Background information


The African people who were enslaved resisted the system of slavery, from the moment of capture to life on the plantations. Resistance took on many forms, from retaining aspects of their cultures and identities to escape and plotting uprisings to overthrow the plantocracy. The most successful uprising was the revolution in St Domingue, which led to Haiti becoming the first independent republic outside Africa. Revolts and rebellions played a significant part in abolition and emancipation.

The fight for freedom

Contrary to the way in which Africans were often perceived - as submissive, subdued and incapable of sophisticated intellectual thought - which enabled the British to justify their superiority and the continuation of the slave trade, there was a continual undercurrent of resistance and rebellion. Individuals sought their freedom through escape, even though the odds were overwhelmingly against them.

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Uprisings, or rebellions, were the most dramatic and bloody way that slaves could resist their enslavement. Several hundreds of rebellions were recorded from as early as 1522 on the Spanish island of Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti) and before the end of the 17th century there had been rebellions on the islands of St Kitts, Barbados, Guadeloupe and Jamaica. Slave rebellions continued into the 18th century and intensified in the early 19th century as slaves heard rumours of the abolition of slavery. Failed attempts at escape or rebellion brought severe punishments.

Slave revolts on board ship

As well as the high death rates on board ship through disease there was a regular loss of African life through revolts. Africans were, ?ever upon the watch to take advantage of the least negligence of their oppressors?, Alexander Falconbridge, slave ship?s surgeon. John Newton noted in his diary, ?I was at first, continually alarmed with their almost desperate attempts to make insurrections upon us?. He, like most slavers, kept the men in chains until ?we saw the land in the West Indies? because ?we receive them on board, from the first as enemies?.

Some of the revolts were violent, others demonstrated resistance through suicide. As the ?Prince of Orange? of Bristol landed in St Kitts in 1737, about 100 captives jumped overboard. The crew tried to save as many as they could but 33 died.

John Newton was faced with revolt twice on his ?Duke of Argyle? voyage. A young slave freed from his chains because of ulcers managed to pass a spike through the deck grating to the hold below. In one hour twenty men had broken their chains but were caught (and no doubt punished with the whip or thumbscrews) by the crew. Another ship, the ?Adventure? of London trading close to Newton in 1753 was taken over by captives who ran the ship aground and destroyed it. The Africans on board the King David from Bristol killed the captain and five crew members, and later threw nine more overboard in shackles meant for the slaves. In one case the women (who were not normally chained) on the ?Thomas? bound for Barbados seized muskets, overpowered the crew, and freed the men. They did not succeed in sailing the ship back to West Africa and eventually a British warship recaptured them.

The extent of slave revolts is hard to quantify, but there was probably a significant revolt on British slavers very two years. Cases were often brought to public attention by insurance claims for loss of cargo. Parliament again regulated the slave trade in 1790 by declaring that the loss of slaves by natural death, ill treatment or throwing overboard, such as the case of the ?Zong?, was not covered by insurance.

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