Fighting the Enemy Within

Historian Vincent Brown reflects on the long-term societal impact of being in a constant state of war. 

Collage of two images, top image an illustration of Haitian Revolution and bottom image George Floyd protests

By Michelle Nicholasen

This is the second of a two-part interview with historian Vincent Brown about US racial inequities and the legacies of the Atlantic slave trade. Read part 1, "Slavery’s Legacy and the Racial Awakening of 2020," on Epicenter.  

By 1800, nearly three-quarters of all the people who migrated to the Americas were from Africa. The vast majority of slaves went to Brazil, and the rest to the Caribbean and South America. On some plantation islands, like the British colony of Jamaica, 20 percent of the slaves came from what was then called the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana). A number of these captives had prior experience as soldiers and warriors from the inter-state wars there. Perhaps it is no surprise that the largest slave uprising in the eighteenth-century British empire occurred in Jamaica, where former warriors led an island-wide rebellion between 1760–1761. 

Vincent Brown carefully pieces together the rebels’ experience in his book, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, and reveals their sophisticated strategy for insurrection against British colonist slaveholders. Though it ultimately failed, Tacky’s Revolt was an impressive campaign of strategy and endurance whose story was retold among Blacks migrating across the ocean. It likely inspired leaders of the Haitian Revolution thirty years later and gave momentum to the abolitionist movements that would continue through the late nineteenth century.

We continue our conversation with Vincent Brown about the conditions of inequality and Black militarism that the Atlantic slave trade has left as its legacy.

Q: To mount their insurrection, Tacky’s rebels used weapons they made themselves or stole from slaveholders, including firearms. Can you explain the gun-slave market that fueled the Atlantic slave trade, particularly on the Gold Coast?

A: It's only really in the late seventeenth century that what Europeans called the Gold Coast turns more resolutely into a slaving coast. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europeans have some forts along the coast, and those forts are mostly built to defend against other Europeans as they try to access trade goods like gold. That’s why it’s called the Gold Coast; they’re coming to get the gold in what's now southern Ghana.

The Europeans don't control the interior, there are African polities vying for control of the interior. They have their preexisting conflicts with each other. And in order to gain advantage over each other, a European firearm can help.

So, among other goods, they trade their own (prisoners and slaves) for those firearms. And that gives them leverage over other African polities, which means people who get more firearms can also enslave more people to sell to the Europeans and import more firearms. That’s what historians have termed the slave-gun cycle. So at the time, in the late seventeenth, eighteenth centuries, you have a number of large militaristic polities, or states, like Asante, Akwamu, Akyem that are very successful in trading with the Europeans, but also successful in expanding their own power behind the coast. Europeans weren't selling guns to people who are fighting them. They were selling guns to people who are fighting each other.

Map of the Gold and Slave Coasts of West Africa, 1700-1750

Q: Just to be clear, to get access to firearms, African rulers exchanged their own slaves, Black slaves?

A: That depends on what you mean by “their own.” Traders normally sold people from groups other than their own, often war captives. When we look at Africans fighting each other, we're not seeing, what some might call Black-on-Black violence...unless when we look at, for example, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms between England, Scotland, and Ireland and the war between Britain and France as white-on-white violence. In the seventeenth century, as the slave trade is increasing, conflicts between various polities in Africa increase in scale and intensity, and partly that's stimulated by the trade for more and better weapons. What do Europeans want? A number of things, but they want slaves. They need slaves in order to build up their agricultural colonies in the Americas.

Q: In your book you remind us that the ongoing war between Jamaican slaves and slaveholders takes place against a backdrop of conflict among the European empires. Why is this juxtaposition important?

A: Part of the point of the book is to see this revolt in 1760–1761 as not just something that happened on those plantations or even in that colony.

Pictured on the transatlantic canvas, you can see how the intimate daily conflicts of slavery and slave resistance are related to these imperial conflicts between Britain, Spain, and France, but also between different African polities on the Gold Coast. And for me, what's important about that is to show that a society at war with others is also often going to be at war with itself.

The Jamaican colony was geared toward fighting both external enemies in Britain's imperial rivalries, but also internal enemies, especially the enslaved population that the colonists were trying to suppress. And I think that's a danger that one always has to look out for when you've got a militaristic society, as we have in our own country. I don't think there's any point in soft pedaling the fact that the United States is a militaristic nation. And I think that militarism doesn't only project itself abroad. I think it suffuses the social relations of society.

Q: How so? 

A: You tend to see radically unequal societies in postslave states. For example, Brazil had the longest participation in the transatlantic slave trade in the Americas and didn't abolish slavery until 1888. Even though race works differently there (today), evidence of descent from slavery will still mark you out for discrimination. Brazil's an extraordinarily violent society. Jamaica is a violent society, to this day. The United States is a violent society, and the former slave states in the South are generally more violent than the North. And in part that is the legacy of people becoming habituated to violence against internal enemies.

When you create a radically unequal society like that, where it’s very profitable for people at the top, but people at the bottom are desperate, those are societies that are going to be policed more violently, I think, than a more equal society, like Norway, where I read recently that the police hadn't killed anybody in ten years.

Q: But Norway is a very homogeneous society, isn’t it?

A: It's not just about cultural homogeneity. I think it's about the kind of inequality—economic but also cultural inequality— where people are degraded and humiliated routinely over the course of their daily lives, because they bear some stigma in the eyes of others, or if they're degraded economically and humiliated and can't make ends meet. The people who are degrading them generally are wary of them and want to build walls to protect themselves, and want to wield guns in front of their houses in order to defend themselves from those people who are so desperate.

Q: Speaking of defense, the US seems to have both notable inequality and an affinity with guns…I want to go back to what you said about a country being more likely to fight internal enemies if it is also mounting external wars, like the European empires in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Are you referring to the US?

A: Now, one doesn't want to draw too exact a parallel. So, as a historian I say this with all due caution. But is it an accident that there's such a huge small arms trade in the United States, which is also one of the biggest producers for the global trade? I think there's got to be a connection there. And that small arms trade is partly responsible for the scale of the deadliness of the violence that we see in our society. People attack and hurt each other in most societies, but where they have fewer deadly weapons fewer of those conflicts end in death.

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Q: Explain what you mean by anti-Black militarism. 

A: When enslaved Black people in the Americas talked about their relations with slaveholders, they often talked about predicament as akin to a state of war. We often think of racism as being mostly about exclusion and belonging or even, as the scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore emphasizes, exposure to premature death.

Related to that is anti-Black militarism, which I think is an outgrowth of those relations of slavery because when one thinks about slavery as the sociologist Orlando Patterson defined it, as permanent violent domination, it’s easy to see it as a constant low-intensity state of war. People in slave societies grew accustomed to viewing Black people as potential internal enemies and to seeing violence directed at them. Those habitual expectations don’t suddenly end with emancipation.

Q: You've spent a lot of time in the eighteenth century. As a historian, you can look very long. And I just wondered if there's anything about where we are today in the US that surprises you?

A: One of the things that this book taught me, I think, is the importance of antimilitarism more generally. We don't really have a very vibrant antiwar movement right now, despite the fact that our country is essentially engaged in permanent warfare around the world. I was born in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, then kind of came of age during the Cold War, and then there were the various Iraq wars and the war in Afghanistan. Honestly, I couldn't name a five-year period in which the United States hasn't been abroad engaged in military combat somewhere. We're talking about fifty-plus years of permanent warfare: that is the larger condition, the larger situation in which we find our society. 

I don't think you can separate the belligerent nature of our government from the tensions within our society, even if you just look at the investments we don't make in infrastructure or in the health and welfare of the population because we're spending so much money on the military and on our campaigns abroad. That surely aggravates the kind of inequality that keeps everybody closed off from each other, that keeps us from working on building fellow feeling among the national citizenry.

I think if we could reduce the inequalities among the residents of this country, I think we would have a much better shot of empathizing with each other, seeing the world through each other's eyes, and not constantly viewing each other as enemies or potential enemies. 

Q: Everyone calls the storming of the Capitol an insurrection. Do you think that’s an accurate label? The actors in this case turn the model of the oppressed rising up on its head. 

A: I tend to think of the January 6 seditionists as a lynch mob summoned by the former president of the United States. I take my cues from the gallows they erected outside the Capitol and their calls to hang the vice president and speaker of the house. They intuitively felt, and had been told over and over again, that votes cast in places like Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta were inherently fraudulent. In the nineteenth century, such paramilitary mobs served a vital antidemocratic function after Reconstruction, helping to end the brief experiment in multiracial democracy in the former slave states by terrorizing the population. Even in that era, the mob felt a deep sense of grievance that the wrong people were voting and had become eligible to hold political power. As the saying goes, if you’re accustomed to dominance, equality feels like oppression.

—Michelle Nicholasen, Editor and Content Producer, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs

Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate Vincent Brown is the Charles Warren Professor of American History and a professor of African and African American studies at Harvard University. He studies sources, circuits, and aftereffects of the African slave revolt in the Atlantic world. His new book, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Harvard University Press, 2020), has garnered several awards and accolades. 

This is the second of a two-part interview with historian Vincent Brown about US racial inequities and the legacies of the Atlantic slave trade. Read part 1, "Slavery’s Legacy and the Racial Awakening of 2020," on Epicenter.  


  1. Top: Attack and Take of the Crête-à-Pierrot (4 March 24, 1802). Original illustration by Auguste Raffet, engraving by Hébert, 1839. Wikimedia Commons, US Public Domain (PD-US). Bottom: Police and National Guard During George Floyd Protests and Riots, 05-31-2020, Santa Monica, CA, USA, Shutterstock. Image credit: Kristin Caulfield
  2. The Gold and Slave Coasts of West Africa, circa 1700–1750. African polities, or centralized states, are in all caps. Inland kingdoms are italicized. European forts on the coast are marked by small flags. Map credit: M. Roy Cartography & Design