23/08/2013 12:46 BST | Updated 23/10/2013 06:12 BST

How to Tell a Riot From a Rebellion


Every year at this time, the UK celebrates its Caribbean heritage at the Notting Hill Carnival. The country also holds its collective breath, many worrying that the mass revelry could turn into a violent street fight.

The event had its origins in trouble. The first Caribbean Carnival was held in 1959 at St. Pancras Town Hall in response to the Notting Hill race riots of the previous year, when roving gangs of right wing white youth attacked West Indians during over two weeks of street battles. In 1976, after the festival had moved outdoors, black youth clashed with police who had attempted to arrest a suspected pickpocket. Despite the subsequent passage of the Race Relations Act, black Britons continued to feel harassed by the police and stung by a general atmosphere of disdain during the long period of racial unrest that led to the Brixton and Toxteth riots of the 1980s. The Notting Hill Carnival witnessed occasional disturbances into the twenty-first century, and has been associated in many people's minds with other great urban riots and uprisings, including those that tore through the United Kingdom in August 2011. Mostly, however, Carnival has just been a brilliant occasion to have a good time.

Worries about Carnival often stem from the difficulty of distinguishing crime from politics, and telling a riot from a rebellion. This is made even tougher by a long tradition of viewing all black protests as if they were the same, explosions of disorder without justification or clear intention. Contrary to popular belief, many black uprisings have resulted from careful strategy and tactics in response to genuine grievances.

This has been the case since at least the 18th Century, when a major slave revolt in Jamaica attacked the heart of the British Empire. In 1760, more than fifteen hundred enslaved black men and women took advantage of Britain's Seven Year's War against France and Spain to stage a massive uprising in Jamaica, which began in April and continued until October of the next year. Over those eighteen months rebels destroyed vast amounts of property and killed as many as sixty whites. As with more recent disturbances in London, people at the time debated whether the rebellion was a spontaneous eruption or a carefully planned affair. Historians still debate the question today, their task made more difficult by the lack of written records produced by the insurgents themselves.

Now, however, a new alliance between historians and mapmakers promises to enlighten the public perception of black insurrection. With the help of cartographers, historians can analyse this slave revolt by plotting its movements on thematic maps that reveal the strategies of the rebels and the tactics of counterinsurgency. A new map of the 1760-1761 slave insurrection in Jamaica shows that the island's topography shaped the course of the revolt, that the rebellion included at least three distinct uprisings, and that its suppression required the sequenced collaboration of several distinct elements of British military power. From the cartographic evidence, it appears that the insurrection was in fact a well-planned affair that posed a genuine strategic threat, checked ultimately by an effective counterinsurgency.

Since the days of black bondage, in the former slave societies of the Atlantic world, black freedom struggles have often been described as riots and rampages. Such descriptions tie centuries-old images of black violence to modern stereotypes about black people's propensity to crime and provide a handy justification for denying legitimate claims to political participation and rights. By applying new methods of research, we might dispel these misconceptions. If historians and cartographers can find new explanations for Caribbean uprisings that happened more than 250 years ago, it should be much easier to understand more recent events, with our newfound access to geo-coded data and mapping software.

Mapping other uprisings can help us to better understand the politics of such events so that we can be less afraid of every street party. But most importantly, understanding black rebellions will make it easier to recognize and address the conditions that compel people to go to war against their own societies.

Vincent Brown is the Charles Warren Professor of History at Harvard University. He is the principal investigator and curator for the animated thematic map Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761: