Interview: Vincent Brown, Author, Tacky’s Revolt - Hindustan Times

Interview: Vincent Brown, Author, Tacky’s Revolt

BySimar Bhasin
Jun 21, 2024 10:23 PM IST

On an important slave revolt during the 18th century Atlantic slave trade actually being part of a larger war between emerging colonial powers, the interconnected world, and how warfare has consequences in distant locales

How did you get the idea for the book and did the direction of the narrative change as the book took shape?

Author Vincent Brown (Jaipur Literature Festival)
Author Vincent Brown (Jaipur Literature Festival)

My book is about the largest slave revolt in the 18th century British Empire in Jamaica, which was Britain’s most profitable colony in the Americas. It happened in 1760 and went on into 1761. It was vitally important because we tend to think of slave revolts as mostly being about just masters and slaves, or happening on a particular plantation, or even in one colony, but this was a slave revolt that was organized and executed by Africans from the Gold Coast, the region that’s roughly now Ghana. They had been captured in the slave trade and they had military experience. A lot of people don’t know this, but probably more than half of all of the Africans who were enslaved in the Americas, who came through to the slave trade, had been captive in wars, or they had been displaced by wars, which means they had military experience. That’s how they found themselves enslaved. They were displaced, dislocated, vulnerable to capture and sale. But that meant a lot of them were soldiers, right? And so, for me, the most important thing about this book was to see it on this broader canvas, not just as something that was happening between a master and a slave, or on a particular plantation or in one colony, but in its Transatlantic framework. I could see this slave revolt as a war that was taking place on a much broader geographical scale than we normally thought. Now, it also turns out that this happened during the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France another of Britain’s imperial rivals. It’s the same war in which Britain kicked France out of India; that’s when the French lost Pondicherry. This was what Winston Churchill eventually called the First European World War, and this was one of the major battles of the Seven Years’ War for the British. This slave revolt in their most profitable colony was something they had to put down in order to maintain their empire in the Americas. So it was part of a larger geopolitical war, and not just something that can be seen as being a matter of individual slaves and masters.

The novel has been regarded as a geopolitical thriller. Would you agree with that or do you feel it obfuscates the larger project of retelling history and of reconfiguring what we envisage is race war from a non-Western perspective?

Oh, interesting question. Great question. If you think about the genre of the work, it is a book set on a geopolitical canvas. It is within the framework of military history. So in that sense, right, there is a geopolitical framework that guides the narrative. But as you say, when we go to think about what I’m trying to do in reframing our understanding of history, then the genre elements don’t really make as much sense. You can read it that way if you want, I think.

Hopefully, that carries a reader through from the beginning through the middle to the end. But at the end of that, I hope you’ve learned something that’s not just about entertainment, but that’s really about the importance of the history of slavery to the making of the British Empire; the importance of warfare in the making of slavery and inequality and exploitation. That’s really what the book is about. And about the proliferation of wars within wars. Because with the British at war with the French and often at war with the Spanish, sometimes the Dutch, all over the world, in the Caribbean, in Africa, in India, in the Philippines, all of these other struggles happen within that context.

We find wars sprouting as a result of violence happening in other places. So for example, I talked about the African wars that produced these captives for sale. Those African wars then, in some ways, also produced the slavery bias that happened in the British Empire. So the interconnected world and the way the world is interconnected by warfare itself has consequences in distant, far-off locales.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has talked about the “danger of a single story” with respect to how Africa has been narrativized. So is your project speaking to that destabilizing of Africa’s story as a singular narrative?

Yeah. One of the things I didn’t say, but I was hoping we would get to, is what I wanted people to understand is an African history that was dynamic, that was moving, that was changing, and that was not just located in Africa. So that what we see in my book is African history in America. That African history is American history, and that African history is world history as well. Because these are Africans having an influence on all these various phenomena that are happening.

So that’s not just a single story of Africa or Africans. It’s not just a story that can be told about one colony or one nation state or one culture or one civilisation. Because those are stories ultimately that are not dynamic.

They’re meant to be static. When one thinks about national culture, or when one thinks about civilisation, what we’re trying to do usually is say these are its essential characteristics frozen in time and projected back, not thinking about the dynamics of change over time. What I’m trying to say is that no single understanding of African civilisation or African culture or any of these single states or even the British Empire is going to explain this history.

One has to look at the dynamic elements as they change in order to understand that history. It’s really a dynamic versus static characterization that I’m going for here. And that danger of a single story is that single stories tend to be static.

They tend to want to freeze us with a single impression. And what I’m trying to say is we’ve got to keep our imaginations moving because that’s the way human history moves.

336pp, ₹1594; Harvard University Press
336pp, ₹1594; Harvard University Press

What was the research like? How do you respond to the ways in which archives continue to function as sites still speaking within and organised through the episteme of violence perpetuated through colonisation and the slave trade?

So in some ways I’ve made a decision not to refuse that violence but to investigate it because it’s true.

The archive that I’ve used is plantation records, slaveholder diaries, military records, state records. These are meant to express the perspective of these colonisers, of these military officials, of these slaveholding planters. And yet, even if we work through that violence, we can see other things that those people didn’t care that we would see or even didn’t want us to see.

The way I talk about it in the book is like if you think about a stone. A stone is a thing with a solid shape. And yet, we know that the shape of a stone is determined by wind and water, by the movement around the stone.

Maybe the stone as an artifact of those dynamic movements of wind and water can tell us something more about the things around it. That’s what I’ve tried to do with these archives of violence. I understand their limitations. We can’t read them as transparent reflections of what happened in the world. But we can read them as insights, beginnings into understanding the dynamic forces that shaped them, that shaped those sources themselves. And when we understand that, then we’re understanding more of the history that I am interested in.

How can these histories of revolt give shape to a political imaginary for the African continent steeped in that history of shared violence?

Well, to understand that this history of shared violence has been going on for a very long time, to understand that its resolution will require coming to terms with the depth of that history. That, in fact, the world as it is today has been deeply shaped, fundamentally shaped by these histories of warfare at large and small scales. I guess, for me, the reason to tell a story about wars within wars is as a kind of cautionary tale.

In many ways, war might be the fundamental problem. Until we resolve that fundamental problem of warfare itself, we’re never going to address the inequalities that result from that kind of warfare, that are perpetuated by it.

What other works or which other writers are undertaking the task of unpacking such complex histories?

Oh, so many. I mean, so many. Look at my footnotes. (laughs)

If I started a list now, I wouldn’t be able to finish without making somebody mad. It would be like the thank yous at the Academy Awards. I have to have a whole list here.

And if I even mention one name, I’ll hear from the 50 other names I didn’t mention.

So let me do this. I’m going to mention my students. I have a former student named Katharine Gerbner, who’s written on the way in which missionaries that worked among the enslaved changed their ideas about Christianity as a result of their engagement with slaves. And the same way we think of mission work going one way, you know, the missionaries taught the non-Christians X, Y, and Z. But what did the missionaries learn? That’s what she’s doing.

She’s looking at how slavery changed Christianity in the Caribbean. That, I think, is a fantastic book just called Christian Slavery. I’ve got a student named Bradley Craig, who’s written a wonderful book on the Maroons of Jamaica. It’s all about the oath-taking ceremonies that they used to create alliances among themselves. Because you had these diverse Africans from different parts of Africa, many of them born and raised in Jamaica, with differences among them, and part of their politics was trying to figure out how they could cement an alliance, how they could create loyalty. So there was a lot of oath-taking.

He’s written a book about oath-taking among the Maroons that I think is fantastic. That’s Bradley Craig. Another of my students is a man named Ryan Fontanilla, who’s written a fantastic environmental history of Jamaica. In that environmental history, he’s also taking the politics of violence and the environment very seriously. Because there were severe water shortages in post-slavery Jamaica, and then people fought over how to control that water. Of course, planters were trying to control formerly enslaved people, and they were trying to prevent them from having access to the water they needed to survive.

Again, it was an intense struggle. He even calls it a war over those water resources in Jamaica.

I have another student, Jonathan Booth, who’s written a history of how formerly enslaved people were criminalized, how the criminal codes developed to suppress freed people in both Jamaica and in the United States. So we see the legacies of slavery in the policing of formerly enslaved people and their descendants, long after slavery has ended.

What are you working on next?

A couple of things. I’ve got a film I’m working on. It’s probably going to be a short film, but it’s about the commemoration of Tacky’s revolt in Jamaica. I didn’t know this, but when my book came out, I was contacted by a man named Derrick “Black X” Robinson. People just call him Black X. He was one of the leading figures in this movement to try and make Tacky – one of the leaders of the slave revolt -- into a national hero in Jamaica. National heroes are on all the money; they’ve got statues. So it’s a big deal to be a national hero in Jamaica!

He was trying to make Chief Tacky into a national hero. He basically found my book and he’s been using it for his activism. Probably as a result of his activism, there’s now a National Chief Tacky Day in Jamaica. That’s, en route, hopefully, to making him a national hero.

And so I’m making a little film about how it is that an activist like that takes up a scholar’s work and how he changes the scholar’s work and uses it differently than maybe I had intended. But I learned something about how the writing of history works in the world. How a history book, that has now escaped me, is now in the hands of its readers, is actually doing things that I may not have intended that I can learn from.

So they’re not just learning from the book, but I’m learning how history works, what its effects are in the world through this national campaign to make Tacky a national hero. I’m making a little film about that.

Anything you’re writing that we can look forward to?

Yeah, I mean, it might be a couple of years because I’m a slow writer, but I’m writing a book about the creation of different expressive forms in language, in dance and movement, in music, in visual art, and in literature by enslaved peoples all throughout the Americas. It’s a kind of introduction to the history of what we call the African Diaspora, the slave trade and the movement of people through the Americas, but through the kinds of cultural forms they created that we still live with today.

So samba in Brazil, or Jamaican music, or Haitian visual art, or the kind of writing by enslaved people that became part of their conversion narratives to Christianity. All of those things are things that are fundamental to our cultural practice today, to world culture, and yet we don’t really acknowledge that they were created by enslaved people and that those enslaved people have had dramatic effects on the way we think and the way we talk and the way we move and the way we sing and the way we picture our world.

Simar Bhasin is an independent journalist.

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