Tacky's Rebellion

Part I | The Art of War

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 10

The story of black resistance across the New World is largely fragmented. In no small part due to the fact that these stories are learned predominantly from the records left by the enemies of this resistance.

As a result, the scale, tactics, motives and impact of these movements are omitted; and instead replaced with obscurity - in essence, these revolts are made to look isolated and insignificant.

This misimpression is somewhat due to the paucity of written sources produced by black people at the time.

The merchants, planters and missionaries whose stories fill the archives were not primarily concerned with the politics of the enslaved.

The histories were written by these slavers and colonists, and as a result the bulk of our knowledge, tends to be fixated on suffering black bodies - a grim example is the writing of English sadist and serial rapist Thomas Thistlewood.

When slavers did document slave uprisings, as was the case for English historian Edward Long, it was generally from the perspective of hate for the African and love for slavery.

It is through this unreliable narration from the oppressor that we discover the limited history of the enslaved.

However, it is up to modern historians of today to reassess these records both against the grain, to investigate things the sources never meant to illustrate, and along the grain, to note how they constrain and shape our knowledge.

Interrogating these sources diligently and subjecting them to careful scrutiny can produce useful intelligence.

It is in this spirit that one has to review acts of resistance throughout history, in particular the large-scale shows of resistance scattered throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The framing of these revolts from the perspective of the oppressor is too reductive. It hides the complexity of large revolts whilst glossing over the varied aspirations of rebels. It also confines the conflict to circumscribed locations, limiting these revolts to individual events instead of seeing them as battles in the wider war against slavery.

Slave revolts were akin to acts of war. The planning, strategy and claims to territory are all aspects we would associate with warfare. Olaudah Equiano, famously defined slavery itself as a perpetual “state of war.”

Viewing these large scale revolts as a war, as the combatants did, helps us see the dynamics that signal far more than just scattered insubordination amongst the enslaved.

This war by the enslaved against slaveholders was going on against the backdrop of the European imperialist war to enslave and to expand slavery - a war fought to accumulate wealth and build state power on the one hand and to strike for freedom or merely survive on the other.

On 7 April 1760, more than a thousand black people on the island of Jamaica engaged in a series of uprisings. The aims and tactics employed by the rebels made it clear to observers that many had been soldiers in Africa.

Considering “the extent and secrecy of its plan, the multitude of the conspirators, and the difficulty of opposing its eruptions in such a variety of different places at once,” wrote one slaver who lived through the uprising, this revolt was “more formidable than any hitherto known in the West Indies.”

This formidable revolt, known as Tacky’s Rebellion, or more suitably Tacky’s War, lasted 18 months and had three chief protagonists - Tacky, Apongo and Simon. We will go into their stories in the future editions.