"Here’s to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies,” Samuel Johnson once toasted at an Oxford dinner party, or so James Boswell claims. The veracity of Boswell’s biography—including its representation of Johnson’s position on slavery—has long been contested. In the course of more than a thousand pages, little mention is made of Johnson’s long-term servant, Francis Barber, who came into the writer’s house as a child after being taken to London from the Jamaican sugar plantation where he was born into slavery. Some of the surviving pages of Johnson’s notes for his famous dictionary have Barber’s handwriting on the back; there are scraps on which a twelve-year-old Barber practiced his own name while learning to write. Thirty years later, Johnson died and left Barber a sizable inheritance. But Boswell repeatedly minimizes Johnson’s abiding opposition to slavery—even that startling toast is characterized as an attempt to offend Johnson’s “grave” dinner companions rather than as genuine support for the enslaved. Boswell was in favor of slavery, and James Basker, a literary historian at Barnard College, has suggested that this stance tainted his depiction of Johnson’s abolitionism, especially since Boswell’s book appeared around the time that the British Parliament was voting on whether to end England’s participation in the international slave trade.
Johnson’s abolitionist views were likely influenced by Barber’s experience of enslavement. For much of the eighteenth century, Jamaica was the most profitable British colony and the largest importer of enslaved Africans, and Johnson once described it as “a place of great wealth and dreadful wickedness, a den of tyrants, and a dungeon of slaves.” He wasn’t the only Englishman paying close attention to rebellion in the Caribbean: abolitionists and slavers alike read the papers anxiously for news of slave revolts, taking stock of where the rebels came from, how adroitly they planned their attacks, how quickly revolts were suppressed, and how soon they broke out again.
In a new book, the historian Vincent Brown argues that these rebellions did more to end the slave trade than any actions taken by white abolitionists like Johnson. “Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War” (Belknap) focusses on one of the largest slave uprisings of the eighteenth century, when a thousand enslaved men and women in Jamaica, led by a man named Tacky, rebelled, causing tens of thousands of pounds of property damage, leaving sixty whites dead, and leading to the deaths of five hundred of those who had participated or were accused of having done so. Brown’s most interesting claim is that Tacky and his comrades were not undertaking a discrete act of rebellion but, rather, fighting one of many battles in a long war between slavers and the enslaved. Both the philosopher John Locke and the self-emancipated Igbo writer Olaudah Equiano defined slavery as a state of war, but Brown goes further, describing the transatlantic slave trade as “a borderless slave war: war to enslave, war to expand slavery, and war against slaves, answered on the side of the enslaved by war against slaveholders, and also war among slaves themselves.”
Understood as a military struggle, slavery was a conflict staggering in its scale, even just in the Caribbean. Beginning in the seventeenth century, European traders prowled Africa’s Gold Coast looking to exchange guns, textiles, or even a bottle of brandy for able bodies; by the middle of the eighteenth century, slaves constituted ninety per cent of Europe’s trade with Africa. Of the more than ten million Africans who survived the journey across the Atlantic, six hundred thousand went to work in Jamaica, an island roughly the size of Connecticut. By contrast, four hundred thousand were sent to all of North America. (The domestic slave trade was another matter: by the time the Civil War began, there were roughly four million enslaved people living in the United States.)
Jamaica had hundreds of plantations, which grew cocoa, coffee, ginger, indigo, and, above all, sugar. Half the enslaved population labored on sugar plantations, where even a modest operation had a hundred and fifty slaves who worked year-round, planting, harvesting, and refining the crop, which was sold around the world. Brown’s previous book, “The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery,” described the miserable conditions that prevailed in Jamaica after the British seized control from the Spanish, in 1655. Mortality rates were exceptionally high for both Europeans and Africans, not only because of tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever but also because of poor nutrition and oppressive working conditions. On some sugar plantations, there were twice as many deaths as births; the average slave could expect to survive only seven years of forced labor.
An Anglican missionary observed that the first toy given to white children in Jamaica was often a whip; the overseer Thomas Thistlewood, who managed forty-two slaves in St. Elizabeth Parish, kept a horrifying diary that describes how, in a single year, he whipped three-quarters of the men and raped half the women. When he moved to a different plantation, he threatened to dismember the enslaved men and women under his care, devising tortures and humiliations that included forcing some to defecate into other slaves’ mouths and urinate in others’ eyes, rubbing lime juice in their wounds after floggings, and covering a whipped, bound man in molasses while leaving him for the flies and mosquitoes. Alongside the daily temperature and rainfall, Thistlewood recorded the equally appalling behavior of his slaveowning neighbors. Those were scarce, however, since, by 1760, fewer than one in ten Jamaicans was white. There were so many Africans in Jamaica that the colonial government passed a law requiring plantation owners to have at least one white man for every twenty slaves on an estate. Most planters couldn’t comply, and the ratio was revised to one for every thirty.
The British had already learned how vulnerable white colonists were in Jamaica. Since their expulsion of the Spanish, they had been engaged in intermittent conflict with the Maroons, a population of former Spanish slaves who had fled into the Blue Mountains, in the island’s interior. Their name derived from the Spanish word for “wild,” and they had been imported from Africa to replace the indigenous people, the Arawaks, nearly all of whom had been killed by the Spanish. The Maroons had periodically raided British plantations, stolen supplies, and seized farmland. When the attacks escalated, in what became known as the First Maroon War, the island’s militia began retaliating, and it took more than ten years to reach a peace, in 1739. The British government agreed to recognize Maroon sovereignty in designated areas; the Maroons agreed to capture and return any runaway British slaves. There were other free blacks in Jamaica, too, including women who had been freed in the wills of white colonists who had kept them as concubines, and children who were the products of such unions.
The social hierarchies of the colony were complicated, and would only become more so. Just as many of the colonists who arrived in Jamaica were veterans of the British Army or the Royal Navy, many of the enslaved there had participated in armed conflicts before being forced into bondage. African states engaged in regional warfare long before European interference, and, after the transatlantic trade incentivized the kidnapping of enemies, the kingdoms of Akwamu, Akyem, Asante, Dahomey, Denkyira, and Oyo went to war with one another over territory, minerals, and people. Slaves from certain regions became more highly valued than others, including, for a time, the so-called Coromantee, who came from many different kingdoms on the Gold Coast.
Named for the town of Kormantse, in present-day Ghana, the Coromantee were at first prized by planters for their strength and work ethic. One colonial historian wrote that the Coromantee were “hardy, laborious, and manageable under mild and just treatment,” but warned that they were “fierce, violent, and revengeful under injury and provocation.” The name was more stereotype than anything: many of the people to whom it was applied had little in common except language, and not always that. It soon became the preferred pejorative for any rebellious slave, as if geographic origin were the only possible explanation for why someone would resist enslavement. Eventually, the Coromantee became so feared that colonists in Jamaica actually proposed banning their importation. They were said to have been the leaders of rebellions not only there but in Cartagena de Indias, Suriname, St. Croix, St. John, Antigua, and New York.
Perhaps no one fantasized about slave rebellions more than the whites who benefitted from the subjugation of slaves. Some of those fantasies were driven by fear, but some of them, strangely, stemmed from a romanticized notion of the figure of the rebellious slave. That notion achieved one of its most enduring forms in “Oroonoko,” a 1688 novel by Aphra Behn, about the enslavement of a Coromantee nobleman. Tricked into slavery by the villainous captain of a slave ship, the heroic prince Oroonoko is taken from his African homeland to a West Indian colony, where he stages an unsuccessful revolt, after which he is tortured and executed. “Oroonoko” was adapted into one of the most popular plays of the Restoration era, and its renown endured well into the eighteenth century. The grandson of a king, Oroonoko represented an archetype: the royal whose servitude is a mistake, and whose rebellion is justified because he was wrongly enslaved, not because slavery is wrong. It took decades for audiences to start seeing the play and its source text from an abolitionist perspective, but by the time Samuel Johnson wrote about “Oroonoko,” at the end of 1759, the version being staged featured two additional antislavery scenes.
Around the same time, a Coromantee named Tacky, from the Frontier plantation, in St. Mary Parish, was sneaking away to a coastal cave with a few other slaves to plan their own rebellion. Sometimes spelled Takyi, the name means “royalty”: Tacky was said to have been the chief of his village in West Africa, where he sold Gold Coast rivals into slavery and learned English from the traders who came to buy his prisoners of war. Eventually, he met the same fate, when a warring tribe defeated his; sent to Jamaica, Tacky brought his military knowledge with him. He and a hundred co-conspirators rallied on Easter Monday in 1760. Just after midnight, they attacked Fort Haldane, where a single sentinel guarded all of Port Maria Harbor. They murdered the watchman and made off with four barrels of gunpowder, a keg of musket balls, and forty guns, then used those supplies to make their way southward, raiding estates and burning whatever plantation land they could, disrupting the agricultural economy and, more crucially, recruiting comrades.
By first light, Tacky had attracted hundreds of slaves to his cause, including a significant number of women. Together, they moved onto Ballard’s Valley Estate, a sugar plantation, and surrounded the overseer’s house. The owner of one of the plantations they had already raided happened to be staying there; when he woke to news of the revolt, he went to see the attackers and was startled by a war cry. “Boys, don’t you know me?” he called out to some of the rebels he recognized, thinking they might lay down their arms. They did know him, and they tried to kill him.
That night, though Tacky’s army had no way of knowing it, the insurrection was at its height. They had killed dozens of whites, and they celebrated by roasting an ox and drinking stolen rum and Madeira wine. Obeah men, the spiritual leaders of the Coromantee, who carried out religious ceremonies not unlike those of Santería and vodou, had encouraged the rebels, and now administered oaths to new recruits, drawing blood from every rebel, mixing it with gunpowder and grave dirt, and distributing the mixture to each to drink, promising that it would protect them. Tacky himself was said to have been given the power to capture bullets in his hands and, like the Obeah men, was supposed to be safe from harm by any white man. These religious practices emboldened the rebels and terrified the whites, who later insisted that Tacky’s troops not only murdered servants in their sleep at Ballard’s Valley but drank the blood of those they killed.
The next day, the colony’s lieutenant governor declared martial law and dispatched sixty soldiers to suppress the rebellion, which had splintered into gangs, some moving along the roads, others retreating into the forests. The colonists managed to capture and hang an Obeah man, apparently the chief oracle, demonstrating that no amount of enchantment could spare a Coromantee the wrath of the whites. After his death, the rebels had a more difficult time recruiting reinforcements, and many of the participants deserted. By contrast, the British, as soon as they alerted the Maroons, had more men for their cause, and ones who could draw on decades of experience tracking and hunting in Jamaica’s interior.
Within a week, the Maroons had flushed Tacky and what remained of his insurgency out of the woods and toward the coast. A Maroon sharpshooter killed Tacky, and some of his followers took their own lives rather than surrender. As evidence of their victory, the Maroons cut off seventeen pairs of ears and decapitated Tacky so that his head could be paraded along the roads of the parish, then placed on a pike in Spanish Town.
But the end of Tacky was not the end of Tacky’s Revolt. Brown argues that the conflict might more accurately be called the Coromantee War, since it was followed by more than a year of rebellions. Whether these were triggered by or organized in tandem with Tacky’s uprising is a matter of dispute. Some claim that Tacky had been part of an island-wide revolt planned for Pentecost, but, after drinking too much one night, he mistakenly launched the attack weeks early. Others have argued that word of Tacky’s actions inspired people to take up arms on their own plantations. Whether coördinated or concomitant, what Tacky did in April, 1760, looks, in retrospect, like a prologue.
Around the same time, a woman named Cubah, who called herself the Queen of Kingston, planned an insurrection with the aim of ruling the colony. At the end of May, a few hundred slaves in Westmoreland, led by a Coromantee named Wager, began an uprising that lasted nearly a year. In August, a slave named Simon marched twenty or so rebels from Hanover toward St. Elizabeth Parish. Meanwhile, dozens of other slaves whose names were never recorded rose up on their plantations, in small groups that never escaped, or, if they did, didn’t make it very far—seemingly isolated episodes of violence that, taken together, looked like a war raging all over Jamaica.
“The whole Island remained in great Terror and Consternation for some time,” a British squadron commander observed. Like guerrilla warriors elsewhere, the enslaved Jamaicans often attacked and then dispersed, frustrating the militia’s attempts to track them and harassing estates near the edges of the forest by stealing supplies or damaging property. The colonists, meanwhile, burned their crops to try to starve the rebels out of the woods and struggled to supply enough troops to pursue so many separate insurrections, a problem that grew worse as the conflict dragged on and members of the militia deserted.
Every few weeks, until October, 1761, rebellious prisoners were killed or were captured, tried, and executed—sometimes burned alive, sometimes hanged or gibbeted. Five hundred Africans died during the Coromantee War, and another five hundred were shipped to other colonies, to discourage rebellion—a questionable strategy, since they carried knowledge of the insurrection wherever they went. Brown dutifully records every troop movement, skirmish, and counterattack. The details can feel tedious, but the cumulative effect is to transform scattered and largely forgotten episodes into a history of war among slaves, planters, Maroons, and British soldiers.
After Tacky’s uprising, the Jamaican government tried to ban the importation of Coromantees, then settled for separating them from one another on different plantations and expelling the more rebellious ones. The government also passed laws criminalizing the open practice of Obeah, forbidding slaves from possessing guns, and preventing blacks from gathering. Since most of the enslaved never had these freedoms to begin with, the new laws disproportionately affected free blacks, whose movements were newly regulated and who were forced by legislators to wear blue crosses on their right shoulders.
Such Draconian measures did little to stop slave revolts in Jamaica or elsewhere, but the revolts did change the debate over slavery. Within a few weeks of Tacky’s attack on Fort Haldane, British newspapers were reporting “some Disturbances among the Negroes,” and by the end of the summer the various uprisings were said to be “of bad Consequence to the whole island.” But most of what we know about Tacky’s Revolt does not come from newspaper bulletins—it comes from the writings of Jamaicans who witnessed it: Thistlewood, the brutal overseer, whose diary runs to fourteen thousand pages and includes daily reports on the rebels; the lawyer and planter Edward Long, who wrote a three-volume history of Jamaica that was published in 1774; and Bryan Edwards, who produced a two-volume history of the West Indies that was published in 1793. These men were all white, and, to varying degrees, they all advanced arguments rather than simply recording events.
Edwards, writing three decades later, during the Haitian Revolution, romanticized Tacky, depicting him as an Oroonoko-like figure—a royal slave whose rebellion was justified by his circumstances and whose comrades were stoic and courageous, the archetype of the noble savage. Edwards saw Tacky as a martyr, not to the cause of abolition but to the romantic spirit of the Coromantee, who could be tamed as long as they were treated fairly. Although abolitionists like Samuel Johnson argued that every uprising was an appropriate response to slavery’s inherent brutality, Edwards represented a strand of thought that dismissed rebelliousness, including Tacky’s Revolt, as a rare reaction to aberrant treatment: one master’s overly harsh punishments or another’s refusal to let his slaves have an Easter holiday.
In reality, Tacky’s actions probably reflected the plotting of a military leader looking to rule a slave society, not to end slavery. Considered in an Atlantic context and not an American one, his motivations had less to do with Enlightenment ideas of equality than with power. Similarly, the assistance that the Maroons gave the British reveals the complex political alliances that dictated behavior before the beginning of the Afro-Caribbean liberation movements. For Edwards and other planters, their political control of the Maroons provided an alternative model to abolition, letting them worry about the “Tackeys among us,” that is, specific rebellious slaves, rather than the institution of slavery.
But Edward Long, who served with Edwards on the committee of the Jamaican legislature that investigated the Coromantee War, insisted that all Africans were Tacky, and that all Tackys were subhuman. In 1772, a British court ruled that, although chattel slavery was legal in the colonies, it was illegal in Britain itself. After that decision, Long devoted himself to his writings, which are full of virulent racism, and used his work, including “History of Jamaica,” to attack the reasoning of abolitionists, defend the rights of planters, and warn that blacks were a “venomous and dangerous ulcer, that threatens to disperse its malignancy far and wide, until every family catches infections from it.” He insisted that rebellions were caused not by the slaves’ mistreatment but simply by their nature: “brutish, ignorant, idle, crafty, treacherous, bloody, thievish, mistrustful, and superstitious.” His solution was to advocate for abolishing the slave trade but maintaining domestic slavery.
Long was wrong about this, and almost everything else. The revolt that ended slavery in Jamaica was led by Samuel Sharpe, a Creole born near Montego Bay who was ordained in the Baptist Church. A few days after Christmas in 1831, eighteen years after Long had died, Sharpe and what eventually numbered sixty thousand of the colony’s enslaved population protested their condition. He and three hundred others were hanged. A parliamentary investigation into what became known as the Baptist War led to the abolition of slavery everywhere in the British Empire in 1834.
“Because slaveholders wrote the first draft of history,” Vincent Brown laments, “subsequent historiography has strained to escape from their point of view.” But “Tacky’s Revolt” is a fine start, rescuing even minor acts of resistance from the contemporaneous accounts of men like Long, and making a coherent whole out of the diffuse, chaotic attempt to wage war on enslavers. The book is a sobering read for contemporary audiences in countries engaged in forever wars, reminding us how easily and arbitrarily the edges of empire, and its evils, can fade from or focus our vision. It is also a useful reminder that the distinction between victory and defeat, when it comes to insurgencies, is often fleeting: Tacky may have lost his battle, but the enslaved did eventually win the war.
Casey Cep is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her first book, “Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee,” was published in May.
SOURCE: THE NEW YORKER