Remembering C.L.R. James
The black radical Trinidadian historian and writer Cyril Lionel Robert James (1901-1989) was one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable Caribbean thinkers. He is perhaps best remembered as the author of two classic works – a semi-autobiographical cultural history of West Indian cricket, Beyond a Boundary (1963), and The Black Jacobins (1938) about Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution, which analysed the only successful mass slave revolt in human history, the transformation of colonized slave society of Saint-Domingue into the world’s first independent black republic outside of Africa from 1791-1804. In his native Trinidad, C.L.R. James also analysed calypso and Carnival, and helped pioneer the West Indian novel with Minty Alley (1936), recently republished by Penguin with an introduction by The Booker Prize 2019 winner Bernadine Evaristo, as well as playing his part in the anti-colonial struggle as a campaigner for “West Indian self-government”.
Author of The Black Jacobins
The Black Jacobins, in the words of Sudhir Hazareesingh, author of the prize-winning biography Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture (2020) remains ‘the classic modern work in the English language’ on the Haitian Revolution. In 2016 the work was selected as the top work of ‘radical history’ ever written by the Guardian, and it also featured as no. 5 in a list of the top ten works on ‘black radicalism’ by the same publication in 2019. The work (and a portrayal of James himself) have also featured in the Small Axe series of films produced by the award-winning director Steve McQueen (BBC, 2020). In 2022, it was republished by Penguin as part of their modern classics series.
Writing The Black Jacobins on the South Coast
It has long been known that one key period in which James wrote The Black Jacobins was spent writing while residing on the South coast during 1937. In his 1938 Preface to the work, James describes how while the Spanish Civil War raged and he was writing the work, ‘it was in the stillness of a seaside suburb that could be heard most clearly and insistently the booming of Franco’s heavy artillery, the rattle of Stalin’s firing squads and the fierce shrill turmoil of the revolutionary movement striving for clarity and influence’ (C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, Penguin, 2022, xxi). In later interviews James would recall spending time in Brighton in this period (see for example, David Widgery, ‘A Meeting with Comrade James’, New Society, 26 June 1980). James’s publisher Fredric Warburg (of Secker and Warburg, the same publisher of George Orwell in this period) also lived fairly close by in West Hoathly during the 1930s, and testifies to James sometimes visiting them at weekends and playing cricket for the local side.
Yet until the Special Branch files on C.L.R. James were released in 2005, it has been difficult to ascertain whereabouts exactly James stayed and wrote (see the files in The National Archives, KV 2/1824). We now know from these files that one address CLR James stayed at on 19 July 1937 was on Old Shoreham Road in Southwick, due to an intercepted letter James wrote from this address.
Given one of the most important black writers of the twentieth century wrote The Black Jacobins, one of greatest works of ‘black history’ ever written in Southwick – and he may have also written other classic works like World Revolution also at the same address, is something that in our age of #BlackLivesMatter arguably is a piece of local history that deserves to be celebrated and commemorated.
In a campaign supported by the local Southwick Society, we plan to raise £1000 to put up a plaque to C.L.R. James at the address to which he stayed in 1937. We hope all those who admire and appreciate James's life and work will be able to support us in this project. We plan to unveil the plaque in 2023 to help mark the 85th anniversary of the publication of The Black Jacobins. All details about the event to mark the unveiling will be published on this project page in due course and we would hope all donors and supporters who are able would be able to join us then.