Read about Tacky's Revolt

The British brought 2,000 “free” slaves to Yorktown in 1781. Then they 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 is Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War.” It tells the story of the largest slave revolt 1760–61). He encourages readers to think about the conflict as a major battle. He called it “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. These stories that had long circulated in print and by word of mouth. Their perceptions cohered around their view of the Gold Coast. As well as a particularly war-torn region of the African continent. They had long European interaction with this part of the coast. That and a prominent English presence gave them some faint ideas of state development, warfare and enslavement in Africa.

Story of the Atlantic slave tradeIn America, British colonists traded stories of multiple Coromantee rebellions in the hemisphere. They pondered their implications for patterns of slave recruitment, management and repression. Then theycompared 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. Nor did they know 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. They 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. A common tongue was not enough to supersede local divisions. The nation comprised people who shared regional languages and many principles of communal incorporation. Africans would recognize similar ways of worshiping the divine 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.

Read about Tacky's RevoltCoromantees in the Americas could sometimes be recognized by their names. Slaveholders renamed their human property at will. They chose generic tags, pet diminutives, place names, literary allusions or classical Roman appellations. Sometimes, slaveholders chose African names. Just as often they didn’t bother to give new names at all. They left 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 by English-speakers. Eventually names from the Gold Coast became common enough. So common 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.

Read about Tacky's RevoltAs a designation, Coromantee itself appeared frequently in English-language texts. Consider 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. This went on until about the 1750s, by which time it was uniformly written as Coromantee.

The places slaves came from and the places they went to all contributed to their political understanding. As they became Coromantees, enslaved Africans defined new spatial networks. They attached distinctive meanings to places. Then they called upon their sense of locality. They tried to draw the boundaries that distinguished safe places from dangerous ones. And to distinguish outsiders from insiders.

Nothing was more important than learning where and how to form loyal units. Or how to form 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. Then  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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