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Servile Insurrections

Herbert Aptheker defined a slave revolt as an action involving 10 or more slaves, with “freedom as the apparent aim [and] contemporary references labeling the event as an uprising, plot, insurrection, or the equivalent of these.” Aptheker said, he “has found records of approximately two hundred and fifty revolts and conspiracies in the history of American Negro slavery.” Other scholars have found as many as 313.

Peter Kolchin later wrote that of the some 250 “revolts and conspiracies” that “most of them were minor incidents of unrest that were quickly put down with a minimum of local force or were nipped in the bud before they occurred. Other historians have been more impressed with the paucity than with the ubiquity of American slave revolts.”

Some generalizations concerning slave insurrections and conspiracies in the United States may be of value. The uprisings and plots came in waves, as though anger accumulated and vented itself and then a period of rest and recuperation was needed before the next upsurge. Certainly, waves were the rule, with clearly defined periods, as: 1710-1723, 1730-1704, 1790-1802, 1819-1823, 1829-1832, and 1850-1860. The uprisings were of slave; that is, free black participation was uncommon and white participation (except after 1850) was rare. There is some evidence (especially for the last years of slavery) of plans for land and property distribution as well as an attack upon slavery as such.

Enslaved African Americans protested the burdensome demands of continuous forced labor by committing various day-to-day acts of resistance. These ranged from breaking, hiding or stealing tools to burning crops and structures, running away, feigning illness, killing domestic animals and deliberate work slowdowns. However, the most explosive examples of resistance can be found in the rebellions of the enslaved. There were hundreds of conspiracies whereby enslaved Africans met to plan escapes or attacks on whites. Most of these conspiracies never led to action, often because Africans lost the will, or were betrayed by others bondspeople. Severe reprisals were a consequence of betrayal, including mass executions of suspected leaders, the break up of families or social groups through sale, even the random killing of innocent African Americans, all in an effort to terrorize African Americans into submissiveness.

Suspected rebellions often triggered violent reactions from slaveholders. The "Texas Troubles"occured in the intense political climate of 1860 and demonstrated the impact suspected revolts had on both African American and planter society. An unexplained series of fires in north Texas encouraged slaveholders to form vigilance committees in preparation for insurrection. These groups conducted interrogations that spread terror through quarters occupied by the enslaved and implicated itinerant African American ministers as insurrection leaders. The general rebellion expected on Election Day did not occur, but many suspected abolitionists and African Amercians died at the hands of proslavery vigilantes.

Rebellions outside of North America

It was, however, large-scale and bloody rebellions that frightened slaveowners and brought into greater focus the anger and frustration of the enslaved to Northerners. Only a few organized revolts, in which the enslaved threatened white lives and property, ever actually took place. Latin American and Caribbean African Americans challenged their masters more often than their North American counterparts. Weaker military control, easier escape to rugged interior areas, greater imbalance of Africans to European plantation owners, and the continued dependence of Latin American slaveholders on newly imported African males--- the most difficult of the enslaved to control--help explain this pattern.

The Haitian Slave Rebellion of 1791 was the most spectacular of the Western Hemisphere rebellions. Predated by years of attacks by maroons on plantation owners, the 1791 revolt represented the culmination of conspiracy among African American leaders. The carnage wrought by attacking freedom seekers devastated white settlements and revealed the fury of an oppressed people. 10,000 African Americans were killed in the uprising, and eventually the rebellion was put down at a cost of 2,000 whites killed and over 1,000 plantations burned. Though it failed, the rebellion set in motion events that culminated in the Haitian Revolution.

Rebellion in North America begins in the South

The arrival of Governor Spotswood in Virginia from England in 1730 set the slaves whispering that he,had brought from the King an order "to set all those slaves free that were Christians," and to free those who became Christians, but that their masters had suppressed this. While, at first, "no discovery could be made of any formed Design of their Rising" but merely "unlawful Meetings" and "loose Discourses" and these were soon stopped by "keeping the Militia to their Duty, by Imprisonment and severe Whipping of the most Suspected," within six weeks an actual conspiracy was uncovered. This centered in Norfolk and Princess Anne Counties and had reached the point where, on a Sunday, "whilst the People were at Church," some two hundred slaves gathered and proceedcd "to chuse from among themselve officers to Command their intended Insurrection." This time imprisonment and lashings were thought to be insufficient stimulants to docility and four of the leaders were executed. Thereafter it was provided that white men who went to worship the Prince of Peace were to take their guns with them.

Some hundreds of slaves of East Jersey, near Somerville, planned a rebellion and flight to nearby Indians in 1734, and one of the considerations moving them was a belief that the King had issued orders freeing them, but that these had been kept secret by their owners. One slave belonging to a Mr. Hall, who appears to have had a drink too many, could not resist, under such exhilarating circumstances, the pleasure of telling a white man of the above "fact," his further belief that "English-men were generally a pack of villains," and that he, the slave, "was as good a Man as himself, and that in a little Time he should be convinced of it." Complete details of the plot were soon uncovered, many slaves were arrested (on some of whom were found quantities of poison), some were whipped, others had their ears cut off, and two were condemned to hang, though since one — he of the loquacious mood — escaped, the gallows claimed but one.

The first known large revolt in North America occurred in 1739, when approximately twenty African Americans killed two warehouse guards in Stono, South Carolina. Shouting "Liberty" as they marched, the band was led southward by an Angolan named Jemmy, gathering freedom seekers as they went. The revolutionaries stole arms and ammunition and headed south to freedom in St. Augustine, Florida, killing whites whenever encountered. About ten hours after the insurrection began, eighty white militiamen encountered the freedom seekers and opened fire. Thirty-four African Americans were killed and forty taken prisoner, many of who were later hung or shot. Twenty-five whites died as a result of the uprising.

There were at least three other slave insurrections of importance in the period 1790-1820. When news came of the uprising of the slaves in Santo Domingo in 1791, the slaves in Louisiana planned a similar effort. They might have succeeded better if they had not disagreed as to the hour of the outbreak, when one of them informed the commandant. As a punishment twenty-three of the slaves were hanged along the banks of the river and their corpses left dangling for days; but three white men who assisted them and who were really the most guilty of all, were simply sent out of the colony.



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Page last modified: 22-07-2017 18:03:25 ZULU