The system of slavery that blighted the Caribbean region for the best part of 400 years aimed not only to exploit its victims but also to break their will. Almost every aspect of the system was intended to dehumanise and to demoralise, to turn the slave into a mere object or commodity. It was a world that to modern eyes appears incredible and yet (after Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot) somehow familiar, full of organised cruelty and industrial-scale suffering. The slave became a non-person, stripped of his or her identity and forced into passive acceptance.
And yet the system failed, often spectacularly. Within years of the first slaves arriving in Santo Domingo from Africa there were uprisings and rebellions. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries Caribbean history was punctuated by outbreaks of resistance, and then by increased repression. As slave economies depended on a constant stream of fresh labour, so the unfree quickly outnumbered their oppressors. And with every shipload of captive Africans that arrived in Kingston or Bridgetown there arrived another volatile cargo of anger and frustration that could ignite at any moment.
Slaves carried no material possessions with them, but they brought religious beliefs, systems of kinship and tribal allegiances, and above all a desire to break free from their captivity. Some, according to contemporary accounts, were cowed into submission, but many others were not. Of these, a slave by the name of Tacky is still remembered in Jamaica. His name was given to the rebellion that took place 250 years ago, in April – May 1760, and which briefly threatened Britain’s most prosperous Caribbean colony.
We know little about Tacky himself. He is commonly referred to as a Coromantee chief, but this means only that his journey into slavery probably began in the Ghanaian village of Koromantin, used by British slavers as a fortified holding place for captives. It is likely that he was an Akan and therefore a practitioner of obeah, the voodoo-like system of religious beliefs that originated in West Africa. He must have held some position of authority among his fellow slaves, as later events were to confirm, while he also enjoyed a position of relative privilege at the Frontier plantation in the northern parish of St Mary, where he was an overseer.
Tacky’s Rebellion started on Easter Sunday after what we must assume was a period of planning by Tacky himself and his associates. They began by seizing control of Frontier and the neighbouring Trinity plantation, killing the masters or estate managers before heading to the nearby town of Port Maria. There it was an easy task to raid the fort and seize supplies of muskets, gunpowder and shot. Once armed, the insurgents moved back inland, invading plantations, murdering any whites they came across, and adding hundreds of freed slaves to their numbers.
At the small town of Ballard’s Valley the euphoric rebels stopped to rest. It was at this point that a slave from the Esher plantation, one of those they had attacked, slipped away to inform the authorities. A troop of 80 mounted militia was immediately rounded up from the locality, while messengers sped to the Governor in Spanish Town, requesting urgent reinforcements.
While the shaken colonial authorities began to respond, the rebels took strength from their African beliefs. Obeahmen circulated among Tacky’s forces, distributing a white powder that they said would protect the slaves from harm. They also assured them that an obeahman could not be killed. Perhaps deceived by the ease with which they had so far swept through St Mary, they began to believe these assurances and that freedom was a real possibility.
By a terrible irony, that freedom would be denied by a group of men whose roots also lay in Africa and who had fought for their own liberation. These were the Maroons, an independent community of former slaves who had escaped the plantations and formed their own villages in the most inaccessible districts of Jamaica. Even more ironically, the Maroons were for the most part Akan-speaking “Coromantees” and hence from the same ethnic background as Tacky and his men. After decades of war against the colonial authorities, the renegade Maroons had signed peace treaties in 1739 and 1740 whereby they were to be left to live in freedom – if they agreed to assist the government in suppressing any further slave uprisings.
According to the terms of their treaty, the Maroons of Scott Hall, an autonomous community in the mountains of St Mary, were summoned to assist the militia in crushing the rebellion. There is no record of what the Maroons felt about their involvement, but it is clear that they played a pivotal role. It is also evident that they and their white allies understood the importance of religious belief in the uprising, as when the troops found the insurgents they immediately targeted the obeahmen, capturing one and hanging him from a tree.
With their confidence rapidly extinguished, the renegade slaves fought valiantly, but significant numbers disappeared, presumably to return to their plantations. Tacky refused to surrender and, with a small group of about 25 insurgents, escaped into the densely wooded mountains. They were to find no refuge, however, as the Maroons pursued them. According to Jamaican historian Clinton V Black, “One of them, a sharpshooter named Davy, eventually caught up with Tacky and while both were running at full speed, he raised his musket and with the deadly aim for which he was noted, shot the rebel leader dead.”
Tacky’s severed head was later displayed in Spanish Town until mysteriously removed. His remaining followers were found dead in a cave, preferring suicide to recapture. Yet the uprising had started a wave of rebellions across the island that affected five parishes and lasted several months. By the time the slaves were finally subdued, some 400 had been killed, along with 60 whites.
Tacky may not have joined Sam Sharpe, the leader of a later slave rebellion, as an official National Hero of Jamaica, but his act of bravery was no less significant. Not only was it the first serious challenge to the system of slavery, but it also gave impetus to a culture of resistance that lived on for several generations. And, as the Haitian Revolution was to prove three decades later, it showed that no amount of suffering could break what William Wordsworth called “man’s unconquerable mind”.