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Slave Revolts and Resistance Previous Next
Digital History ID 461


Slave resistance is a difficult subjects to discuss. It is hard for us today to imagine how slavery could function as an efficient economic system in the face of slave resistance. On larger plantations, there were only about two adult white males to oversee 50 or more slaves. We like to think that if we were enslaved, we would actively resist the institution. As a popular anthem of the Civil Rights era put it: "Before I'd be a slave, I'd be buried in my grave."

Although slave masters described their slave population as faithful, docile, and contented, slaveowners in the South, Brazil, and the West Indies always feared slave revolt. In fact no enslaved people in history revolted as frequently as the New World slaves. One historians has identified over 200 examples of open rebellion or fears of slave conspiracies in America between the early seventeenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries.

Southern slaveholders cited the rarity of large-scale slave revolts as proof that slaves were contented under slavery. Yet African Americans resisted slavery in a variety of active and passive ways. For the most part, they sought realistic incremental gains, though in a number of instances, slaves did organize major revolts against slavery. Even when slaves did not resist their condition directly and openly, they sought autonomy in less dramatic ways.

"Day-to-day resistance" was the most common form of opposition to slavery. Breaking tools, feigning illness, staging slowdowns, and committing acts of arson and sabotage--all were forms of resistance and expressions of slaves' alienation from their masters. One North Carolina cook later recalled: "How many times I spit in the biscuits and peed in the coffee just to get back at them mean white folks."

Running away was another form of resistance. Most slaves ran away relatively short distances and were not trying to permanently escape from slavery. Instead, they were temporarily withholding their labor as a form of economic bargaining and negotiation. Slavery involved a constant process of negotiation as slaves bargained over the pace of work, the amount of free time they would enjoy, monetary rewards, access to garden plots, and the freedom to practice burials, marriages, and religious ceremonies free from white oversight.

Some fugitives did try to permanently escape slavery. While the idea of escaping slavery quickly brings to mind the Underground Railroad to the free states, in fact more than half of these long-distance runaways headed southward or to cities or to natural refuges like swamps. Often, runaways were relatively privileged slaves who had served as river boatmen or coachmen and were familiar with the outside world.

Especially in the colonial period, fugitive slaves tried to form runaway communities known as "maroon colonies." Located in swamps, mountains, or frontier regions, some of these communities resisted capture for several decades. Many revolts were in fact collective efforts to run away from slavery. In a famous 1739 revolt in colonial South Carolina known as the Stono Rebellion, the slaves were headed for refuge in Spanish Florida.

Probably the first slave revolt erupted in Hispaniola in 1522. During the early eighteenth century there were slave uprisings in Long Island in 1708 and in New York City in 1712. Slaves in South Carolina staged several insurrections, culminating in the Stono Rebellion in 1739, when they seized arms, killed whites, and burned houses. In 1740 and 1741, conspiracies were uncovered in Charleston and New York. During the late eighteenth century, slave revolts erupted in Guadeloupe, Grenada, Jamaica, Surinam, San Domingue (Haiti), Venezuela, and the Windward Island and many fugitive slaves, known as maroons, fled to remote regions and carried on guerrilla warfare (during the 1820s, a fugitive slave named Bob Ferebee led a band in fugitive slaves in guerrilla warfare in Virginia). During the early nineteenth century, major conspiracies or revolts against slavery took place in Richmond, Virginia, in 1800; in Louisiana in 1811; in Barbados in 1816; in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822; in Demerara in 1823; and in Jamaica and in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831.

Slave revolts were most likely when slaves outnumbered whites, when masters were absent, and during periods of economic distress. They were also most common in areas with the largest plantations, at times when the white elite was divided, and when large numbers of native-born Africans had been brought into an area at one time.

Black religion made a major contribution to resistance to slavery. When Denmark Vesey sought to gain recruits for his plot to overthrow slavery in Charleston in 1822, one slave said, "he tries to prove...that slavery and bondage is against the Bible." Nat Turner's 1831 insurrection was inspired by a religious vision that revealed that "the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first."

The main result of slave insurrections, throughout the Americas, was the mass executions of blacks. After a slave conspiracy was uncovered in New York City in 1740, 18 slaves were hanged and 13 were burned alive. After Denmark Vesey's conspiracy was uncovered, the authorities in Charleston hanged 37 blacks. Following Nat Turner's insurrection, the local militia killed about 100 blacks and 20 more slaves, including Turner, were later executed. In the South, the preconditions for successful rebellion did not exist, and tended to bring increased suffering and repression to the slave community.

Violent rebellion was rarer and smaller in scale in the American South than in Brazil or the Caribbean, reflecting the relatively small proportion of blacks in the southern population, the low proportion of recent migrants from Africa, and the relatively small size of southern plantations. Compared to the Caribbean, prospects for successful sustained rebellions in the American South were bleak. In Jamaica, slaves outnumbered whites by ten or eleven to one; in the South, a much larger white population was committed to suppressing rebellion. In general, Africans were more likely than New World-born slaves to participate in outright revolts. Not only did many Africans have combat experience prior to enslavement, but they also had fewer family and communities ties that might inhibit violent insurre

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