Tacky's Revolt

Historian Vincent Brown's new book examines the 18th-century slave insurrection, arguing it was really four different wars at once.


In 1760, hundreds of Jamaican slaves began an insurrection against their British overlords. For 18 months they fought, hoping not only to reclaim their freedom but to seize the sugar plantations where they had been forced to labor. Scholars, drawing mainly on texts from the white plantation owners, called the rebellion "Tacky's Revolt" after one of its leaders.

In his exhaustively researched new book, Tacky's Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, the Harvard historian Vincent Brown draws on letters, lieutenants' logs, cartography, and other sources to make a convincing case that this was more than just an isolated event. Its duration, he adds, had less to do with Tacky than with complicated geopolitics.

Brown argues that Tacky's Revolt was really four wars at once. Slaves fought their white owners for freedom and survival. They fought formerly enslaved Jamaicans—the runaways and their descendants known as Maroons—for control of territory. They fought fellow slaves in a continuation of conflicts that began in Africa, before they boarded those slave ships. And then there was the Seven Years' War between the British and the French. The Jamaican uprising wasn't exactly a front in that conflict, but it still played a vital symbolic role: If Britain couldn't control its slaves, it looked weaker.

Brown argues that slavery itself was a perpetual state of war and that these revolts featured more military precision than the haphazard insurrection the plantation owners described. Tacky and other leaders of the uprising had been experienced warriors on the Gold Coast. Their rebellion was a real war—one that in turn spawned other wars, including the successful fight for Haitian independence.

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  1. make a convincing case that this was more than just an isolated event

    That may well be – but I’ve never heard of it. And nothing in this review compels me to overcome the opportunity cost to find out more. I appreciate the notion that a historical event has to be told at the level of the individual. But if an event is deemed to be more than just isolated – then that same event has to connected to some aftermath event at the same individual level.

    I don’t see where that goes with Tacky war. Is it Jamaica? Haiti? Caribbean? Colonial/European attitudes about slavery or slave trade?

    There is still a dearth of knowledge about how slave rebellions – even suppressed in the short-term – had a big impact in the aftermath. And into that vacuum steps confusion and stereotypes and an inability to talk about basic issues. See a 1967 controversy about Nat Turner – where 150 years later there are still two completely separate stories about what it all meant with no ability or interest in connecting them.

    1. The only slave revolt most of us in the US have heard about has been Haiti. And I suspect we heard about its part of a White Supremacist narrative. “Look how the darkies screwed it all up.”

      But the British didn’t ban slavery on a whim. T

      I suspect we didn’t hear about the Caribbean revolts simply because they weren’t American and as such not part of our history books.

      1. Damned server squirrels, Oh well.

      2. Actually, the Nat Turner Rebellion, Crispus Attucks “casting the first stone” against the British in The Boston Massacre, and Toussant D’Louverture were all part of my studies on the fight against slavery and for Equal Rights and Justice for all, regardless of “race.”

        And the history of Haiti is not a racist agitprop so much as a cautionary tale for all of human history and a human future: Don’t do to others the oppression that was once done to you.

      3. But the British didn’t ban slavery on a whim.

        Agree. Maybe that’s the aftermath of Tacky. And if so, it’s important to the American Revolution because Somerset v Stewart (which banned slavery in England) is the main reason the South decided to be pro-independence rather than loyalist and why New England delayed emancipation for a couple years (to avoid pissing off the southern colonies). And that all looks very different if the train of events starts with a slave rebellion in Jamaica rather a white English judge making a noble-sounding speech about the evils of slavery.

        But if that’s the train of events – then why ain’t it in the review as an enticer to learn more?

  2. Slaves rebelling against masters and the Empires that allowed and encouraged slavery was fully justifiable and understandable from a libertarian perspective.

    But fighting against escapees and freed slaves? And fellow slaves? That is just nihilistic, envious, and strategically and tactically damn stupid! Logic would dictate the slaves actually learn something from escaped slaves and free people and form a united front against their oppressors instead of dredging up old tribal or religious triffles!

    And as Quick Draw McGraw always asked on Oprah: “How’d that work out for ya?” Haitians rebelled against one set of horrible masters and got a whole historical line-up of other horrible masters. Small wonder if that’s how a rebellion is implimented.

    1. I’m pretty sure the next person who acts in their life – thinking about how far-far-into-the-future generations will judge those actions – will be the first person who ever did that.

      What strikes me about the Haitian revolution and independence is how isolated they were. Haiti become independent in 1804. The US was the only independent country in Americas then. We didn’t recognize Haiti until 1862. Within 5 years were talking about annexing it. France threatened to reconquer Haiti in 1825 and acknowledged independence in exchange for an ‘indemnity’ equal to 2x the Louisiana Purchase. Haiti paid France by 1893 – but Citibank bought Haiti’s central bank in order to extract more interest. It’s the main reason we invaded and occupied Haiti. UK recognized independence in 1859. Mexico in 1888.

      We ignore our diplomatic experience but it made a big difference in our success as a country and in finding/developing leaders.

      1. I’m pretty sure the next person who acts in their life – thinking about how far-far-into-the-future generations will judge those actions – will be the first person who ever did that.

        Even within the span of a lifetime including the events around Tacky’s Revolt, the history of slavery in Haiti makes no sense.

        1. Which history? The one that happened or the one that was made up?

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