University of Hull. The play was then published in 2013, making it the last major work of James’s to be published.
‘The graphic novel is the story of the Haitian Revolution. The book starts just before the voodoo ceremony/political gathering that was the beginning of the revolution and goes through to Toussaint’s death and the eventual victory. It exposes colonialism and imperialism and the deception that the colonial powers use to retain their privilege.’
‘It shows how these powers are fighting each other but they’re also complicit with each other to keep white dominance and maintain racist ideologies. As Karl Marx said, the leaders of these countries are “warring brothers”.’
The graphic novel highlights Toussaint’s tactical and military abilities in the face of the major powers.
‘At one point Toussaint is fighting for the French against the British, but the France he joined was a revolutionary France that had abolished slavery. However, the revolution had gone backwards with counter-revolution. The French leadership were plotting with Britain, a country they were technically at war with, to bring Toussaint down. Neither want the formerly enslaved people to be too powerful. They talk openly of how they need to work together to keep white privilege in the Caribbean. You can see all the tricks of divide and rule at play in this scene.’
‘Another important moment in the play is when Toussaint is fighting for the Spanish and he then joins the French. Toussaint is the only leader among the revolutionaries who had the political clarity to understand that the Spanish will ultimately screw them over, so he uses their resources when he can, but then abandons them when necessary. Other leaders weren’t able to do that, instead only fighting for one imperial power. Without Toussaint, the revolt would not have become a revolution.’
The figure of Toussaint is the prominent one in any historical debate about this period in history. I asked Sakina and Nic how he became such an important figure.
‘Toussaint started life enslaved, but a coachman not a field slave, which is a slightly more privileged position,’ replied Sakina.
‘He was literate, one of a tiny minority of enslaved people who were. He became the central leader of the revolution but was ultimately murdered by the French before Haiti gained its independence. Through the play we see him emerge from a peripheral to a central figure. He’s not really part of the revolution in the early stages but he develops into a key political and military leader. We see his political journey as he starts off being someone who wants to compromise with the imperial powers before beginning to play off the imperial powers against each other after realising that they will never be the allies of the formerly enslaved.
‘There’s an amazing scene in the middle of the play when you see as he arrives after taking the city of Jacmel, a city that was controlled by the people who were then known as mulattos but today referred to as free people of colour. They were mixed race people who were usually children of slaveowners and black women. Toussaint wins the battle of Jacmel and he arrives to address the leaders of Britain, France and Spain and they are speechless as they thought he would never take this city as it was considered impenetrable. But his victory has meant he now has control over the island. He now manipulates these representatives and blows apart their conspiracy against him.
‘CLR James states that “Toussaint did not make the revolt it was the revolt that made Toussaint.” While he was an amazing leader who turned what was a revolt into a revolution through his political clarity, he didn’t do it alone and didn’t even start it. He was conservative at the start but the revolutionary upsurge radicalised him and continued to do so. The masses were educating and politicising themselves through fighting for their own liberation. You see this transformation. Although slavery was an incredibly violent regime, people were also held in their place by fear. You could have one white overseer subdue hundreds of slaves through that mental block. Through the process of fighting for their liberation they ceased to be scared anymore and they were able to see themselves and the world in a different way, so there’s a personal transformation.
‘Arguably, it’s the planters and the old colonial powers that push Toussaint to be more radical because he starts off trying to be more conciliatory. But the planters refuse to make any concessions and demand the formerly enslaved return to the fields.’
Nic added, ‘The mass of people below said that they will not return to the plantations, pushing Toussaint’s leadership into a more radical position.’
Why a graphic novel?
Over the last few decades comics and graphic novels, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, have documented major moments in human history and their effects on individuals. I wondered if this genre was particularly well-suited to doing this.
‘Graphic novels are a brilliant way of simply communicating complex ideas, political and emotional,’ responded Nic. ‘They’re a good way of presenting stories, as the mix of words and images hit you in your brain in two different places and reinforce one another. That’s one of the reasons that graphic novels are used more in educational settings. Also, reluctant readers are less likely to be intimidated by them than a work of prose. As Art Spiegelman said, “Comics are a gateway drug to literacy”.’
‘The graphic novel is an emotional journey.’
‘Through using images you can enhance and add layers of meaning to a text,’ said Sakina. ‘You can also show things that you may not describe in words. For instance, in our scenes we may have people talking in a room but we can also have images of other events that are occurring or flashbacks. You can bring so much in with layers of meaning using the combination of words and images. Images also enhance the emotional level.’
One thing that has come as a welcome surprise to both Sakina and Nic is how the graphic novel’s story has only become more relevant with time.
‘Since we started working on this project a decade ago, the Black Lives Matter movement has transformed the conversation around race and justice,’ said Sakina. ‘Ten years ago the true story of the end of slavery seemed relevant and inspirational but now these issues are centre stage so this book seems very timely. When we started this project we couldn’t have imagined that when we published the book there would be an international debate around the legacy of slavery, that people would be pulling down statues in Bristol, that there would be serious conversations about reparations for slavery.’
Nic added, ‘Only last month the president of Guyana demanded proper reparations. People are taking this issue, which was on the fringes for a long time, seriously.’
‘It’s the reversal of what happened at the time of abolition when governments paid reparations to the slave owners as compensation for the loss of profits. Two decades after the revolution the French government sent a fleet of gunships to Haiti to demand reparations. These were so huge that they had to take out debts on debts to pay them off. They didn’t pay them off until 1947.’
‘Around 40 percent of the Haitian economy was siphoned off to pay these debts for over 100 years,’ said Nic.
Despite the troubled aftermath, both Nic and Sakina believe that the struggle of the Haitian people remains an inspiration for us today.
As Sakina concluded, ‘The legacy of this story is hugely relevant to today. This story was a challenge to the racist narrative of the time, and is a challenge to it today, because it contains the notion that ordinary people, black people can fight against their oppression and win.’
Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History, by CLR James, Nic Watts and Sakina Karimjee is available to order now from https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/CLR-James/Toussaint-Louverture–The-Story-of-the-Only-Successful-Sl/28796630 It is published on 10 October.
Nic and Sakina are also launching the book at a number of meetings over the next few weeks. Catch them at:
Tuesday 10 October, 6pm, Waterstones Lewes
Saturday 14 October, 11am, Jubilee Library and Afrori Books, Brighton
Tuesday 24 October, 5/5.30pm, Centre for the Study of International Slavery, Liverpool
Thursday, 26 October, 5pm, presented by Stirling Maxwell Centre at the John Smith’s Bookshop (Fraser Building) Glasgow University
Friday 24 November, 6.30pm, Bookmarks bookshop, London
Thursday 25 January 2024, 7pm, Five Leaves Bookshop, Nottingham