New Books | Tacky’s Revolt

The traffic in human beings was integral to the business of war – and parts of Europe and Britain were in an almost constant state of war while the slave trade was underway.

Excerpted from Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War by Vincent Brown, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright 2020 by Vincent Brown. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

War’s empire

The Jamaican slave uprising of 1760–1761 did not begin in Africa, but that is where its story starts. Although the revolt was a response to the African rebels’ predicament in Jamaica, they drew upon lessons learned long before they crossed the Atlantic Ocean. It is unclear exactly what they knew about white colonists, about the power of European empires, or about the best strategies and tactics for fighting them. Yet this uncertain aspect of the story suggests its most important point of departure: many Africans came to the Americas with firsthand experience of Europe’s imperial expansion. African history was already joined to the history of the Americas.

Beginning the story of American slave revolt with West Africa’s entanglement with European empire allows a shift in perspective, taking in the wider geography that shaped the course of the insurgency and the political imagination of its participants. Starting with the image of slaves in Jamaica, or elsewhere in the Americas, encourages us to fixate on their suffering black bodies and see only their reactions to bondage. By contrast, recalling their roots in West Africa reminds us to consider their goals, initiatives, and maneuvers. This provides a different perspective on slaveholders, as well: their interactions with militant Africans highlight the failures of European command as much as mastery, the brittleness and insecurity that colonists could overcome only with massive displays of force. Slaveholders cited black militancy as a justification for their brutality. In response, late 18th century abolitionists would rally around the image of a kneeling supplicant begging to be recognised as a man and a brother, as if the condemnation of evil required the meek innocence of its victims. That icon of abjection has shaped the prevailing understanding of bondage and race to this day. But the caricature bore no resemblance to the black fighters who stood toe-to-toe with whites in encounters all across the war-torn world of Atlantic slavery, from West Africa to the Americas.

We can glimpse the outlines of this transatlantic struggle through the entangled lives of Wager (or Apongo, as he was originally named), John Cope, and Arthur Forrest, which embodied the nature of African insurrection in Jamaica as a war within a network of wars. Wager’s enigmatic life story encompasses an unlikely journey from the administrative councils of Gold Coast statecraft and trade to the British Royal Navy at war, and from the sugar plantation fields of Jamaica to leadership of a massive slave uprising, and finally to his execution on the public gibbet. Cope spent a tumultuous few years in West Africa, taking the opportunity of internecine African strife to enhance his fortunes in the British slave trade. Then, after some years of financing the trade from London, he retired to an affluent life as a planter in Jamaica, Britain’s most profitable colony. Arthur Forrest, a naval warrior and great planter, fought commendably in some of Britain’s most celebrated military triumphs of the 18th century, even while his slaves staged the empire’s greatest servile rebellion. Though we know Cope’s and Forrest’s stories with more certainty than Wager’s, they are all in their way emblematic of various experiences, forces, and patterns. The story of the two white men’s relations with Apongo, or Wager, uncertain as it is, illuminates the connective circuits of Atlantic slavery.

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These men were all travelling the main arteries of the Atlantic empire, but their divergent paths suggest other ways of seeing the Atlantic world beyond those of official plans and diagrams. Their interconnected stories draw attention to the “intimacies” of intercontinental history, showing how the people who made empires work linked oceanic, imperial, and topographical scales of analysis that are often held apart. From the intimacy of this shared social geography, characters such as Cope, Wager, and Forrest learned lessons that would guide their strategic decisions and tactical responses in the face of violence. Their experiential knowledge braided Europe, Africa, and America into a single region where almost everyone knew the traffic in human beings as integral to the business of war.

On a large map and an extended timeline, we can view the major transformations from the mid-17th century to the mid-18th century that set the stage for the three men’s journeys. European empires expanded through military competition and trade, West Africa grew more violent to meet the European demand for enslaved captives, and the Caribbean emerged as a hotly contested region where slavery flourished. The conflicts that shaped these interlocking regions began long before Apongo, Cope, and Forrest crossed paths, and would continue long after. Battle by battle, across a century of imperial expansion on three continents, a succession of military actions connected the world of Atlantic empire to African slaving wars.

Transatlantic commerce in African bodies depended on a symbiotic relationship between war, slavery, and maritime empire. From the mid-16th century, when African traders in the Senegambia and Angola first supplied slaves to the Europeans in significant numbers, the trade expanded dramatically through the 18th century, when it reached a new height and integrated more territories than in any previous time period. European enterprise in the Americas flourished whenever and wherever enslaved African labour was most exploited. Slaves were the region’s most significant commodities and the most vital factor in the production of goods and services.

Force defined the political economy of the Atlantic world, as European powers vied for territory with Native Americans and with each other, as the brutal discipline and terror of slavery sustained the expansion of plantation agriculture, and as the growth of the Atlantic system stimulated violent dislocations throughout the region. Enslaved captives were herded into fortified ships built specifically to discourage uprisings. The wealth of the Atlantic world travelled between garrisoned ports, and the consumption of goods was generally the fruit of some great or small conquest – of territories, of polities and peoples, or of individual wills. Interpersonal violence, like other forms of human interaction, scaled to the market and its routes of exchange. As the circuits grew and extended, so did the scope of warfare, mapping an archipelago of bloody conflict delineated by the movements of traders, soldiers, sailors, and slaves.

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The integration of England, West Africa, and the Caribbean during the period shows the broad outlines of the pattern. In the 18th century, Great Britain (referring to England and Scotland after their 1707 union) fought an escalating series of wars, most famously with France, on the European continent and in the colonies. Over the same period that they were acquiring a global empire, the British emerged as the world’s preeminent slave traders. Sociologist Orlando Patterson argues that slavery is a form of parasitism. The insight applies to slavery not only as an interpersonal relationship but as a principle of social geography. Great Britain’s Caribbean colonies, overwhelmingly populated by enslaved workers from Africa, were far and away its most profitable. To staff the plantations, the slave trade fed upon inter-African rivalries and stimulated the regional appetite for violence. It thrived opportunistically on African wars, which ultimately added to European imperial wealth. As historians Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper explain, “it was slavery that made empire pay and empire that made slavery possible.” At the same time, war made empire work, and the various slaving empires were entangled in a bellicose embrace.

War and slavery nourished each other as the histories of Europe, Africa, and America became increasingly intertwined. The routine violence of military occupation and the brutal exploitation of colonial workers precipitated murders, revolts, and massacres. More broadly, extensions in the scope and scale of commerce encouraged parallel expansions in the field of military competition. Dynastic conflicts on the European peninsula became Atlantic wars, in which a conflict in one theater often provoked retaliation in another across the ocean. Minor frontier incidents, raids, and mutinies grew into titanic struggles over the fate of empires. Traditional ritual combat intended to establish symbolic dominance and political tribute turned into more frequent armed conflicts aimed at exterminating the enemy. Naval competitions to control sea-lanes and establish strategic enclaves mushroomed into wars that reached multiple continents.

In fact, war nurtured and sapped empires at the same time. War in any particular location generally depressed trade by increasing its risks and driving up its costs, even if commercial competition had inspired the belligerence in the first place. On the other hand, war helped to expand the field of trade, despite being bad for most individual traders. In the context of African history, the intensification of political violence, which enabled the growth of an export market in slaves, disrupted societies wherever external trade was important. Yet suppliers of slaves needed their trading routes and mercantile relationships to be shielded from that violence. Sovereign powers and merchants resolved this seeming contradiction by separating commercial infrastructure from the direct violence of enslavement, creating safe zones for money and goods to change hands by consolidating independent trading networks that permitted the movement of slaves even as states fought each other incessantly. This process of simultaneous disruption and integration worked beyond Africa, too; particular wars disrupted trade while imperial militarism made the growth of commerce possible and profitable. Under armed guard, within the firing range of a fortress, or in the wake of a warship, coercion created stable markets. Successful merchants required calm only for themselves, in the eye of the storm; every one beyond the point of exchange could be damned.

The Caribbean became a pivot point for the relationships among England, Africa, and the Atlantic Ocean with the growth of agricultural plantations. By the 1640s, tobacco and sugar planting had begun to generate impressive wealth for some enterprising planters. During the same period that the Wars of the Three Kingdoms were ravaging England, Ireland, and Scotland, colonists on Barbados, first occupied by the English in 1627, were developing large-scale sugar plantations dependent on bonded labour. Tens of thousands of dislocated captives from the kingdoms were shipped to the colonies under fixed terms of compulsory service, usually for seven to 10 years. This allowed Barbados planters to operate plantations with coerced white workers, in much the same way that sugar planters had been doing in the Atlantic islands and Brazil with enslaved Africans. English colonists carried this plantation model to other islands, including Jamaica after its capture from the Spanish in 1655. The tropical environment was deadly, and planters could keep up agricultural production only by importing labourers to replace those who died. When the English Civil Wars ended and the numbers of workers arriving from Europe dwindled, planters turned to Africa to fill the need. By 1672 England had established the Royal African Company to maintain the supply of slaves.

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Already, England had committed to building its maritime strength in war and trade, investing heavily in the Royal Navy and merchant shipping. Scrambling to overtake the Dutch, its main competitor in the carrying trade, England fought a series of wars against the Netherlands in the second half of the 17th century, emerging stronger from each conflict. By the 1690s, England was a leading naval power and a persistent threat to the vast American empire claimed by Spain. Although English statesmen remained focused on Europe and the looming threat of invasion from France, which maintained the strongest army on the continent, England was gaining the advantage in overseas trade, a critical source of national power. Beginning in 1651, the Navigation Acts sought to confine as much of England’s commercial trade as possible to English ships, and placed a priority on regulating commerce to enrich the nation. Policymakers of many persuasions saw commercial wealth and naval power as mutually reinforcing: customs revenues filled the coffers of state, shipping swelled the reserves of able seamen, and a powerful navy could guard England from attack and expand avenues for profitable traffic. The rapid extension of England’s maritime range inspired an abiding interest in overseas empire.

In the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the English Parliament gained the power of the purse, limiting royal prerogative to the consent of civil society. In the ensuing years of war with the French and Spanish, the English government became a powerful “fiscal-military state”, generating high taxes, a well-organised civil administration, a standing army, and a militaristic outlook on world affairs. New financial arrangements supported denser networks of trade, more powerful militaries, more elaborate administrative regulation, and better communication. With the increasing significance of revenues from trade and the new compact between the Crown and the people’s representatives in Parliament, a new commercial elite gained influence in the affairs of state, and could define rules of trade and finance more to their benefit. Merchants waged a vigorous public campaign to dislodge the exclusive rights of monopoly concerns like the Royal African Company, shifting the slave trade to the “free market” by the second decade of the 18th century. With alluring incentives spurring private enterprise, the volume of the slave trade increased dramatically. For example, Jamaica alone received nearly four times the number of human cargos in 1729 as it had in 1687.

In the Americas during the Nine Years’ War from 1689 to 1698 and Queen Anne’s War from 1702 to 1713 (the latter known in Europe as the War of Spanish Succession), the English, French, and Spanish worked to sap each other’s commercial strength by pillaging plantations, seizing slaves, and burning buildings. Between such raids and the threat of piracy, the constant sense of vulnerability encouraged ever greater fortification of trade. The English established permanent naval squadrons at Port Royal, Jamaica, and English Harbour, Antigua, to maintain cruising forces capable of defending imperial commerce, which could be reinforced by larger fleets for more ambitious operations. Although Queen Anne’s War had temporarily slowed the slave trade, the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the war, granted Britain the monopoly power via asiento contract to supply slaves to the Spanish Americas and entitled it to send one ship each year to engage in general trading at the great market fair at Porto Bello on the isthmus of Panama. This concession led to a further expansion of British slave purchasing in Africa and a lively reexport trade from Jamaica, which rapidly became the locus of slave trading in British America.

During the same period, in West Africa, violence escalated to meet the Atlantic demand for slave labour, as the growth of the Atlantic system fuelled militarisation of vast areas of Africa beyond the coast. Warfare increased in scale, and some societies came to celebrate militarism with great public displays of brutality. Military aristocracies dominated the most powerful slaving regimes, which in many cases had come to power by exploiting Atlantic commerce. This was especially true on the Gold Coast, where Apongo resided before his captivity in Jamaica. War captives generally ranked highest among the sources of domestic slaves, outnumbering those provided through market supply, pawning, raids, kidnapping, and tribute, and minor sources such as gifts, convicts, and communal and private sales or deals. The French slave trader Jean Barbot noted in 1732 how “in times of war between the inland nations and those nearer the sea” the Gold Coast would “furnish great numbers of slaves of all sexes and ages; sometimes at one place and sometimes at another, according to the nature of the war, and the situation of the country between which it is waged”. Ransoms often spared people of significant social status from permanent bondage, but not always. Frequently, bounties were so high that friends and relations could not pay. As a result, another slave trader contended, the “most Potent Negroe can’t pretend to be insured from Slavery”. People of any social station, including military leaders like Apongo, could find themselves sold to the Europeans alongside common soldiers, women, and children. By European calculations, slaves made up about half of Europe’s trade with Africa in 1680, and by the second half of the 18th century they constituted 90%. The trade in captives had taken hold in the 400-mile stretch of West African coastline known to Europeans as the Gold Coast and Slave Coast, and was reaching ever deeper into the interior.

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