Slave rebellion

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A slave rebellion is an armed uprising by slaves. Slave rebellions have occurred in nearly all societies that practice slavery, and are amongst the most feared events for slaveholders. The most successful slave rebellion in history was the 18th-century Haitian Revolution led by Toussaint L'Ouverture against their French colonial rulers, and which founded the extant country. Other famous historic slave rebellions have been led by the Roman slave Spartacus, as well as the thrall (Scandinavian slave) Tunni who rebelled against the Swedish monarch Ongentheow, a rebellion that needed Danish assistance to be quelled. In the ninth century, the poet-prophet Ali bin Muhammad led imported East African slaves in Iraq during the Zanj Rebellion against the Abbasid Caliphate; Nanny of the Maroons was an 18th-century leader who rebelled against the British in Jamaica; and the Quilombos dos Palmares of Brazil flourished under Ganazumba (Ganga Zumba). The 1811 German Coast Uprising in the Territory of [New] Orleans was the largest rebellion in the continental U.S.; Denmark Vesey rebelled in South Carolina, USA; and Madison Washington during the Creole case in 19th century United States.

Ancient Sparta had a special type of serf-like helots. The helots were treated harshly and sometimes resorted to rebellions.[1] According to Herodotus (IX, 28–29), helots were seven times as numerous as Spartans. Every autumn, according to Plutarch (Life of Lycurgus, 28, 3–7), the Spartan ephors would pro forma declare war on the helot population so that any Spartan citizen could kill a helot without fear of blood or guilt in order to keep them in line (crypteia).

In the Roman Empire, though the heterogeneous nature of the slave population worked against a strong sense of solidarity, slave revolts did occur and were severely punished.[2] The most famous slave rebellion in Europe was led by Spartacus in Roman Italy, the Third Servile War. This war resulted in the 6000 surviving members of the rebellious slaves being crucified along the main roads leading into Rome.[3] This was the third in a series of unrelated Servile Wars fought by slaves to the Romans.

The English peasants' revolt of 1381 led to calls for the reform of feudalism in England and an increase in rights for serfs. The Peasants' Revolt was one of a number of popular revolts in late medieval Europe. Richard II agreed to reforms including fair rents and the abolition of serfdom. Following the collapse of the revolt, the king's concessions were quickly revoked, but the rebellion is significant because it marked the beginning of the end of serfdom in medieval England.[4]

In Russia, the slaves were usually classified as kholops. A kholop's master had unlimited power over his life. Slavery remained a major institution in Russia until 1723, when Peter the Great converted the household slaves into house serfs. Russian agricultural slaves were formally converted into serfs earlier in 1679.[5] During the 16th and 17th centuries, runaway serfs and kholops known as Cossacks ("outlaws") formed autonomous communities in the southern steppes.

There were numerous rebellions against slavery and serfdom, most often in conjunction with Cossack uprisings, such as the uprisings of Ivan Bolotnikov (1606–1607), Stenka Razin (1667–1671),[6] Kondraty Bulavin (1707–1709), and Yemelyan Pugachev (1773–1775), often involving hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions.[7] Between the end of the Pugachev rebellion and the beginning of the 19th century, there were hundreds of outbreaks across Russia.[8]

Numerous African slave rebellions and insurrections took place in North America during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. There is documentary evidence of more than 250 uprisings or attempted uprisings involving ten or more slaves. Three of the best known in the United States during the 19th century are the revolts by Gabriel Prosser in Virginia in 1800, Denmark Vesey in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822, and Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831.

Slave resistance in the antebellum South did not gain the attention of academic historians until the 1940s when historian Herbert Aptheker started publishing the first serious scholarly work on the subject. Aptheker stressed how rebellions were rooted in the exploitative conditions of the southern slave system. He traversed libraries and archives throughout the South, managing to uncover roughly 250 similar instances.

Middle East

The Zanj Rebellion was the culmination of a series of small revolts. It took place near the city of Basra, in southern Iraq over fifteen years (869−883 AD). It grew to involve over 500,000 slaves, who were imported from across the Muslim empire.

Europe and the Mediterranean

The Servile Wars were a series of slave revolts against the Roman Republic during .

Other slave revolts occurred elsewhere.

A number of slave revolts occurred in the Mediterranean area during the early modern period:

  • 1748: Hungarian, Georgian and Maltese slaves on board the Ottoman ship Lupa revolted and sailed the ship to Malta.[9]
  • 1749: Conspiracy of the Slaves – Muslim slaves in Malta planned to rebel and take over the island, but plans leaked out beforehand and the would-be rebels were arrested and many were executed.[9]
  • 1760: Christian slaves on board the Ottoman ship Corona Ottomana revolted and sailed the ship to Malta.[9]

São Tomé and Príncipe

In the first decades of the 17th century, there were frequent slave revolts in the Portuguese colony of São Tomé and Príncipe, off the African shore, which damaged the sugar crop cultivation there.

South America and the Caribbean

Haitian coin (20 gourdes) bearing the image of François Mackandal, leader of a slave rebellion

Quilombo dos Palmares in Brazil, 1605 to 1694.

St. John, 1733, in what was then the Danish West Indies. The St. John's Slave Rebellion is one of the earliest and longest lasting slave rebellions in the Americas.

The most successful slave uprising was the Haitian Revolution, which began in 1791 and was eventually led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, culminating in the independent black republic of Haiti.[10]

Panama also has an extensive history of slave rebellions going back to the 16th century. Slaves were brought to the isthmus from many regions in Africa, including the modern day countries of the Congo, Senegal, Guinea, and Mozambique. Immediately before their arrival on shore, or very soon after, many enslaved Africans revolted against their captors or participated in mass maroonage or desertion. The freed Africans founded communities in the forests and mountains, organized guerrilla bands known as Cimarrones. They began a long guerrilla war against the Spanish Conquistadores, sometimes in conjunction with nearby indigenous communities like the Kuna and the Guaymí. Despite massacres by the Spanish, the rebels fought until the Spanish crown was forced to concede to treaties that granted the Africans a life without Spanish violence and incursions. The leaders of the guerrilla revolts included Felipillo, Bayano, Juan de Dioso, Domingo Congo, Antón Mandinga, and Luis de Mozambique.

Tacky's War (1760) was a slave uprising in Jamaica, which ran from May to July before it was put down by the British colonial government.

The Suriname slave rebellion was marked by constant guerrilla warfare by Maroons and in 1765-1793 by the Aluku. This rebellion was led by Boni.

The Berbice slave revolt in Guyana in 1763 was led by Cuffy.

Cuba had slave revolts in 1795, 1798, 1802, 1805, 1812 (the Aponte revolt), 1825, 1827, 1829, 1833, 1834, 1835, 1838, 1839–43 and 1844 (the La Escalera conspiracy and revolt).

Revolts of the Caribbean Islands

Vincent Brown, a professor of History and of African and African-American Studies at Harvard, has made a study of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In 2013, Brown teamed up with Axis Maps to create an interactive map of Jamaican slave uprisings in the 18th century called, “Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761, A Cartographic Narrative.”[11] Brown's efforts have shown that the slave insurrection in Jamaica in 1760-61 was a carefully planned affair and not a spontaneous, chaotic eruption, as was often argued (due in large part to the lack of written records produced by the insurgents).[12]

Later, in 1795, several slave rebellions broke out across the Caribbean, influenced by the Haitian Revolution. In Jamaica, the descendants of Africans who fought and escaped from slavery and established free communities in the mountainous interior of Jamaica (Maroons), fought to preserve their freedom British colonialists, in what came to be known as the Second Maroon War. In Dominica there was the Colihault Uprising and the Baptist War, 1831–1832, led by the Baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe. In Saint Lucia the Bush War. In the Saint Vincent islands the Second Carib War broke out. In Grenada there was the Fedon Rebellion.[13] Curaçao had a 1795 slave revolt, led by Tula In Venezuela, José Leonardo Chirino's Insurrection occurred in 1795. In Barbados, an 1816 slave revolt, led by Bussa. In Guyana occurred the Demerara Rebellion of 1795.[14]

In the British Virgin Islands, minor slave revolts occurred in 1790, 1823 and 1830.

In Danish West Indies an 1848 slave revolt lead to emancipation of all slaves in the Danish West Indies.

In Puerto Rico in 1821, Marcos Xiorro planned and conspired to lead a slave revolt against the sugar plantation owners and the Spanish Colonial government. Even though the conspiracy was unsuccessful, Xiorro achieved legendary status among the slaves and is part of Puerto Rico's folklore.[15]


Many slave rebellions occurred in Brazil including the Bahia Rebellion of 1835 (The Great Revolt),[16] as did the Bahia Rebellion of 1822-1830[16] and the Malê Revolt of 1835.[16]

North America

Numerous black slave rebellions and insurrections took place in North America during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. There is documentary evidence of more than 250 uprisings or attempted uprisings involving ten or more slaves. Three of the best known in the United States during the 19th century are the revolts by Gabriel Prosser in Virginia in 1800, Denmark Vesey in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822, and Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831.

Drapetomania was a supposed mental illness described by American physician Samuel A. Cartwright in 1851 that caused black slaves to flee captivity. Today, drapetomania is considered an example of pseudoscience, and part of the edifice of scientific racism.

Slave resistance in the antebellum South did not gain the attention of academic historians until the 1940s when historian Herbert Aptheker started publishing the first serious scholarly work on the subject. Aptheker stressed how rebellions were rooted in the exploitative conditions of the southern slave system. He traversed libraries and archives throughout the South, managing to uncover roughly 250 similar instances.

The 1811 German Coast Uprising, which took place in rural southeast Louisiana, then the Territory of Orleans, early in 1811, involved up to 500 insurgent slaves. It was suppressed by white militias and a detachment of the United States Army. In retaliation for the deaths of two white men and the destruction of property, the authorities killed at least 40 black men in a violent confrontation (the numbers cited are inconsistent); at least 29 more were executed (combined figures from two jurisdictions, St. Charles Parish and Orleans Parish). There was a third jurisdiction for a tribunal and what amounted to summary judgments against the accused, St. John the Baptist Parish. Several men (fewer than 20) are said to have escaped; some of those were later caught and killed, on their way to freedom.

Although only involving about seventy slaves, Turner's 1831 rebellion is considered to be a devastating event in American history. Over sixty people were killed, causing the slave-holding South to go into a panic. Fifty-five men, women and children were killed as Turner and his fellow rebel slaves rampaged from plantation to plantation throughout Virginia. Turner and the other slaves were eventually stopped as their ammunition ran out. The rebellion resulted in the hanging of about eighteen slaves, including Nat Turner himself. Up to 200 other blacks were killed during the hysteria which followed, few of whom likely had anything to do with the uprising.[17] Fears afterwards led to new legislation passed by southern states prohibiting the movement, assembly, and education of slaves, and reducing the rights of free people of color. In addition, the Virginia legislature considered abolishing slavery to prevent further rebellions. In a close vote, however, the state decided to keep slaves.

John Brown had already fought against pro-slavery forces in Kansas for several years when he decided to lead a raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. This raid was a joint attack by former slaves, freed blacks, and white men who had corresponded with slaves on plantations in order to form a general uprising among slaves. It almost succeeded, had it not been for Brown's delay, and hundreds of slaves left their plantations to join Brown's force - and others left their plantations to join Brown in an escape to the mountains. Eventually, due to a tactical error by Brown, their force was quelled by the U.S. military, led by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee. But directly following this, slave disobedience and the number of runaways increased markedly in Virginia.[18]

The historian Steven Hahn proposes that the self-organized involvement of slaves in the Union Army during the American Civil War composed a slave rebellion that dwarfed all others.[19] Similarly, tens of thousands of slaves joined British forces or escaped to British lines during the American Revolution, sometimes using the disruption of war to gain freedom. For instance, when the British evacuated from Charleston and Savannah, they took 10,000 slaves with them. They also evacuated slaves from New York, taking more than 3,000 for resettlement to Nova Scotia, where they were recorded as Black Loyalists and given land grants.[20]

North American slave revolts


In 1808 and 1825 there were slave rebellions in the Cape Colony, newly acquired by the British. Although the slave trade was officially abolished in the British Empire by the Slave Trade Act of 1807, and slavery itself a generation later with the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, it took until 1850 to be halted in the territories which were to become South Africa. [26]

Slave ship revolts

There are 485 recorded instances of slaves revolting on board slave ships.[27] A few of these ships endured more than one uprising during their career.[27]

Most accounts of revolts aboard slave ships are given by Europeans. There are few examples of accounts by slaves themselves. William Snelgrave reported that the slaves that revolted on the British ship Henry in 1721 claimed that those who had captured them were "Rogues to buy them" and that they were bent on regaining their liberty.[28] Another example that Richardson gives is that of James Towne who gives the account of slaves stating that Europeans did not have the right to enslave and take them away from their homeland and "wives and children."[29]

Richardson compares several factors that contributed to slave revolts on board ships: conditions on the ships, geographical location, and proximity to the shore.[28] He suggests that revolts were more likely to occur when a ship was still in sight of the shore. The threat of attack from the shore by other Africans was also a concern. If the ship was hit by disease and a large portion of the crew had been killed, the chances of insurrection were higher.[28] Where the slaves were captured also had an effect on the amount of insurrections.[28] In many places, such as the Bight of Benin and the Bight of Biafra the percentage of revolts and the percentage of the slave trade match up.[28] Yet ships taking slaves from Senegambia experienced 22 percent of shipboard revolts while only contributing to four and a half percent of the slave trade.[30] Slaves coming from West Central Africa accounted for 44 percent of the trade while only experiencing 11 percent of total revolts.[30]

Lorenzo J. Greene gives many accounts of slave revolts on ships coming out of New England. These ships belonged to Puritans who, despite their claim of being "pure", controlled much of the slave trade in New England.[31] Most revolts on board ships were unsuccessful. The crews of these ships, while outnumbered, were disciplined, well fed, and armed with muskets, swords, and sometimes cannons, and they were always on guard for resistance.[32] The slaves on the other hand were the opposite, armed only with bits of wood and the chains that bound them.[33]

However, some captives were able to take over the ships that were their prisons and regain their freedom. On October 5, 1764 the New Hampshire ship Adventure captained by John Millar was successfully taken by its cargo.[32] The slaves on board revolted while the ship was anchored off the coast and all but two of the crew, including Captain Millar, had succumbed to disease.[34] Another successful slave revolt occurred six days after the ship Little George had left the Guinea coast. The ship carried ninety-six slaves, thirty-five of which were male.[32] The slaves attacked in the early hours of the morning, easily overpowering the two men on guard. The slaves were able to get one of the cannons on board loaded and fired it at the crew. After taking control of the ship they sailed it up the Sierra Leone River and escaped.[32] After having defended themselves for several days below decks with muskets the crew lowered a small boat into the river to escape. After nine days of living off of raw rice they were rescued.[35]

There is one factor that is not addressed by either Richardson or Greene. That is of enslaved sailors on slave ships. While Mariana P. Candido doesn't write explicitly on revolts, she does discuss there being enslaved Africans working on the ships that transported other Africans into slavery. These men, 230 in all,[36] were used onboard of slave ships for their ability to communicate with the slaves being brought on board and to translate between Captain and Slaver.[37] Enslaved sailors were able to alleviate some of the fears that newly boarded slaves had, such as being eaten.[38] This was a double-edged sword. The enslaved sailors sometimes joined other slaves in the revolts against the captain they served. In 1812 enslaved sailors joined a revolt on board the Portuguese ship Feliz Eugenia just off the coast of Benguela.[36] The revolt took place below decks. The sailors, along with many of the children that were on board, were able to escape using small boats.[39]


  • Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, 6. ed., New York: International Publ., 1993 - classic
  • Matt D. Childs, The 1812 Aponte Rebellion in Cuba and the Struggle Against African Slavery, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006
  • David P. Geggus, ed., The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001
  • Eugene D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World, Louisiana State University Press 1980
  • Joao Jose Reis, Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia (Johns Hopkins Studies in Atlantic History and Culture), Johns Hopkins Univ Press 1993
  • Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2007.
  • Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2007.

See also

References and notes

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  2. "Resisting Slavery in Ancient Rome By Professor Keith Bradle". Retrieved 2013-10-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "The Sicilian Slave Wars and Spartacus". Retrieved 2013-10-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Chronology Of Slavery". Retrieved 2013-10-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "Ways of ending slavery". 1910-01-31. Retrieved 2013-10-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "Russia before Peter the Great". Retrieved 2013-10-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Rebellions". Retrieved 2013-10-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "The Slave Revolts". Retrieved 2013-10-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Castillo, Dennis Angelo (2006). The Maltese Cross: A Strategic History of Malta. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 91. ISBN 9780313323294.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti: Comprehending a View of the Principal Transactions in the Revolution of Saint Domingo: with Its Ancient and Modern State". World Digital Library. Retrieved 23 April 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. THE FÉDONS OF GRENADA, 1763-1814. Posted by Curtis Jacobs. Retrieved March 10, 2013, to 18: 25 pm.
  14. McGowan, Winston (2006). "The 1763 and 1823 slave rebellions". Starbucks News. Retrieved December 7, 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[dead link]
  15. "Slave revolts in Puerto Rico: conspiracies and uprisings, 1795-1873"; by: Guillermo A. Bar alt; Publisher Markus Wiener Publishers; ISBN 1-55876-463-1, ISBN 978-1-55876-463-7
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 "A Continuity of the 19th Century Jihaad Movements of Western Sudan". "Muhammad Sharif".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "Nat Turner's Rebellion". PBS. Retrieved November 15, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Louis A. DeCaro Jr., John Brown--The Cost of Freedom: Selections from His Life & Letters (New York: International Publishers, 2007), 16.
  19. Hahn, Steven (2004). "The Greatest Slave Rebellion in Modern History: Southern Slaves in the American Civil War". Retrieved August 22, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Peter Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619-1877, New York: Hill and Wang, 1993, pp. 73-77
  21. Joseph Cephas Carroll, Slave Insurrections in the United States, 1800-1865, p. 13
  22. Rasmussen, Daniel (2011). American Uprising: The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt. HarperCollins. p. 288.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. J.B. Bird, author and designer. "Black Seminole slave rebellion, introduction - Rebellion". Retrieved 2013-10-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. "Unidentified Young Man". World Digital Library. 1839–1840. Retrieved 2013-07-28.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. "SLAVE REVOLT OF 1842". Retrieved 2013-10-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Giliomee, Hermann (2003). "The Afrikaners", Chapter 4 - Masters, Slaves and Servants, the fear of gelykstelling, Page 93,94
  27. 27.0 27.1 Richardson, David (January 2001). "Shipboard Revolts, African Authority, and the Atlantic Slave Trade". The William and Mary Quarterly. 3. 58 (1): 72.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 28.3 28.4 Richardson, David (January 2001). "Shipboard Revolts, African Authority, and the Atlantic Slave Trade". The William and Mary Quarterly. 3. 58 (1).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. Richardson. Cite journal requires |journal= (help); Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. 30.0 30.1 Richardson. : Table 1. Cite journal requires |journal= (help); Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. Greene, Lorenzo. Mutiny on Slave Ships. p. 346.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 32.3 Greene, Lorenzo. Mutiny on Slave Ships.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. Greene. p. 347. Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  34. Greene. p. 349. Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  35. Greene. p. 351. Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  36. 36.0 36.1 Candido, Mariana P. (September 2010). "Different Slave Journeys: Enslaved African Seamen on Board Portuguese Ships c. 1760-1820's". 31 (3): 400. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  37. Candido. : 397. Cite journal requires |journal= (help); Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  38. Candido, Mariana P. (September 2010). "Different Slave Journeys: Enslaved African Seamen on Board Portuguese Ships c. 1760-1820's". 31 (3). Cite journal requires |journal= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  39. Candido. : 398. Cite journal requires |journal= (help); Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

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