Alex Colville

Fear and loathing in Jamaica: Caribbean slaves turn the whip on their masters

Tacky’s Revolt, the largest rebellion in the British Empire in the 18th century, sent shockwaves across the Atlantic, eventually culminating in the abolition of slavery

In the shadows of the British Enlightenment lurked the Caribbean sugar plantations. Masters routinely raped their slaves, punished minor wrongdoings by forcing one to shit in another’s mouth and even burnt some at the stake while growing the cane destined to sweeten the tea tables of London salons, Oxbridge dons or Hampshire parsons.

It’s from this civilised viewpoint, top-down and half the world away, that we still tell the story of the abolition movement, William Wilberforce and the House of Commons, the great breakers of chains. But slaves were perfectly capable of fighting for their own freedoms, as the Harvard historian Vincent Brown shows in Tacky’s Revolt, his careful reconstruction of an understudied footnote in Jamaican history. For 18 long months between 1760 and 1761, slaves turned the whip on their masters. At 1,000-strong, it was the largest rebellion in the British Empire that century.

Jamaica was the apple of Britannia’s eye, lucrative through its booming sugar trade and strategically placed for raids on rival empires. But the British turned this tropical paradise into a hellscape. ‘In countries where slavery is established,’ Montesquieu correctly assessed, ‘the leading principle on which the government is supported is fear.’ Fear of violence kept Africans from insurrection, while fear of insurrection kept whites violent. Children thrashed fences in playful imitation of the blood-flecked floggings they witnessed every day in the fields. Skulls grinned atop posts across the landscape, warnings to would-be runaways.

But suddenly fear wasn’t enough. A little after midnight on 8 April 1760, 100 slaves forced their way into the unguarded Fort Haldane on the north-east coast, seizing guns, powder and ammunition. They marauded through the countryside, raiding manors, murdering hated overseers and setting crops alight. Contrary to what whites christened it, it was not in fact Tacky’s revolt.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in