4.4 Resistance to Slavery, the Anti-Slavery Movement, and Abolition
Although many millions of Africans were shipped across the Atlantic ocean for a lifetime of toil, it is erroneous to think that this forced migration was unconditionally accepted or condoned by the parties involved. It is true that the slave trade did persist for over four hundred years, however, there were various dissenting voices which could be heard from the trade's very inception.
Various forms of servitude had existed in Africa before the arrival of the Europeans. However, the size and magnitude of the European trade quickly turned the slave trade into something completely alien to anything experienced before. The importation of a huge number of firearms into Africa in exchange for slaves had drastically altered the political and cultural environment in certain areas. African rulers, aware of the negative effects on their people and/or the stability of their nations, were often caught between the desire to end the trade and the ramifications of such a decision. Other Africans, in their bid to resist Europeans and less willing to negotiate, relied on their knowledge and strength on land to ward off European slaving parties. John Hawkins' second slaving voyage to the Sierra Leone river in 1564, for example, resulted in the surprise attack on him and his party by a band of Africans who pursued them back to their boats, hacking to pieces those who were mired, fully armoured, in the mud. Even when Europeans built forts on the coastlines of West Africa, they were not always welcome. Armed soldiers were needed to supervise the construction of the Danish fort Prindsenstein, as the people of Keta were less than enthusiastic about the building and would continually attack. Although purchase and negotiation were usually more successful than outright kidnap, enslaved Africans were far less docile than many Europeans believed was their natural inclination. Slaving from the safety of a ship was no guarantee of an unmolested venture, as a man identified only as the brother of Captain Ingledieu discovered when his sloop was attacked and boarded by about eighty Africans. The Commissioner for Sierra Leone reported as late as 1824 that as a result of kidnapping, “the natives within the reach of such kidnapping expeditions are rendered savage and intractable, so much so that they are always disposed to deal harshly with such Europeans as may fall into their hands”.
Even if a slaver managed to secure a full cargo of Africans in the hold of his ship, the long voyage across the Atlantic (the "Middle Passage") was very seldom a serene one. Not only did the captain have to contend with disease, which could kill ten to twenty per cent of his slaves (and crew), but slaves would take often extreme measures to regain their liberty. The racism of Europeans, who believed that certain slaves were more docile or more inherently aggressive sometimes resulted in varying treatment of cargoes during the trans-Atlantic crossing, although the treatment of slaves was often dependent on each individual captain. Although it was recognised that kind treatment lessened the threat of slave rebellion on board ship, the fundamental loss of freedom was a more important factor in African uprisings. As well, rebellion was more common while the ship was still in sight of land, although uprisings at sea had still to be guarded against. At three o'clock on the morning of April 14, 1750, sixty Africans began a revolt on board the Snow Ann, seizing powder and arms and wounding all the crew but two. They ran the boat ashore south of Cape Lopez and escaped, leaving the crew to abandon the sinking vessel and make their way to safety. Only five crewmen were actually rescued, the rest having died from either wounds or drowning or illness. A surgeon in the Royal Navy in the eighteenth century, John Atkins, observed that because many Africans thought:
European slavers were so concerned about the threat of slave revolts that they would sometimes purchase a small number of slaves from another region of Africa to go below with the other slaves and inform the Europeans of any plots for insurrection.
Other forms of on-board resistance were less overtly violent, although the least amount of resistance from the slaves on board was often met with violent repercussions from European slavers. If slaves who had been allowed on deck to dance resisted or moved too slowly, they were often encouraged with a cat o' nine tails. Captured slaves would sometimes throw themselves overboard if the opportunity presented itself. Slaves could also refuse to eat, although a ship's surgeon, Dr. Alexander Falconbridge observed in 1788 that in such cases:
Men, women and children would often respond to capture with shrieks, cries, or by singing mournful songs. Some slaves, however, fell into such deep depressions that no amount of threatening would be effective. Falconbridge recounts that one slave woman was so depressed that she became ill and refused all food and medical attention and died soon after. Captured Africans would also hang themselves to escape the bonds of slavery, believing that death would transport them back to their homeland. Slaves would resist their capture even after the slave ship had docked in the New World, and entry into a life of labour was often marked by more forms of both active and passive resistance to slavery.
Methods of African resistance in the Americas were incredibly varied, and Africans were far from docile or content in their slavery. Fredrick Douglass, an escaped slave, remarked; "I have found that to make a contented slave it is necessary to make a thoughtless one." A slave owner, speaking in 1829, commented the "the power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect." Obviously, from the countless instances of slave resistance, submission was not as high on a slave's list of priorities as his or her master would have liked. Slave resistance encompassed everything from subtle tricks to rising in open revolt against white masters. It was common practice to give slaves up to a year to "break them in" or “season” them to their new work environment before setting them to more arduous tasks, a fact which suggests that newly arrived Africans were less than co-operative to the wishes of their masters. One of the most immediate and severe forms of resistance was suicide, and in one instance as many as twenty slaves hung themselves together at one time to escape slavery.
In spite of the best efforts of slave owners to destroy any sort of identity in a newly acquired slave, such as giving the slave a new name or number, African culture provided a resilient and adaptable entity which was beyond the reach of slave owners. Cultural integrity was generally better preserved in South America and the Caribbean. Although the slaves of the United States were a far less cohesive group, African culture proved adaptable and vital on Southern plantations. African music and Saturday night dances in the woods provided a much-needed escape from the realities of slave life and reinforced bonds within the slave community.
Once a slave was set to work, there were many avenues open for resisting the worst aspects of slavery. One of the most prevalent was the stealing of the master's provisions and livestock, a response to slavery itself as well as to chronic food shortages amongst slave populations. Charles Ball, an ex-slave, revealed that he "was never acquainted with any slave who believed that he violated any rule of morality by appropriating to himself anything that belonged to his master, if it was necessary to his comfort." Slaves were also thought to be chronic liars, especially towards their masters and managers. As well, they would work as slowly as they could and would try to appear as stupid and dull as the slave owner assumed they were in order to do as little work as possible for the fewest number of whippings. This "laziness" was so ubiquitous amongst slave societies that Africans were thought to have peculiar ailments that prevented them from working. One Doctor was so duped by this subtle method of resistance that he defined the condition as "Dyaesthesia Aethiopica", which had symptoms including "breaking the tools he [the slave] works with, and spoiling everything he touches that can be injured by careless handling. Hence the overseers call it 'rascality,' supposing that the mischief is intentionally done."
Even though working in the "great house" was considered to hold certain advantages for the slaves so employed, domestic slaves were often accused of laziness and obstinacy because they were constantly under the master's eye. However, working in the master's house added some interesting dimensions to slave resistance. One domestic servant overheard her master at dinner discussing with his wife two field hands who were to be sold. Knowing that she could not spell, he spelled out the names of the two slaves involved. That night, she carefully repeated the letters to another slave who knew the alphabet, and in the morning the two slaves in question were gone, having run away rather than be sold. More violent was the case of a fifteen year-old African domestic servant girl in Jamaica who admitted to having poisoned her master, watching "his agonies without one expression of surprise or pity". Both black and white people, however, often died abruptly or mysteriously from a variety of tropical diseases, and if a slave-owner fell ill, it was not uncommon for him or her to accuse domestic slaves of poisoning them. Any direct assault on a white person by an African was almost always met with the severest retribution. The 1685 Code Noir of the French islands ordered that:
Running away was always an option for a slave, although it was significantly more dangerous than simply working slowly or breaking tools and equipment. Runaways were a very early slave phenomenon. As early as 1570, New Spain had an African slave population of 20,000, of which at least 2,000 had already become fugitives. Slaves that managed to evade capture, called Cimarrones by the Spanish, would sometimes band together in the wilderness and establish distinct communities, known generally as "Maroons". Maroon societies existed throughout the Caribbean and South America, and were a thorn in the side of the slave holders, not least because the presence of a Maroon community often induced slave restlessness. In the Spanish Americas, these communities survived by cultivation and hunting, or by raiding local plantations and communities. One of the most famous of these communities were the Maroons of Jamaica. This settlement had begun under Spanish rule and by the time the English gained control of the island in 1655, there were about 1500 enslaved Africans who had retreated to the mountains on the surrender of their masters to the English. For more than forty years there were repeated altercations between English soldiers and the Maroons, and the English spent more than £240,000 trying to suppress the community. They presented so much resistance that some plantations had to be abandoned entirely. Two Maroon wars were fought on the island, one between 1725 and 1740, and the second in 1795-96. The first of these altercations resulted in the Maroons being granted by treaty some portions of Jamaica, although they then had to act as slave catchers during other slave revolts. How strictly the Maroons adhered to the treaty is, however, debatable.
Although Maroon societies were to be found throughout South America and the Caribbean and as far north as Florida, they all shared in common a retention of African culture, largely due to the fact that they were to be found in larger, more culturally cohesive groups than in the rest of the United States. As well, the geography also affected the success of Maroon societies, and some Caribbean islands were simply to small and too populated to afford the necessary shelter for runaways. North American slaves were less numerous, and the policies of "divide and rule" were more diligently applied, ensuring that African slaves would become more assimilated and less apt to establish large, well organized societies. Slaves in the United States, however, had recourse to the northern states, which were less involved in the slave trade and which had abolished the slave trade entirely by the early nineteenth century. Slaves fleeing to these states, however, could still be captured and returned to their masters, as they were still considered property. Specially trained dogs could be purchased to track down runaway slaves and newspapers commonly ran ads detailing the descriptions of runaway slaves. In Canada, however, slaves could achieve true liberty, as American slave catchers had no jurisdiction on the other side of the forty-ninth parallel. Slaves were aided in their bid for freedom by those people, both black and white, who were sympathetic to their plight, and an intricate system of transportation, which was to become known as the Underground Railroad, helped countless numbers of slaves to safety and freedom.
Slave revolts were particularly feared by slave owners, as in most areas of the New World (except for the United States) slaves outnumbered the white population, often by immense amounts. 1789 Guadeloupe, for example, there were 13,700 whites and over 89,500 blacks. Although it is, perhaps, surprising that there were not more revolts when the numbers involved were so unbalanced, there were a myriad of physical and psychological factors which kept slave societies relatively stable. Plantation slaves were kept as isolated as possible from slaves on other plantations, to prevent large gatherings, and hierarchies within slave communities were fostered by white slave owners to increase the disunity of slave groups. Violence was also used as an ever-present threat against the slaves, and could take many forms. Nor was violence meted out solely as the result of offence, as general whippings of slaves was felt to be necessary to maintain discipline. The 1839 diary of one slave owner records that he “[w]hiped [sic] every hand in the field this evening commencing with the driver” and later records: “[g]ave my negros about my lot the worst Whipping they ever had”.
Just as slaves in the US South were less likely than their South American or Caribbean counterparts to join together in large societies, so too were they less involved in outright rebellion against their masters. Whereas slave insurrections in the Caribbean could muster hundreds of slaves and involve the killing of white men and the destruction of property on a massive scale, US revolts were generally much smaller and involved fewer slaves. The revolt led by Nat Turner in Virginia in 1831 involved only about seventy slaves, whereas the average number of slaves involved in Jamaican uprisings was 400. If slaves failed in their attempt at revolt, there was little doubt as to their fate. A failed 1675 plot in Barbados resulted in six slaves being burnt alive, with eleven others being beheaded and their bodies dragged through the streets. The only entirely successful slave revolt was that which took place in San Domingue (Haiti), beginning in 1791. After a decade of fighting with French soldiers the African rebels, led militarily by Toussaint L'Overture achieved independence at the cost of a shattered economy and much loss of life. The Haitian example demonstrated the potential of slave rebellion to white slave owners, who recognised the fragility of their position if a similar uprising were to erupt in their own areas.The abolition debates occurring in England in the late eighteenth century trickled into New World holdings, inciting more revolts. As the slave trade was abolished by European nations, the slave populations in the New World became more Creole (American-born), and this, as well as the growth and spread of churches where slaves could gather, provided rich new material for rebellion and helped loosen the bonds of black slavery. Revolts of the early nineteenth century were now led more often by members and leaders of local chapels. The message itself may not have been radical, but the social impact of Christian ideologies on slave societies was profound. The effect of this message on slaves is found in one example given by Beverly Jones, an ex-slave from Virginia, who told of one Church memorable service:
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