Slavery was a war

A Harvard professor recasts bondage as an ongoing military conflict.

Courtesy of Harvard University Press

Vincent Brown is a professor of American history and African and African American Studies at Harvard University. A scholar of Atlantic slavery, he has produced and collaborated on multiple documentaries and directs the History Design Studio, a laboratory for innovative modes of Black historical research and storytelling.

His new book, “Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War,” tells the story of a series of battles in Jamaica in 1760-1761, the largest insurrection of enslaved people in the 18th-century British empire.

It is, at its heart, a military history, approaching slavery not primarily as an economic institution but rather as a long-running war — revealing a web of conflicts across Africa, Europe, and the Americas that shaped the modern world and still resonate today.


Holly Jackson, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and author of “American Radicals: How Nineteenth-Century Protest Shaped the Nation,” spoke with him about the book.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Holly Jackson: What do we gain by imagining the experience of slavery as one of pervasive, ongoing war?

Vincent Brown: One of the most famous autobiographers of slavery, Olaudah Equiano, wrote that slavery is war. He said that when you make people slaves you compel them to live in a state of war. I wanted to take that seriously. People look at slave revolts mostly as a refusal of the authority of slaveholders — as resistance — and the key for me was to break away from taking that authority as a given. Warfare is much more multilateral.

Slave revolts are commonly imagined as isolated, local flare ups rather than as geopolitical events, except in the case of the Haitian Revolution. I thought that Tacky’s Revolt might be better understood on that larger scale. It was a war within a series of other overlapping wars — not just between races, but between European imperial powers including the British, the French, the Spanish, and the Dutch.


HJ: In the US context, John Brown said that, too — that slavery was war. His position was that Black people and their allies were justified in killing those who would enslave them, that military tactics are the appropriate and necessary form of engagement in that context. He was rare among white Americans for that time, though he eventually inspired many others to embrace violence, even sworn pacifists, and of course many of the men who enlisted in the Union army.

This is related to the question of the success of slave revolts; your book makes it clear that their impact is underestimated. We think of them as failures when they did not overturn slave society at once, but in fact these battles often had an immediate impact on policy that is overlooked. In the US, Virginia came surprisingly close to abolishing slavery after Nat Turner’s insurrection, and you write about how Tacky’s Revolt led some whites to argue for the abolition of the slave trade as a security measure.

VB: In 1739, after the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina, the legislature instituted a 10-year moratorium on the transatlantic trade in slaves — they didn’t want to bring in any more Africans because they recognized the situation as dangerous. In 1760s Virginia, reading reports of Tacky’s Revolt, the legislature tried to pass new duties on the slave trade. Pennsylvania ultimately passed a gradual abolition statute partly as a response to that sense of insecurity. But at the same time this gets translated into racial science; that vision that associates black masculinity with criminality and animal aggression has its roots in whites’ reactions to slave wars.


HJ: During the revolt itself, there were surprising alliances and also opposition within groups. In fact, you note that “the black-white racial distinction was rarely the most salient division among contending parties.” One thing I admire about the book is that it succeeds in describing a capillary model of war and also of power, rather than a simple two-sided engagement. Can you talk about the maroons in Jamaica and their role in this war?

VB: Maroons were formerly enslaved people who had fled and formed communities and military encampments. By the late 1720s and ’30s, they were at war with the British, and to keep the colony, the British signed treaties with the maroons that allowed them to maintain much of their autonomy. They were largely sovereign but they had to police future runaways and revolts. The British would not have been able to put down Tacky’s Revolt without the maroons.

HJ: I want to ask you about the role of women in Tacky’s Revolt. More broadly, what happens to Black women’s stories when we approach slavery from the perspective of military history? You mention nine women who are listed among the first rebels captured, who may have been conspirators, combatants, or just bystanders. And I was also intrigued by your mention of a woman named Cubah — called the Queen of Kingston — who had apparently planned an insurrection that was part of this rash of violence. Can you say more about them or about how women figure in this story?


VB: The records don’t necessarily reflect the participation of women. And yet, these are the first 25 prisoners captured in the revolt and the number of women is in direct proportion to the population. Though we don’t know what role they were playing, the assumption that women were somehow limited to domestic roles has to be questioned and rethought.

HJ: Yes, that list is so suggestive and reminds me of an observation you make about your sources early on in the book — that they are partial and certainly biased. But although this is an obstacle, it also invites us to read against the grain and between the lines of these sources and to imagine multiple possible explanations in the absence of definitive knowledge.

Just wrapping up, you suggest that the history of Caribbean slave wars can shed light on the amorphous and unending terror wars of our own post-9/11 moment in American history. Can you explain the connection?

VB: I was born in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War. I can’t name a five-year period since then when the United States has not been engaged militarily on some part of the globe. That’s a half-century of permanent war. What relations describe that? It resembles what we see in this 18th-century Atlantic war — multilateral negotiations, undeclared wars, conflicts without clear battle lines between civilians and combatants, multiple and shifting alliances. And particularly since 9/11, unfortunately, we take this kind of pervasive warfare for granted.


Vincent Brown will discuss his book at a virtual event hosted by the Harvard Book Store on June 2. Details at http://www.harvard.com/event/vincent_brown/.