Transcribed from the 27 January 2020 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
The United States emerged from an interconnected global capitalist system—that’s not something that started here, but was an outgrowth of empire, warfare, and trade on a much larger scale. I wrote this book partly to get people thinking about the geopolitics of slavery.
Chuck Mertz: We are taught very little about slave uprisings here in the US, leading to plenty of misunderstandings of the slave trade—which was really a war over people’s lives. Here to help us get a better understanding of the history of slavery: historian, African studies and African-American studies scholar, and award-winning writer Vincent Brown is author of the new book Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War.
Welcome to This is Hell!, Vincent.
Vincent Brown: Hi, Chuck, nice to be here.
CM: It’s great to have you on the show.
You write, “Wager, also known by his African name Apongo, was a leader of the largest slave rebellion in the eighteenth-century British empire. But long before taking his part in that great Jamaican insurrection of 1760-1761, commonly called Tacky’s revolt, he had been on a remarkable odyssey. Apongo had been a military leader in west Africa during a period of imperial expansion and intensive warfare there. During this time he had even been a notable guest of John Cope, chief agent of Cape Coast Castle, Britain’s principal fort on the Gold Coast. Captured and sold at some point in the 1740s, Apongo became the property of captain Arthur Forrest of HMS Wager, who renamed him for the royal navy warship.”
Last week we spoke with sociologist Kari Norgaard—Kari lamented how little we are taught in schools about Native cultures and society. We are also taught relatively little about Black history, let alone the history of slavery or of slave uprisings. Kari argued that one aspect of the lack of understanding of Native culture is how Native cultures work with the environment and don’t work in a capitalist way.
Why are we not taught this history of slavery or slave uprisings? Why are we not far more aware of Black history in general—and, more specifically, that African military leaders, enslaved, led the largest slave uprisings against the British empire in the eighteenth century? What does our educational system seemingly not want us to know about that history?
VB: One of the reasons we don’t know much about the history of the transatlantic slave trade (or the history of slavery across the world, not only in the United States) is because the historical education system is so focused on national history. One of the first classes I ever taught was a summer school course when I was a graduate student at Duke University, and there was an older woman who was taking the course: the first thing she said to me was, “I didn’t know they had slavery in these other places. I thought slavery was just something we had in the United States.” So already we’ve got a geographic focus which assumes that everything important in world history must have happened here. That’s the first problem.
When we situate American slavery on the larger canvas of the transatlantic slave trade and global history, we learn a lot of things. We learn, first of all, that the United States emerged from an interconnected global capitalist system—that’s not something that just started here, but was an outgrowth of empire, warfare, and trade on a much larger scale. I wrote this book partly to get people thinking about the geopolitics of slavery and the larger world system that slavery was a fundamental part of: thinking beyond relations between individual masters and slaves, beyond relations on an individual plantation in an individual state, colony, or nation-state.
CM: What does it tell you about history when the way it’s taught seems to imply that history stops at our borders? We know that climate change doesn’t stop at our borders. Why do we think that history stops at our borders? And what is that trying to reinforce?
VB: We think history stops at our borders—and also we think geography stops at our borders. I remember once I looked at a fantastic map that the New York Times graphics people put up: all the deaths from hurricane Sandy as it came through the United States and the destruction that it wreaked, especially in New York City. They completely ignored the map of that hurricane as it went through the Caribbean—the hurricane only mattered when it hit the United States. I never write letters to the New York Times, but I wrote one that time. You really can’t judge an environmental phenomenon in national terms that way.
We do the same thing with history. We think in national terms. We think that history starts with 1776, or maybe 1619, and then moves forward within the national borders of what became the United States. Even people who think about the colonial history of North America think that Britain had thirteen colonies in America, when in fact Britain had twenty-six colonies in North America—and by far the most profitable, most militarily significant, and most politically well-connected of them were in the Caribbean. Jamaica was the most prominent of those colonies.
When we think about the entire British empire and what it meant, and how British expansion in the Americas was contingent upon slavery, with the Caribbean and Jamaica at its heart, it reorients the way we think about colonial America, and reframes the way we think about the origin of the United States.
CM: Do you think that this lack of knowledge of history of slavery reinforces our ideas of American exceptionalism and innocence? Can we have those kinds of feelings or beliefs if we study and know the history of slavery in this country?
VB: When we think about “who we are as a people,” our national history and national mythology, we think about the rise and progress of freedom. It’s very hard to reconcile that story with the fact that by the mid-nineteenth century the United States was the largest slave society in the history of the world—comparable only maybe to the ancient Romans, if you go back that far.
Those two stories don’t fit easily with one another. The common solution is just to underplay, downplay, and be quiet about the fact that the United States was the largest slave society in the history of the world, and how that had implications. People who teach about the history of slavery are always up against these deeply held—and comforting—national myths about the United States that don’t fit easily with the history we want to tell.
CM: You write, “Taking advantage of Britain’s Seven Years’ War against its European opponents, Wager and more than a thousand other enslaved Black people on the island engaged in a series of uprisings which began on April 7, 1760, and continued until October of the next year. Over those eighteen months, the rebels managed to kill sixty whites and destroy tens of thousands of pounds’ worth of property. During the suppression of the revolt and the repression that followed, over five hundred Black men and women were killed in battle, executed, or driven to suicide. Another five hundred were transported from the island for life.”
Considering that disproportionate level of deadly violence that victimized Blacks on the island, is it fair to call the uprising a failure? And if not, in what ways was Tacky’s revolt a success? Is it not the revolt itself but the uprising’s legacy that made it a success?
Warfare had consequences: oftentimes Europeans were enslaving people who had military experience in west Africa, in part because of the expansion of warfare that Europe had helped to foment. Those people did not forget their military experience when they came out to colonial plantations.
VB: Ultimately the uprising’s legacy was extremely important, but not well-known. First of all, it’s not usually considered as part of the Seven Years’ War. When historians write about it, they class it with slave revolts and excise it from the larger narrative of the Seven Years’ War. The Seven Years’ War was a massive global war between the UK, France, Spain, and other European rivals that really set the stage for the American revolution: because Britain spent so much money fighting the war, they thought they had to consolidate the empire, reorganize its administration, and raise taxes on the colonies. Those kinds of imperial administrative reforms are part of what the thirteen colonies in North America ultimately revolted against.
This revolt in Jamaica was one of the largest battles of the Seven Years’ War—but nowhere considered one, despite the fact that soldiers, sailors, and marines who fought in the more famous campaigns in Quebec, Senegal, or in Martinique and Guadalupe sailed directly to Jamaica afterwards to suppress this revolt. I wanted to integrate this revolt into that larger history of colonial warfare and play out what its effects were—not only on British policymaking, but also on a longer tradition of Black freedom struggle and slave revolt within Jamaica, with implications for how we think about it elsewhere.
Ultimately, this revolt was a failure, in terms of its inability to take the island of Jamaica from the British, even though it threatened to do exactly that. They did not make Jamaica an independent colony (as the thirteen colonies in North America would achieve in 1783), and they did not create an independent state (as the slave rebels in French St. Domingue would do when they created Haiti in 1804). And yet these rebels helped stimulate a British reform effort: one of the reasons the British wanted to reorganize the empire was because Tacky’s revolt had been so expensive and threatening. These rebels also helped convince people that colonial slavery (and the repression that it took to enslave people on this scale) was not something a lot of British people wanted to participate in, and it helped stimulate an emerging anti-slavery consciousness in Britain.
The other thing it did, even more immediately, was scare people about the implications of importing into the colonies people from Africa who may have had experience in their own wars back home. In Virginia, Pennsylvania, and other places, people tried to pass new import duties on the African slave trade, and those early efforts to regulate the transatlantic slave trade—as a security measure, as an immigration measure—were also helpful in stimulating some of the campaigns that ultimately resulted in banning the transatlantic slave trade by 1807 in Britain and 1808 in the United States.
CM: Could there have been a Haiti in 1804 if there weren’t Tacky’s revolt in 1760-1761?
VB: I don’t really like to play those sorts of counterfactual games, because history is so complicated. A lot of other things could have happened if this didn’t happen. But I’ll say this: we know that some of the early revolt leaders in St. Domingue, what became Haiti, had been in Jamaica. In Jamaica they probably had heard stories or even had experience with Jamaican slave revolts. The tradition of revolt that obtained in Jamaica was probably carried on through some of those exiles who left Jamaica and went to places like Virginia. Some of them went to places like St. Domingue and British Honduras (what is now Belize), where there was a revolt just a couple years after Tacky’s revolt. People carried the tradition of revolt with them around the Atlantic world, and as news spread, people were inspired by it.
I think we can say with some certainty that Tacky’s revolt did inspire people to revolt who might not otherwise have revolted.
CM: You write, “Apongo’s Atlantic odyssey spans the martial geography of Atlantic slavery, highlighting the entanglement of African and European empires with the massive forced migrations of the eighteenth century, and suggesting a new way to understand slave insurrection. Rather than a two-sided conflict between masters and slaves, the 1760-1761 Jamaican revolt was the volatile admixture of many journeys and military campaigns.”
How dependent was the system of slavery on war? When I was reading your book, what I kept thinking about was how there was a military-industrial complex at the time, and it seems that this military-industrial complex (which has dominated capitalism from the very beginning) is one that slavery depended upon. They needed to have that military-industrial complex in order to have slavery.
VB: That’s a crucial point, I’m glad you brought it up. I begin the book with a chapter on this larger world of warfare and accumulation that I call “War is Empire.” I’m trying to get at the way the new ways of financing military expansion in Britain from the late seventeenth century to the early eighteenth century fed directly into the buildup of military armaments and the sale of weapons into west Africa: what had been smaller rivalries between west African polities became larger in scale and more deadly, and as a consequence wound up producing more instability, more dislocation, and more slaves for export to the Europeans in colonial plantations, which helped Europe accumulate profits and wealth from colonial expansion.
I’m trying to draw together that whole system of accumulation in capitalism in the eighteenth century with warfare very much at its heart. Now, that warfare had consequences: oftentimes they were enslaving people who had military experience in west Africa, in part because of the expansion of warfare that Europe had helped to foment. Those people did not forget their military experience when they came out to colonial plantations. Sometimes they regrouped—often former enemies came together because they spoke similar languages, worshiped similar deities, or recognized similar kinds of political authority vis-a-vis other Africans, and they staged revolts against plantation society which in turn had further reverberations.
So it really goes back to re-mapping our understanding of how history works and where it happens, trying to integrate the history of west African state formation, conflict, and warfare with the history of European military expansion and the growth of America, and seeing how all those currents eddy in the slave revolt of 1760-1761—through particular individuals that we can track, even, who indicate how these processes work together.
CM: The era of the slave trade is often said to have lasted four hundred years. If the global slave war was a four-hundred-year war, what is the legacy of those four centuries of warmaking on formerly slaveholding and -trading Europe and Europeans? Did four centuries of a global war over slavery have any impact on Europe’s use of war or willingness to conduct war post-slavery?
VB: The legacy of warfare in the seventeenth and eighteenth century was slavery, and the reverse can also be said to be true. We often talk about how if we don’t have justice we can’t have peace—at a broader level what I’m also saying here is if we don’t have peace we can’t have justice. A lot of the human misery and exploitation that we’re seeing is a result of militarism and global warfare, which has of course continued. In the United States economy, we spend more money on armaments than the top nine other military budgets in the world combined. I was born in the late 1960s, during the height of the Vietnam war, and I can’t tell you a five-year period in my entire life when the United States military hasn’t been abroad in some country killing somebody.
We talk about endless war since September 11, 2001. But in my fifty-some years, I can’t name a sustained period of peace in the United States. Why aren’t we talking more about that? Why is there such an anemic antiwar movement in the country right now? That seems to be one of the bigger problems. We often talk about the history of slavery as being part of the history of racism and the civil rights struggle—which it certainly is. But even Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about racism, poverty, and warfare as the three big evils that had to be combated. We talk a lot about racism, and the struggle against racism, as part of King’s legacy. We talk a little bit, on the left, about King’s struggle against poverty. We don’t talk nearly often enough about King’s antiwar activism.
Racism is a larger outgrowth of militarism in the United States directed at particular kinds of people. One of the legacies of slavery is that there were generations and generations and generations of militaristic violence directed at particular stigmatized people: Native Americans and African-Americans.
I want to integrate the history of slavery into our understanding of warfare and its effects on society, and the kind of damage that it does to human dignity.
CM: You quote the former slave and veteran of the Seven Years’ War Gustavus Vassa, now commonly known by his African name Olaudah Equiano, famously defining slavery as a “perpetual state of war. To the slaveholders, Equiano asked, ‘Are you not hourly in dread of an insurrection?’ It was not a rhetorical question. Since the early years of Jamaica’s slave society, slaveholders and others often considered the slaves as ‘Irreconcilable and yet Intestine Enemies,’ subjected to the colonists’ will only by the rule of the whip. The prospect of slave rebellion was a perennial anxiety. ‘A war always the more terrible,’ one slaveholder wrote, ‘by how much there is no quarter given to it.’”
It sounds like the terror of slavery was begetting more terror, only within the lives and minds of the slaveholders themselves. Does this undermine the stereotype of antebellum southern gentility and replace it with one of antebellum terror? Is the romantic idea of a mannered, civilized southern culture during slaver a myth, and in reality it was just a culture of terror and fear?
VB: It was absolutely a myth designed to cover over a culture of terror and fear. What a lot of Equiano said was that when you make people slaves, you compel them to live with you in a state of war. Then he went on to quote John Milton in Paradise Lost, saying that “No peace is given to us enslaved but custody severe, and stripes and arbitrary punishment inflicted. What peace can we return?”
Ultimately, Equiano was saying—and quite correctly—that slavery itself is a state of war. The only way one could subject people to the absolute will of a master was through massive amounts of violence. There is no slavery without violence. The idea that you can control the will of another person requires inordinate amounts of violence and terror. That has always been the case for slavery.
By taking Equiano’s description of slavery as a state of war itself seriously—not as a metaphor, not as a rhetorical statement, but really exploring slave rebellion through military history—we can see how a lot of those myths that came out to justify slavery (“this is really a familial relationship, it’s a courtly manner where people understand all of their mutual rights and responsibilities”), were myths used specifically to cover over that violence.
CM: How much does our misunderstanding of slavery—our miseducation, our lack of knowledge of the history of slavery—play a role in the success that white supremacy is currently having in the United States? Does a lack of education about slavery spread white supremacy?
VB: The more people know about our actual history, as opposed to the comforting myths we like to tell ourselves about our history, we’d have a more common understanding of what American people have been through in our journey together—white and Black and otherwise. At the same time, I think that one of the biggest problems we face is not just the lack of inclusion, not just the undermining of civil rights for some stigmatized people, especially Black people, but also anti-Black militarism.
Racism is a larger outgrowth of militarism in the United States directed at particular kinds of people. One of the legacies of slavery is that there were generations and generations and generations of militaristic violence directed at particular stigmatized people: Native Americans and African-Americans as well. The hangover from that is still with us, the idea that Black people’s lives are less valued. We can just go into the court system to see this play out.
If a Black person is murdered by another Black person, the sentence meted out by the courts will be much less severe than if a white person is murdered by a Black person. We can see how lives are valued by looking at the sentences meted out in court punishments. That is an outgrowth of a daily quotidian warfare that has been carried on over generations in the United States and which we haven’t really come to terms with.
CM: You write, “As much as it grew out of plantation slavery’s inherent, everyday violence, it was sustained by imperial militarism and broader transformations of commerce, governance, and cultural belonging. It was more than a local outburst, more than a continuation of prior experience, and it involved a far larger and more diverse cast of players than studies of resistance normally feature. It was the kind of event best narrated as a war story.”
Is slavery, then, best understood as not a simple aspect of the era, one of many qualities, but the entire era? Did institutional slavery dominate the culture where it existed? Was it part of everyday life and the understanding of everyday life?
VB: It depends on where you’re talking about. In a place like Massachusetts, which had slavery during the colonial era and whose economy was in part dependent on the products of slave labor grown in the Caribbean, slavery mattered, but it wasn’t part of everyday life to the same degree that it was in a place like Virginia or South Carolina, or Jamaica and Barbados. The character of the society was different. In Jamaica there was a population that was ninety percent enslaved, with more than half the population, in the eighteenth century, born in Africa, and having had experience with the turmoil that was caused by the slave trade. That was quite a different situation than in a place like Massachusetts.
So we ought to be careful to draw distinctions between those kinds of territories. There were on the one hand societies with slaves, which are not the same thing as slave societies where every institution is underpinned by the master-slave relationship. At the same time, even a place like Massachusetts in the colonial era, which doesn’t have nearly as many slaves as Virginia or South Carolina or Jamaica, is connected with the slave economy of the British empire. The British empire itself in that period is deriving its greatest profits and fighting its fiercest naval campaigns in the Caribbean over the profits being gleaned from slavery.
These things are connected, but not every institution in every place is equally implicated with the worst excesses of the slave system, even if they are connected.
CM: You write, “Slave revolt was race war to the extent that it concerned relations between masters and their vassals. From the fifteenth century onward, skin color was used as the primary index of social status, with blackness becoming increasingly synonymous with slavery over time.”
From the fifteenth century onward—was there any indication that this was a change from the past? Was skin color as a primary index of social status new? Or has the world always been as racist as it was when the slave trade began? Because as we all know, slavery is just part of the normal existence of human beings…
VB: I like to remind people that the word slave actually comes from slav. Slavic peoples were enslaved in part of the Black Sea trade, and Slavic peoples were growing sugar in the Mediterranean before Europeans turned to enslaving Africans and the sugar plantation system stretched out through the Mediterranean into the Atlantic world and the Americas. The stigmatization of Slavic peoples remained long after Slavic peoples were no longer being enslaved in the numbers that they had been.
This is to say that stigmas attached to people of low social status in a society can remain for some time—but they don’t transcend time. They are not forever. These stigmas do change, and even if there may generally be, throughout human history, ways of legitimating exploitation that can take form in the recognition of physical difference like skin color and other human features—it’s also been religion. It’s also been language.
Capitalism is not inevitable. It’s not a natural human system. It is historical. And it has always been contested, even by people who are subject to it in the harshest way.
I situate the slave revolts in the massive waves of white-on-white violence through the eighteenth century in these European wars. Europeans are fighting religious wars against each other, and they are incredibly brutal and violent religious wars. They are doing terrible, heinous things to each other, which they would then reserve for Black people by the nineteenth century. They were doing these things to each other through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, emerging from generations and generations of European warfare, and then they’re subjecting Africans to the same kinds of tactics.
I never like to say that racism is at the root of all human suffering. It is an outgrowth of the kinds of exploitative and violent practices that human beings subject each other to, and racism is one of the things that help legitimate and justify those practices over time.
CM: You write, “Enslaved Africans did indeed have their own designs on Jamaica’s landscape, guided by their experiences of enslavement and their understanding of the possibilities for escape. They envisioned moving freely through the terrain that lay beyond the slave masters’ control, seeing in the forests and mountains a world apart from the plains and valleys stamped with agricultural estates, where communities of runaways might turn natural dangers to their defensive advantage.”
Did slaves in Jamaica envision escaping capitalism and returning to a non-capitalist, pre-capitalist state and a resource-management and political-economic system that they left behind?
VB: I do believe so. When you look at the Maroon communities—communities of former slaves who had escaped and founded their own communities in mountains or swamps—you don’t find them generally engaging in the same kind of highly-regimented proto-industrial capitalist plantation agriculture that you find Europeans engaging in. Whether or not they would have returned to something they knew before, they certainly did not mean to propagate, say, the sugar industry.
There’s an indication there that capitalism is not inevitable. It’s not a natural human system. It is historical. And it has always been contested, even by people who are subject to it in the harshest way.
CM: You point out that “slaves differed from and resembled each other along multiple axes, including not only their languages, spiritual beliefs and practices, ideas for gender relations, and contingent political allegiances, but also the ways in which they were subject to the prerogatives of slaveholders, the social roles required by the labor regime and the operations of colonial security.”
Africans, then, are in no way monolithic—we had a discussion about this last year with Cedric Johnson. To what degree was that diversity an obstacle to organizing and working together to come up with a strategy for rebellion? To what extent was that eventually an asset? Can that diversity be a good thing? Was it a bad thing? Was it tearing apart Africa? What do we miss in our understanding of Africa when we don’t see it as a diverse place that was having their own wars, and instead we see it as one monolithic Africa?
VB: When you understand the history of slavery only as the history of white people and Black people in opposition, you forget that that’s not the only way to divide human beings, that human beings have been divided along many axes. And they’re situated, historically, in a lot of different ways. I try not to assume there is one way of organizing human society or human belonging that is the ‘natural’ and inevitable way—like, say, class is the real way of organizing people versus race—but to look at how people use different axes of difference to organize themselves when they do it.
I’m trying to understand the kinds of coalitions people make for the purpose of pursuing their political objectives, in this case for fighting military campaigns against each other. Sometimes that’s military campaigns between people in Africa of different polities. Sometimes that’s military campaigns between Black people who are enslaved in Jamaica. Sometimes, as in Tacky’s revolt, that’s a military campaign against the enslavers. How you fight those campaigns is going to be dependent not only on who you think you belong with, how you identify with others, but also what access you have to different kinds of material benefits within the society.
Even in a slave society, there are differences among the people who are enslaved. Someone like Tacky, or someone like Wager who you began the show with—those guys are drivers. They’re enslaved, but they have some privileges and some authority given to them by masters over other enslaved people. There’s a difference—you might call it a class difference—among slaves, between those drivers and those people underneath them. At the same time, the authority given to them over other slaves by the slaveowners is an authority that can be used to lead the other enslaved people in revolt against the plantation masters.
I’m trying to take seriously the politics of the enslaved themselves: not assume that we know already from the condition of slavery how those politics had to work out, but see those people actually struggling politically to make the kinds of coalitions they’re going to need to fight the plantation masters, to fight colonial slavery.
To go directly to your question, yes, that’s really difficult work. People don’t always find themselves in alliance with each other when they’re commonly subject to the oppression of another. They often fight among themselves more than they fight their oppressors. But that’s a struggle that has to be waged, and it can’t be waged without knowing it’s not incidental to political struggle—it’s fundamental to it. Deciding that we’re going to get together as workers, as opposed to as Black people, or get together as men, as opposed to as men and women, is fundamental to our political struggle. What people often call identity politics—I tend to think of this more as the politics of identification and belonging—is fundamental to all kinds of other political struggles.
CM: And erasing the political agency of the people within the continent of Africa also leads to racist, white supremacist narratives of slavery, things like “Africans were complicit in the slave trade.”
VB: The anti-slavery movement, as it really began to gather force in the later eighteenth century, began to celebrate a perfect victim: an African innocent, the icon of an enslaved person on bended knee begging to be recognized as a man and a brother. One of the things that slaveholders shot back at them was, “Well, look at these Africans. They’re not like us. They are not perfectly innocent. These people would be enslaved by each other had we not enslaved them, and in fact we’re saving them from the barbarism of Africa.” They begin to create racist myths about Africa and black people to combat the abolitionists’ image. The truth is that neither image perfectly described what was happening in Africa or described Black people. Nobody is a perfect innocent. People have their own politics, their own struggles, their own conflicts. Africans did as well. Black people did as well. Even when they were enslaved.
At the same time, that can’t characterize every freedom struggle. Black people were struggling for freedom within Africa, struggling for freedom during the transatlantic slave trade, and struggling for freedom during slavery and afterwards, against whoever was holding them down, be they Black or be they white. There’s a needle we have to thread when we want to recognize Black political agency in all its forms: validating and understanding freedom struggle in a way that does not in any way let European colonial imperialists off the hook, or let slaveholders off the hook. They were right to the extent that Black people were struggling, with each other and with them, but wrong to think that somehow that legitimated slavery and oppression.
I have a simple rule: I try to identify who is struggling for human dignity and human flourishing. Those are the people I want to valorize in history, those are the people I want to valorize in the present. And the people who are working against them are the enemies.
CM: Vincent, thank you so much for being on our show this week.
VB: Chuck, I appreciate it, thank you.
Featured image: collage by Jamaican artist Ebony G. Patterson