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Speech and Slavery in the West Indies

Fires during the Haitian Revolution; engraving by Jean-Baptiste Chapuy
World History Archive/Alamy
Fires during the Haitian Revolution; engraving by Jean-Baptiste Chapuy, circa 1791

In June thousands of people, provoked by the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping America, took to the streets in the United Kingdom to demonstrate against racism in their own country. One target of their anger was statues honoring British men of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries who prospered by enslaving and oppressing others, among them one in Bristol of Edward Colston that was pulled down and thrown into the harbor. It’s hardly surprising that many such monuments exist, for the apathy of the English, Scots, Welsh, and Irish toward their historical complicity in slavery has always been as striking as their indifference to its enduring legacy. Compared to the United States, and despite the work of many outstanding British (and non-British) historians,1 slavery remains a marginal subject in the public imagination, its reality and consequences mentally separated from the identity and experiences of the nation.

Across the British Isles there are also numerous public monuments to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807—permanent celebrations of national enlightenment and redemption (though in reality, British slave-owning continued for decades and was phased out only gradually after 1834). As far as I know, only a single recent sculpture, on the quayside of the former slaving port of Lancaster, simply honors the millions of victims. It’s as if every memorial in postwar Germany primarily commemorated the liberation of the death camps and the ousting of the Nazis, rather than the Holocaust itself.

Slavery was foundational to Britain’s prosperity and rise to global power. Throughout the eighteenth century the empire’s epicenter lay not in North America, Africa, or India but in a handful of small sugar-producing Caribbean islands. The two most important—tiny Barbados and its larger, distant neighbor Jamaica—were among the most profitable places on earth. On the eve of the American Revolution, the nominal wealth of an average white person was £42 in England and £60 in North America. In Jamaica, it was £2,200. Immense fortunes were made there and poured unceasingly back to Britain. This gigantic influx of capital funded the building of countless Palladian country houses, the transformation of major cities like London, Bristol, and Liverpool, and a prodigious increase in national wealth. Much of the growing affluence of North American ports like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia was likewise based on trade with the West Indies. Sugar became Britain’s single largest import, and the craze for it revolutionized national diets, spending habits, and social life—not least because of its association with that other newly fashionable drug, tea. Between 1700 and 1800, English consumption of sugar skyrocketed from about four pounds per person per year to almost twenty, roughly ten times as much as that of the French.

All this abundance, luxury, and social progress at home derived from the brutal exploitation of huge numbers of enslaved African men, women, and children across the Atlantic (thousands of whom were brought over to the British Isles as well): by the eighteenth century, Britons were the world’s preeminent slave traders. As its defenders liked to point out, slavery was not new. It had been taken for granted in biblical and classical times, and practiced by virtually every previous civilization. It was common in Africa itself. But there had never been anything like the plantation culture that the British helped pioneer in the Americas, where so many slaves were held in proportion to the population of free people.

And even within this new system of mass bondage, the West Indian sugar islands were exceptional. In Virginia, which had by far the most enslaved people of the thirteen mainland colonies, they made up perhaps 40 percent of all pre-revolutionary inhabitants: whites always remained in the majority. Only in South Carolina and French Louisiana, which were much more sparsely populated, did the balance ever tip slightly the other way. In eighteenth-century Jamaica, by contrast, enslaved men and women vastly outnumbered their captors. In some rural parts of the island the proportion was as high as fifteen to one; overall, more than 90 percent of the population was held in bondage.

As atrocious as the treatment of the enslaved was in North America, it was incomparably worse in the Caribbean. West Indian sugar estates were not just the largest agricultural businesses in the world but also the most destructive of human life. By the mid-eighteenth century, North American planters no longer needed to import many captive Africans, because their existing slave populations increased through a natural surplus of births over deaths. In the West Indies, by contrast, men and women were worked to death so ruthlessly that this transition to demographic self-sufficiency never took place. As most plantation slaves survived only for a few years, very large numbers of fresh imports were continually needed to maintain the workforce—let alone increase it, as the colonists steadily did. Of the roughly six and a half million Africans taken as slaves across the Atlantic by Europeans in the eighteenth century alone, around 350,000 were sent directly to the North American mainland. During the same period, more than two million were shipped to the British Caribbean. (A further million or so ended up on the nearby French islands, primarily Saint-Domingue—present-day Haiti—whose demography and economy ran on similar lines.)2

These extraordinary circumstances raise obvious questions about how this uniquely West Indian brand of slavery was imposed, experienced, and resisted, day to day, month to month, year to year. One answer that leaps out immediately is the sickening degree of extreme violence that Caribbean slaveowners routinely inflicted on their human chattels. In Barbados in 1683, an “old Negro Man” was moved to anger about the bloody flogging of some other slaves: for his “insolent words” he was burned at the stake. At other times, black people were judicially electrocuted, maimed, beaten to a pulp, decapitated, drawn and quartered, roasted alive over “a Slow fire,” or publicly starved to death while suspended in iron cages (“gibbeted”).

Beyond such horrific formal penalties lay the lawless universe of everyday enslavement, in which whites tortured, killed, raped, and mutilated black people with complete impunity. Thomas Thistlewood, an ordinary, bookish young Englishman who came to Jamaica in 1750 to seek his fortune, left a matter-of-fact diary of his three and a half decades as a rural overseer and small-time slaveowner. He considered slaves to be rational human beings and treated them as individuals. Like almost all West Indian whites, he also took for granted that they needed to be frequently and harshly punished. He flogged them incessantly and savagely, rubbing salt, chili peppers, lemon juice, and urine into the scarified flesh to increase their suffering. At his whim, any man or woman might be scourged, branded, chained, dismembered, or exposed naked in the stocks day and night, covered in treacle and swarmed by biting flies and mosquitoes. Sometimes he would then force another slave to defecate into the injured victim’s mouth, and gag it shut for “4 or 5 hours.” In his diary are also recorded 3,852 acts of rape or other forced intercourse with almost 150 enslaved women. Other than in the thoroughness of his record-keeping, he seems to have been entirely typical—if anything, relatively restrained—in his behavior.3

White Caribbeans shared the general European conviction that black people were inherently inferior. But ironically their primary justification for perpetrating such relentless sexual, mental, and physical abuse was a deep fear of their slaves. Driven by their own greed and maltreatment to import more and more Africans, the tiny bands of white islanders were acutely conscious of being surrounded by a potentially overwhelming force of hostile captives. In Jamaica especially, this huge numerical disparity gave enslaved people much more autonomy than they ever gained on the North American mainland. They lived in large groups, and their spiritual and cultural practices were largely free of white oversight. They fed themselves, and much of the white population as well, by growing produce on land given to them to cultivate. As well as possessing and inheriting such individual plots, livestock, and goods, Jamaican slaves often kept and carried guns, moved around the countryside unsupervised, and congregated at their own Sunday markets to trade, drink, and talk. In addition to a small population of free blacks, the island was also home to several groups of so-called Maroons, runaway slaves and their descendants, who controlled semiautonomous strongholds in its mountainous interior and whose relations with the British fluctuated between uneasy truce and outright war.

White supremacy was always unstable and incomplete. Despite the vast imbalance of power between slaveholders and enslaved people, Jamaican slavery was marked by continuous violent resistance. In addition to numerous smaller conspiracies, and full-blown wars between the colonists and Maroons in 1728–1739 and 1795–1796, we know of major plots, involving hundreds, sometimes thousands, of slaves, in 1673, 1676, 1678, 1685–1687, 1690, 1745, 1760, 1766, 1776, 1791–1792, 1808, 1815, 1819, 1823–1824, and 1831–1832. Throughout this period, too, the Caribbean was an important theater in the ongoing hot and cold global contests among Britain, Spain, and France. The threat of an invasion that would spark slave mutiny was never far away; nor was the inflammatory news of risings in neighboring colonies. In the 1790s, following a mass slave insurrection on Saint-Domingue and the outbreak of the French revolutionary wars, repeated military expeditions from Jamaica and Britain tried unsuccessfully to capture the territory from rival French and Spanish forces and to reimpose slavery. Altogether, perhaps as many as 350,000 people died on all sides before the establishment of the free black republic of Haiti in 1804.

Between 1500 and 1865, in the lands that became the United States, enslaved people were almost always outnumbered, physically separated, and economically disempowered. By the mid-eighteenth century most of them were locally born and had no experience of any other life. In such circumstances, open revolt was rare, difficult, and relatively easy to suppress. But in the West Indies, for as long as it lasted, slavery was always a much more sharp-edged state of conflict.

How did people—black, brown, and white, male and female, master and slave—speak to one another under such conditions? That is the simple but rich question the English geographer Miles Ogborn sets out to explore in his fascinating new book, The Freedom of Speech. It’s a daunting task. Speech has always to be reconstructed from fragmentary, unreliable, written traces, and it’s notorious that in such records the enslaved are given voice only through the hostile ears and pens of their oppressors. But Ogborn’s concern is not to recover exactly what people in eighteenth-century Jamaica and Barbados said, but rather to analyze how they spoke. Like Indian Ink, his previous book on imperial geography and communication,4 The Freedom of Speech draws on an eclectic range of social theorists, above all Bruno Latour, whose methods Ogborn uses here to explore various forms of talk: legal, political, scientific, religious, and abolitionist. In each of these domains, the rules and effects of spoken words were different, and the force and meaning of speech acts always contingent and relational; yet in each, too, the conditions of speaking—who could say what, when, where, and how—were invariably shaped by race, gender, class, and religion.

A limitation of this approach is that each chapter turns into a self-contained case study of a particular discourse, with different speakers, sources, and subjects. One takes us deep into the world of gentleman botanists, their “plant talk,” correspondence, public lectures, and patronage networks; the next surveys ideas about religious speech among Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, and adherents of obeah (a contemporary term for the spiritual practices of enslaved West Africans). Moreover, as Ogborn is well aware, his records and categories of talk are essentially those of white propertied men: they map only imperfectly onto the mental and discursive worlds of his other subjects. Because of this, we mainly learn how educated white colonists and abolitionists saw the world, and how they interpreted and (mis)understood enslaved men and women. The voices and outlook of black and brown people themselves come into focus only piecemeal and intermittently.

Nonetheless, taken as a whole, this is a remarkably original and insightful contribution. As Ogborn contends, speech was central to the culture of enslavement. Spoken words were both representations and actions: their utterance was the most ubiquitous way in which the boundaries between liberty and bondage were constantly reinforced, negotiated, or contested. During the eighteenth century, “freedom of speech,” a concept previously associated only with parliamentary debates, came to be seen as foundational to all political liberty. For propertied, Protestant, white male Britons of this era, it was both an immensely potent new ideology and a constant practical marker of their superiority over others. Colonial law and politics alike were transacted through verbal rituals—like the taking of oaths, the giving of evidence, or the making of public speeches—from which women, slaves, and other lesser humans (such as Jews, Quakers, mulattoes, Indians, and free blacks) were to a greater or lesser extent excluded. The exact contours of this power to speak, to be heard, and to silence others were frequently disputed, both within the colonial population and across the different legal and political zones of empire, but that’s precisely because it was so central to the meaning of freedom.

Even more than that, speech was pivotal in eighteenth-century definitions of humankind. Abolitionists claimed that the eloquence of slaves and Africans proved their equal humanity, but most Europeans had long taken for granted that black utterances were inherently inferior, even bestial. This was why, when the philosopher David Hume set out to prove in 1753 that “whites” were intrinsically superior to all other human “breeds,” he confidently discounted a seemingly contrary West Indian example by appealing to the same prejudice: “In Jamaica indeed they talk of one negroe, as a man of parts and learning; but ’tis likely he is admir’d for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.”5 No black voice could ever be more than a brutish squawk.

Reasoning like this buttressed acceptance of the slave trade. But though Hume disdained to name him, the subject of his dismissive remark was no slave but an unusually privileged free black Jamaican, Francis Williams, a man of property who had been educated at the Inns of Court in London, was an accomplished Latin poet and mathematician, and owned slaves himself. Because white West Indians were so heavily invested in trying to make the distinction between slavery and freedom synonymous with the supposedly straightforward difference between black and white, it was deeply aggravating that (as one leading slaveowner complained) Williams “had not the modesty to be silent” and instead publicly insisted that skin color was irrelevant to intelligence (“virtue and understanding have no color; there is no color in an honest mind, nor in art,” he wrote). White Jamaicans tried repeatedly to quiet his voice, yet never with complete success. When in 1730 the island’s Assembly passed a law degrading his legal rights (as an uppity negro), Williams successfully petitioned the imperial authorities in England (as an educated, wealthy, free-born slaveowner) to overturn it. He knew that how speech was received and what force it carried always depended on its audience, not just its author.

Portrait of Jamaican scholar and poet Francis Williams
The Jamaican scholar and poet Francis Williams; portrait by an unknown artist, circa 1745

Through their martial prowess, the Maroons likewise compelled the British to accept the authority of their words. When in 1739 they ended their decade-long war with the colonists and entered into peace treaties, neither side gave much credence to the written documents that were drawn up and signed. Instead, they reposed their trust primarily in a carefully choreographed, ritualized public exchange of verbal oaths: under the right conditions, such performative speech acts were more authoritative than any piece of paper. Slave utterances, of course, were normally granted no such power. And yet it’s striking how much effort was put into physically, as well as legally, silencing enslaved people. As a young boy on a Virginia plantation in the mid-1750s, Olaudah Equiano (recently transported there, via the West Indies, from the Guinea coast) was terrified by the appearance of a black house slave who moved around fixed in an iron muzzle, “which locked her mouth so fast that she could scarcely speak; and could not eat nor drink.” Some slaveowners ordered such equipment from London; others, like Thistlewood, improvised their own revolting gags.

Freedom of speech and the power to silence may have been preeminent markers of white liberty, Ogborn argues, but at the same time, slavery depended on dialogue: slaves could never be completely muted. Even in conditions of extreme violence and unfreedom, their words remained ubiquitous, ephemeral, irrepressible, and potentially transgressive. In that sense, even the speech of the unfree was always free. Talk was the most common way for enslaved men and women to subvert the rules of their bondage, to gain more agency than they were supposed to have. Moreover, Africans, too, came from societies in which oaths, orations, and invocations carried great potency, both between people and as a connection to the all-powerful spirit world. To be prevented from speaking, an Akan proverb warned, was akin to being murdered; to silence another unjustly was a grievous crime. Just as the British Empire was an oral creation, sustained through spoken as well as written and printed words, so too (and to a much greater degree) were the spiritual, legal, and political cultures into which most West Indian slaves had been born, and that they adapted in their Caribbean purgatory. For all these reasons, slaveowners obsessed over slave talk. They could never control it, yet feared its power to bind and inspire—for, as everyone knew, oaths, whispers, and secret conversations bred conspiracy and revolt.

The largest uprising the British Empire had ever faced erupted on Jamaica at Easter, 1760. For almost a year of intermittent guerrilla warfare, over a thousand slaves across the island rose up in successive waves of violent rebellion, seizing guns, killing scores of white and free black people, torching plantations, and establishing camps in the inaccessible, densely forested uplands. Already within a few weeks of fighting, so many insurgent corpses littered the jungle that, far away on his estate near the coast, Thistlewood began to smell on the wind the awful odor of “the dead Negroes in the Woods.” It was only with difficulty and at huge cost, after mobilizing the combined might of the imperial navy, battle-hardened marines, the British army, and local Maroon forces (bound by their treaties to assist the British against their slaves), that the colonists managed finally to subdue the rebels.

Many quietly gave up and slipped back into servitude. But scores of others killed their children and committed mass suicide rather than return to bondage. At least five hundred rebels were killed or executed; another six hundred or so were permanently exiled. Those publicly put to death often displayed striking defiance. They burned alive without flinching or crying out; one, already half-consumed by the fire, snatched a blazing log and flung it in the face of his executioner. Two rebels named Fortune and Kingston, gibbeted in May 1760, survived for seven and nine days respectively, surrounded by their countrymen, treating white onlookers with “hardened insolence” and laughter. A few months later, another condemned man, called Cardiff, warned the colonists that “Multitudes of Negroes had took Swear that if they fail’d of success in this rebellion, to rise again”: they would never capitulate.

Despite its scale, we know little about this extraordinary episode. The rebels left no record of their names, aims, alliances, or planning: all their communication was verbal. What survives is only the prejudiced speculation of their British enemies, whose written interpretations determined the revolt’s subsequent history. They portrayed it as a rising of dangerous, naturally warlike “Coromantees” (their label for the different peoples of the Gold Coast) against their masters, mainly focused around a slave named Tacky, one of the leaders of the first outbreak.

In an inspiring feat of scholarship, Vincent Brown’s Tacky’s Revolt transforms our understanding of the events of 1760 and 1761. It does so by expanding our sense of their scale and geography, and by developing the contemporary insight (expressed, for example, by Equiano and before him by John Locke) that slavery itself was always a state of war. Instead of a doomed local rising by desperate, enslaved victims, Brown sees something much more consequential: the “Coromantee War,” a serious military campaign led by experienced African fighters, part of an ongoing, transnational, interlocking network of wars that stretched across Europe, Africa, and the Americas. By tracing the entwined journeys of its different groups of combatants, he connects this insurgency directly to the major West African conflicts that fed the slave trade and to the global imperial wars that expanded slavery and capitalist agriculture, as well as to the day-to-day race war of whites against slaves, the retaliatory insurrections of the enslaved, and the constant struggles among black people themselves.

Because there’s so little direct evidence, and the scale of Brown’s reframing is so ambitious, all this requires a lot of scene-setting and circumstantial analysis. We don’t get to the revolt itself until halfway through the book, and at every step Brown carefully spells out how contingent events and alliances in this world always were, and how uncertain our knowledge of them is. The exact connection between the different incidents of 1760–1761 remains ambiguous: perhaps there was an island-wide conspiracy, or perhaps each uprising simply provoked the next. Nor can we presume solidarity among enslaved men and women of different backgrounds and trajectories. One of the questions the book illuminates is why so many other slaves, Maroons, and free blacks passively stood aside or actively opposed the rebels. Caught up in empires of war on both sides of the Atlantic, dark and light-skinned groups and individuals alike were forced into constant strategic calculations and maneuvers while trying to survive, minimize risk, or improve their lot.

Yet though this is a dense, cautious, and eminently learned book (rich with with digressions into everything from the design of West African war clubs to the details of the British navy’s code of war), it’s also an impassioned argument about human agency, with lessons for our own age of imperial overreach, asymmetrical warfare, and indigenous insurgency. Brilliantly transcending the silence of the written archive, it manages to present rebel and nonwhite backgrounds, perspectives, and politics in as rich, complex, and conflicted detail as those of their literate opponents.

Even the ultimate military failure of the Coromantee War, Brown suggests, should be viewed primarily as a consequence of subaltern decisions and divisions rather than of a stable colonial hegemony. Nor was any defeat in battle ever final. Enslaved men, women, and children fought not only to win freedom (whatever that might mean in such circumstances), or territory, or simply a space to live their own lives, but to uphold their human dignity: to fight was to raise hope, to create possibilities, to refuse to be subjugated. And it always inspired others. Well into the next century, when newly captured Africans arrived in Jamaica, their fellow plantation slaves would instruct them in the history of Tacky’s Revolt. Slavery was always violently contested from within: even if every individual battle was lost, the struggles of the enslaved did at least as much to hasten its collapse as the efforts of abolitionists.

In the decades following the Coromantee War, Jamaican slavery expanded and flourished as never before. In 1760 there had been about 150,000 slaves on the island; by 1808 there were over 350,000. To safeguard its white inhabitants, the colony became ever more heavily militarized. In the aftermath of rebellion, new laws severely curtailed the rights and movements not only of slaves but also of all other nonwhites: white solidarity was increasingly seen as crucial to security. Meanwhile, the widely noticed writings of the planters’ leading apologist, Edward Long, who’d lived through the rebellion, helped develop new, “scientific” theories of black inferiority and racial danger that had a lasting impact on European and American thought.

Yet the end of the war did not bring peace but only a return to the jittery status quo of plots, uprisings, and white anxieties about black power. Across the Americas, many passionate defenders of slavery, including Long, came to believe that the future lay in breeding an entirely native-born population of slaves, purged of militant Africans. In Virginia and Pennsylvania during the 1760s and 1770s, the specter of what had happened in Jamaica spurred slaveholders to restrict slave importation—even as, on both sides of the Atlantic, it also inspired early abolitionists.

The British finally outlawed the transatlantic trade in 1807 (the same year the United States did). But the fantasy of an acquiescent, native slave class, governed by benevolent masters, never materialized, nor did the gradual withering away of slavery that abolitionists had hoped for. On the contrary, as Tom Zoellner argues in Island on Fire, it was another Jamaican insurrection that finally precipitated the end of British slavery in the West Indies. Shortly after Christmas 1831, between 30,000 and 60,000 men and women rose up and ran away, refusing to work any longer as slaves. Hundreds of plantations were set on fire, but with conspicuously little personal violence: probably only two whites lost their lives in direct attacks. In reprisal, more than a thousand black people were lynched, shot on sight, or summarily executed. A year and a half later, the newly reformed British Parliament, lobbied by abolitionists and fearful that the continuation of slavery would only lead to further revolts, risking the loss of the Caribbean colonies, passed the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

Island on Fire, which tells both parts of this story, focuses especially on the uprising’s best-known leader, a charismatic, educated, Creole house slave named Samuel Sharpe. Zoellner’s vivid, fast-paced book stresses Sharpe’s Baptist theology, his message of nonviolent passive resistance, and the rebels’ misguided belief that the British king had, in fact, already emancipated them. Yet just as striking are the many continuities with previous uprisings: the sophisticated planning, the importance of oaths and spiritual rituals, the rebels’ geographical knowledge and tactics, and the critical participation of the Maroons in deciding the outcome.

Equally resonant is the perpetual question of the meaning of freedom in a racialized world. The Slavery Abolition Act didn’t apply to India or Ceylon, and though it technically liberated over 800,000 British slaves in the Caribbean and Africa, all of them (excepting only small children) were forced to continue to labor as unpaid “apprentices” for a further six years, on pain of punishment. Under the terms of the act, they were protected against overwork and direct violence from employers, but remained their “transferable property,” subject to punishment for “indolence,” “insolence,” or “insubordination.” So many black West Indians were jailed for resisting these outrageous terms that full emancipation was eventually brought forward to August 1, 1838. That moment provides the dramatic climax of Zoellner’s account, but it, too, didn’t much change colonial attitudes or practices. In 1865, largely unarmed protests over the continued blatant suppression of black economic, legal, and voting rights were met with renewed, murderous white rage: hundreds of nonwhite men and women were indiscriminately shot or executed.

A century on, the independence of most Caribbean colonies in the 1960s was followed by decades of racist British immigration policies that not only sought to prevent black West Indians from coming to the UK but eventually, under the Conservative governments of the past decade, ended up deliberately destroying the lives of thousands of lifelong legal residents by treating them as “illegal migrants.”6 In the meantime, for almost two hundred years, British taxpayers funded the largest slavery-related reparations ever paid out. Under the provisions of the 1833 act, the government borrowed and then disbursed the staggering sum of £20 million (equal to 40 percent of its annual budget—the equivalent of £300 billion in today’s value). Not until 2015 was that debt finally paid off. This unprecedented compensation for injustice went not to those whose lives had been spent in slavery, nor even to those descended from the millions who had died in captivity. It was all given to British slaveowners, as restitution for the loss of their human property. Black lives, white rights.

  1. 1

    For example, Catherine Hall, Trevor Burnard, Diana Paton, Olivette Otele, David Eltis, David Richardson, and the outstanding collaborative efforts of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership at University College London. 

  2. 2

    These are estimates—from the invaluable scholarly database slavevoyages .org—of the numbers who embarked from Africa, about a million of whom subsequently perished on the crossing. They specify only the first port of disembarkation: many enslaved people later transported to the North and South American mainland were also initially brought to the Caribbean. 

  3. 3

    See Trevor Burnard, Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (University of North Carolina Press, 2004). 

  4. 4

    Indian Ink: Script and Print in the Making of the English East India Company (University of Chicago Press, 2007). 

  5. 5

    David Hume, Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects (1758 ed.), p. 125.  

  6. 6

    See Amelia Gentleman, The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment (Guardian Faber, 2019).