Tacky’s Revolt, a 1761 uprising in Jamaica that is the subject of Harvard history professor Vincent Brown’s most recent book, was the largest revolt by enslaved people in the 18th-century British empire. More than that, he argues, it was “a war within other wars, a kind of eddy in these transatlantic currents of warfare that convulsed the entire period.” Brown hopes the book will not only help place Tacky’s Revolt in its rightful context, but help readers understand their own histories as part of a larger picture, one shaped by warfare on many fronts, from Africa to Europe to the Americas to the very notion of chattel slavery itself. We talked with Brown on the occasion of “Tacky’s Revolt” winning a 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Award for nonfiction, which recognizes “books that have made important contributions to our understanding of racism and our appreciation of the rich diversity of human cultures.”
Q. What does it mean to you to win the Anisfield-Wolf Award for “Tacky’s Revolt”?
A. Well, it’s an amazing honor. I feel humbled by being on the list with so many amazing writers. One thing that’s really important is that it recognizes writing. And we often don’t think of academics as being good writers. It’s really nice to have the effort that one puts into writing recognized. I am an academic writer, there’s no question about it, but I do make an effort to be clear, to have style. Not everybody wants to read a story about Jamaican slavery in the 18th century, and that’s fine. I just thought it was my responsibility that if somebody got interested in the story there would be nothing alienating about the way I told it.
Q. Why is it important to know about Jamaican slavery in the 18th century now?
A. As I think many people are learning in the conversations we’re having about racial inequality in the United States, that slavery, the history of slavery, is one of the things that created the racial inequalities that we see today. But that’s not only in the United States, that’s across the Americas and extending into a lot of the world. Those kind of historic inequalities that are established with the expansion of European empires, the enslavement of Africans and the migration of them to the Americas to build European colonial enterprises — that’s how we got to racial inequality in the Americas.
Again, it’s not just in the United States. If one thinks of the British Americas — the British didn’t have just 13 colonies in the Americas, they had 26; 13 of them broke away to become the United States. And by far the most profitable, most militarily significant, and best politically connected of these colonies are in the Caribbean, with Jamaica being the pre-eminent colony. The United States is a kind of offshoot of a larger world with slavery at its heart. When we think of the nation as the natural category for history, we forget all these connections, we write them out. We start thinking that slavery began in 1619, because it begins in 1619 in Virginia, which becomes the United States. But the British were engaged in slavery before that, the Spanish were engaged in slavery before that, the Portuguese. I think it’s worth thinking of our history as emerging from this broader history.
Q. You also in the book try to recalibrate what we think of as war. Can you talk about that?
A. I’m drawing on ideas from the sociologist Orlando Patterson. He came up with a handy definition of slavery as “the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and general dishonored persons.” And he called that social death. A lot of people have spent a lot of time thinking about the dishonored part, and the way you recognize that in the Americas is by the color of their skin. It’s racial slavery, and that’s one of the ways it’s distinguished from slavery in other parts of the world. People have thought about natal alienation a lot, which is that enslaved people don’t have any legitimate relationship with their own kin, with their ancestors or their progeny, that’s essentially cut off by enslavement. But then there’s the kind of more direct, simpler thing, which is that permanent, violent domination. Everywhere you find slavery in the world you find it’s maintained through collective violence. It’s an extraordinarily violent institution. When you start looking at the way that these slaving empires expanded in the Americas, you see that war was always a fundamental part of the way enslavement worked.
The territory that these European empires took in the Americas they took through conquest over Native Americans. They defended that territory from each other through wars. Then when they went to establish capitalist agriculture, plantation agriculture, they depended often on war captives who were captured in African wars and sold to Europeans. One of the things that happened with the expansion of the slave trade is the expansion of conflicts between African polities, who traded slaves quite often for European firearms, which expanded the scale and lethality of their wars, and produced an ever-greater number of captives for sale.
So, you see war at the heart of the enslavement system. Slavery itself is maintained by violent domination, and being responded to, quite often, with violence. This was recognized at the time. Olaudah Equiano, one of the most famous formerly enslaved autobiographers, a major abolitionist of the late 18th century, wrote that when you make people slaves you compel them to live with you in a state of war. And this is something enslaved peoples recognized and talked about among themselves; they thought of slavery as a kind of permanent state of low-intensity warfare.
Q. So we’re 150 years past chattel slavery in the United States, but we still have obvious racial inequalities and constant reminders, with George Floyd’s murder and so many others, of the problem of state violence against Black people. How does studying what you study inform what you think about what’s going on today?
A. We know that racism is a hierarchical system, that racial inequality is about economic inequality, it’s about status inequality, it’s about preventing Black people from becoming full citizens of the countries in which they live. One thing we don’t think about quite as often is that a logic of slavery and slave societies was also anti-Black militarism. And the kind of anti-Black militarism that I talk about in “Tacky’s Revolt” is something that didn’t just go away with the end of slavery. The habitual practice of keeping Black people in line through the exertion of force, maintaining a racist social order through state violence — that didn’t just end with the formal end of slavery. The expectation that Black people would be subject to greater levels of violence than other people, and certainly than white people — that’s something that we still live with. I don’t think that one can draw a direct causal link and say, there was slavery and what we’re seeing now is just a kind of repeat of the violence of slavery, I think that’s too simplistic. There are always more proximal causes. But deeper than that, there is a kind of underlying logic of anti-Black militarism that we still wrestle with.