Vincent Brown on slave rebellions and American war

In Tacky’s Revolt, Brown explores the complex history of the 1760 Jamaican rebellions and links the wars in Africa and Europe at the time as one vast Atlantic war with different theatres.

Before history scholar Vincent Brown settled for the title Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War – about a series of slave revolts that broke out in one parish of Jamaica in April 1760, and continued, over the months, across the island with a different cast of characters until eventual pacification in June 1761 – he had considered giving his fascinating book the name The Coromantee War

In an interview over Zoom from his base in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is the Charles Warren professor of American history and a professor of African and African-American studies at Harvard University, Brown said, “In some ways, you can think of Tacky’s Revolt as being in quotations.”

It is in quotations because it is an oversimplification of a series of slave rebellions instigated and led by the Coromantees, which began with an attack on Fort Haldane in the parish of St Mary in eastern Jamaica on 7 April 1760, led by a man named Tacky. The war continued in Westmoreland and Hanover, led by another man called Wager (or Apongo). The revolt was taken up by those in the parish of St Elizabeth, led by a man called Simon, who was captured on 18 June 1761 and subsequently executed, more than a year after the beginnings of the revolt. 

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“We don’t know now whether Tacky was even the principal leader of the plan, but we do know that his revolt in the parish of St Mary was the first of those events,” Brown said of Tacky, the rebel who might be elevated to national hero in Jamaica following a campaign on the island to recognise his role in the war. 

Even the category “Coromantee” is not without problems, not least because it was a neologism that seems to have been coined by the British. The Coromantees first came to the attention of the English-speaking world with the publication in 1688 of Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave, featuring a royal who is described as “very warlike and brave, and having a continual campaign, being alwzays [sic] in hostility with one neighbouring prince or other.”   

The Coromantee was a new identity of African beings inaugurated by the Atlantic slave trade to describe, in general, Africans from the Gold Coast. The Coromantees didn’t necessarily speak the same language, although most would have spoken Akan and other related languages; most of them came from the states near the coast with whom Europeans had long maintained trade and other relations. So valued were the Coromantees that some planters said they would rather pay £40 for them than a slave from elsewhere who could be bought for £20. Yet the very traits the Europeans valued in the Coromantee – “grateful and obedient to a kind master, but implacably revengeful when ill-treated” – made the same people formidable opponents when they turned against the slaveholder class.    

Undated: Tacky’s Revolt is about the slave revolts that broke out in Jamaica in 1760 and 1761. (Photograph supplied by Harvard University Press)

War’s Empire

Tacky, Apongo and others had been transported as chattel to Jamaica, as the trade in human beings superseded trade in other commodities – especially gold – on the West African coastline known to Europeans as the Gold Coast and Slave Coast. “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 ninety percent,” Brown writes in a chapter titled “War’s Empire”. 

Tacky and hundreds of thousands of others were the prisoners of the endless wars that increasingly took place in West Africa as various states – Oyo, Dahomey, Asante, Akan, Akwamu, Denkyira – and other polities fought among themselves to control the booming trade with Europeans who had forts along the coast. 

As war and aggression came to define which polities were swallowed up and which grew and consolidated, access to the most guns was the difference between survival and death. “Gold Coast traders had imported sizeable numbers of guns beginning as early as the 1650s, but by 1730 an estimated 180 000 firearms a year were flooding into the Gold and Slave Coasts.” Those who were captured were either sold to the Europeans on the coast – French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, British, Portuguese merchants, who took them to the plantations in Brazil, St Domingue, Belize, Jamaica, Barbados, or north America. Alternatively, the captured were conscripted to join the armies of the powerful states so that they might go and fight other states for more slaves and soldiers in an endless spiral of war.  

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It was surely these guns and ammunition that, between 1700 and 1750, were used in the Akan wars that in turn contributed 375 000 more slaves to the trade. So widespread was war and its prisoners that “one European agent called these ‘delightful times on the coast’, when traders could buy a slave for as little as a single bottle of brandy.”

The internecine warfare wasn’t limited to Africa, it extended to Europe. This is Brown’s achievement, to link these wars as one vast Atlantic war with different theatres. For around the time when the deportations of these enslaved Africans was increasing, that island off the coast of the European mainland, the British Isles, was emerging as a powerful global player. 

England was working on its maritime capabilities, building its Royal Navy and investing in its merchant shipping, while fighting off its European competitors. There was a series of wars against the Dutch – then a leading power – in the 17th century, then more wars against the French and the Spanish, in which the Europeans pillaged the plantations and seized the slaves of their rivals. It was in one of these endless wars that the island of Jamaica was seized from the Spanish in 1655, and with this valuable prize England was on its way to becoming a global power. The culmination of these wars was the Seven Years War, between 1756 and 1763. It was fought by the French and the British in multiple locations in the Caribbean and in West Africa, and the British were victorious.

Undated: Soulèvement des Nègres à la Jamaïque, en 1759 was engraved by François-Anne David and published in Histoire d’Angleterre (Paris, 1800), volume 3. (Image courtesy of The John Carter Brown Library)

Military power, over everything

By the time Apongo, Tacky and others arrived in Jamaica, the island was at once a “fabulous commercial entrepot and a potent military garrison” presided over by a military governor. Military considerations took precedence over parliament and the law. Indeed, many of the leading plantation owners were military men. The threat of war against the British planter class was everywhere, from their fellow Europeans without – who owned the surrounding islands, Saint-Domingue (a French possession later known as Haiti) and Cuba (Spain) – but also from the African slaves within. 

In a vast, transatlantic territory in which there was constant movement of goods, people, ideas and identities, the categories “within” and “without” have their difficulties. Take, for instance, one of the chief protagonists of this book, Apongo (later named Wager). In the diary kept by an overseer of the plantation on which he was based, Apongo is said to have been a royal in Guinea. This was before he was seized and shipped to Jamaica, where he ended up on a plantation belonging to John Cope. Cope had travelled from Britain to work as a chief agent of the Royal African Company in 1736, but moved to Jamaica after a couple of years on the coast, with a sizeable personal fortune.  

It’s possible Cope and Apongo had met on the Gold Coast and then again in Jamaica. At one of their regular meetings, Cope had promised Apongo freedom. So Apongo is an insider in Jamaica, but also an outsider, numbered among the 90% of the population in Jamaica who had been transported from Africa as slaves.

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Apongo is, like Tacky, also a Coromantee, thought to have been the leader of his people in Africa. During the war of April 1760, Tacky is wounded during a rebel attack, loses his spirit and is subsequently killed by a lieutenant in the Maroon army. (Maroons were African slaves who revolted and set up their own free, sovereign communities, unbothered by the European slaveholder class. In the subsequent wars in Jamaica between African slaves and the British, the maroons sometimes fought on the side of the Europeans as mercenaries.) If Tacky seems a fleeting presence in the revolt called by his name, it is because, as Brown said, “there were many other African leaders who were engaged in revolt, that Tacky’s part in the actual events lasted only a week”.

Those who were not killed by Britain’s standing forces, the Maroons and militias were quickly tried. Those deemed to have played peripheral roles in the revolt were whipped and released, while others were deported to other islands. The worst punishment was reserved for the leaders, who were executed in grim spectacles of cruelty: hanging, decapitation (their heads were stuck on to poles) and being burnt at the stake. “To cure the malady [of rebellion], they projected all of their forbidden fears on to the black body, which they destroyed as if it were an effigy in the course of a ritual purge,” writes Brown.

Undated: Gold Coast Weaponry, late 17th century was engraved by G Child. From Thomas Astley and John Green, eds, A New General Collection of Voyages and Travels, 4 volumes (London, 1745-1747). Plate 172, No. 98, Vol. 2, 375. (Supplied by Vincent Brown, from his personal collection)

Women’s resistance

In the roll of rebels in Tacky’s Revolt are names such as Hector, Robin, George, Philip – clearly men – but also Sarah, Cate, Sophia, Betty, Dianna and other women’s names. 

“Historians and their readers have commonly assumed that women were less militant in their resistance to slavery than men,” writes Brown, “despite the prominence of Nanny of the maroons in accounts of Jamaican slave rebellion, women’s resistance to slavery has seldom been viewed as a military phenomenon.” It’s something Brown expanded on in our chat.

“We associate warfare with males,” the history professor said. “We think of it primarily as male activity. And yet the closer we look, not just among Africans but all over the world and throughout history, women are there as active participants and in fact as combatants, and yet we continue to revert to this idea that warfare is a male and masculine activity.” 

Brown found it fascinating that the percentage of the female population in St Mary’s Parish – 40% – tallies with that of women rebels captured in the revolt. “I don’t know what they are doing, but I know that they were a fundamental part of the planning, the organisation and execution of the revolution in some form or the other.”

Undated: A Gold Coast Warrior, ca. 1740s. Pictured with sacred objects and adornments that conferred protection from enemies. (Image courtesy of the Rigsarkivet/ Danish Royal Archives, Copenhagen)

An early awareness of war 

Brown was born in 1967, during the Vietnam War, in San Diego, the Californian city on the Pacific that is host to a naval base. “I was very aware of the military and military presence in San Diego,” said Brown, who is also the author of The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery

Growing up, sometimes he and his friends would be at the beach and war planes would be flying overhead, engaged in aerial exercises and war games. His visiting friends would ask, “Is this a war zone? Why are there fighter jets flying over the beach?” His country’s eternal state of war then dawned on him. He was born during the Vietnam War and more than 50 years later, his country is still engaged in conflict – now in Afghanistan. “That has shaped my perception of the world in seeing war as a fundamental feature of all these other social and economic relations, including relations of political belonging that one can see in the development of Atlantic history.”

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One could say that the wars, direct and indirect, that America wages are sometimes against the “enemy” within, black people who live on United States soil. When asked why the killing of George Floyd became the salutary moment it did, Brown replied, “You have the plague, the Covid-19 crisis, a lot of people out of work, indoors, disconnected, glued to their computer screens, television screens. That creates an environment in which the killing of George Floyd is magnified because they are not out there in the world doing other things.” When Floyd was killed, there had been the realisation that the coronavirus was three times more likely to kill black than white Americans, and then some white people protested against the lockdown measures meant to contain the virus.

Brown said that any of the numerous killings of black people could have been a catalyst for the demonstrations we saw in the wake of Floyd’s death. “But I think the video [of his killing] was so callous, the disregard was so blatant. This wasn’t a police officer who is afraid for his life, who made a quick judgement and shot someone in the dark. This was an execution in broad daylight.” The late St Lucia poet and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott gave us the phrase “the sea is history”. In Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, Brown elongates the metaphor. Yes, the sea is history, but a history of war.

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