Tacky′s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War
Vincent Brown in conversation with Maya Jasanoff
As the White masters continuously attempted to further such conditions, the enslaved West Africans organised themselves in a rebellion to throw off that yoke. Under the patronage of a Fanti warlord called Tacky, this rebellion came to be known as ‘Tacky’s Revolt’ or ‘Tacky’s War…,’ writes Eric Chopra on the #JaipurLiteratureFestival2021 session, Tacky’s Revolt. Read on to find out!
It was the night of 7th April in 1760 when the northern parish of Saint Mary on the island of Jamaica rose in rebellion. It was a revolt that began in one of the most important colonies of the British Empire. The African slaves, the Coromantees, who rose in rebellion, moved in the middle of the night and reached the thinly defended Fort Haldane, captured the ammunition that was kept there and continued to be on the move, from one planation to another, furiously burning them down and sending a signal to all others: the revolt has begun.
In a captivating conversation on #JaipurLiteratureFestival2021, Professor Vincent Brown discussed his book ‘Tacky’s Revolt’, with Professor Maya Jasanoff. The focus of the book resides on a slave revolt which occurred in the middle of the 18th century in Jamaica. The revolt occurred in the midst of the Seven Years War between Britain and its imperial enemies. Professor Brown said that this event has often been ignored and not considered as a battle that occurred during the Seven Years War; nor has it been wrestled with as a major event in the history of the empire. To shed light on this moment of history, Professor Brown wrote this book and it became the first long account of the revolt since Edward Long, the polemic defender of slavery who wrote his contemporary account of the events in 1774.
During 1760-61, Jamaica was a colony where 90% of the population was enslaved. Most of the slaves had come from the Gold Coast, a war-torn section of Africa. Europeans had a history of trading ammunition in exchange of slaves from this region. Due to the heavy import of firearms into the coast, conflicts increased, and those who lost in these conflicts were held as captives and sent as slaves to the British colony of Jamaica. There, these African slaves would be subjected to incredibly hard conditions. They were employed to grow sugar, which was the most profitable crop during the time – as Professor Brown calls it, it was the ‘microchip’ of the 18th century! Profitable as it was, sugar was a tremendously hard crop to work with and it was the enslaved Africans who were made to work under harsh conditions to grow sugar.
As the White masters continuously attempted to further such conditions, the enslaved West Africans organised themselves in a rebellion to throw off that yoke. Under the patronage of a Fanti warlord called Tacky, this rebellion came to be known as ‘Tacky’s Revolt’ or ‘Tacky’s War’ and it is this revolt which Professor Brown covers in his fascinating book. To write the account, not only did he investigate textual sources but also consulted other things, like geography.
“Geography was very important for me…I really wanted to tie different regional histories together…to use geography as a source to plot their (rebels) movements in order to see if I can discern from their movement, their intention” said Professor Brown and further claimed it was from studying the movements of those who revolted which helped him discern some things which textual sources would not have.
Professor Jasanoff claimed that if one is to look at the history of the British Empire in the 18th-19th centuries, there is a war every year – it is just one of these kind of conflicts which gets subsumed under terms like ‘revolt’ or ‘rebellion’. “I think if you were to look at British actions against the many forces of resistance they met in modern imperial history, you find that they actually were not that good at it” – she claimed that the minute their technological advantage collapsed, they lost. She further claimed that what Professor Brown’s book does is provide us with a prequel to a big rethinking which needs to happen: to understand that imperial power was contested.
Professor Brown claimed that the rebellion had left many Black people divided, there were political calculations made between slaves, whether or not to ally with the British or to take their chances and stage insurgencies. Many of the captives were exiled from the island, some of them were sent to far-off regions where other rebellions were staged. In popular imagination, slaves remembered this rebellion and the story was told time and time again; even 40 years after the revolt, the tale was narrated in the enslaved African communities of Jamaica.
Professor Jasanoff quipped that the reason she appreciates the book is because “it’s so aware of the big fault lines that we still struggle with in our society today and yet incredibly sensitive to the nuances and complications that get in the way of organising in the face of injustice.” To this, Professor Brown responded and claimed that “as historians we know the past never repeats itself but we also know that some of the processes which underlie historical events are continuous and ongoing. It is easy to see that some of the problems initiated by conquest, colonialism, slavery and racism are certainly not over”. We need to see ourselves as being a part of the same process, though events and periods have altered and our conditions are fundamentally different, the processes are still ongoing and histories like that of ‘Tacky’s Revolt’ help us recognise this.