Tacky’s Revolt by Vincent Brown
Until this year, I knew very little about the history of Jamaica or the Caribbean in general, so this book was a lot of new material for me.
Tacky’s Revolt was one of a series of slave uprisings in Jamaica (and elsewhere) in the 1700’s. Jamaica was the most profitable colony in the British sphere, and that profit was produced by slave labor. Brutal, lethal work, mostly done by captives from Africa. Surprisingly enough, the enslaved people were not happy with this arrangement, and, from time to time, rose up to take control of their own lives and fortunes.
Brown gives a complicated and nuanced history of these pivotal fights. He is at pains to portray the multiple simultaneous conflicts in play, imperial transatlantic wars, African imperial wars, and “intimate” master-slave wars.
Within these conflicts, there were many parties on each side with competing interests. The colonists feared foreign invasion and domestic slave rebellion. Large planters and absentee owners sought maximum production, smaller businesses and workers needed security, the military forces needed to project power and to see to imperial goals not just commerce.
The slaves were recent captives from different parts of Africa, and different social strata, as well as island born “creoles”. These people did not necessarily share anything other than the misery of bondage.
There were also “maroons”, descendants of escaped slaves who had achieved a temporary recognition and sovereignty from the colonial government, and worked as war time allies by treaty.
Over this diversity lay the politics and ideology of race, which was conceived to be linked to both ancestry (European versus African) and skin color. In any case, as always, the concepts were messy, with many people falling into “mixed” categories, and increasing numbers of people born on island no matter what their heritage and skin tone.
The institution of slavery was messy, too. While whites could employ arbitrary and unlimited violence to keep slaves in line, everyday life was more nuanced. Slave owners were responsible for keeping their thousands of slaves in order, and this required both force and inducement. Some slaves were relatively privileged, and any who had a semblance of security might resist an uprising that risked what they had.
Relations between creoles and freed men in the cities and the maroons in the hills were complicated regardless of skin colors.
For that matter, the white colonists and government forces were governed by force as well. The military forces were notoriously brutal, and in times of uprising. martial law required whites to military service, at the cost of private profit.
If this sounds like hell, Brown will tell us that it was in fact continuous war. Wars between European powers drove competition for colonies, which needed slave labor to be profitable. Wars in Africa fed the European slave trade, which both needed and sustained the overseas colonies. Controlling thousands of slaves was essentially a continuous war of the masters against the slaves, one which only intensified over the years.
The actual incidents recounted in the book aren’t actually that spectacular. The slave rebellions were short lived and unsuccessful. The reactions were predictable and brutal. The stories told are predictably twisted and awful.
However, these unsuccessful uprisings were not without wider consequences. The Jamaican revolt pushed London to reform the government of colonies, taking more control and demanding more revenue. Applied to North America, this policy led to extreme consequences a few years later in the 1770s.
The uprisings also fed into the development of the ideology of racism, in part to justify slavery and the suppression of slaves. Brown points out that the events also fed into the beginnings of the anti-slavery movement, demonstrating the costs and moral peril of the slave trade and slavery in general.
Prof. Brown is an academic, and he is pretty careful with sources which are imperfect and one sided. We learn quite a bit about how the Africans in Africa and America might have been thinking, though we have little firm evidence about much of this. Brown interestingly juxtaposes African perspectives with the thinking of the colonists, who were ignorant, misinformed, and often projected their fears onto the unknown masses of slaves and native Africans.
I must say that much of this book is filled with peculiar fussing about geography and conceptual geography that he calls “spatial history“. A lot of this seems to be over done, dressing up simple history with academic jargon.
Still, it’s an interesting and gripping story, regardless of these academic flourishes.
- Vincent Brown, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, Cambridge, Harvard, 2020.
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