Blog Post

C. L. R. James’s Black Spartacus and the Mediterranean

Graphic by Sheena Lai; image Seascape by Mossy Muldoon.

Ever since the publication of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic almost thirty years ago in 1993, C.L.R. James has been seen as a paradigmatic black Atlantic intellectual, and his work – including his classic history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins (1938) - has often been interpreted through that frame.1 Susan Gillman’s fascinating new study American Mediterraneans: A Study in Geography, History, and Race asks us (among other matters) to speculate about whether another sea, the Mediterranean, might also offer a productive framework for further thinking about The Black Jacobins. James described how Toussaint Louverture, before becoming the leader of the Haitian Revolution, read and was inspired by the Abbé Raynal’s Histoire philosophique des Deux Indes (1770), which denounced the barbarity of slavery in the New World and predicted an “avenger” could one day arise, a new Spartacus. Gillman’s work, while exploring representations of the Caribbean region as an “American Mediterranean”, therefore specifically evokes “the Jamesian figure of ‘black Spartacus’ – an epithet for Toussaint L’Ouverture – who, crossing the Atlantic back to France and reshaping, temporarily, French revolutionary politics, brings classical slave revolt into the American Mediterranean to produce a revolutionary countergeography”2.

Ideas of a “black Spartacus” then first emerged during the age of Atlantic revolutions. The same year as the Histoire philosophique des Deux Indes was published, in 1770, Voltaire in his entry on “Slavery” in the Encyclopédie, had also noted that “the War of Spartacus and the Slaves was the most just war in History; perhaps the only just war in History”. The evocations by Voltaire and the Abbé Raynal of Spartacus were part of a new-found interest in Europe in the mid-eighteenth century in the almost forgotten Thracian gladiator who led a heroic rebellion against the Roman Empire in 73 B.C. Few of their European readers at the time made the direct link between admiration for a slave revolt in the ancient world and the obscene barbarism of contemporary New World colonial slavery. Yet the enslaved themselves in the Atlantic world were already taking matters into their own hands in their fight for freedom, and indeed just a few months after Bernard Saurin’s popular play Spartacus was staged to acclaim in Paris in February 1760, “Tacky’s War” rocked colonial Jamaica.3

In 1791, the Haitian Revolution erupted, and in 1796, the republican governor of French colonial Saint-Domingue, Étienne Laveaux, explicitly honoured Toussaint Louverture, his new black deputy, not just as “the saviour of legitimate authority” in the colony but “the black Spartacus, the leader announced by the philosopher Raynal to avenge the crimes perpetuated against his race”. As Sudhir Hazareesingh notes in his impressive recent study Black Spartacus, likely to be the definitive biography of “the epic life of Toussaint Louverture” for the foreseeable future, “this was the first time Toussaint was publicly likened to Spartacus. Nothing moves as swiftly as revolutionary time, but even he probably could not have imagined, when he embraced the slave revolt in 1791, that five years later the governor of Saint-Domingue would be comparing him to such an illustrious Thracian predecessor”. Toussaint himself seems to have appreciated the comparison, having a bust of Raynal in his offices.4

Despite the title of his work, Hazareesingh does not dwell on the evocation of Toussaint as the “Black Spartacus”, though he notes Fidel Castro, who while in prison in 1954, declared how “the insurrection of black slaves in Haiti” inspired him, and that “at a time when Napoleon was imitating Caesar, and France resembled Rome, the soul of Spartacus was born in Toussaint Louverture”5. Unlike the revolt of Spartacus and his legions, that was soon defeated and crushed by those in power after two years of fighting, the Haitian Revolution represented an inspiring twelve-year epic and victorious liberation struggle, “the only successful slave revolt in history,” as James noted in The Black Jacobins. While Toussaint’s own fate was destined to be as tragic as that of Spartacus, ultimately his cause, the abolition of slavery and black self-governance, triumphed.

Gillman rightly notes James – like Hazareesingh - therefore maintains “strategic silences” whenever evoking Toussaint as a black Spartacus, “omitting elements from the history of the classical Spartacus” given that Spartacus was “historically defeated”6. Yet Gillman also notes how James’s figuring of a “black Spartacus”, however briefly done in The Black Jacobins, brought the classical Mediterranean back into New World revolutionary thinking during the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, in a review of Richard Wright’s Native Son in 1940, just two years after The Black Jacobins was published, James once again evoked “the slave revolts of Spartacus” and “the legions of Spartacus” alongside other great moments in revolutionary history, not simply “the black revolt in San Domingo” but also “Cromwell’s Ironsides, the Paris enragés, the Russian workers defending Petrograd against Yudenich, the Spanish workers defending Madrid” and “the march of the Chinese Communists across China in 1936”7.

Gillman points to more general contemporary literary and cultural references to Spartacus during the mid-twentieth century that were contemporaneous with James, including Arthur Koestler’s 1939 novel The Gladiators and Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film, based on Howard Fast’s 1954 novel.8 One other interesting example that precedes the publication of The Black Jacobins, is the 1933 novel Spartacus by the Scottish novelist James Leslie Mitchell, better known as Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Born the same year as James, Mitchell had also become a revolutionary socialist with sympathies for Trotsky by the early 1930s, and so while James was researching the life of Toussaint, Mitchell was researching that of Spartacus, and James was aware of his work. James and Mitchell were never political comrades, though another activist James did know well in the 1930s, F.A. Ridley, was an enthusiast of Spartacus, publishing a pamphlet in 1944 and then a longer book in 1962. Ridley’s work was dedicated to “the immortal memory of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and the German Spartacists of 1919”, who also, as Gillman notes, would have been clear inspirations for James. Indeed, James had detailed the activism of the revolutionary socialist Spartacist group during the German Revolution the year before he published The Black Jacobins in his 1937 history of the Communist International, World Revolution, 1917-1936.9

There are other potential ways that the Mediterranean might be linked to The Black Jacobins aside from the historical figure of Spartacus. For example, while James pioneered a Marxist analysis of the sugar plantation in The Black Jacobins, describing them as “huge sugar factories” and so those who worked on them “closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time”, since 1938 the development of scholarship on slavery means we now know more about the Mediterranean origins of the sugar plantation, and the important precursor to New World slavery that took place in fifteenth century Madeira.10 As an aside, when thinking about slave revolts more widely in terms of world history, we might also remember the 500,000 strong Zanj rebellion of East African slaves during 868-883 in mediaeval Iraq against the Abbasid Caliphate. As Victor Kiernan noted in The Lords of Human Kind (1969), the Haitian Revolution was “one of the two greatest Black rebellions in history, the other being that of the slaves brought into southern Iraq to drain marshes for the Arabs a thousand years before; and these two along with the Spartacus rising in Roman Italy may be counted the three most tremendous slave revolts in all history”11.

Finally, with respect to the Mediterranean region and revolutionary theory, it is perhaps also worth recalling James’s fascination with the forms of popular democratic politics and culture in ancient Greece. James would often compare the potentialities of (limited) forms of direct democracy in ancient Athens to what might be possible in the small islands of the Caribbean once they had broken free of colonialism. This admiration for ancient Greece dated back to James’s early life in colonial Trinidad in the early twentieth century, beginning with his classical education at the elite secondary school to which he had won a scholarship, Queen’s Royal College. As he later put it, “I believed that if when I left school I had gone into the society of Ancient Greece I would have been more at home than ever I had been since. It was a fantasy, but for me it had meaning.”12 Such fantasies were reinforced by his wider autodidactic reading, including of Matthew Arnold. Arnold’s “Hellenism”, his admiration of the civilization of Ancient Greece, found an echo in James’s 1956 homage to Athens and the Greek city states, Every Cook Can Govern: A Study of Democracy in Ancient Greece, as well as his 1963 cultural study of cricket, Beyond a Boundary (which includes in passing a short Marxist history of the Olympic Games).13 James had visited Athens in 1954, and as John L Williams notes in his fine recent biography of James, “being in the country itself had taken his longstanding interest in Greek history and philosophy to a new level”14.

As James put it in Beyond a Boundary, “Greco-Roman we are, and, as the years of crisis deepen, the heritage of imperial Rome becomes more than ever a millstone around our necks and ball and chain on our feet. On the other hand, as we intensify our countless billions of candle-power so that they threaten to consume us, the luminous glow of the Greek city-state seems to penetrate more searchingly into every corner of our civilization.”15 James’s passionate denunciation of how “the heritage of imperial Rome becomes more than ever a millstone around our necks and ball and chain on our feet” shows that his was a rich historical imagination where the inspiring revolt of the enslaved of the Roman Empire under the leadership of Spartacus was not to be forgotten, nor those who repressed it ever to be forgiven. James’s comment that “Greco-Roman we are” is remarkable enough when one considers that he was here referring to all those shaped by the British Empire, whether in the imperial metropole itself or colonial subjects like himself, growing up in the “British West Indies”. Yet “Greco-Roman” perhaps suggests a possible further form of identification for James with not simply the ancient Greek city-states but also with Rome, less the empire itself but with those like Spartacus who rebelled against it. Susan Gillman’s work on American Mediterraneans is a welcome reminder of not just the unfinished revolutions of the Caribbean region, conceived by some during the mid-twentieth century as a New World Mediterranean, but also of how while C.L.R. James may well have been a paradigmatic figure of the twentieth century “black Atlantic”, his interests and enthusiasms stretched beyond all boundaries.

[Cover Image of Charles Forsdick and Christian Høgsbjerg's Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions (Pluto Press, 2017).]

  • 1. Paul Gilroy himself described James as one of the “best-known black Atlantic figures”. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Double Consciousness and Modernity (London: Verso, 1993), xi. For more discussion on James and the black Atlantic as it relates to his life and work in the 1930s, see Christian Høgsbjerg, “Beyond the Boundary of the Black Atlantic? C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain”, Correspondence: Hitotsubashi Journal of Arts and Literature, 1 (2016), 113-140.
  • 2. Susan Gillman, American Mediterraneans: A Study in Geography, History, and Race (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022), 99.
  • 3. For more on representations of Spartacus in the eighteenth century, see Brent D. Shaw, “Spartacus before Marx,” Princeton, Stanford Working Papers in Classics, 2005, https://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/shaw/110516.pdf.
  • 4. Sudhir Hazareesingh, Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture (New York, Farrar, Straus and Girouz, 2020), 99-100.
  • 5. Hazareesingh, Black Spartacus, 327.
  • 6. Gillman, American Mediterraneans, 135-36.
  • 7. C.L.R. James, “Native Son and Revolution” in Scott McLemee and Paul Le Blanc (eds.), C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism (New York: Humanity Books, 2000), 89, 91.
  • 8. Gillman, American Mediterraneans, 132.
  • 9. F.A. Ridley, Spartacus: The Leader of the Roman Slaves (Ashford: Frank Maitland, 1962), 1.
  • 10. C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (London: Penguin, 2001), 69; Philip D. Curtin, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Jason W. Moore, “Madeira, Sugar, and the Conquest of Nature in the ‘First’ Sixteenth Century: Part I: From ‘Island of Timber’ to Sugar Revolution, 1420–1506”, Review (Fernand Braudel Center), 32, 4 (2009), 345-390.
  • 11. Victor Kiernan, The Lords of Human Kind (London: The Cresset Library, 1988), 198.
  • 12. C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary (London: Hutchinson, 1969), 152.
  • 13. For more on Arnold’s influence on James, see Christian Høgsbjerg, C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).
  • 14. John L. Williams, C.L.R. James: A Life Beyond Boundaries (London: Constable, 2022), 258.
  • 15. James, Beyond a Boundary, 152.
Senior Lecturer
Christian Hogsbjerg is a Senior Lecturer in Critical History and Politics in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Brighton. Before starting this post, Christian taught a wide variety of humanities courses at a number of institutions including UCL’s Institute for the Americas, Leeds Beckett University and in the Department of History at the University of York (where he completed his doctorate in History in 2010 and where from 2013-14 he was a Teaching Fellow in Modern History). Christian works on Black British History, Caribbean history, British imperial history and how race and empire impacted more broadly on British identity, politics, society and culture. He is a member of the committee of the Society for Caribbean Studies.