Justin Pope, Postdoctoral Fellow, Brown University, JCB-Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice
A genuine narrative of the intended conspiracy of the negroes at Antigua. Extracted from an authentic copy of a report, made to the Chief Governor of the Carabee Islands, by the commissioners, or judges appointed to try the conspirators (Dublin: Printed by and for R. Reilly, 1737).
Willem Bosman, A new and accurate description of the Coast of Guinea, divided into the Gold, the Slave, and the Ivory Coasts (London: printed for J. Knapton, A. Bell, R. Smith, D. Midwinter, W. Haws, W. Davis, G. Strahan, B. Lintott, J. Round, and J. Wale, 1705).
The Antigua slave conspiracy trials of 1736 began with an enslaved man performing a mysterious dance in an open field. Two printed books held in the John Carter Brown Library help us to interpret the meaning of this dance and in the process, to better understand the ways in which enslaved people of African ancestry sought to reinvent themselves in the British Atlantic during the first half of the eighteenth century.
Colonial officials wrote A genuine narrative of the intended conspiracy of the negroes (1737) on the island of Antigua and published the manuscript in Dublin, Ireland. The document was a public defense, intended by the island’s governor and council to refute English accusations that white Antiguans had committed an atrocity of justice against their slaves. Over a period of six months, the island’s Britons held trials and burned or broke upon-the-wheel eighty-eight enslaved black people, exiling forty-seven more to rival colonies in the West Indies, all without a single act of violence on the part of the accused. In their Genuine Narrative, magistrates sought to include specific evidence that would prove they had faced a rebellion, “As no People were ever rescued from a Danger more imminent.” 1) It was for this reason that officials described in detail the African dance that had helped spark their fears of a conspiracy.
According to the authors of the Genuine Narrative, on a Thursday afternoon in October of 1736, a “very great number of Coramantee and Creole Slaves” gathered together in a pasture outside the port of Saint John’s. They stood in a large semi-circle, “in the presence of some Whites, whose Curiosity led them thither.” At the center and before the crowd sat the enslaved man the English called Court but who called himself “Tackey” [probably Takyi]. Behind him stood several prominent enslaved artisans and masters, one of whom held a wicker shield above Tackey’s head to keep him shaded. At the call of the drums, Tackey stepped forward, “he with an Ikem [wicker shield]… upon his left Arm, and a Lance in his right hand,” and began to dance, “representing the defensive Motions of the Shield, those of throwing the Lance, and the several Gestures by them used in Battle.” At a signal, Tackey dropped the lance and took up a wooden cutlass. He began “a whirling Motion of his Body round about,” sweeping the blade before the crowd and “dancing and leaping up at the same time, from one Horn or Point of the Semi-circle quite to the other.” As Tackey stepped to the time of the drums, the man called Tomboy, an Antiguan-born slave who had never seen Africa, waited in white face paint for his part in the ceremony. Tackey suddenly turned toward Tomboy and “gently touching” the wooden blade to the Creole man’s forehead, and “having at the same time the ikems… held between his own and the other’s Body,” shouted out an oath. The people replied “Tackey, Tackey, Tackey Cuquo Tackey” and several of the leading men brought forth a drum that they stabbed and tore apart. 2)
In the General Narrative, British officials interpreted the ceremony as a coronation and an African declaration of war. Following the dance, justices of the peace interrogated and tortured many slaves for weeks, methods that eventually produced a fanciful story of a supposed slave gunpowder plot to kill all the leading planters on the island. The lack of physical evidence and the questionable testimony of informants is enough to cast significant doubt on the extent of a gunpowder conspiracy, but the ceremony was real. Why did Tackey perform a dance that fateful day in October and what did it mean?
A separate document held in the John Carter Brown Library provides part of the answer. In A new and accurate description of the Coast of Guinea (1705), Dutch slave trader Willem Bosman describes a “shield dance” he witnessed on the Gold Coast in the 1690s, a ceremony remarkably similar to Tackey’s dance in Antigua forty years later. Bosman described the shield dance as an ennobling ceremony in which common born Africans “enriched either by inheritance or trade” might gain political authority. “A Negro thus far advanced in honor, usually makes himself master of first one and another shield,” wrote Bosman, “…intimating that he will not be afraid of any danger or Hard-ship in Defence of his People.” 3) In his history of the seventeenth century Gold Coast, Ray Kea noted the shield ceremony described by Bosman was probably very new to the region, an adaptation to the wealth gained by African merchants in the slave trade. The shield dances allowed rich, common-born men to gain political status by performing rituals that promised defense of the people. 4) Africanist John Thornton first noted similarities between Bosman’s description of a shield dance and Tackey’s ceremony and argued the African ritual was not the declaration of war or crowning of a king that planters had imagined. 5)
But as we compare the descriptions of the two dances, we can see that Tackey was in fact inventing a new ritual on the island of Antigua. He sought to use his Gold Coast shield dance – an African ceremony – to unite a disparate collection of people from throughout Africa and the Caribbean behind his authority. That he chose a ceremony from Africa rather than Europe speaks to the orientation of slave societies in the British Atlantic in the first half of the eighteenth century, but make no mistake, Takyi was adapting an Old World ritual to a cruel new order. Each time Tackey thrust forth his wicker shield, he pledged to protect a population suffering in the miseries of sugar slavery. When Tackey pressed his wooden blade “gently” against the forehead of Tomboy, the leader of the Antiguan-born slaves, he sought to unite rival factions together. His true intentions after the dance are lost. He may have simply wanted to cement his leadership among the many slaves of the island or perhaps he had greater ambitions. We can be certain, though, that his dance was an act of political reinvention, an attempt made by enslaved people in Antigua to create an order all their own. Black leaders throughout the British Atlantic were involved in this great struggle in the first half of the eighteenth century, seeking to incorporate new waves of Africans into a slave society transformed by the British African trade.
The Genuine Narrative and A new and accurate description together help us to understand the meaning of Tackey’s dance. I found both documents at the JCB.
1) A genuine narrative of the intended conspiracy of the negroes at Antigua. Extracted from an authentic copy of a report, made to the Chief Governor of the Carabee Islands, by the commissioners, or judges appointed to try the conspirators (Dublin: Printed by and for R. Reilly, 1737), 20.
2) A genuine narrative, 7-8.
3) Willem Bosman, A new and accurate description of the Coast of Guinea, divided into the Gold, the Slave, and the Ivory Coasts (London: printed for J. Knapton, A. Bell, R. Smith, D. Midwinter, W. Haws, W. Davis, G. Strahan, B. Lintott, J. Round, and J. Wale, 1705), 135-137.
4) Ray A. Kea, Settlements, Trade, and Polities in the Seventeenth-Century Gold Coast (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1982), 103-104.
5) John Thornton, “War, the State, and Religious Norms in ‘Coromantee’ Thought: The Ideology of an African Nation,” in Robert Blair St. George, ed., Possible Pasts: Becoming Colonial in Early America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), 195-196. For a very different interpretation of the dance, see Kwasi Konadu, The Akan Diaspora in the Americas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 137-138.
6) For a discussion of black political reinvention in colonial slavery see Vincent Brown, “Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery,” The American Historical Review 2009-12, Vol. 114, Issue 5: 1231-1249.