Slavery, war, and Britain's Atlantic empire : black soldiers, sailors, and rebels in the Seven Years' War
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This work is a social and cultural history of the participation of enslaved and free Blacks in the Seven Years’ War in British America. It is, as well, an intellectual history of the impact of Blacks’ wartime actions upon conceptions of race, slavery, and imperial identity in the British Atlantic world. In addition to offering a fresh analysis of the significance of Britain’s arming of Blacks in the eighteenth century, it represents the first sustained inquiry into Blacks’ experience of this global conflict. It contends that, though their rhetoric might indicate otherwise, neither race nor enslaved status in practice prevented Britons from arming Blacks. In fact, Blacks played the most essential role in martial endeavors precisely where slavery was most fundamental to society. The exigencies of worldwide war transformed a local reliance upon black soldiers for the defense of particular colonies into an imperial dependence upon them for the security of Britain’s Atlantic empire. The events of the Seven Years’ War convinced many Britons that black soldiers were effective and even indispensable in the empire’s tropical colonies, but they also confirmed that not all Blacks could be trusted with arms. This work examines “Tacky’s revolt,” during which more than a thousand slaves exploited the wartime diffusion of Jamaica’s defensive forces to rebel, as a battle of the Seven Years’ War. The experience of insecurity and insurrection during the conflict caused some Britons to question the imperial value of the institution of slavery and to propose that Blacks be transformed from a source of vulnerability as slaves to the key to the empire’s strength in the southern Atlantic as free subjects. While martial service offered some Blacks a means to gain income, skills, a sense of satisfaction, autonomy, community, and even (though rarely) freedom, the majority of Blacks did not personally benefit from their contributions to the British war effort. Despite the pragmatic martial antislavery rhetoric that flourished postwar, in the end the British armed Blacks to perpetuate slavery, not to eradicate it, and an ever more regimented reliance upon black soldiers became a lasting legacy of the Seven Years’ War.