The King Court Monument, sculpted by Reginald Samuel, on Independence Drive – during a visit by participants of my Jhohadli Summer Youth Writing Project in 2013.
I’ve been meaning to share some information about Antigua and Barbuda’s first national hero King Court (also known as Prince Klaas or Klass) which hit my mailbox (via activist Edith ‘Snookie’ Oladele) last October. Today, as anti-Blackness and systemic racism are still very much with us (and we are not immune from either even in majority Black places like the Caribbean), it seems timely to revisit the case of Klaas. It seems particularly urgent in light of a conversation I had here in Antigua this past week in which we explored colourism, racism, over policing, and classism right here at home and the exposed and still bleeding wound of racism in America and other places where, like the Caribbean, European led colonialism and enslavement of African people set certain patterns still with us today in motion. At some point in the conversation, I was sharing the story of Klaas with two Antiguans-Barbudans, of two different generations, who didn’t know it, who had not learned it in our school system. I didn’t either but I’ve put it together over the years, plus I’ve been most years to Watch Night (which is the Emancipation night activity which revisits the public murder of Klaas and his fellow freedom fighters of 1736). I was glad to share it because we need to know. For this telling of the story though, I’ll defer to the researched information from that October email which opens with:
“Today, October 20, 2019, marks the 283rd anniversary of the death of Prince Klaas/King Court/King Tacky in 1736. During the following five months, 87 other men were cruelly executed all because they dared to want to be free from slavery. They are Antigua and Barbuda’s first anti-slavery martyrs and heroes. Let us remember to acknowledge and honour them today Keep their memory and their courage alive our youth and we too, need to know our history Please share the attached information with your contacts and to as many members of your family and friends as you can. These heroes must not be forgotten The seed of freedom was planted on this island through their blood. That blood cries out to be remembered and the revolution continues Freedom is not yet as long as we continue to forget.”
“Please share the attached information”: Mission accepted.
“King Court was born in 1691 in Ghana, the West African country that used to be called, the Gold Coast. He was captured from his native land and brought to Antigua in 1701 as a young boy of 10, one of the dreaded “Coromantee” slaves. The name ‘Coromantee’ was given to those West Africans who were shipped from the slave holding fort of Coromantin in Ghana. …
“Oral traditions claim that he was from a Royal House in Ghana. Thus, he would have been accustomed to all the freedom and privileges that his high status conferred on him. …
“King Court is described in one account as a tall man with ‘full, burning eyes’ who dressed well, usually in a tailored coat. He often wore a green silk hat adorned with a bunch of black feathers. He was a trusted valet or ‘waiting man’ for his master, a wealthy, white merchant named Thomas Kerby who lived in St. John’s. King Court enjoyed more privileges than was customary for a slave and he carried himself with a regal air. He could have become a Creole – a slave fully acculturated to life on a West Indian sugar plantation. But he refused to deny his African heritage and insisted that he be regarded as an African.
A rendering of Court by a participant in my Jhohadli Summer Youth Writing Project after our visit to the monument.
“King Court quickly became a leader among his fellow enslaved people …
“They crowned him ‘King of the Coromantees’ in broad daylight at two o’clock in the afternoon of Sunday October 3rd, 1736. The coronation was accompanied by a dazzling, military ‘ikem’, a traditional shield dance of the Akan peoples of Ghana. The ceremony was attended by a large assemblage blacks and a significant number of whites. The latter were probable entranced by the show of pageantry and pomp, but the blacks knew well that behind all the merry-making, the ‘shield dance’ was intended to affirm and demonstrate their loyalty to King Court. The coronation took place in the area of what is now Upper Gambles, opposite the St. John’s Boys School on the northern side of Old Parham road. King Court was seated under ‘a canopy of state, surrounded by his great officers.’ He ‘walked in procession as King and had all the homage and respect of a king paid to him’. …
“King Court had planned an island-wide insurrection involving slaves from all the sugar plantations. …
“His aim was to overthrow the British oppressors by blowing up the ‘great house’ where the annual ball for the planter class was scheduled to be held. Had his plan succeeded, it would have had widespread repercussions, not only in Antigua, but the rest of the West Indian colonies. It would have dealt a severe blow to the institution of slavery and the plantation system. But King Court was cruelly betrayed by some of his fellow slaves. In revenge, he and his followers were subjected to extreme torture and executed by the British colonial government. His strong body was broken on a wheel on Market Street on October 20th, 1736.” Read the full citation: KLASS CITATION FOR KING COURT
An article by Kofi Ayim provides some additional context.
“Antigua and Barbuda, a two-island nation in Eastern Caribbean saw a series of slave rebellions in the 1720s led by stoic men like Sharper, Frank, Papa Will and “King” Tackey. The story of Tackey is the most intriguing. He was kidnapped and brought to Antigua in 1701.
Records put his arrival age at between 10 to 15 years old. His origins are traced to Kromantse (Coromantee) in the then Gold Coast, now Ghana. Kromantse, a fishing village in the Central region of Ghana, was used by European slave trading nations as a major holding and shipping point for slaves brought from hinterland. The historic town still exists as does the stone castle-dungeon that held the captives. It is conceivable therefore that all so-called Coromantee slaves were not necessarily natives of the Gold Coast. Consequently, there is no such thing as “slaves from the Coromantee tribe” as alleged in some works. Tackey was said to have come from the Asante (Ashanti) tribe. If accurate, the name is a corrupted version of his original “Tachie” name. As an adult slave in Antigua, Tackey was crowned a king, complete with Akan religious ceremony in the presence of some two thousand slaves, the largest gathering in Antigua at that time. He was highly respected and was very influential amongst all the slaves in Antigua. …
“In 1728, at age 37, the King and others hatched a plot that, if successful, would free his people and change conditions under which they lived in the country. Working with Tackey and Tomboy were Sekundi and Jacko, both Creole slaves. Other active participants included Hercules, Jack, Scipio, Ned, Fortune, and Joney. It must be noted that these silly-sounding names were assigned by slave owners to serve their own whims and caprices. For several years they planned and plotted in secrecy.
A ceremony for the British Crown was to be held on October 11, 1735. Tomboy, an ace carpenter had the job of supervising carpentry work in a hall that would host a grand ball. The plot therefore assigned him the task of planting gunpowder at vantage points in the dancehall, where assault would be initiated as dancing begun. About 300 to 400 slaves were to enter town, subdue the partying whites (kill them if necessary) and seize strategic interests. The event was however, postponed to October 30. Tomboy and others insisted on carrying out the plot on the agreed date but King Tackey persuaded his comrades to wait out the postponement. A slave, called Johnny, snitched out the plot.
The governor ordered an inquiry and as a result eighty-eight slaves, besides Tackey, were implicated. They would be executed or punished in a most cruel and barbaric fashion. On October 26, 1736 King Tackey and his two generals were crucified. He was tied spread eagle onto a round wheel and left outside to die a slow and agonizing death that would deter others. Six were gibbeted for public viewing; seventy-seven burnt alive and thirty six banished. Three slaves, Jacko, Ghlode, and Sacky who belonged to Sir William Codrington, one-time owner of the Betty Hope Sugar Plantation were among those executed.” Read this article in full: KLASS Celebrating King Tackey
Read also the list of enslaved people, and how and when they were executed: KLAAS SLAVES EXECUTED
The roll call is actually one of the features of Watch Night. I’m not sure what’s happening with Watch Night in 2020. Carnival’s been cancelled but it’s never really been a part of Carnival so much as a thing apart, even though it’s been moved from Betty’s Hope to the Botanical Gardens; plus public holidays are public holidays – could this be the year that Watch Night eclipses Carnival?
Written by Joanne C. Hillhouse. Find out about me at http://jhohadli.wordpress.com . Respect copyright.