Caribbean Slave Rebellions Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The ambiguous position of the Maroons—runaway slaves—continued to affect, but not stop, slave rebellions and plots in British Jamaica, as Maroons often worked in alliance with the British. This alliance made clear that the sugar plantations could not function without the help of the Maroons. Also, colonies newly acquired from the French were rocked with their own maroonage and slave revolts.

Summary of Event

Sugar Sugar plantations;West Indies and slavery in the West Indies West Indies;British generated such unprecedented profits that they continued to spread during the eighteenth century, despite not only a constant threat but also actual outbreaks of collective slave revolts. As plantations moved to newly established colonies, the pattern of resistance that had rocked the older British colonies of Barbados and Antigua was repeated in Jamaica, Dominica, Grenada, Saint Vincent, and Tobago between 1760 and 1776. [kw]Caribbean Slave Rebellions (1760-1776) [kw]Rebellions, Caribbean Slave (1760-1776) [kw]Slave Rebellions, Caribbean (1760-1776) Slave revolts;West Indies Maroons [g]Caribbean;1760-1776: Caribbean Slave Rebellions[1610] [g]Jamaica;1760-1776: Caribbean Slave Rebellions[1610] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1760-1776: Caribbean Slave Rebellions[1610] [c]Social issues and reform;1760-1776: Caribbean Slave Rebellions[1610] Tacky Chatoyer, Joseph Pontiac (fl. 1776)

Maroons were enslaved Africans who, after escaping their slaveholders, created their own societies in the interiors of islands far away from the sugar estates. They remained a threat to the planters, especially those planters who had been on the frontiers of European settlement. In Jamaica, where groups of Maroons had earlier fought the British Empire to a draw in the 1730’s, Maroons had signed treaties with the British in 1739, guaranteeing a degree of autonomy. Yet Maroons allied themselves with their former “owners” to keep their own tenuous grip on freedom. While the planters’ hold on power was based upon the pragmatic rule of “divide and conquer,” slaves took advantage (as they had earlier) of wars between whites to gain their liberty. As the Middle Passage Middle Passage pumped hundreds of thousands of slaves into the Caribbean, Britain and France fought each other over control in the Caribbean, sparking many slave plots and escapes.

Occurring during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) Seven Years’ War (1756-1763)[Seven Years War] between Britain and France, Tacky’s Rebellion (1760) Tacky’s Rebellion (1760)[Tackys] in Jamaica exposed the planters’ dependence upon Maroon support for putting down further slave revolts. The ongoing global conflict spread British forces thin and also interfered with food and other necessities getting to the islands, which then accelerated the inherent discontent among bondsmen being worked to death. Erupting in an area known as St. Mary’s Parish, which had very few resident whites, Tacky’s Rebellion took advantage of the Easter holiday to catch off guard the local planters, who were worried more about a French invasion. Led by an Akan warrior named Tacky, the insurgents planned to create their own, more ambitious version of maroonage, during which they would eventually kill all whites remaining on the island, and create their own “kingdom” rather than settle for Maroon reservations deep in the forests and hills as earlier Maroon leaders, such as Kojo and Nanny, Nanny had done a generation before after the First Maroon War (1730-1739). Maroon War, First (1730-1739)

Tacky’s Rebellion spread from St. Mary’s to points throughout western Jamaica, with the majority of conflicts in Westmoreland. There, captured slaves from the French island of Guadeloupe, who were apparently seasoned in battle, confidently dispatched of the local militia; only the bravery of Maroon mercenaries and armed slaves defending their masters saved the English. Ironically, however, the same ethnic unities forged by earlier groups of Maroons who were now on the British side shaped the outlooks and strategies of this uprising. As with his predecessors, Tacky emerged as a leader whose legitimacy was built on Akan, Asanti, and Fanti traditions. Maroons, particularly in the western part of the island, drew their strength from relative ethnic homogeneity and identity as Kromanti (the anglicized Coromantine or Koromantyne) people. This identity stemmed from the fact that many of the enslaved transported to Jamaica came through or had relatives pass through the English slave factory at the Fanti town of Kromantine on the African Gold Coast. Tacky was one of many physically strong bondsmen from the Gold Coast preferred by planters, slaves who then carried on the martial and militant reputation of Kromanti and, more specifically, Akan men. Yet that common and adopted identity was not enough to prevent a Maroon lieutenant from killing Tacky, which quickly extinguished the revolt in St. Mary’s and helped the British erode resistance elsewhere as well.

Britain’s victory over the Bourbon Dynasty’s powers in the Seven Years’ War with the Peace of Paris (1763) Paris, Peace of (1763) gave Britain four more islands in the Caribbean—Dominica, Grenada, Saint Vincent, and Tobago, called the Ceded Islands—to develop as sugar and slavery moneymakers, a prospect that disrupted cultures already there and that portended revolt and resistance in every place it was carried out. In Dominica, for example, rough terrain and thick rain forests provided shelter for many escapees from the new estates. The incoming British tried to use indigenous American Indians, the Caribs, as slave catchers of a sort, giving them their own informal autonomy on the eastern side of the island in return for refusing to take in fugitives. Yet, there were so many other locations in which to hide that Maroons improvised and found their own plots of covert sugar and other fields. The French used the Maroons and the Caribs to recapture the island during the American Revolution, a temporary reoccupation that served to bolster the Maroons’ confidence when they rebelled against the reimposition of British rule in the 1780’s.

On Grenada, the French influence and presence were even greater, as both French settlers—whites and free blacks—and their Francophone slaves resented the British takeover and actively sabotaged the new order at every opportunity. Yet it was in Saint Vincent that a combination of French, indigenous, and African cultures most successfully resisted the British Empire during the 1760’s and 1770’s. The black Caribs, Carib Indians an alloy of shipwrecked slaves, a stray Frenchman or two, and indigenous peoples refused to allow the British to take away their lands without a fight. Fighting a successful guerrilla war at home and gaining a few parliamentary supporters in Britain, the black Caribs, led by their elected chief, Joseph Chatoyer, were able to hang on to almost the whole northern half of the island, as outlined in a 1773 treaty. In return, the black Caribs proclaimed their loyalty to English king George III, and collusion with the French was not permitted. The Caribs also were not to give asylum to fugitives from the newly established sugar estates. Planters were not satisfied with the fugitive provision, however, because they felt that the soils and topography of the northern areas were the most conducive for sugar cultivation. Consequently, they schemed with the imperial authorities in the 1790’s to defeat and to deport the black Caribs once and for all.

In contrast to Grenada and Saint Vincent, Tobago had far fewer inhabitants when the British arrived there in 1763. The Caribs and the French were not factors in Tobago, but only a year after the first land grants were distributed in 1769, a major uprising was beaten back by soldiers coming from Barbados by warship. The rebels fled to the wooded highlands, where they became Maroons. Rebellions continued throughout the 1770’s; a lull in collective resistance in the 1780’s and 1790’s in Tobago was quickly brought to an end with the elaborate Christmas plot of 1801.

While the Ceded Islands seethed with discontent and intrigue, in Jamaica, the Hanover Parish plot of July, 1776, tried to once again exploit the notion of an empire divided and stretched too thin. With the distracting backdrop of the American Revolution and the faint echoes of patriotic sentiments among the West Indian grandees, wide racial imbalances in favor of Africans, as well as newly established plantations and forbidding geography, allowed both Kromanti and, for the first time on a wide scale, Creole Creoles in a northwestern pocket of the island to plan the end of slavery, at least locally.

Before the plan could be implemented, however, one master interrogated a domestic who had been caught with the master’s gun and who then told of the wider conspiracy. The parvenu sugar magnates in Hanover were extremely lucky, in part because the rebellion had apparently been scheduled for the following week. Most dangerous to colonial authorities was furtive evidence of an alliance between the slaves of Hanover Parish and the Maroons in Trelawney Town, Trelawney Town, Jamaica who were the ostensible allies of the British. These allegations, made from an inside source named Pontiac, proved to be unfounded, but the very possibility of an African popular front against slavery put local planters on edge and made them more likely to embrace deportation as the final solution to the question of the Maroons and their lands in the 1790’s. In the eighteenth century, despite the colonists’ suspicions about the loyalty of the Maroons, the Maroons in Jamaica remained the gendarmes of the regime, coming to the aid of the colonists in the uprisings of 1831-1832 on the eve of emancipation in 1834 as well as in the Morant’s Bay rebellion of 1865, after slavery in the West Indies had long ended.

Significance

Tacky’s Rebellion and the Caribbean rebellions of 1760-1776 marked a beginning of a new, continuing round of slave uprisings, but these rebellions also underscored the British Empire’s tenuous alliance with Maroons, particularly in Jamaica, in putting down such disturbances. Imperial ambitions and rivalries, as dramatically revealed during the Seven Years’ War and its aftermath, allowed slaves to resist and to flee British rule, which, in turn, led to suppression and deportation, especially where uncultivated Maroon lands were involved, such as there were in Saint Vincent. However, the slave revolts in the Caribbean in the 1760’s and 1770’s paralleled similar revolts in North America, prompting at least a few individuals in the Atlantic world, including an American patriot, Colonel James Otis, to finally come out against the slave trade and slavery.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Craton, Michael. Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982. The definitive work on the slave rebellions in the Caribbean during the eighteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dirks, Robert. The Black Saturnalia: Conflict and Its Ritual Expression on British West Indian Slave Plantations. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1987. This work details the religious and political strategies of slaves and rebels in the brutal systems of sugar growing and slavery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Linebaugh, Peter, and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000. The authors provide an interesting context for the slave revolts, particularly for Tacky’s Rebellion of 1760.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richardson, Ronald Kent. Moral Imperium: Afro-Caribbeans and the Transformation of British Rule, 1776-1838. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. This work does a good job of tracing how the British Empire in the West Indies changed from the heyday of the slave trade to just after emancipation in 1834.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rogonzinski, Jan. A Brief History of the Caribbean: From the Arawak and the Carib to the Present. New York: Plume, 2000. Part 3 of this survey provides the best introduction for the general reader on the colonial rivalry inherent in the plantation system in the early modern West Indies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ward, J. R. British West Indian Slavery, 1750-1834: The Process of Amelioration. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1988. The first three chapters of this work do an unparalleled job of concisely describing and explaining the plantocracy of the West Indies.

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