Slave Revolts in the Americas

Slave Revolts in the Americas
Slave Revolts in the Americas

As an expansive literature attests, African-descended slaves in the Americas resisted their enslavement in myriad ways, including malingering, pilferage, temporary absence, sabotage, arson, and maroonage, as well as in music, dance, religion, and other cultural expressions.

In addition to these day-to-day and less directly confrontational forms of resistance and protest, slaves also launched large-scale and often carefully planned uprisings, revolts, and rebellions that directly challenged their subordinate status within the master-slave relationship.

During the period covered in this volume, African-descended slaves in the Americas launched scores of violent revolts and uprisings. Some lasted only a few hours, others decades; most were crushed, some reached negotiated settlements, and a handful succeeded. All influenced the slave system in important ways.

Such large-scale collective actions were far less common in North America than in the circum-Caribbean and Brazil—the destinations of approximately 80 percent of the more than 10 million African slaves forcibly transported to the New World during the era of the transatlantic slave trade. The reasons for the relative infrequency of slave revolts in mainland North America compared to the Caribbean Basin and Brazil have been traced to a number of factors.

North America was characterized by a lower white-slave ratio, smaller production units, a smaller proportion of Africa-born versus American-born slaves, more armed white men, less accessible frontier zones and fewer expanses of open or unclaimed land, more rigorous surveillance and control mechanisms, and greater danger of violent retribution.

Despite these inauspicious circumstances, more than a dozen significant slave rebellions erupted in mainland North America from the early 1700s to the final abolition of U.S. slavery in 1865.

These include the New York Revolt; the Stono Rebellion, Gabriel Prosser’s Rebellion, the Chatham Manor Rebellion, the Louisiana Territory Slave Rebellion (or Deslandes Rebellion), the George Boxley Rebellion, the Fort Blount Revolt, the Denmark Vesey Uprising, Nat Turner’s Rebellion (conventionally considered the bloodiest in U.S. history, with at least 55 whites killed), the Black Seminole Slave Rebellion, the Amistad Revolt, and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

The aftermath of each of these revolts was marked by violent retribution and the imposition of tighter controls on slave populations by individual slave owners and local, state, and federal governments. Especially after the onset of the Haitian Revolution, slaveholders across the Americas intensified their surveillance and control of slave populations.

Slave uprisings in the circum-Caribbean and Brazil were more frequent, longer, involved greater numbers of slaves, and posed a more abiding threat to the institution of chattel slavery.

Among the most prominent of such revolts and uprisings were the First Maroon War in Jamaica; the Suriname slave wars, which lasted for most of the 18th century; Tacky’s War (Jamaica); Kofi’s Revolt (Dutch Guyana); the Jamaican Uprising of 1773; the watershed Saint-Domingue Uprising, or Haitian Revolution; another Jamaica Maroon Rebellion; Tula’s Revolt (Curaçao); the Santa Lucia Revolt; the Guadeloupe Revolt; Bussa’s Uprising (Barbados); the Demerera Revolts (British Guiana); the Antigua Revolt; the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt, or Christmas Uprising (Jamaica); the Bahia Revolts (Brazil); numerous revolts in the British Virgin Islands; and the La Escalera Conspiracy in Cuba.

In particular, the second Demerera Revolt in British Guiana and Christmas Uprising in Jamaica underscored the contradiction between free labor ideology and the institution of chattel slavery, prompting lawmakers in London to accelerate the process of slave emancipation throughout the British Empire, including Upper and Lower Canada, which came in 1833.

For scholars of African slavery in the Americas, an important debate was launched with the thesis proposed by the historian Eugene Genovese in his book, From Rebellion to Revolution. To Genovese, the Haitian Revolution represented a watershed moment in New World slavery and slave resistance.

Earlier revolts and uprisings were more “restorationist,” ideologically circumscribed, and did not aspire to challenge the totality of the slave system. In contrast, the post-Haiti slave revolts were more “revolutionary,” modern, infused with republican and Enlightenment notions of rights and citizenship, and geared more toward overturning the slave system as a whole.

Scholars have debated Genovese’s thesis in a host of specific instances, resulting in broad consensus that the “restorationist” versus “revolutionary” dichotomy unduly simplifies a more variegated and multilayered process—much as the “resistance” versus “accommodation” dichotomy unduly simplifies a more complex reality—and a body of scholarship that has greatly enriched understanding of the slave experience in the Americas, the role of slaves in hastening their own emancipation, and the role of African slavery in the making of the modern world.