The winds of revolution in the 18th century Atlantic

In the 18th century news of rebellion spread quickly among enslaved people in Caribbean and the United States, sparking fears in their oppressors of the potential for mobilisation and subversion.

Julius Scott completed his doctoral thesis, The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution, in 1987. Although copies of the thesis have been passed around for years it remained unavailable to the public until now, when it was published by Verso. The book tracks how information travelled among slaves and sailors along colonial trade routes, specifically in the Caribbean but also beyond. It’s considered seminal by many historians. This is an edited extract.

The mobility that characterised the masterless Caribbean at the end of the 18th century provided a steady undercurrent of opposition to the “absolute” power of masters, merchants and military officers in the region. In passing from plantation to plantation, from country to city, from town to town, or from island to island, people on the move challenged the social control that symbolised imperial authority. 

But the movements of runaway slaves, free people of colour, deserters from military service and sailors did not take place in a vacuum. Their traditions of mobile resistance assumed an even wider significance when political currents swirling about the Atlantic world brought excitement and uncertainty to the shores of the American colonies, as they did during the revolutionary 1790s. In such times, officials worried openly about possible connections between mobility and subversion.

In the oral cultures of the Caribbean, local rulers were no more able to control the rapid spread of information than they were able to control the movements of the ships or the masterless people with which this information travelled. The books, newspapers and letters that arrived with the ships were not the only avenues for the flow of information and news in Afro-America. Although written documents always had a vital place, black cultural traditions that favoured speech and white laws that restricted literacy gave a continuing primacy to other channels of communication. 

The harbours where the masterless congregated also buzzed with an assortment of orally transmitted accounts – scraps of news, conflicting interpretations, elusive facts and shifting rumours. A spicy story or telling anecdote could furnish attentive listeners with news of slave unrest, an impending imperial conflict, unstable sugar prices, or new departures in colonial policy. Whatever their form, reports of developments abroad that might have a tangible effect on American slave societies brought to the surface underlying tensions about authority, legitimacy and belief. In cultures where people depended upon direct human contact for information, news spread quickly and became part of a shared public discourse.

As emancipation drew near in the British West Indies, the effective grapevine of slaves would baffle British colonists and officials. In the early 1830s, colonial governors commented – sometimes in amazement, most often in exasperation – on the slaves’ facility in gathering and transmitting information. Slaves learned quickly of each new initiative in parliament and each move in their behalf, and the ripples that such news caused in black communities complicated efforts to control the slave population. 

“The slaves have an unaccountable facility in obtaining partial, and generally distorted, information whenever a public document is about to be received which can in any way affect their condition or station,” wrote the governor of Trinidad in 1831. The governor of British Guiana discovered a similar dynamic among the slaves in that colony, and concluded that “nothing can be more keenly observant than the slaves are of all that affects their interests”.

What was true in the abolition era in the British colonies was equally applicable generations before. Of all the types of intelligence that arrived either on the printed page or by word of mouth in Afro-American societies, none was more eagerly anticipated or potentially explosive than news that fuelled hopes of black emancipation. Just as planters and traders sought news on prices and market conditions, and soldiers and sailors watched and listened for word of war or peace from all the publications and people crossing the local dock, so slaves, too, developed a keen sense of their own interest and kept their ears open for news relevant to their concerns. The circulation of such reports among slave societies could spread uncontrollably and galvanise dissident slaves into action.

News and rumours

Black activists created, transmitted and used combinations of news and rumour to advance their interests independently. Several examples suggest some of the ways in which forceful rumours could raise expectations when carefully placed within slave communities. In 1749, slaves in Caracas, Venezuela, taking advantage of the confusion in the aftermath of a popular uprising of coastal traders against the monopoly of the Caracas Company, seized upon a rumour of impending freedom to organise a revolt of their own. 

The agitation centred on Juan de Cádiz, a free black recently arrived from Spain, who circulated news that the king had decreed that all Spanish slaves in the Indies be liberated. Promptly, Caracas slaves were whispering among themselves that His Majesty had dispatched the historic order in the care of a replacement for the local bishop who had recently died. While some slaves looked out for the new bishop’s arrival, others were certain that the spirit of the deceased bishop would deliver them by bringing the decree back as his last act in this world. 

In Martinique in 1768, several slaves who gave voice to an equally powerful liberation rumour discovered how effective – and perilous – such manipulation of public opinion could be. French authorities identified them as the original sources of the rapidly spreading news that a powerful African king had arrived, had purchased from the colonial government all the slaves on the island, and that they could soon expect to board vessels to return to Africa. The bearers of these tidings were placed in irons and publicly suffered 39 lashes for three successive days.

In the 1770s, news of developments across the sea focused the attention of Afro-Americans even more sharply and energised their culture of expectation. This excitement centred on the British Empire. From England, accounts of Lord Mansfield’s historic decision in the case of former Virginia slave James Somerset arrived quickly in the American slave colonies. By 1773, barely a year after Somerset won his freedom in England, planters reported anxiously that word had reached Somerset’s fellow black Virginians, and some were attempting to board vessels for England, “where they imagine they will be free (a notion now too prevalent among the negroes, greatly to the vexation and prejudice of their masters)”. The following year, another slave deserted an Augusta County plantation “to board a vessel for Great Britain … from the knowledge he had of the late determination of Somerset’s case”.

The coming of the American Revolution presented a wide range of opportunity for blacks to express their aspirations for freedom and to demonstrate their ability to absorb and transmit the revolutionary excitement in the air. Free blacks and slaves working in coastal occupations near Charleston, for example, clearly recognised the implications of the impending revolution in 1775, and passed word among themselves of the “great war” that would “come to help the poor negroes”. 

Likewise, anticipating the drama about to unfold, white patriots in the coastal South viewed with dismay their vulnerability in the event of a British invasion. Two Georgia delegates to the Continental Congress in 1775 shared with John Adams their fear that, if promised freedom, 20 000 slaves from Georgia and South Carolina would defect to the British camp. They also related how recent news had stimulated the networks of black communication in the Southern colonies. 

The winds of revolution

“The negroes have a wonderful art of communicating intelligence among themselves,” noted an obviously impressed Adams in his diary after their discussion. “It will run several hundreds of miles in a week or fortnight.” Subsequent events fulfilled some black hopes and proved white fears prophetic. After the outbreak of hostilities, thousands of North American slaves in quest of freedom fled their masters to join the British; others hoped to gain freedom by fighting with the patriots. 

Not only did the revolt against British rule affect Afro-Americans in the rebellious colonies, the winds of the revolution swept into other neighbouring areas of Afro-America. In Bermuda, black sailors took to the sea in privateers, running powder and ammunition to the rebels. The dislocations and ideological currents of the revolt also affected Jamaica. Just as the Declaration of Independence appeared in the mainland colonies in July 1776, planters in Hanover parish barely averted an attempt by blacks along the coast to strike a blow for freedom. 

In the aftermath of the scare of 1776, white Jamaicans spoke anxiously of the danger posed by the currents of revolutionary ideology in slave societies. “Dear liberty has rang in the heart of every house-bred slave, in one form or other, for these 10 years past,” wrote one observer after the plot had been thwarted. “While we only talked about it, they went no farther than their private reflections upon us and it: but as soon as we came to blows, we find them fast at our heels. Such has been the seeds sown in the minds of our domestics by our wiseacre patriots.”

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