African Slave Revolts

Slave revolts represented the highest stage of the struggle for freedom from slavery, and areas with high black-slave population densities generally had more frequent and severe conspiracies and revolts. In British Guyana, for example, the slave population at its peak constituted about ninety per cent of the total population; Jamaica, Brazil and San Domingo (Haiti) had similar large black concentrations; and Cuba was not far behind. In the United States, however, blacks were in the majority in only two states, Mississippi and South Carolina.

Excluding San Domingo, the greatest African slave revolts in the Americas occurred in Jamaica and Guyana. The first was the Maroon War in Jamaica in 1725, when bands of slaves fled into the mountains to establish their own community. In 1739, the British were forced to sign a treaty with Captain Cudjoe, from the Gold Coast, who agreed to send back any runaway slaves in return for rights of self-government and a tax-free
existence. […]

It was in Brazil that the African armed struggle reached impressive proportions for an extended period – prior to the San Domingo epoch. Small-scale revolts had long been part of Brazil’s history of slavery but it was the state of Palmares which, for most of the seventeenth century, from 1605-95, established an autonomous African community estimated at 20 000 inhabitants originally Bantu from the Congo-Angola region. They sought to model their society on their homeland and resisted both the Dutch and Portuguese until they finally succumbed in 1695. These freedom struggles illustrate the nascent African nationalism in the Caribbean and Latin American segments of the diaspora. The objectives were not merely vengeance or escape to the hills but to establish areas where Africans would have political control and could defend themselves against their enemies. African religions such as obeah and vodum, were important as organizing tools. So too was Islam, especially in Bahia where it helped to solidify the Hausa and the Yoruba.

Scores of major plots and conspiracies and several serious insurrections by Africans also occurred in North America during this same period. Most plantations were far from any terrain suited to rebel activity, such as the mountains of Jamaica or the jungles of Guyana. But escape to live among the Indians or others was an option taken by a considerable number of slaves in some of the southern colonies, as in the flight to the Seminole Indians in Florida with whom the escaped slaves later raided neighbouring
plantations. Insurrections also occurred in Virginia and Maryland in the early eighteenth century as soon as it became clear that a pattern of enslaving Africans for life was replacing the indentured system, and as the Carolinas adopted extensive plantation production using slave codes developed in the Caribbean. In 1730, conspiracies involving slaves were uncovered in the three colonies of Virginia, Carolina and Louisiana. They were led by Africans who had previously been involved in revolts in West Africa. The following year there was a mutiny aboard a slave ship lying off the shore of Rhode Island and, four years later, a group of slaves destroyed themselves and their captors aboard the slaver, Dolphin. The most serious revolt of this period took place in 1739 in South Carolina as Cudjoe was checkmating the British army in the mountains of Jamaica. It is recorded as Cato’s Rebellion.

In the northern American colonies, where there were fewer than 3000 Africans among approximately six times as many whites and where there were no plantations, there were similar troubles. In 1712 a group led by a Gold Coast African tried to burn down New York City. A similar attempt was made in Boston in 1723. In 1741, the most widely publicized episode occurred – another attempt at arson in New York City, the details of which are still in dispute. Two years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, there was another scare in Boston. It is significant that this first cycle of plots and revolts in North America tended to be led by Africans recently imported and still fighting against enslavement. By 1772 suggestions were being heard in several parts of the American colonies that all free blacks should be deported to Africa or the West Indies. Free blacks were regarded as instigators of resistance. Hangings and similar brutal treatment were applied to those caught following revolutionary activities.

J. E . Harris (USA): specialist in African diaspora; author of various publications and articles on the subject; currently Professor at Howard University, Washington D C .

Source: General History of Africa Vol.V. [Editor: B.A.Ogot] Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Chapter 5. The African diaspora in the Old and the New Worlds.

 

 

 

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