Sandy was an enslaved African and leader of the first documented slave revolt in the Caribbean island of Tobago. It cannot be determined exactly when and where Sandy was born, as accounts of his life are incomplete. According to early reports, Sandy was a carpenter on Courland Estate, one of the recently developed sugar plantations co-owned by Samuel Hall. According to one later account, the man who would later be christened Sandy was “a young African chief, captured by a rival and sold into slavery”; he, along with other tribesmen, was brought to Tobago, where he was purchased by Hall (Ottley, 1948). The historiography of Sandy’s Rebellion proves to be equally important as the actual events that took place in November 1770. Tracking the narrative shift is necessary to understanding Sandy’s significance. Reports of the events that came to be known as Sandy’s Rebellion are contradictory. The earliest reports of the incident available to the public are extracts of letters sent abroad by members of the Council Board of Tobago, a petition from eight planters requesting arms to battle the rebels, and an unsigned letter sent to Grenada, all published in newspapers in Britain and America in February 1771. By contrast, several later accounts of the rebellion were extracted from a combination of reports written long after the event and oral histories drawn from local legends.
At the end of the Seven Years’ War (1754–1763), Tobago, along with the islands of St. Vincent, the Grenadines, Grenada, and Dominica, were ceded to Britain from France under the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The next year William Young was appointed commissioner for the sale of ceded lands. In October 1770 Young was appointed lieutenant governor, and the first shipment of sugar left for Britain, thereby establishing Tobago’s entry into the profitable West Indies sugar-producing economy. By 1770 the African slave population in Tobago reached 3,093, compared to 238 white men. In spite of this, the living and working conditions for slaves in Tobago were harsh; that same year the island reported seventy-one runaway slaves.
These circumstances helped plant the seeds for rebellion. All accounts identify the start of the rebellion when Sandy attacked Samuel Hall sometime between 11 and 13 November 1770. In the letters from 1771, the motivations behind Sandy’s revolt are characterized as a personal retaliation against a flogging Hall ordered on Sandy earlier in the day. In the evening, while Hall was asleep, Sandy entered his room, stabbed him multiple times, and left him for dead. The early reports also identify Sandy and his fellow rebels as Coromantee slaves from what was then known as the Gold Coast of Africa (modern-day Ghana). The Coromantee were characterized by their militaristic background, translated by planter-historians as a rebellious, natural resistance to enslavement. It was an association that would have been clear in the eighteenth century, as the leaders of the Maroon wars in Jamaica in the 1740s were alleged to be Coromantee, as was Tacky, the leader of a revolt on that island in 1760. Twentieth-century scholars reconstructed the events in a different way. In these later versions, no flogging occurred: Sandy and his coconspirators were not identified by their regional affiliation; they did not plan the attack in advance; the rebellion was a general attack on the institution and conditions of slavery and not personal retaliation. In addition, later scholars report that Sandy murdered Samuel Hall in his bedroom, whereas the early reports state that Hall survived the stabbing.
Following their attack on Hall, Sandy and the other rebels attacked the barracks at Courland Point/Bay, murdering two of the soldiers and taking all of the available arms and ammunition. The rebels, eventually thirty-three, forty, or fifty in number, burned and attacked estates along their path. Days later, on 26 November, a group of the island’s leading planters sent a request to Samuel Wood, speaker of the General Assembly of Barbados, for a loan of one hundred stand of arms (or a full set of weapons for one soldier) and ammunition. The loan was granted, and General Melville sent twenty soldiers from Grenada to aid the settlers in their fight. The rebels were driven into the woods. By the time the extracts of a letter sent from a member of the Council Board of Tobago was published in the Pennsylvania Journal, the insurrection was over, as the council member reports that “most of them are either killed, hanged, burnt, or taken,” and four of his own slaves were found in the woods with their throats slit in what appeared to be mass suicides (1771).
Immediate reaction to Sandy’s Rebellion in Tobago saw plans to import a greater number of white servants to work on the estates in response to increased fear and mistrust harbored by the planters for African slaves, a sentiment expressed throughout the West Indies. This measure did little to guarantee safety on the island, because by the end of the century, two more large-scale revolts occurred in Tobago: Bloody Bay in 1771 and Queen’s Bay in 1774. What followed was an attempt, much like the promotional material published to potential proprietors in the late 1760s, to downplay the social and economic impact rebellions such as Sandy’s had on the future of Tobago. The Report of the Committee of Tobago from 1799 revealed that both crime and punishment in the colony decreased, in part because of the high mortality rate among slaves in Tobago. In his only mention of these early revolts, Henry Iles Woodcock makes only a passing reference, asserting that “in the years 1770 and 1771 no less than three insurrections of the slaves took place, all of which were happily put down” (1867). These rebeliions did not dampen the colonizers' insatiable desire for enslaved labor. According to the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, 15,101 African captives were forced on board vessels bound for Tobago between 1771 and the end of British slave trade in 1808, 13,687 of whom survived the Middle Passage.
Both eighteenth- and twentieth-century records are unable to disclose Sandy’s ultimate fate. The early accounts simply state that by the end of November the rebels were defeated, yet offer no indication to Sandy’s whereabouts. Later historians propose a more ambiguous conclusion supporting the legend that Sandy avoided capture and death by escaping to Trinidad, the nearest island, still under Spanish possession and welcoming to runaway slaves from neighboring territories. Local tradition claims that the people from the Toco/Matelot village of Trinidad with the surname Sandy are descendants of the escaped slave from Tobago.
A version of this article by Desha Osborne first appeared in the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography.
From Slavery to Emancipation, Trinidad and Tobago government website. https://www.natt.gov.tt/sites/default/files/pdfs/Emancipation_-_SOLD_INTO_SLAVERY.pdf
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Steven J. Niven
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.