1500-1799 | Burning people alive | Gibbeting | Slavery | Torture

Slaves faced death ‘with amazing obstinacy’ following aborted revolt

A sugar plantation Mill Yard on Antigua c. 1820 –
William Clark 1823 – British Library via Flickr.

11 October 1736

In 1735, falling sugar prices combined with a prolonged drought threatened many of Antigua’s British plantation owners with significant financial losses. Their response was to cut rations for their slaves, to raise daily work quotas and to severely flog those failing to meet them. This may explain why in November a group of Coramantee slaves, originating from the Gold Coast in modern Ghana, began to prepare a rebellion. They hoped to oust the whites from the island and establish their own kingdom under a 35 year old slave called Tackey.1

For months, they diligently planned the technicalities, contacting Creoles (indigenous inhabitants) on the island who they felt would be prepared to help them. A Creole master-carpenter, Tomboy, agreed to lay gunpowder while erecting the seating for a ball on 11 October 1736 to mark King George II’s coronation. It was to be held at a prominent islander’s mansion at St. Johns and most of the island’s wealthy plantation owners had been invited. The moment the explosion occurred, hundreds of rebels would seize key positions in the harbour and would then be reinforced by slave risings across the island.2

At the last minute, the detailed plans had to be put on hold when the ball was unexpectedly postponed and in the following days the unusually aloof behaviour of the slaves raised suspicions among plantation owners, soon confirmed by confessions from three slaves. A four man tribunal was set up on 15 October and within days, Tackey, Tomboy and ten other slaves were executed. As more evidence was extracted through torture, dozens of other suspects were rounded up and by May 1837, 88 slaves had been put to death.3

Some of those executed were burnt alive. One spectator, who’s account was published in the Newcastle Courant, reported that ‘Mr Yoeman’s Quashy Coomah jump’d out of the fire half burnt, but was thrown in again’ and that ‘Morgan’s Ned’, who was gibbeted, managed after being ‘hung up for seven days and seven nights’ to extract his hands from his cuffs, causing him to fall fifteen feet to the ground. ‘He was revived with Cordials and Broth, in Hopes to bring him to a Confession, but he would not confess, and was hung up again.’ The witness added that ‘the burning of Negroes, hanging them on Gibbets alive, racking them upon the wheel &C takes up almost all our time,’ and confessed a grudging respect for the suspect rebels who ‘died with amazing obstinacy.’4

FOOTNOTES

  1. Michael Craton, Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 2009, p. 120.
  2. Ibid, p. 121.
  3. ‘Extract of a Letter Dated 15 Jan,’ the Newcastle Courant, 2 April 1737, p. 1 and Michael Craton, op. cit., pp. 121-122.
  4. ‘Extract of a Letter Dated 15 Jan,’ the Newcastle Courant, 2 April 1737, p. 1.

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