Features Interviews

Book One to Book Two: Writing Histories of Atlantic Slavery

Professor Vincent Brown joined Retrospect for an interview titled, “Book One to Book Two: Writing Histories of Atlantic Slavery.” Here, we offer an edited transcript of the conversation

Professor Vincent Brown joined Retrospect for an interview titled, “Book One to Book Two: Writing Histories of Atlantic Slavery.” Here, we offer an edited transcript of the conversation.

Why did you decide to write a history of Tacky’s Revolt?

This book grew out of the previous book, The Reaper’s Garden, and a longstanding interest I had in slave revolt in the Atlantic World. Even as an undergraduate student, I remember approaching my mentor, Steven Hahn (historian of the nineteenth-century United States) and asking him about slave revolt. He turned me to C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins, the classic treatment of Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution. I found that book fascinating, not only because it was a fantastic book about slave revolt, but also because it was a geopolitical history that accounted for the actions of slaves on a geopolitical canvas – integrating the revolt in Saint-Domingue with the French Revolution.

That book stayed with me and informed some of the pivotal moments in the narrative dimension of The Reaper’s Garden – a thematic book about how it was, in a high mortality society, that people lived. I had a narrative arc in that book and the pivotal moment there was Tacky’s Revolt, which occupies a short moment in the middle chapter. I knew I wanted to explore that more. In part, because one of the things that I published in that book, that I published again in the second book, was a fantastic source. It mentioned that in the early-nineteenth century there was a minor disturbance on a plantation, towards the end of the slave trade. When the slaveholder rounded the people involved up and interrogated them, you found out that they had all been told about Tacky’s Revolt and the other revolts of the 1760s. They had had some communication with those people on the plantations where Tacky’s Revolt had happened. These events in the 1760s had happened before any of the people alive then had been born, which suggested they had been teaching and learning an oppositional political history on Jamaican plantations well into the nineteenth century. Of course, I wanted to know more about Tacky’s Revolt.

You make a division between culture and politics, emphasising the importance of the immediate political experiences of your actors. When did you begin to develop this idea? What existing literature inspired you? And how did you develop this in Tacky’s Revolt?

I’m very much interested in the political dimensions of cultural practice – how it is that practices and worldviews, that may be habitual and enculturated, come to have political implications. I got really into this idea in the 1990s when I was in graduate school. When Cultural Studies was far more prominent, a lot of us were reading Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall, people who were thinking about Black political culture and how popular culture among Black people shaped their political actions. It led me to reading much more anthropology, which was far more concerned with culture at another scale – thinking about habitual worldviews that existed almost semi-autonomously from politics. One could describe a certain group as having a culture and then describe their cultural logic as something distinct from their particular circumstances. There were a lot of people who thought that if you could understand cultural logics then somehow the politics would play out.

That wasn’t satisfying for me, in particular, because I was also being trained as a social historian – to think about how social conflict, and especially social conflict from below, shaped the outcome of political circumstances and political history. I wanted to combine both approaches, to think about visions among society – even among people who were said to share the same cultural principles – and think about how they used those visions differently depending on their position within society and their aspirations. I had to break down this understanding of cultural logic as something that transcended political and social differences and think about how they intersected with political aspirations and struggles. It became much more a cultural politics, than culture itself.

I remember that one of the provocations of The Reaper’s Garden was Stuart Schwartz’s book on sugar plantations in northern Brazil. He has a moment in that book where he says, “on one sugar plantation, ten Africans there may see six or seven others die”. He goes on to say, “we can’t really know what that meant”. I took that as a provocation, the question was “can we know what that meant?” Again, in Cultural Studies and anthropology, there had been a lot of work trying to sort out how African cultural practices transformed in the Americas into African American cultural practices. A lot of that work being done by Melville Herskovits and people who were influenced by him. What I wanted to do was combine the social history of Stuart Schwartz, the ethnographic/anthropological history that the Herskovitsian tradition was engaged in, and the political cultural history that folks like Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall were doing. I think this approach continues to frame my work today.

You reframe Tacky’s Revolt as a slave war through an Atlantic perspective. Why did you choose to describe these events as a war? What led you to this interpretation?

A couple of things are going on there. Tacky’s Revolt, occurring in 1760, was smack dab in the middle of the Seven Years’ War. In fact, it was a part of that war. When you look at who suppressed the revolt, it was many of the same soldiers and marines who fought in other and more famous campaigns of the Seven Years’ War. The person who was third in command at Quebec then sailed to Jamaica and was in command of the Jamaica Station when Tacky’s Revolt was suppressed. You find the British Royal Marines, newly reorganised, fighting many of their first campaigns against Africans in the bush, in Senegal, in Guadeloupe, in Martinique, and then, in Jamaica during Tacky’s Revolt. You find the lead ship on the first attack in Senegal during the Seven Years’ War then sailing to Jamaica and being engaged in suppressing Tacky’s Revolt. Despite this, it wasn’t part of the history of the Seven Years’ War. There’s Fred Anderson’s exhaustive account that doesn’t mention Tacky’s Revolt at all. There was one dissertation by Maria Alessandra Bollettino, from 2009, that squarely situated Tacky’s Revolt in the Seven Years’ War. Other than that, mostly it had been separated off, because it was seen as a slave rebellion. And, as we already know, the location for a slave rebellion is relations between masters and slaves on a plantation but not, as it was for C.L.R. James and me, on this broad geopolitical canvas. So, there’s that. It seems obvious that this reframing was hiding in plain sight.

The second thing is that many enslaved persons talked about slavery itself as a state of low intensity warfare. One can look to Olaudah Equiano, Gustavus Vassa, who said that when you make people slaves, you compel them to live with you in a state of war. Equiano wasn’t the only person who said this. In Ada Ferrer’s book, Freedom’s Mirror, she talks about how Black people in Cuba and elsewhere thought of slavery as a war and were always trying to figure out how they could gain the advantage. Again, this goes back to John Locke, who theorised that slavery was an extension of relations between the conqueror and the conquered. He was trying to legitimate slavery, but Equiano was seeing it differently, and in some ways more practically and empirically – he had been in Jamaica in 1772. This wasn’t a metaphor; this was how it seemed from the scale of participants. You find people discussing slavery as war throughout.

You could also take Orlando Patterson’s definition of slavery in his book, Slavery and Social Death. A lot of people have focused on Patterson’s notion of “natal alienation”, but I tend to focus on the “permanent violent domination” – that anywhere you find slavery, you find collective violence is necessary and fundamental to its nature. That can be compared to a state of low intensity warfare.

I can add one more dimension, a personal dimension. I happen to be someone born in 1967, the height of the Vietnam War, and came of age during the Cold War and then, for the last twenty years, the US had been engaged in what I call the “Terror Wars” – wars without clear battle lines, wars between formal armies governed by states, wars with unclear divisions between civilians and combatants, and wars that can happen anywhere without clear beginnings and endings. For me, what a state of war looks like is no longer the default of WW2. It’s these permanent, pervasive, continuous campaigns that stretch over the world. I also grew up in San Diego, a location of one of the largest military bases in the world. A lot of my friends joined the Navy or Marines. I had an insight into the fact that the US is always at war somewhere in the world. That seemed to be much more a model for thinking about this campaign. I didn’t write about this as people in the 1960s and 1970s did – as anti-colonial rebellion, with the formation of a nation-state – or in terms of Civil Rights’ Campaigns.

You draw on geography and cartography in the book. How are geography and cartography used? How did you begin to acquire the skills to do this work?

I consider myself primarily a historian of the African Diaspora. A large body of work on the African Diaspora uses the framework of the transformation of African culture in the Americas. But diaspora is a process of displacement, dispersal, and implantation. It’s a fundamentally spatial process – how do things transform when they move from one place to another place? I realised that I didn’t have the skills of people whose primary analytical tool was space: geographers. I felt like I needed, as a historian of the African Diaspora, to learn a little bit more of the way that geographers were thinking. So, I wrote a grant to train myself and study in geography and cartography as a methodological tool for thinking about space. I happened to fall in with a group of “counter-mappers” at UNC, Chapel Hill. I was part of this counter-mapping collective. The idea was to take the tools of cartography, separate them from their colonial and imperial origins, and think about how you can rework the discipline to ask new questions and offer new answers. To think about cartography more rhetorically, as a practice for describing how things play out in space. That was a key bit of training that I used to write this book.

When I went to rethink the slave rebellion itself, the first thing I wanted to do was make a timeline of the event. I realised this was going to be far more chronological than my first book so I wanted to pin down where things happened and where they happened so that could tell me or suggest why they might have happened. I started to make a timeline from all of the sources I had on the revolt. Whilst I was doing this, I had a map created from surveys taken over the time of the revolt. The map itself was printed by the Lieutenant Governor in 1763 and lists the “Rebel’s Barricade”. I took my timeline and correlated them with the colonial map to get a sense of how things played out over time. As it turned out, the timeline itself was pretty cool so I contracted with a group of cartographers who were doing animated cartography for the web. We produced an online narrative of the revolt itself.

When I went to write the book, I took that timeline and fleshed it out with more interpretative framing. The revolt itself is like a long action set piece. The maps in the book were produced by Molly Roy, who I essentially had on retainer as I was finishing the writing of the book. I wanted people to understand the narrative of events through story-maps. The example I gave her was Tolkien and the maps from the Lord of the Rings. The landscape and how people move in their quest in Middle Earth is fundamental to how the storytelling works. In some ways, I brought that into Tacky’s Revolt.

How did you locate the figures of Apongo, Cope, and Forrest? What archival work did you do to trace their histories? Why did you choose to centre them?

I first encountered the story of that relationship in the diary of Thomas Thistlewood, who was in Jamaica for about thirty-six years. I encountered that description in a book of excerpts of the diary by Douglas Hall, published in 1986, and again in, the historian Trevor Burnard’s biography of Thistlewood. Thistlewood notes that one of the principal leaders of the revolt in Westmoreland Parish been enslaved on a plantation owned by Arthur Forrest. Thistlewood goes on to say that John Cope, the father of Thistlewood’s employer, had been one of the chief agents of Cape Coast Castle along the Gold Coast Castle. Wager/Apongo visited John Cope at Cape Coast Castle and, later (after Cope relocated to Jamaica and Wager/Apongo had been enslaved) they encountered one another again in Jamaica. Cope would lay out a cloth and entertain Wager/Apongo for Sunday visits and treated him as a man of honour. Cope claimed that he hoped to free Wager/Apongo and have him sent back to Africa but died in 1756. Sometime over the next four years, Wager/Apongo began to plan and execute the largest slave revolt of the eighteenth-century British Empire.

This is a story that cannot be contained to the plantation, to the relationship between master and slave. It’s a story that has to play on the larger geopolitical canvas. I started with this source and tried to find the encounter by Cope and Apongo along the Gold Coast. I went to the records of the Gold Coast forts, to the time that John Cope was there and looked for a name similar to Apongo. I was looking for receipts of expenses – anytime governors entertained people they would keep receipts of the expenses, rum and things like that, and they would mention the names of the African traders they met. I never found a name that was exactly like Apongo – I found similar names, and, in my frustration, I suddenly realised what I had was something better. I had a whole world of diplomatic negotiation, of trade, and, again, geopolitics on the Gold Coast that could have been, and certainly probably was, the world that Apongo emerged from. I was able to write that account of John Cope’s time there as a plausible scenario for Apongo’s enslavement and arrival in Jamaica and that of many other Africans as well. I was able to write about that world in detail, in part, because I didn’t have a single account of Apongo.

I did a similar kind of thing with Royal Navy records. I followed Arthur Forrest and looked at the manifests, the muster rolls, of all of the ships that he served aboard during his time in the Royal Navy. I found that there was a man named Wager, aboard the HMS Wager, in which Forrest made his first post, a significant milestone in his career. Wager served alongside many other African sailors with identifiably Akan names. I had Wager serving aboard this warship whilst the ship was at war with Britain and France but also many other Africans who were then mustered out of the Royal Navy in Jamaica. Again, I had other experiences of Africans from the Gold Coast who had Royal Navy experience.

I was able to write, in an integrated way, how all of these experiences of militarism and military work made their way to Jamaica and featured in the slave revolt itself. Those three characters, then, are emblematic of the kind of experiences, military experiences, that integrate those geographies: Africa, the Americas, and Europe.

How did you craft the narrative of Tacky’s Revolt and the Coromantee War from many, contradicting sources?

That was not an easy task. There were a lot of moving parts. What I was trying to do was connect this up into an intelligible narrative that was also going to skip around – not only in place, but in time. In order to understand what’s happening at a particular moment, I needed to know when people needed to be informed of what’s happened one hundred years previous. So, the fact that West Africa is heavily militarised in the eighteenth century is something that dates back to the military revolution of the late-seventeenth century. I wanted readers to be apprised about how that happens before they got to the story.

There was a lot of flashing back. In that, I was helped by the fact that I’ve done some work in cinema, which is, again, a spatial medium. Geopolitical thrillers, like Paul Greengrass’s Bourne series and Captain Phillips, do that skipping around work. You spend a lot of time thinking about framing – When do we need to go close? When do we need to zoom out and pan across? When do we need to have establishing shots that give a sense of why things are playing out the way that they do? Filmmaking and questions of framing were really important to the way I wrote the book. I’m always thinking there about how I’m framing the picture: What do people know? What have they seen? Does what they have seen help make what I’m showing now intelligible or not? That’s something that film directors always have on their minds: what perspective do I show things from? What is the frame in which people are seeing things?

How does the reconceptualization of slave revolts as slave wars alter our understanding and framing of the “Age of Revolution”?

I think that, one issue, is that the Age of Revolution is often framed in terms of its single importance to the Western history of liberty. Yet, there are all kinds of things going on during that long, turbulent period of conflict that are not pointing directly towards this history. I think that’s a mis-framing of the period, if we are only looking forward. One of the ways that plays out in the history of early America and the United States is that Americans have very little idea that there were more than thirteen colonies in British America on the eve of the American Revolution. There were twenty-six and by far the most important of them were in the Caribbean. We have this idea that these other thirteen colonies that didn’t become the United States somehow didn’t matter in the eighteenth century because early America is just the pre-history of the United States. It’s improperly framed so we don’t see the world from which the United States emerged. Which is ridiculous.

The second thing is that that framing largely excludes West Africa. Now, we know, from our records of the demography of the Americas that some three fifths to three quarters of all the people who populated the Americas down to 1800 had come from Africa. Yet we characterise the colonial period as the extension of Europe because it’s the extension of European domination. But it’s also the extension of African peopling. We don’t have a clear sense of what this period meant to West Africans. I think we have James Sweet doing this work, recasting the period and recasting the era as an African world, which demographically it obviously was.

Now, one of the things we’re up against, is that the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, who in many ways founded and organised Western philosophy, proclaimed that Africa formed no historical part of the world. As it turned out, when the disciplines, especially history, were formed in the nineteenth century African history was not a thing. History was the thing that elite, political figures do in Europe and from the European colonies. You didn’t have a history of Africa, that was the province of anthropology. This question of culture for the Africans, political history for the Europeans and their descendants. We didn’t get very intensive studies of African history until decolonisation, so we were starting way behind. African historians have been hacking away at West African history and showing a whole world of transformation during the early modern period. That history matters in the Americas, even though many early Americanists did not consider African history a subject they needed to engage.     

Professor Vincent Brown is Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of African and African American History at Harvard University. His research is concerned with Atlantic Slavery, the African Diaspora, and the Atlantic World. He is author of The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (winner of the James A. Rawley Prize, the Louis Gottschalk Prize, and the Merle Curti Award) and Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War. He is the principal investigator and curator for the “Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761: A Cartographic Narrative,” a project that maps out the events of the early 1760s, and creator of the “Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness” documentary (winner of John E. O’Connor Film Award and Best Documentary at the Hollywood Black Film Festival).   

This interview was conducted and transcribed by Jamie Gemmell. It was edited by Alice Goodwin and Tristan Craig.

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