The Story of an Atlantic Slave War

In a 1935 copper miners’ strike in the British colony of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), historian C. L. R. James recognized deep-rooted “relentless struggle with mortal enemies. Should world events give these people a chance, they will destroy what has them by the throat as surely as the San Domingo blacks destroyed the French plantocracy.” By connecting the collective action of twentieth-century colonized laborers to the earlier freedom struggle of the Haitian Revolution, James outlined an ongoing battle uniting Black people over oceans and generations. Caribbeanists have recently elevated what James termed “revolt,” variously defining the struggle against slavery in the British West Indies as “the 200 Years War”1, insurrections in Cuba and Brazil as extensions of West African warfare, and an 1831 Jamaican uprising as an “emancipation war.”

In his own study of a Jamaican uprising, Vincent Brown further reinterprets the relationship between slavery and relentless war. Tacky’s Revolt takes an eighteen-month military campaign by around 1500 freedom fighters in 1760-1761 as its focus. Though this event features in studies of obeah, abolitionism, resistance, and mastery, Brown offers an entirely original interpretation of a “war within an interlinked network of other wars” (7). He identifies its diasporic roots beyond a broadly defined West African culture, placing specific African peoples, events, and military histories at the center of the narrative.

The opening chapters locate the Jamaican uprising within two larger seventeenth- and eighteenth-century conflicts, both of which shaped and were shaped by the transatlantic traffic in human captives. First comes the “slaving wars” in West Africa, where centralized states like Oyo, Dahomey, and Asante pursued expansionist conquest with aid of European firearms (19). Next, Brown turns to contest between European nations conducted on the global stage, arguing that Tacky’s Revolt constituted a Jamaican front in the inter-imperial Seven Years War. The insurgents of 1760-61 were captives but also veterans of these wars. Military service taught them how to lead, form alliances, and fight in mountains, forests, and marshland akin to Jamaica’s terrain. It also provided experience of fighting European soldiers.

Also influenced by these wars, Britain’s imperial government and Jamaican colonists cultivated a “garrison mentality” that infused every aspect of society, including the intimate spaces of plantations, with military discipline. Aware that European rivals coveted Jamaica’s economic and strategic advantages while enslaved people constituted an equally dangerous internal enemy, they fortified the island and instilled militaristic principles such as that “violence offered a ready solution to social problems” (55). Well trained in use of force, white authorities stood ever ready to apply it. Here Brown joins a recent challenge to earlier suggestions that the U.S. South was exceptional in forming its slaveholding population into “one great militia.”2

From this global scale, the book’s focus narrows to experiences of African war captives. Amid the dislocations of forced transport to the Americas, enslaved soldiers needed new alliances to challenge their condition. Experience in the slaving wars made “a common set of symbols and cultural practices widely available” but these alone were insufficient bases for political unity (99). Slaveholders nonetheless essentialized the West African origins of different peoples they subsumed into the category of “Coromantees” (the English term for enslaved people from the Gold Coast region). Brown reminds us that even where broad linguistic and cultural commonalities did allow a measure of cohesion, “an ethnic group did not make a political alliance” (106). Shared experiences of local conditions in the Americas were equally important. Thus, Brown highlights the contingency of coalitions in slave societies. Under extreme duress, political and social bonds fragmented, requiring reinforcement that was often coercive. Yet in several Caribbean islands during the eighteenth century, Coromantees formed armies strong enough to make war on enslavers.

Next, Tacky’s Revolt provides a blow-by-blow account of the Jamaican events, beginning with a campaign in windward St. Mary’s parish where the eponymous Tacky fought. After the British subdued one uprising, a second front opened in leeward Westmoreland. Once the bulk of this second enslaved army was defeated, its remnants fought a guerilla campaign from Westmoreland across St. James and into Clarendon parish by 1761. Documenting these three stages in painstaking detail, Brown reframes Tacky’s initial campaign as “just one episode in a…Coromantee war” far more extensive than eighteenth-century proslavery chroniclers allowed (131). Seeking to allay fears and fend off abolitionism, men like influential historian Edward Long (a slaveholder with deep roots in Jamaica), compressed multiple insurgencies into a brief uprising with a single figurehead. Able to characterize Tacky as representative of all Coromantees, they thereby depicted British victory in this and all such uprisings as the inevitable result of “Africans’ intrinsic faults” (161). This narrative laid the foundation for much of the subsequent historiography of Tacky’s Revolt.

Brown does not entirely discount the early histories he challenges. Acknowledging that they constitute the most detailed written accounts in the absence of enslaved people’s own testimony, he instead triangulates them with digital cartography and deep knowledge of the island’s terrain. As a result, he is able to speculate persuasively about the diverse aims of different enslaved armies. The St. Mary’s insurgents, for example, seemingly hoped to “control the commercial zone” of the region in a “strategy of maneuver rather than retreat, evasion, or escape” (140). In contrast, the later guerilla-style march across the leeward parishes indicates a possible desire to create a new maroon village away from British surveillance.

Brown’s innovative reading of landscape also grounds readers in a kaleidoscopic narrative encompassing broad swathes of time and territory. For events in Jamaica, numerous maps arranged like a graphic novel allow readers to easily visualize every development in the Coromantee war. Fine-grained discussion of individual characters provides a further connective thread. Brown details the interrelated stories of John Cope, chief agent of a British slave fort on the Gold Coast and later a Jamaican planter, Apongo, a leader in West African military campaigns and the Jamaican uprising, and Arthur Forrest, a decorated naval veteran of European imperial wars and Apongo’s enslaver. Through them, he skillfully reveals the “small-scale dynamics of large-scale processes” like enslavement, warfare, and diaspora.

Tacky’s Revolt offers numerous original contributions to the historiography of slavery, including the central place it accords African military history, its call to consider how local conditions shaped political unity, its reinterpretation of a “revolt” as a broader war, and its groundbreaking use of landscape to calculate soldiers’ motives. But framing slave societies as a “constant battleground” at times threatens to obscure how power operated in the intimate plantation spaces it analyses (74). If we consider relatively routine struggles part of a larger war alongside uprisings, do we collapse the difference in scale between such actions by placing them in a single category? If enslaved people were most often fighting to survive, is survival itself an act of war? Brown begins to address this last question in the epilogue. Encouraging scholars to reconsider the “master sign of freedom,” he notes that not all uprisings, let alone smaller conflicts, were aimed at full emancipation (245). But regardless of aim, surely almost all open insurrections did more to “reveal a geography of hope and possibility” than daily contests fought by smaller groups or individuals (246). Attention to these imbalances seems especially important considering white authorities often wielded greater power in intimate spaces, and thereby prevented at source the kind of collaboration witnessed in 1760.

Tacky’s Revolt also illuminates new avenues of research. While persuasive in counseling against overemphasis on emancipation, it nonetheless opens new questions about how resistance and economic concerns influenced Britain’s eventual capitulation to abolition. Brown describes Jamaica’s place within the British Empire in terms of a “tense but mutually sustaining relationship between armed authority and the prerogatives of private wealth” (45). It raises the question of how the breakdown of this relationship catalyzed abolition. Following the 1831-32 emancipation war, Britain had to weigh the costs of fighting an enemy which had shown no sign of lasting surrender for two centuries. Accumulated evidence of enslaved militancy, including the Coromantee war, allowed abolitionists to argue in parliament that Britain’s “military preparations” would soon exceed even the £20 million compensation offered to slaveholders. It would then be in Britain’s financial interest to withdraw military support and leave slaveholders to their fate. By making war expensive, the enslaved compelled enslavers to concede.

There are even larger stakes to Brown’s insights. Like C. L. R. James’ histories of diasporic freedom wars, Tacky’s Revolt connects past to present in powerful ways. In Edward Long’s proposed genocidal solution to enslaved people’s militarism, Brown identifies “a virulent strain of nationalist discourse” still in operation (227). Likewise, the “rapacious exploitation, racial subjugation, and the proliferation of wars within wars” that shaped Jamaica are still prevalent further afield despite emancipation and anticolonial struggle (249). If James’ writings were themselves a “declaration of war” against colonizers, might readers use Brown’s insights on the “relentless struggle” to challenge the legacies of colonial slavery amid a new age of endless wars?3. Some have already begun to do so.

  1. Hilary McD. Beckles, “The 200 Years War: Slave Resistance in the British West Indies: An Overview of the Historiography,” Jamaican Historical Review 13 (1982): 1-10
  2. Eugene D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World (Louisiana State University Press, 1992), 17.
  3. Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of a Black Radical Tradition (University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 274
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Adam Thomas

Adam Thomas is an Assistant Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences History at Western Carolina University. His research interests include Early American History, African American History and Caribbean History. Follow him on twitter @Adam_Thomas_PhD.