The following excerpt is from Vincent Brown‘s Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Harvard University Press, 2020). It has been republished with permission of the author and press. Copyright ©️ 2020 by Vincent Brown. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Today, as a result, we know the Coromantee War as Tacky’s Revolt. Tacky became a symbol of Coromantee character and the principal icon of the war. Bayly’s, Long’s, and Edwards’ stories made the first and most lasting impressions on public memory, which grounded an ethnic stereotype in St. Mary’s Parish.
By the time of the Haitian Revolution, the Coromantees no longer posed the same threat. Edwards and Long would not have been cognizant of the reasons for this, which had less to do with ethnic character than with African history, specifically changes in political conditions on the Gold Coast. By the mid-1760s, Asante had established its rule throughout the southern forest region, checked only by Oyo to the east and the Fante Confederation along the coast. Asante now directed its conquests to the north, into polities without the same experience of military revolution and war that had marked the history of the coast. As the region settled into a tense standoff, and especially after Asante’s conquest of Dagomba in the 1770s, war captives came increasingly from among peoples who did not speak the Akan languages shared by the Coromantees. These newer arrivals also had less training in the arts of war and the evasion of expansionist powers. As their numbers grew after 1765, traders often sold them as Coromantees anyway, to planters who continued to esteem the label. But they were not the same people.
The Coromantee ethnicity had been the product of various historical struggles: of Africans along the Gold Coast, of slave merchants and planters adding value to their sales and purchases, of enslaved people forging new collectives against the threat of social annihilation, and of slaveholders trying to come to grips with reactions to their tyranny. In this sense, the ethnicity was a mythic reality—actual historical experiences transmuted into the stuff of legend. The famed military prowess of the Coromantees was not an essential cultural trait, but the histories of Africa and America did indeed combine to render it an observable phenomenon.109 One of Bryan Edwards’ elderly informants recalled the reign of Opoku Ware, who had done so much to expand the kingdom of Asante in the second quarter of the eighteenth century, confirming that “wars are very frequent; that all able men are compelled to bear arms.” By the time of their conversation in the late eighteenth century, this man remembered the Gold Coast as it had been, but what Edwards heard was a description of how Coromantees always were and would continue to be.
Slave-traders kept advertising and planters kept buying Coromantees in Jamaica in the wake of the insurrections of the 1760s. Incorporated into the West India Regiments created in 1792, Africans from the Gold Coast drew upon the Coromantee reputation to enhance their position in the British military English writers published novels featuring noble Africans from the Gold Coast, such as The Koromantyn Slaves, or West Indian Sketches in 1823. To this day, the most sacred ancestral rituals of the Jamaican maroons draw upon Kromanti power, expressed in dance and ritual speech. The name was significant long after the conditions that had brought it into being had changed precisely because the Coromantees had wielded so much influence for so long.
Reports of Jamaica’s Coromantee wars of the 1760s traveled with the exiles transported from the island, who carried vital knowledge to new locales. Their physical presence in British Honduras, South Carolina, Virginia, Cuba, and the rest of Spanish America was a political and military presence too. How these vectors of rebellion spread the news, how they organized their co-nationals in other regions, and what this implied for other slave regimes is unknown, but even these questions remind us that the enslaved had a history that diverged from that of their captors. Slave- holders were well aware of this and sought to close down avenues of autonomy wherever they could.
The campaigns had cost Jamaica’s colonists and investors dearly, com- pelling them to make consequential policy changes that reformed the workings of the British empire. If Tacky, Apongo, and Simon did not prefigure the imminent insurrection in Britain’s North American colonies in 1776, their revolt at the commercial and strategic heart of Anglo-America did firm up the resolve of metropolitan policymakers, for whom the Seven Years’ War generally proved the need for a more centralized and more extractive colonial policy—a policy that helped to provoke the American Revolution. Just as important, the rebellion prompted Parliament to consider ameliorating the conditions of slavery in the West Indies in the last decades of the eighteenth century—a process that began to chip away at the prerogatives of the plantocracy—which in turn initiated a cascading series of metropolitan interventions in the administration of colonial slavery, leading eventually to the abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of the enslaved.
The insurrections resounded culturally in the meaning, narration, and memory of the events. Among whites, the wars’ ambivalent representation derived from the slaveholders’ dependence upon slaves they feared, and from their need to know and master a source of crisis. Slave war—campaigns to enslave, revolts against slavery, and fights to maintain it—was at the root of an anti-blackness that suffused both proslavery and antislavery discourse. The Coromantees signified a threatening presence, and this alarming archetype attached itself to black resistance in general. The violence of slaving or the suppression of slave revolt shocked many Britons who disliked what the violence of slavery said about them, even though slaveholding historians convinced many people that it was the Africans who were intrinsically dangerous. The emerging movement against the slave trade was thus shadowed by a desire to limit the threat posed by African migration. This meant that a fight against slavery would not always be a fight for black people, as an entrenched ethnic stereotype merged with and was eventually supplanted by a more general racial fear.
Even when the Coromantees had faded from the scene, the forces that generated the slave war had no definitive ending. As a category of belonging, “Coromantee” was an artifact of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the salience of the identification dissipated over the nineteenth century. The term was only a particular outgrowth of deeper processes of empire, war, dislocation, slavery, and political conflict that had given birth to it and that would go on well past the eighteenth century. The Coromantee War had ended, but the slave war continued.
Vincent Brown is Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He directs the History Design Studio and teaches courses in Atlantic history, African diaspora studies, and the history of slavery in the Americas. Brown is the author of The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Harvard University Press, 2008), producer of Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, an audiovisual documentary broadcast on the PBS series Independent Lens, and is most recently the author of Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Belknap Press, 2020).