The British brought 2,000 “free” slaves to Yorktown in 1781 and then left them to fend for themselves in no-man’s land. Years earlier, slaves revolted with great consequences. Harvard historian Vincent Brown’s latest book, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, tells the story of the largest slave revolt 1760–61). He encourages readers to think about the conflict as a major battle “that was a race war between black slaves and white slave holders.” Here’s an excerpt.
–Courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia
Slaveholders did not know much about the African societies and histories that made their captives who they were.But they distinguished among them nonetheless by drawing upon stories that had long circulated in print and by word of mouth.Their perceptions cohered around their view of the Gold Coast and a particularly war-torn region of the African continent. Long European interaction with this part of the coast, and a prominent English presence there, gave them some faint ideas of state development, warfare and enslavement in Africa.
In America, British colonists traded stories of multiple Coromantee rebellions in the hemisphere and pondered their implications for patterns of slave recruitment, management and repression. They compared what they knew of others’ experiences with their own customary practice. They knew very little about how Coromantees identified with one another beyond the similarities in their languages, or how they organized and sought to maintain group cohesion. Nor did they much care.
The Coromantees have been described as members of a “loosely structured organization of co-nationals who socialized with and aided one another.” They formed what contemporaries called a “nation” in the Americas. There was no direct antecedent to this “ethnicity” on the Gold Coast, where a common tongue was not enough to supersede local divisions. The nation comprised people who shared regional languages and many principles of communal incorporation. Among their countrymen, Africans would recognize similar ways of worshiping the divine, gathering in fellowship, and burying the dead. In an environment where dislocation was the common experience, the nation could also provide a forum for planning, organizing and staging revolts.
Coromantees in the Americas could sometimes be recognized by their names. Slaveholders renamed their human property at will, choosing generic tags, pet diminutives, place names, literary allusions, or classical Roman appellations. Sometimes, however, slaveholders chose African names. Just as often they didn’t bother to give new names at all, leaving slaves to name themselves. It was customary in Gold Coast societies to name children for the day of the week on which they were born. These day names appear frequently in the records, transcribed phonetically (and ethnocentrically) by English-speakers. Eventually names from the Gold Coast became common enough that they were given by slaveholders without regard to an African’s place of origin. This was especially true in the case of highly valued men with skilled jobs or authority over other slaves.
As a designation, Coromantee itself appeared frequently in English-language texts. In a database of runaway-slave advertisements in 18th century Jamaican newspapers, the term appears in a variety of spellings Calamante, Calamantine, Caramote, Caramantine, Cormantine, and Coromantine until about the 1750s, by which time it was uniformly written as Coromantee.
The places slaves came from, the routes they traveled and the places they went to all contributed to their political understanding. As they became Coromantees, enslaved Africans defined new spatial networks, attached distinctive meanings to places, and called upon their sense of locality to draw the boundaries that distinguished safe places from dangerous ones and outsiders from insiders.
In the turbulent world of Atlantic warfare, nothing was more important than learning where and how to form loyal units, alliances, and coalitions in the face of superior power. They had won this wisdom through hard experience on the Gold Coast before coming to America, where they learned it anew and with different particulars. When enslaved Coromantees made war on their masters, they used these insights to charge courses through the fissures in colonial sovereignty.
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Read about Tacky's Revolt
Read about Tacky's Revolt in this excerpt from a new book.
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