Slave trade was vehemently fought against by Africans as soon as it began. African resistance and the rebellion of captives were simply a reaction to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The conditions of slavery were not appreciated and thus the resistance grew to cover four continents over a period of four centuries.
Slave owners claimed the slaves were lazy and showed terrible attitude towards work. This alone is evident that the resistance was everywhere. It is also recorded that most of the slaves were engaged in acts of sabotage and insubordination as well as minor theft.
In some other cases the slaves adopted more violent measures in expressing their rebellion such as poisoning owners and animals, or even committing suicide, self-mutilation and infanticide. Slaves were even known to abscond for extended periods, between a few hours to days, depending on the resulting punishment they expected to receive for their absence.
Slave revolution began in Africa and spread to other parts of the world reaching its crescendo in 1791 when slaves in St. Domingue, a French colony, subdued three European powers. This led to the establishment of Haiti, the first Black Republic.
Revolution in Africa
Referring back to African history one is able to see several instances of opposition to the transatlantic slave trade operations. The earliest is the petition written by Nzinga Mbemba (1446 – 1543), the ruler of Kongo to the King of Portugal. In his letter he demanded an end to the illegal depopulation of Kongo. His efforts as well as those of his successor were unsuccessful.
The seventeenth century saw several conflicts against slave traders and European forces on African soil. An example was the war against the Portuguese by the Queen of Ndongo and the efforts of Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita in Kongo. In several parts of Africa like Benin, Dahomey, Futa Jallon and the likes there were outright attacks on European forts and threats to kill perpetrators of slave trade within their territories.
Asides these efforts, individuals also took measures to protect themselves from the slave trade menace. The most famous lines of action include fleeing and moving of whole villages to more inaccessible areas. Each settlement has its own story of how they struggled to escape capture and eventual sale to Europeans.
It has been estimated that 1 in 10 Atlantic crossings of the “Middle Passage” experienced some form of rebellion. Slaves moved to carry on the revolution that held no water ashore. Alexander Falconbridge, one of the slave-ship surgeons strongly believed that the rebellion on the ships were very common and it made the “Middle Passage” quite dangerous for European crews.
This singular reason led to slave traders requesting more shackles and chains from England to restrict slaves. Reports show that African slaves did not just rebel but sometimes took control of ships and attempted to sail them back to their homeland. The most famous of such resistances was Amistad in 1839. After the Emancipation Act for the end of Transatlantic trade about 53 Africans were taken on a ship as slaves. The slaves freed themselves, killed the captain and cook and ordered the owners of the ship to sail them back to Sierra Leone. The owners instead sailed to the United States where the ship was captured by the US Coast Guard. It took two years of legal proceedings for the captives to return to Sierra Leone.
In many slave societies, both in the Americas and the Caribbean it was noticed that slaves retained their African culture or married it with the cultures from Europe and America to birth new cultures. A famous form of such melding is Antillean Creole or Kweyol languages.
Retaining the African culture somehow had a psychological effect on the captives, helping them to resist enslavement. Enslavement employed several methods just to break will and ignore the humanity of slaves through a process known as “seasoning.” Mostly the slaves had religious leaders such as in the Haitian Revolution and Jamaican Maroons. These were required to empower the slaves, helping them to rebel and cause the revolution required to gain freedom.
Just as in other methods of revolution, the role of women in maintaining the African culture among the slaves and passing it to the next generation cannot be overlooked. The enslaved women were more likely to be engaged in poisoning and infanticide.
The term “maroon” in Spanish is “cimarrón” meaning “living on mountain tops.” It was used to refer to communities of escaped slaves or fugitives. The very first African maroon communities were formed in the sixteenth century by African slaves brought to the Caribbean by the Spanish. In 1546 it was recorded that in Hispaniola alone there were 7,000 maroons out of 30,000 slaves.
In fact all over the Caribbean there were maroons who later took advantage of the hostility between Spain and France to create settlements along the borderline. The cultivation of more islands by the Europeans made establishment of maroon settlements more difficult mostly on small islands. The most famous maroon community in Brazil was the Palmares that existed from 1605 – 1694. It was well organized, governed by a King using Central African political traditions and was able to resist invasion from the Portuguese and Dutch.
The Maroon communities were considered as the most important custodians of African culture and heritage especially with respect to traditions, religious beliefs, music and language.
Rebellions of slaves in the Caribbean
The first set of slaves to be dropped on Hispaniola, the Spanish colony, were said to have escaped after rebelling. From then on rebellion and resistance by African slaves was no longer a strange event. In the British colony of Jamaica alone there were seven remarkable rebellions between 1673 and 1686. There several others at about the same period all over Europe and in the Americas.
The most important of all slave rebellions will still be the St. Domingue rebellion of 1791. The rebellion was highly organized. Led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, the over 500,000 African slaves and free people overcame three great European powers. The European giants defeated were France, Britain and Spain. Consequently the independent Republic of Haiti was born in 1804.
The St. Domingue revolution definitely had a great impact on other slave communities and was key in the abolishing of the transatlantic slave trade.