Early slave revolts…sabotaging the institution

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THE role of slave resistance in bringing slavery to an end is often overlooked.

Yet, African resistance to enslavement and captives’ rebellion against the conditions of slavery were natural reactions to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. 

Slave resistance began in British North America, almost as soon as the first slaves arrived in the Chesapeake in the early 17th Century. 

As one scholar put it: “Slaves ‘naturally’ resisted their enslavement because slavery was fundamentally unnatural.”

According to slave owners, ‘slaves were notoriously lazy and ill-disposed to labour’, which illustrates why daily resistance was ubiquitous. 

The enslaved also engaged in acts of non-co-operation, petty theft and sabotage as well as countless acts of insubordination.

For example, in Virginia, during 1780–1864, some 1 418 slaves were convicted of various crimes; 91 of the convictions were for insurrection while 346 for murder.

Sometimes, enslaved Africans would resort to more open or violent means of resistance, including the poisoning of animals and owners, and sometimes turned it against themselves by committing infanticide, self-mutilation and suicide.

It was not unusual for slaves to absent themselves from enslavement for a few hours or a few days, regardless of the punishment they might receive on their return. 

It is estimated that about 10 percent of all the enslaved took such action, which sometimes involved moving temporarily to another location or, for those held captive in the Caribbean, even to another island.

In his book American Negro Slave Revolts (1943), historian Herbert Aptheker estimates that over 250 slave rebellions occurred in the United States between 1619 and 1865. 

Rebellion would reach its peak in 1791, when the enslaved people of the French colony of St Domingue defeated three European powers to establish the first Black republic: Haiti.

Some of these insurrections were terrifying for slave owners; such as Stono River Rebellion of 1739, the Gabriel Prosser Slave Revolt in 1800, Vesey’s Rebellion in 1822 and Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831. 

When slaves were unable to rebel directly, they performed subtle acts of resistance, ranging from work slow-downs to feigning illness.

These everyday forms of resistance vexed slave masters, but there was little they could do to stop them without risking more widespread breaks in production.

Resistance to slavery had a long history, beginning in Africa itself. 

Resistance in Africa

In African societies, there are many examples of opposition to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. 

One of the earliest documented is the correspondence of the Congo ruler Nzinga Mbemba (also known as Afonso I, c. 1446–1543) who wrote to the King of Portugal, João III, in 1526 to demand an end to the illegal depopulation of his kingdom. 

The Congolese King’s successor, Garcia II, made similar unsuccessful protests.

Other African rulers took a stand. 

For instance, in the early 17th Century Nzinga Mbandi (c. 1583–1663), Queen of Ndongo (modern-day Angola), fought against the Portuguese – part of a century-long campaign of resistance waged by the kingdom against the slave trade. 

Anti-slavery motives can also be found in the activities of the Christian leader Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita (1684–1706) in the Congo. Several major African states took measures to limit and suppress the slave trade, including the kingdoms of Benin and Dahomey. 

Agaja Trudo, the King of Dahomey (r. 1708–40), banned the slave trade and even went as far as attacking the European forts on the coast. 

Unfortunately, Agaja Trudo’s successor did not share his view and profited from engaging in the trade.

Several Muslim states in West Africa, including Futa Toro in the Senegal River basin in the late 18th Century and, in the early 19th Century, Futa Jallon in what is now Guinea, were opposed to the trafficking of humans. 

In Futa Jallon, the religious leader Abd al-Qadir wrote a letter to British slave traders threatening death to anyone who tried to procure slaves from his country.

Many ordinary Africans also took measures to protect themselves from enslavement.  Flight was the most obvious method, but there is also evidence that many Africans moved their villages to more inaccessible areas or took other measures to protect them. In his narrative, Olaudah Equiano mentions some of the defensive measures taken in his own village.

It is reported that, when the English slave trader John Hawkins attempted to kidnap people to enslave them in the late 16th Century, he was resisted. 

It is also said that communities of Africans who had fled from enslavement settled on the Cape Verde and other islands off the west coast of Africa. 

Other reports tell of coastal residents who refused to load slave ships with supplies and of many escapes from the forts that held enslaved Africans prior to transport across the Atlantic.

The ‘Middle Passage’

Though they were shackled, sickened and outnumbered, captive Africans frequently fought back against their tormentors. It is now estimated that, in one-in-10 of all Atlantic crossings — the so-called ‘Middle Passage’ – there was some kind of rebellion, with Africans continuing on board the resistance that had failed ashore.

On more than 300 voyages, the captives on the slave deck attempted to overthrow the crew, and in several cases they triumphed. 

Alexander Falconbridge, a slave-ship surgeon who became an abolitionist, certainly believed that rebellions on ships were common and expected, and the Middle Passage became increasingly dangerous for crews. 

In 1742, while taking on slaves in the Sierra Leone River, the vessel, the Jolly Batchelor, was attacked and captured by the enslaved Africans. The crew were killed in the fighting; the Africans stripped the vessel of its rigging and sails and freed the other Africans in the hold. They then abandoned ship.

As a result, slave traders demanded more shackles and arms to hold their captives securely, increasing production in England. 

There are several reports, not only of rebellion but of Africans taking control of ships and attempting to sail them back to Africa, with the assistance of the European crew or without, and of Africans battling other ships. In 1839, the victorious Africans on the slave ship Amistad even succeeded in sailing the ship into port and, eventually, returned home in freedom. 

In many of these rebellions, it appears that women played an important role, as they were sometimes permitted more freedom of movement on board ship. 

On numerous occasions, however, maritime rebellion might simply consist of jumping overboard and committing suicide rather than continuing to endure slavery. 

It seems that the idea that, in death, there was also a return home to Africa was widespread among the enslaved, both on 

the slave ships and in the Americas.

The maroons

Some African slaves on the plantations fought for their freedom by using passive resistance (working slowly) or running away. 

As early as 1640, slaves in Maryland and Virginia absconded from their enslavement, a trend that would grow into the thousands, and, eventually, tens of thousands by the time of the Civil War

The word ‘maroon’ is thought to derive from the Spanish word cimarrón – literally meaning ‘living on mountain tops’ – which was first applied to runaway animals that had returned to their wild state. The term has come to mean communities of fugitive or escaped slaves. The first African maroon communities were established in the early 16th Century when enslaved Africans were brought to the Caribbean by the Spanish. 

Some of these built on earlier traditions of Amerindian runaways or even joined in creating settlements with them. In Hispaniola, it is estimated that, by 1546, there were over 7 000 maroons among a slave population of 30 000. 

Following the division of the island into French St Domingue (later Haiti) in the west and Spanish Santo Domingo (later the Dominican Republic) in the east, in 1697, maroons took advantage of the hostility between France and Spain to maintain settlements along the border throughout the period of slavery. 

In addition, there were maroons in Cuba, Puerto Rico (including fugitives from other islands including the Danish Virgin Islands) and Jamaica, followed in the 17th Century by communities in St Kitts, Antigua, Barbados and the French colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe. 

Mountainous and heavily wooded islands were also favoured – Jamaica, Cuba, Guadeloupe and Hispaniola.  In addition, there were important communities on the South American mainland, especially in Belize, French and British Guiana, Suriname and Brazil. 

In Brazil, the most famous maroon community, or quilombo, was Palmares, which existed from 1605 to 1694 resisted invasion by both the Dutch and the Portuguese, and is reported to have had a population of at least 10 000 organised and governed by a king using political traditions drawn from central Africa. Significant maroon communities also existed in the US, including the so-called Black Seminoles of Florida. In many places, the maroons essentially comprised a small guerilla band led by an elected chief. 

In Cuba, for example, there were hundreds of small maroon settlements, or palenques – stockades guarded by ditches, stakes and secret paths. Settlements communicated with each other, but most remained isolated, growing their own crops and hunting and fishing, as well as engaging in petty trade, sometimes even with other islands.

The problem of runaways became so serious that most West Indian islands passed laws to deal with this and other forms of resistance.

As a result, laws of severe penalties and rewards for the runaways were enacted. For example, in Antigua, any slave running away for a period of three months or more was to suffer death, loss of limb or whipping at the discretion of two judges whereas in Monsterrat, any white person who captured a runaway slave alive was to be paid 500lbs (500 pounds) of sugar by the owner. Any runaway absent for three months or more was to be executed as a criminal. This was also the case in St Christopher, Jamaica and Barbados.

Thousands of newspaper advertisements attest that African-Americans availed themselves of many avenues of escape. 

Billy Smith and Richard Wijtowicz, in their book Blacks Who Stole Themselves: Advertisements for Runaways in the Pennsylvania Gazette, 1728-90 included a profusion of examples of runaway slave advertisements that appeared in just one newspaper during the 18th Century. 

Such notices contradict the argument that enslaved people were content with their condition. 

The owners’ equal determination to protect their investment is demonstrated by their assiduousness in pursuing the runaways. 

Advertisements on flyers or in newspapers aided bounty hunters and kidnappers, as well as bona fide law enforcement officers, who worked together to return escapees to their owners.

Laws dictating when, where and how slaves could congregate were enacted to prevent insurrection and quell white paranoia.


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