Uprisings and Maroons in the Americas

Africans used a variety of strategies to manifest their hostility both to the slave trade that had brought them to the Americas and to enslavement itself. Some were nonviolent, such as running away and sabotage; others involved poisoning, murder, and uprisings. Those that inspired the most fear were armed revolts. Every country in the Americas had an African presence, and in every country, plots were hatched and actual uprisings took place.

The first recorded rebellion was led by men from Senegal. It started on December 25, 1522, on the sugar plantation of Admiral Don Diego Colón, the viceroy of the Indies and Christopher Columbus's son, four miles from Santo Domingo, on the island of Hispaniola. Although crushed, it instilled tremendous fear in the colonists and the Spanish Crown. Closely following this first movement came a number of other revolts throughout the Spanish colonies in the sixteenth century.

From about 1602 to 1694 the maroon "Republic of Palmares," which regrouped about 30,000 Africans, led several attacks against white colonists in Brazil. Maroon wars also took place in Suriname between 1789 and 1793 and in Jamaica in 1739 and 1795. Maroons were active in all countries where Africans lived, particularly in Saint-Domingue, Cuba, and Colombia.

Akan originally from Ghana led uprisings in Jamaica in 1673, 1690, and 1745; and one of them, Tacky, was the organizer of a large revolt in 1760. Africans, mostly from Congo, rose up in 1739 in South Carolina during what is known as the Stono Rebellion. In 1741 enslaved people organized a conspiracy to burn down New York City and get their freedom. Among those arrested when the plot was discovered were at least twelve men and women of Akan origin. Other large-scale uprisings occurred in the 1760s in Suriname and Honduras.

During the revolutions in France and Saint-Domingue and inspired by them, unrest and revolts were prevalent in the French Caribbean colonies. In Guadeloupe, hundreds of white colonists were killed or emigrated in 1794. Julien Fedon, a free man from a French island, headed what can best be described as a war that lasted sixteen months in Grenada, starting in 1795. Blacks in St. Lucia and St. Vincent took up arms with the French, who had proclaimed the abolition of slavery, against the British who occupied the islands.

In Barbados, the most significant uprising occurred in 1816, more than a hundred years after the first one, which had taken place in 1692. It was island-wide, organized by the elite of enslaved men, such as drivers and craftsmen, and its leader was an African-born man named Bussa. Starting in 1807 African Muslims in Bahia, Brazil, organized several plots and revolts. The last and largest one took place in 1835; it involved free and enslaved men and led to deportations and emigration to Benin, Nigeria, and Togo.

In 1811 and 1812 Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo were swept by uprisings. Puerto-Rico had its most important one on July 29, 1821. It was led by Marcos Xiorro and involved several plantations. It was believed that he had sought help from Haiti.

Guyana went through its major rebellion in 1823; it involved an estimated 1,200 enslaved people from about fifty-five plantations; most were born in the colony.

The largest revolt in Jamaican history took place in 1831. It involved up to five hundred people and was led by Baptist deacon and domestic Samuel Sharpe. Nat Turner's revolt in 1831 in Virginia lasted only two days but terrorized the country, as fifty-seven white men, women, and children were killed.

The Caribbean counted an average of four revolts per year in the 1790s. There, the largest uprisings, besides the revolution in Saint-Domingue, occurred in Guadeloupe in 1794; Curaçao in 1795 and 1800; Barbados in 1816; British Guyana in 1823; and Jamaica in 1831.

Countless other uprisings and conspiracies marked the history of the Americas. They instilled terror in the colonists and were brutally — and often indiscriminately — suppressed through hanging, beheadings, burning at the stake, quartering, breaking on the wheel, and other methods of torture. Despite enormous risks, enslaved and sometimes free people fought for liberation, and their actions had a significant impact on the slave regimes, which became more brutal, and on colonial politics. However, no uprising was as determining as the revolution in Saint-Domingue.