Racist plaque in St Peter’s Church, Dorchester

A plaque in a Dorchester church and the 1760 Coromantee Wars in Jamaica

The campaign

One of the effects of the Black Lives Matter movement and the toppling of the Colston statue in Bristol was to highlight the issue of the racist plaque in St Peter’s Church, Dorchester.


The plaque (pictured left) is quite prominent on the north wall, straight opposite you when going in the usual entrance.  Concern about the plaque is years old, but it was brought into focus by the Black Lives Matter movement in May 2020.  Stand Up To Racism Dorset decided to do something.  A campaign of letters and features in the media led to the Parochial Church Council deciding that the plaque would be covered, pending its removal.  It will be offered to a museum.  The Church Council agreed to this action without opposition – we were really pushing against an open door, but a door that may not have been pushed open without us.





What does the plaque commemorate?

Well, here’s the short story:  In 1760 Jamaica was the wealthiest colony in the British Empire, on the basis of slave based sugar plantations.  In revolt against slavery, many enslaved people rose up.  The revolt, led by a man called Tacky, was put down and the leaders were punished with great brutality.  This shows the desperation of enslaved people, their fight for freedom, and the evil of slavery.

The person commemorated, John Gordon, was a significant plantation owner, and a significant slave owner.  In the militia, he and was clearly part of the brutal suppression of the revolt in which 500 enslaved people were killed, and a further 500 removed from the island.  The plaque is a celebration of white supremacy and murder.

That’s a kind of morality tale, and is true, of course.  It was the story used in the campaign to remove the plaque.  But there is a lot more to say if we want to understand the events, including some of the ambiguities. The plaque following its covering

The plaque now (pictured above) following the campaign

The Story of an Atlantic Slave War

My main source is Tacky’s Revolt by Vincent Brown, Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.  Harvard University Press, 2020.

Also his presentation to the Museum of the American Revolution:


His interactive map is a comprehensive story of the history and geography of the wars:  Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761 A Cartographic Narrative   http://revolt.axismaps.com/

Brown uses contemporary books by Edward Long and (near contemporary) Bryan Edwards.

The image on the right above – Am I not a man and a brother – was extensively used in the abolition movement, showing a supplicant black man in bondage appealing to our humanity and reliant on our help.  This, in modern language, is the white saviour view of things.

Brown is insistent about starting the story in Africa, and we should be too.

The people fighting for their freedom were Africans from what was known as the Gold Coast – modern Ghana and the Ivory Coast.  The area was characterised by militarised hierarchical states, a culture of militarism, and a lot of people in armies.  The people who became enslaved were not suppliants on their knees.  They had a culture grown in the West African wars – social hierarchies, military discipline, military prowess and experience of fighting wars in a terrain quite similar to Jamaica’s.

The Wars of 1760

The best description of the events of 1760-61 is the interactive map:  Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761  A Cartographic Narrative  http://revolt.axismaps.com.  That goes through the events in a great pictorial way.  Here is the introduction to it:

In 1760, some fifteen hundred enslaved black men and women— perhaps fewer but probably many more— took advantage of Britain’s Seven Year’s War against France and Spain, to stage a massive uprising in Jamaica, which began on April 7 in the windward parish of St. Mary’s and continued in the leeward parishes until October of the next year.  

Over the course of eighteen months the rebels killed as many as sixty whites and destroyed many thousands of pounds worth of property.  During the suppression of the revolt over five hundred black men and women were killed in battle, executed, or committed suicide. Another 500 were transported from the island for life.  Colonists valued the total cost to the island at nearly a quarter of a million pounds.

“Whether we consider the extent and secrecy of its plan, the multitude of the conspirators, and the difficulty of opposing its eruptions in such a variety of places at once,” wrote planter-historian Edward Long in his 1774 History of Jamaica, this revolt was “more formidable than any hitherto known in the West Indies.”

Long was convinced that the rebellion was the culmination of an island-wide plot by Coromantee compatriots from the Gold Coast of West Africa who hoped to conquer the colony and create a series of principalities “in the African mode.”

Briefly, the wars consist of three main uprisings:

  • Tacky’s Revolt
    • 7 -14 April (Easter)
    • St Mary (North East)
    • Led by Tacky and Jamaica
  • Westmoreland Insurrection (the Coromantee War)
    • 25 May – 17 June (Whitsun)
    • Westmoreland (West)
    • Led by Apongo (Wager) and Simon
  • Simon’s March
    • September – January 1761, with skirmishing till October 1761
    • Westmoreland, St Elizabeth, Clarendon (West and South West)

 The Aftermath

The rebellions were brutally suppressed, and Jamaica continued to be the most profitable colony in the empire.

But the events caused panic in the empire, and led to questioning amongst the colonists, and the British people at large, about the nature of slavery and how rebellious enslaved people could be kept in check in the future.  It led to a change in the model for how slaves should be used in plantations.

In some ways this could be seen as the last truly African revolt; subsequent rebellions were led by people, largely people born in slavery, inspired by Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality and representative government.

If you would like to read the full version of this article, please click here

David Rhodes