Resistance, rebellion and abolition
African abolition struggles and opposition movements
Breaking The Silence, Learning about the Transatlantic Slave Trade - a UNESCO project*
writer and researcher
ACROSS THE ATLANTIC WORLD, there were always individuals who, acting either alone or as members of groups, publicly expressed their opposition to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. However, the most intense opposition was by the enslaved Africans themselves and their resistance, together with abolitionists across Europe and the United States, was eventually enough to bring the trade to an end. European opposition to slavery was important, but only within a wider campaign against the trade. Ultimately, the people who did most to fight the trade, and who paid the heaviest price for doing so, were the Africans themselves.
The Africans caught up in the Transatlantic Slave Trade did not want to be enslaved. They rebelled whenever they could and their resistance showed how individuals and communities completely rejected their enslavement. Resistance took on many forms, from individuals escaping, to armed revolt, depending on a number of different factors. Despite the role played by the African elites in supplying slaves to the European traders, the Transatlantic Slave Trade was imposed upon village communities through violence and terror. An example of this was the many forts - initially set up for European trade and self defence - in a chain along the West African coast. Because of this new and unfamiliar system of oppression, African resistance was different from traditional forms of social protest.
There were four main times when resistance took place:
* when slaves were captured and sold * on the way to the coast and in the barracoons
* on board the ships during the Middle Passage
* on arrival in the Americas or Caribbean
Sometimes European enslavers provided arms to regional groups (or States) so that they could violently raid neighbouring states and capture slaves for the trade. Many states like this sprang up near the coastal slave forts and also in the interior. The Bambara State of Segu, for example, formed in about 1712, has been described as 'an enormous machine to produce slaves.' Slave raiding and trading were crucial parts of its economy and Europeans provided arms for this purpose. Similarly, the ruler of Dahomey (after he had led the capture of Ouidah in 1727) sold large numbers of military captives, whom he considered to be his personal property, to the Europeans. But even these military campaigns could not provide enough slaves to satisfy the demand and this forced the king to buy Africans from independent slave raiders and resell them to the Europeans.
So whether they lived inside or outside these (European-sponsored) 'raiding states', African populations were exposed to raids from professional warriors. One of the primary roles of these new states that were developed from Senegal to Angola, was to undermine and displace states and leaders that were opposed to the slave trade. However, local communities also learnt how to defend themselves within this new context, and developed an extremely strong culture of resistance to both their European and African captors.
Resistance at the coast
'A harsh response followed a sale of Ashanti slaves in Elmina.... Six captives had been personal servants of a recently dead director-general of the.... company, and they would have been freed if the Asantehene had paid some debts which he owed the company. But he did not, and the Dutch decided to sell the men concerned to traders. We put their feet in shackles... on the day that they were to be sold; the slave dungeons were thoroughly searched for knives and weapons, but apparently not enough...
The result...was that when the company slaves were ordered into yards to hold each other, they [the personal slaves]...cut their own throats; one negro even cut the throat of his wife and then his own; the yard of the noble company's chief castle was thus turned into a bloodbath'.
The records of the English Royal African Company are also full of stories of protest and rebellion. In 1703, for example, Africans overpowered the guards at the Company's fort at Sekondi on the Gold Coast and beheaded its governor. In the same year a European agent was captured in Anamabo and forced to buy his life with the money he had brought with him to buy slaves. Three hundred and eight two slave-ship revolts have been recorded, two-thirds of which took place at the loading port or within a week of setting sail. When such revolts were stopped, they usually resulted in the death of many enslaved Africans. It is estimated that an average of 57 slaves died per incident in 18 revolts on ships in the Senegambia region, compared to 24 per incident in 49 revolts elsewhere on the coast.
In 1730, Captain Adrien Vanvoorn - a Dutch slaver and owner of the Phoenix from Nantes in France - was moored at the mouth of the River Volta in West Africa, negotiating the purchase of slaves from a King in the area. Without warning, a group of Africans appeared from nowhere, burnt the ship and killed many members of the crew. Similarly, Captain William Potter of the Perfect, a slave ship registered in the English port of Liverpool, had a similar experience in 1758 on the River Gambia, when his ship was attacked by local Africans, who had witnessed the sale taking place. Potter had almost finished purchasing over 300 slaves and was preparing to sail to Charleston, South Carolina. The entire crew was killed in the assault. Ten years after this event, the C?te d'or, a 200-ton vessel belonging to Rafael Mendez of Bordeaux in France, was attacked by warriors in rafts on the River Bonny. Heavily armed with guns and knives, they boarded the ship and freed the enslaved Africans. When an English vessel approached, the Africans fled and the crew were able to escape.
Hundreds of similar instances were reported, but some events had a greater impact on the trade than others. One well-documented event took place at Calabar in 1767, when seven English ships - five from Liverpool, one from Bristol and one from London - were waiting for slave cargoes on the Old Calabar River. A group of armed Africans from Old Calabar attacked the English, but they were unsuccessful because the King's soldiers helped the English slavers. The leader of the Old Calabar warriors was then beheaded, and the survivors were sold into slavery in the West Indies.
Resistance during the Middle Passage
Whatever the outcomes was, the vast majority of rebellions resulted in bloodshed. If the enslaved got the upper hand, even temporarily, most of the crew could expect to be killed and if the crew kept control, the death of the rebel leaders was almost inevitable. If the captains or the crew were less vigilant or used less force, it often resulted in rebellion.
If they failed to free themselves, enslaved Africans could expect the most gruesome punishments at the hands of the Europeans, often meant to serve as an example to others. The captain of a Danish vessel, for example, Fredericius Ovartus, after suppressing an African uprising on board his ship, removed the limbs of his captives over a period of three days, in front of others on board. On the fourth day, their heads were cut off. A French captain who had successfully stopped a rebellion on board his ship, hanged the rebel leaders by their feet and whipped them to death. A Dutch captain who survived a revolt, hanged an Ashanti rebel leader by his arms after cutting off his hands. The leader was left to bleed to death in front of the other enslaved Africans.
The European slavers only rarely reported accounts of successful African rebellions. One of the earliest incidents that took place was in 1532, when a Portuguese vessel, the Misericordia (its Captain was Estev?o Carreira), was transporting 109 slaves from Sa? Tom? to Elmina. Somehow, the Africans freed themselves, killed all the crew except for the navigators, and vanished. The navigators later reached Elmina in a lifeboat, but nothing more was ever heard of either the Misericordia or of its human cargo. Something similar happened in 1752 on the British ship the Marlborough, which was registered in Bristol. The 400 slaves on board, who were being transported from Elmina on the Gold Coast and Bonny on the Niger Delta, rose up and killed 33 of the 35 crew - the two remaining crew were kept alive to navigate. The ship then started its return voyage to Bonny, but there was a violent disagreement about the destination of the ship and the result was the death of 98 people. The Gold Coast group finally took control of the ship and headed for Elmina with one of the navigators. This group, too, vanished from written history.
Resistance on plantations
Sometimes slaves 'temporarily' ran away from the plantations as a way of bargaining with the plantation owner or his attorney. They would find a sympathetic free person to bargain on their behalf for a number of things, for example better treatment, less severe working conditions, sometimes for bigger food rations or even for a particularly cruel overseer to be dismissed. Sometimes it worked and the enslaved African would return to the plantation, but this kind of tactic was risky. It was difficult to find a safe hiding place and the punishment for running away could be severe.
An example of this happened on Amity Hall plantation in Vere, Jamaica, where there were normally about 300 slaves. In April 1802 Alex Moir, the manager of a neighbouring estate who had formerly been an overseer on Amity Hall, wrote a letter to the owner of the plantation. He reported that the overseer at Amity Hall was treating the slaves with great cruelty and that as a consequence 'the number of runaways increased to an unexampled degree - there being no fewer than from 25 to 30 continually absent.' He said that several of the runaways had 'come to me with whom they are acquainted...' A month later Moir wrote to her again:
'I here enclose a list of all your Slaves now runaways - many of them I have very lately seen, & they are determined to suffer death rather than return to their duty ... They declare that the moment any other person is appointed to the management of it they will return... and when they have such a person ... they will behave as well as any Slave in the Island.'
His next letter informed the owner that three of the runaways, 'worth to you, Madam ?600 currency [have] perished of hunger in woods'.
Runaways and Maroon Wars, 1600-1800
Many slaves ran away from the plantations with the intention of permanently gaining their freedom. They did this either individually or in groups, sometimes in secret or in the course of a rebellion. Many slave rebellions were planned and carried out, particularly in the colonies where sugar production was the main form of economic activity.
The Maroons were former slaves (and their descendants) who had escaped from slavery and established their own free settlements. The word maroon comes from the Spanish word 'cimarr?n', meaning wild or untamed. At first it was used to describe Amerindians who the Spanish could not control. Settlements of escaped slaves were established in the British colonies of Jamaica and Dominica and what were then the Dutch colonies of Suriname and Berbice in northern South America.
The First Maroon War started in Jamaica in 1728 and lasted for ten years. It was an attempt to disperse the Maroon settlements and re-enslave their occupants. But finally in 1739, the British signed peace treaties with the leaders of the undefeated Maroons from the two major Maroon settlements. Freedom and land were granted to the inhabitants of these settlements and under the terms of one of these treaties, the inhabitants of Accompong still pay no taxes today.
The rebellion in Berbice in 1763 developed into a War of Liberation. The rebel slave forces drove the Dutch northwards down the Berbice River to the coast, and set up rebel headquarters at Fort Nassau. From there, the rebel leader Cuffee, wrote to the Dutch Governor, claiming the whole colony and signing the letter as 'Governor of Berbice'. Then he suggested a compromise - that the southern half should be free and ruled by the Blacks and the northern half by the Whites. But then Dutch reinforcements arrived and there was conflict within the rebel leadership. Finally, the Dutch regained control. In 1804 the British forces occupied Berbice, and the Dutch colonies of Essequibo and Demerara to the west of it. In 1814, the Dutch handed them over to Britain and in 1831 they became known as British Guiana.
While the British and French fought over the island of Dominica between 1763 and 1783, settlements established by escaped slaves continued to grow. By 1785 there were several Maroon settlements in the mountainous centre of the island. However, military expeditions were sent to disperse them and capture their leaders, which they did successfully by 1786.
The Haitian Revolution
The most decisive of all the slave rebellions in the region happened in the French colony of Saint Domingue. It began in 1791 as an ordinary slave uprising, but over the course of the next few years, it became a struggle not only against the slave owners and slave owning interests, but also a struggle for national liberation from French power. Led by Toussaint L'Ouverture (pictured), the enslaved Africans forced the abolition of slavery, expelled the French plantation owners, and took all their property. In 1798 the British tried to capture the island but Toussaint forced them to withdraw. In 1804, Napoleon sent his forces to recover the island and restore slavery. But the army of former slaves led by Dessalines - Toussaint's successor - defeated them, and the independent Republic of Haiti was established. The new Haitian Constitution of 1805 declared that any black person who arrived in the country would automatically become a citizen. This effectively abolished slavery and granted nationhood and citizenship on all former slaves. This was revolutionary and as a result, slaves from many societies in the Americas fled to Haiti in search of liberty and citizenship, the country becoming a beacon of black liberation.
European and American anti-slavery movements
European opposition to the Transatlantic Slave Trade developed slowly, and for a long time it was not effective because of the economic interests involved. There had always been individuals in Europe, and among the European settlers in the Americas, who had voiced their opposition to the trade and to the institution of slavery. But it was not until the late 1700s that anything resembling a serious political movement against slavery, began in Europe.
The European abolitionist movement was dominated by members of religious groups, by philosophers and by a small number of radical political leaders. But not many of these people called for outright and immediate abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, including the Roman Catholic Church. Some priests were against the trade, but many Catholics in the Spanish American colonies, were not. In general, those who were concerned about slavery, protested against the enslavement of indigenous populations rather than of Africans. This meant that they mostly lobbied the Vatican and European governments for abolition of the trade in indigenous slaves and indigenous slavery. Sometimes they were successful, but the result was that when conditions were improved for indigenous populations, it was at the expense of African slaves.
Early on, there were a few random protests against slavery and the slave trade. Bartholomew de Las Casas for example - the leading philosopher-priest of the Catholic movement in Spanish America - criticised the trade after seeing the mortality, neglect and exploitation of enslaved Africans. Queen Elizabeth I of England was also reasonably sensitive to the social destruction caused by kidnapping in Africa, and she urged her subjects to obtain slaves by 'honest' means. Kidnapping, she said, was a moral offence, but slave trading was not. Other European monarchs did not get involved in this debate, although many, like Elizabeth, said they were against importing Africans into Europe, but not into their overseas colonies.
So at this time, there was some agitation towards the slave trade, but no one was committed enough to fight publicly for its abolition. In the 1600s for example, the Quakers in the English Caribbean colonies called for 'moderation' in their use of slaves, which meant making provisions to free loyal or responsible slaves. Although the Quakers at this time were not opposed to the slave trade, or to slavery in general, the English slave owners saw this as an attempt to threaten their property rights, and they persecuted and forced out members of the Caribbean Quaker community as a result.
Ironically, European philosophers who wrote about human liberty, social freedom and justice, also supported and participated in the slave trade. John Locke, for example, the English philosopher, was involved in the slave trade, and so was Thomas Hobbes, also an English philosopher. He wrote about Africans as captives of war who had been defeated by a dominant state, and so their enslavement was lawful and moral. For both Hobbes and Locke, it was better to enslave prisoners of war than to put them to death, as had previously been the case. Enslaving them was more enlightened because it also exposed Africans to European civilization.
The Massachusetts Assembly had already debated, but failed to pass, a resolution to abolish the slave trade before the War of Independence broke out. This had come about because of the fear that importing large numbers of slaves into the Americas would allow rebellious Africans to take root in America. But eventually, the fear of insurrection by the 700,000 black slaves who were now in the mainland colonies, together with the discussions about human rights that were fuelling the American revolutionary war, combined to create political problems for the emerging nation. The issue of the slave trade and slavery now demanded public discussion. In 1780, the State of Pennsylvania banned the trade from 1789, and the States of New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island followed. After that, neighbouring Canada passed its laws, leaving only the American State of Georgia now openly supporting the slave trade.
In Britain in 1783, the House of Commons debated a bill to abolish the slave trade on moral grounds. But the bill was defeated because a majority argued that the slave trade was too profitable. Five years later in England, Thomas Clarkson founded the Committee for Effecting the Abolition of Slave Trade. This Committee later became the British Anti-Slavery Society [in 1823 - Ed.], who campaigned for a two-phased approach to abolition, first of the slave trade, and then of slavery.*
The Anti-Slavery Society was supported in Parliament by the evangelical leader, William Wilberforce, the Member of Parliament for the town of Hull and by the Prime Minister, William Pitt. Clarkson campaigned that the slave trade was unprofitable. He argued that it led to many of the English crew losing their lives on the slave ships, and that it damaged both African and European colonial societies. Pitt, always thinking about the economic side, argued that the evil of the trade should be stopped, provided that English financial interests did not suffer. The following year, the British Privy Council in London started an investigation into the trade.
It was the Americans, after they had achieved their independence from Britain, who took the lead in the abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Many newly independent American states, such as the Carolinas, Maryland and Virginia, outlawed the importation of slaves from Africa in the 1780s. In 1778, the trade was described as corrupted by an immoral 'lust for gain,' and Virginia voted to free all illegally imported Africans.
A bill for the abolition of the slave trade was passed in England in 1807 and implemented in 1808. The British parliament had now been persuaded that economic benefits of transatlantic slaving could no longer be used to justify the trade. In France, the post-revolutionary French National Assembly debated the Transatlantic Slave Trade and slavery in their colonial societies, and in 1793, they condemned both. The French Assembly also followed the decision taken 20 years earlier by the British courts, declaring that any person arriving on French soil, would automatically become free. However, a distinction was still made between trading in slaves and owning them. In France, slavery was abolished in 1794, but the slave trade was still allowed to continue.
Elsewhere in Europe, the Danish government went the furthest of all European governments at this time. In 1792 they declared that from 1803 onwards, the trade in African slaves would no longer be allowed in its colonies. This gave Danish West Indian settlements 10 years to 'stock up' on their slave populations, and more Africans were imported into St. Croix and St. Thomas during this period than in the whole of the last century. For the Danish government, the economic benefits of transatlantic slave trading were now so low, that it was no longer worth fighting the increasing moral and political criticism of the trade. Danish forts on the African coast, for example Christiansborg at Accra, were now no longer profitable, and the Danish, like the English, now preferred to make use of slaves born in their colonies, rather than buy new ones. Plantation owners now also went to some lengths to promote the 'natural reproduction' of slaves, because they thought it would make slavery a less controversial issue. They thought that if they could reduce slave mortality - especially among infants - and increase birth rates, then there would be enough of a labour force in their colonies, and they would not need to import more Africans.
In 1800, the United States Federal Government voted to make it illegal after 1808 for any American resident or citizen to ship slaves, or invest in any slave trading that supplied slaves to a foreign country. As a result, between 1800 and 1808, large numbers of Africans were imported into the major US slave-owning states, such as South Carolina and Louisiana. In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte again legalised transatlantic slaving in the French colonies, which was celebrated by the slavers of Nantes and Marseilles. In the period after 1808, Europe traded illegally in slaves, mostly to Cuba and Brazil. Britain and America put political pressure on the Spanish and Portuguese governments to abolish the trade. This finally happened in Portugal in 1815 and in Spain and the Netherlands in 1818. Despite these agreements, still enslaved Africans continued to be imported on a huge scale, into Cuba and Puerto Rico, in English, French, Dutch, Danish, Portuguese and American ships. English and American warships made some attempts to prevent this. In 1818, the French once again abolished the slave trade.
The Haitian government also participated in policing the seas to suppress the trade in slaves. In 1819, for example, a Haitian naval vessel, the Wilberforce, seized a Spanish slave ship off its coasts. The Dos Unidos was laden with slaves headed for Cuba. The Africans were freed and declared citizens of Haiti, despite demands by the Cuban government to Haiti's President Boyer, to return the slaves.
The Spanish and Portuguese governments and colonists declared that they wanted slavery to continue because it was a 'life-line of colonial development', and they criticised the English for their 'duplicity and hypocrisy'. They said that England had only decided to enforce anti-slave-trade policies because its own colonies were developed and no longer needed African-born slaves. And they said that by suppressing the trade, England was attempting to deny the Hispanic region of the Caribbean and Latin America the same opportunities for development. So in the 1820s, thousands of slaves continued to be shipped into Brazil every year. Finally, the Transatlantic Slave Trade was abolished by Portugal in 1831, but it was not until 1850 that Brazil actually refused new African slaves.
Slavery also took off in Cuba during this age of abolitionism. By 1830, the island had twice as many sugar plantations as it had in 1800, and the slave population was growing rapidly as a result of imports from Africa. This was in spite of a Spanish law, which declared that any African who could prove that he or she had been illegally imported into a colony would be set free. Just like the Portuguese law of 1831, it was not applied.
Yet, despite this celebrated case, slave owners continued to import Africans to Cuba in their thousands. Slavery grew on the island and Cuba became the world's leading producers of cane sugar. Finally the trade was ended in the 1860s.
*Between 1828 and 1830 the British Parliament was deluged by over 5000 petitions calling for the gradual abolition (and mitigation) of slavery. Finally, in 1831 the Anti-Slavery Society's younger and more radical elements organised the Agency Committee (which formally separated from the parent body in 1832). It took abolition out into the country and it also committed itself to the unconditional and immediate abolition of slavery. It was part of the massive, organized political upsurge of the English working class, led by the Chartists, in which many activists of African origin played a prominent role. - Editor.
*Breaking the Silence, Learning about the Transatlantic Slave Trade website, is a joint initiative between UNESCO, Anti-Slavery International, the British Council and the Norwegian Agency for Development Co-operation (NORAD). It has been developed in connection with UNESCO's ASPnet Transatlantic Slave Trade Education Project, Breaking the Silence. Some of the texts included are based on material written by the University of the West Indies for the project.
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