Atlantic Slavery: An Eternal War

Both violent surveillance and disease risk were integral to Atlantic slavery. That same war against Black people continues today.

When Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared Haiti’s independence from France in 1804, he proclaimed: “Eternal hatred to France, that is our cry.” Dessalines anticipated that Haitian independence and sovereignty—and therefore Haitians’ freedom from enslavement—would come under siege. “Swear at last,” he urged his fellow citizens, “to pursue forever the traitors and the enemies of your independence.” He understood that Haitian abolition and independence would not end the sprawling warfare of the Atlantic World.

For centuries, white people had waged war against Black people in the transatlantic slave trade, on plantations, and in port cities throughout the Atlantic. This war took many forms. Enslavers attacked the enslaved using tactics that ranged from militaristic violence to neglect and harsh labor and living conditions that fostered disease.

Because of this, the end of legal slavery—as Dessalines knew—did not signal the end of the Atlantic war of slavery. “Anti-black militarism,” historian Vincent Brown argues, “is probably as important a legacy of American slavery as dispossession and racial exclusion.”

The recent protests have made clear that histories of slavery and colonialism are urgently relevant and that histories of resistance, rebellion, and revolution are still ongoing. It is not random that in 2020 the Black Lives Matter movement combines protests against police violence with outrage at the disparity in susceptibility to and deadliness of COVID-19 for Black people. Both violent state surveillance and disease risk and treatment are deeply rooted in the rise and fall of Atlantic slavery.

The pervasiveness of antiblack racism in our 21st-century society highlights the need to study the sprawling roots of the invasive system that white people created to grasp and maintain power. This system took the form of a deliberate war against the lives of Black people across the Atlantic World.

Distinct theaters of this war are revealed in two new books. In Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, Vincent Brown asks us to reconsider slavery societies as battlefields and the era of the early modern Atlantic World as a period of extended diasporic war.

Meanwhile, in The Yellow Demon of Fever: Fighting Disease in the Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Slave Trade, Manuel Barcia examines the war’s “contact zones”—for example, slaving ships as well as “barracoons,” where traders held enslaved people before and after their journey across the Atlantic—and how these spaces were ripe for the spread of disease.

The inequality of Atlantic slavery and the slave trade, these two books show, is evident in warfare and in health care. This power dynamic persisted after abolition and clearly shapes our current world. Brown and Barcia show that the “business of war” and the business of slave-trade abolition were critical to the expansion of European empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. While Brown studies what readers might immediately recognize as “warfare,” Barcia shows that the violence of illness in the illegal transatlantic slave trade during the 19th century was also a way that the “War of Atlantic Slavery” continued during the age of abolition.

The war continues. Today, violence is meted out against Black Lives Matter protestors as well as Black people generally. Today, disease is deployed against Black people, with either deliberate malice or thoughtless cruelty. As Dessalines predicted, the war, in fact, is not over. 2020 is just the latest battle front.

Jamaica was a militarized society because of slavery; profit and violence were inseparable.

The “Atlantic War of Slavery,” according to Vincent Brown, was the long and sustained period of daily violence against enslaved Africans, interspersed with moments of explosive conflict. Brown’s reframing of slavery as war allows us to better understand enslaved people as soldiers, diplomats, sailors, and community leaders dedicated to Black freedom (both then and now).

Specifically, Brown’s book shows how—within the broader war—enslaved men, women, and children defended themselves and even counterattacked. By resisting the racist evidence left by white planters and colonial officials, who characterized enslaved people simply as forced labor—often in the fields on sugar and coffee plantations, but also in homes and cities—Brown acknowledges their previous lived experiences, their visions for the future, and the diversity of their lives under slavery.

To tell the story of Black freedom in the 18th century, Brown analyzes the 18-month Jamaican insurrection between 1760 and 1761 waged by about 1,500 enslaved men, women, and children. And he argues that “Tacky’s Revolt” was only the first of three phases in this coordinated battle. Not simply a “revolt,” the insurrection credited to Tacky was a critical theater of the Atlantic War of Slavery and of the Seven Years’ War; it “threatened a remapping of colonial America as African territory where white rule would have no sway.”

Based on international research, Brown connects three men’s perspectives on the Atlantic World as their lives intersected in Jamaica because of the “business of war.” Jamaica was a militarized society because of slavery; profit and violence were inseparable. Apongo, a West African military leader, was captured and transported to Jamaica in the 1740s. John Cope was a British agent in West Africa who retired to a plantation in Jamaica; he had known Apongo in Africa and continued their friendship in Jamaica. Arthur Forrest was a ship captain who owned a Jamaican plantation near Cope’s; he enslaved Apongo until the Jamaican insurrection of 1760, when Apongo led insurgents in war. In telling their intertwined stories, Brown shows that the geography of Jamaica went beyond the island, as past experiences and encounters reconfigured the colonial landscape.

Brown’s reframing of Atlantic slavery as a period of warfare is a valuable approach that will undoubtedly shape generations of scholarship to come. Enslavers were not simply products of their time and circumstances; Brown shows that they were soldiers (men and women) violently trying to subdue an enemy.1 Scholarly and popular narratives typically frame enslavers as civilians and usually highlight their roles as businesspeople and politicians. By analyzing slavery societies using the theory and methodology of military history, Brown draws out the nuances of the insurrection and the counterattack by the enslavers. In opposition to the daily assault of enslavement, men, women, and children waged a war for survival and autonomy, sometimes individually and sometimes in coordinated battle.


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Brown’s book also offers two key methodological contributions that will similarly push new research in innovative and creative directions. The first is his use of digital mapping to better understand the political and military strategies of the enslaved. The white colonists produced and preserved the remaining archival sources; nevertheless, Brown uses these sources, interrogating the authors’ perspectives and interpretations and analyzing the interpretations that they missed.

For example, during the “Coromantee War” (the second phase of the insurrection), Brown charts a series of uprisings on plantations surrounding the Hanover Mountains. Such a targeted sequence, he argues, “indicates a strategic focus arising from a network of communication and planning that ran through the mountains.” Using this kind of data, Brown created a spatial visualization of the insurrection. This helps him conclude that the “revolt” was, in fact, an “insurrection”; the insurgents employed a coordinated military strategy, based on deep knowledge of the local geography—especially the mountainous interior of the island—and worked toward a goal of creating a lasting and autonomous society.

The second methodological feat is Brown’s ability to use uncertainty to his advantage. It is impossible to know much about Apongo’s origins and early life, for example, but Brown argues, “uncertainty requires us to draw a larger picture of Apongo’s possible worlds.” By creatively and meticulously gathering tidbits of evidence, Brown weaves together multiple plausible scenarios to convince readers of what might have happened.

Historians constantly grapple with the disparity between what actually happened, what people at the time described as having happened, and our own interpretation based on the evidence we uncover. This is particularly challenging for historians who study enslaved people because the archive usually replicates the historical power structures.2 Enslaved people were rarely allowed the opportunity to tell their own version of events, and when they did, it was usually coerced, mediated, and (mis)interpreted by white authors or scribes.

In Tacky’s Revolt, Brown sits comfortably with the impossibility of knowing exactly what happened and instead lays out several options based on different readings of the available evidence. The reader, therefore, learns something about what might have happened, but at the same time gets a much bigger and broader picture of the world in which Apongo, Cope, and Forrest lived.

It is a remarkable feat to turn archival frustration into one of the book’s core strengths. But it is absolutely necessary if we expect to learn anything about the lives of enslaved men, women, and children in the 18th-century Caribbean. By rendering Apongo and others as composites of possible histories and experiences, Brown stretches the evidence, which, as Marisa Fuentes argues in Dispossessed Lives, “expands the legibility of these archival documents” and “creates space for imagining the experiences and perspectives” of those intentionally erased from the archival record.3

While Brown emphasizes the specificity of Atlantic slavery in his analysis of diasporic warfare, he concludes by making room for further discussions about the afterlives of slavery.4 “But it is hard to see where the story concluded,” he admits. “All of slave war’s essential features—rapacious exploitation, racial subjugation, and the proliferation of wars within wars—would continue.”

As Manuel Barcia shows in The Yellow Demon of Fever: Fighting Disease in the Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Slave Trade, however, the “slave war’s essential features” did not simply “continue,” they mutated to account for new political, cultural, and epidemiological changes. Barcia reveals that, in the 19th century, the Atlantic Ocean was reconfigured into a different kind of battlefield for enslaved Africans and Euro-American slave traders. Intra- and interimperial conflict dominated the waters, but the illegal slave trade persisted, and Africans were the primary targets or casualties of this new warfare.

The weapon in this new theater of war was disease. Like Brown, Barcia draws on international archival research, using evidence from doctors and surgeons, slave traders, travel accounts, admiralty courts, and antislave trade mixed-commission courts to better understand the “Age of Abolition.” This approach is especially fruitful for readers in the 21st century because Barcia shows the effects of the mutually reinforcing relationships among slavery, racism, medicine, and science.

Disease on slaving vessels was leveling, since all captains, sailors, and captives were susceptible, but Barcia shows that only Africans were stigmatized because of their illness.5 And, while the 19th-century transatlantic slave trade was similar to that of previous centuries, it was mostly illegal and occurred during a critical moment of experimentation in modern medicine.

The implications were many. Without laws regulating treatment aboard slave ships, captains had no legal responsibility to provide a baseline level of care for their captives, as had been the case when the slave trade was legal. Furthermore, enslaved people could languish for longer periods in barracoons awaiting transportation, since slaving ships had to avoid antislave trade patrols; this resulted in overcrowding and a decline in health. Finally, slaving ships loaded and cleared out with speed and secrecy, often neglecting the necessary means of care.

By centering disease in the 19th-century Middle Passage, we learn that death rates were actually much higher than previously calculated.

Barcia shows that some ship captains sought to avoid disease by ameliorating treatment and providing some nutritional and medicinal care, but even attention to “ameliorating” health conditions would have been traumatizing for enslaved people. Improvements in medicine encouraged invasive techniques like cleaning and scouring chained Africans as well as unfamiliar and often dangerous treatments and medicines. Concerns about the spread of disease often prevented Africans from receiving proper burials.

Yet Barcia demonstrates that slave traders and antislave trade enforcers both had an interest in keeping enslaved Africans alive, which sometimes encouraged them to set aside racist beliefs about knowledge and “civilization” to adopt and incorporate African health and medicinal practices. White doctors and surgeons occasionally acknowledged what they had learned from African healers and doctors, but to a large extent, this did not fit the narrative of the 19th-century “civilizing” mission of Europe.

Importantly, Barcia argues that by centering disease in the 19th-century Middle Passage, we learn that death rates were actually much higher than previously calculated. Many enslaved Africans died in the crowded barracoons in West Africa; others died weeks after they had disembarked in the Americas. The death toll of the transatlantic slave trade was already shocking—probably around 2 million enslaved Africans died on the Middle Passage—but Barcia convincingly argues that the number should be even higher.6 Even so, he focuses on the experiences of those individuals, embracing Stephanie Smallwood’s argument that “overall numbers—and our interpretation of them—correspond only loosely to the ways that African captives experienced and understood shipboard mortality.”7


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These two books highlight the inequity of the modern world, which is rooted in the authority of white people to determine the value of Black lives. The simple statement “Black lives matter” accounts for wide-ranging and centuries-long histories of violence whose effects remain ubiquitous.

In Tacky’s Revolt, Brown is cautious about white descriptions of insurgent violence because “the more they narrated black violence … the easier it was to suppress the revolt without concern for black lives.” Similarly, Barcia shows that Black lives only mattered in the 19th-century slave trade because of their value as labor.

White supremacy is still pervasive in the 21st century, and the remapping of the Americas is still a work in progress. The soldiers in the Jamaican insurrection of 1760, Brown shows us, envisioned a world where “white rule would have no sway.” Yet, centuries later, that same battle is being waged today.


This article was commissioned by Annette Joseph-Gabrielicon

  1. For a recent study on white women enslavers in the United States, see Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (Yale University Press, 2019).
  2. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, 20th Anniversary Edition (Beacon Press, 2015).
  3. Marisa Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), pp. 78, 123.
  4. On the “afterlife of slavery,” see Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008).
  5. See also Rana Hogarth, Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 17801840 (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).
  6. Slave Voyages, “Transatlantic Slave Trade—Estimates” (accessed November 10, 2020).
  7. Stephanie E. Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Harvard University Press, 2007), 137.
Featured image: Monument to 1795 Slave Revolt, Landhuis Kenepa, Curaçao (2010). Photograph by Charles Hoffman / Wikimedia Commons