African Resistance


Africans started to fight the transatlantic slave trade as soon as it began. Their struggles were multifaceted and covered four continents over four centuries. Still, they have often been underestimated, overlooked, or forgotten. African resistance was reported in European sources only when it concerned attacks on slave ships and company barracoons, but acts of resistance also took place far from the coast and thus escaped the slavers’ attention. To discover them, oral history, archaeology, and autobiographies and biographies of African victims of the slave trade have to be probed. Taken together, these various sources offer a detailed image of the varied strategies Africans used to defend themselves from and mount attacks against the slave trade.

The Africans’ resistance continued in the Americas. They ran away, established maroon communities, used sabotage, conspired, and rose against those who held them in captivity. Freed people petitioned the authorities, led information campaigns, and worked actively to abolish the slave trade and slavery.

In Europe, black abolitionists launched or participated in civic movements to end the deportation and enslavement of Africans. They too delivered speeches, provided information, wrote newspaper articles and books.

Using violent as well as nonviolent means, Africans in Africa, the Americas, and Europe were constantly involved in the fight against the slave trade and slavery.

Defensive Strategies

When the first navigators reached the coast of Mauritania in 1441 and Senegal in 1444, they organized systematic abductions, and met with hostility and reprisals. Although they continued kidnapping, they also started to buy people. But that policy also met with opposition. Explorer Alvise Ca’Damosto, who was attacked by 150 men on the River Gambia in 1454, wrote than when he tried to talk to them,

they replied that they had had news of our coming and of our trade with the negroes of Senega [Senegal River], who, if they sought our friendship could not but be bad men, for they firmly believed that we Christians ate human flesh, and that we only bought negroes to eat them; that for their part they did not want our friendship on any terms, but sought to slaughter us all, and to make a gift of our possessions to their lord.

But armed struggle was neither the only nor always the best strategy. Long-term approaches were also needed to protect people from the slave trade. Earthworks were built to thwart small-scale raids and kidnappings; some rivers were diverted so that they would not bring ships near settlements. Africans surrounded their main towns by thick walls, twelve feet high; they built ramparts and fortresses with deep ditches and planted venomous and thorny trees and bushes all around.

Communities deserted their vulnerable settings to relocate in hard-to-find, easy-to-defend places such as hills, mountains, underground tunnels, marshes, caves, forests, or behind high sand dunes. Some hamlets regrouped to defend themselves more easily. In southern Benin, people built small towns on stilts at the edge or in the middle of lakes. This innovation gave them a clear view of approaching raiders and allowed them enough time to take the appropriate measures.

Africans established work teams for protection, left the paths to their villages overgrown, stationed armed groups at vulnerable points, and covered their roofs with noisy leaves to detect would-be kidnappers. They used their habitat as a safeguard by reconfiguring the layout, size, and architecture of their houses, villages, and capital cities. They built their towns in mazes to confuse and disorient attackers. Houses were connected one with another; they abutted forests and the sea to make escape easier. Some communities adopted the most brutal tactics: they indiscriminately killed anyone who ventured close to their territory so as to discourage any incursion.

Some leaders actively worked against the transatlantic slave trade. One of the most famous was Abdel Kader Kane, the Muslim leader of the Futa Toro region in northern Senegal. Kane had succeeded in peopling his kingdom by retaking by force his people who had been kidnapped and by forbidding slave caravans from passing through his territory. After the French took three children from Futa, Kane sent a letter to the governor:

We are warning you that all those who will come to our land to trade [in slaves] will be killed and massacred if you do not send our children back. Would not somebody who was very hungry abstain from eating if he had to eat something cooked with his blood? We absolutely do not want you to buy Muslims under any circumstances. I repeat that if your intention is to always buy Muslims you should stay home and not come to our country anymore. Because all those who will come can be assured that they will lose their life.

On a personal level, families who could locate a captive on the coast gathered resources to obtain his or her release, even if it meant substituting another person for their loved one. Some relatives were even able to trace the whereabouts of kin deported to the Americas and tried - sometimes successfully - to buy their freedom.

Armed Struggle in Africa and in the Middle Passage

As the slave trade expanded, resistance to it grew as well, and the need for shackles, guns, ropes, chains, iron balls, and whips tells an eloquent story of continuous and violent struggle from the hinterland to the high seas. As one slave trader remarked:

For the security and safekeeping of the slaves on board or on shore in the African barracoons, chains, leg irons, handcuffs, and strong houses are used. I would remark that this also is one of the forcible necessities resorted to for the preservation of the order, and as recourse against the dangerous consequences of this traffic.

Wherever possible, such as in Saint-Louis and Gorée (Senegal), James (Gambia), and Bance (Sierra Leone), the Europeans' barracoons were located on islands, which made escapes and attacks more difficult. In some areas, as soon as local people approached the boats,

the crew is ordered to take up arms, the cannons are aimed, and the fuses are lighted . . . One must, without any hesitation, shoot at them and not spare them. The loss of the vessel and the life of the crew are at stake.

The heavily fortified forts and barracoons attest to the Europeans' distrust and apprehension. They had to protect themselves, as Jean-Baptiste Durand of the Compagnie du Sénégal explained, "from the foreign vessels and from the Negroes living in the country."

These precautions notwithstanding, in the eighteenth century, Fort Saint-Joseph on the Senegal River was attacked and all commerce was interrupted for six years. Several conspiracies and actual revolts by captives erupted on Gorée Island and resulted in the death of the governor and several soldiers. In addition, the crews of quite a few slave ships were killed on the River Gambia; in Sierra Leone, people sacked the captives' quarters of the infamous trader John Ormond. Similar incidents occurred in other parts of the African coast. Written records document how Africans on shore attacked more than a hundred ships.

Some Western slavers maintained occult centers in their barracoons, staffed by men they paid to "work on" the captives, sometimes with medicinal plants. The objective was to kill any spirit of rebellion, to "tame" the detainees, and make them accept their fate. The existence of these centers shows the extent of the precautions taken by slavers to prevent rebellions on land and during the Middle Passage: shackles and guns controlled the body, while the spirit was broken.

But revolts on slave ships, although extremely difficult to organize and conduct, were numerous. About 420 revolts have been documented in slavers' papers, and they do not represent the totality. It is estimated that 100,000 Africans died in uprisings on the coast or during the Middle Passage. The fear of revolts resulted in additional costs for the slavers: larger crews, heavy weapons, and barricades. About 18 percent of the costs of the Middle Passage were incurred due to measures to thwart uprisings, and the captives who rose up saved, according to estimates, one million Africans from deportation by driving up the slavers' expenses.

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.

The Revolution in Saint-Domingue

In January 1804, an event that had enormous repercussions shook the world of the enslaved and their owners. The black revolutionaries, who had been fighting since 1791, crushed Napoleon's 43,000-man army.

In December 1803, in full debacle, the 8,000 French soldiers left on the island (most of the others had been killed in combat and 20,000 had died of yellow fever), boarded their ships, and sailed away. Within twelve years, black Haitians had fought against and defeated not only the French colonists but also the French, Spanish, and British armies.

To erase the symbolic traces of the old order, the victors changed the name of the island from Saint-Domingue back to Haiti (mountainous land), its original name given by the Arawak Indians. Haiti had become the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere and the world's first black-led republic. The impact of this victory of poorly armed men and women,—who had fought for and gained their freedom back in 1793 — against the best army in Europe sent to re-enslave them, sent shockwaves throughout the Americas.

Paradoxically, at the same time as it influenced enslaved people to rise up, the Haitian Revolution also stimulated the transatlantic slave trade. The withdrawal from international markets of the island, which had produced half the world's coffee and as much sugar as Brazil, Cuba, and Jamaica combined, gave an impetus to these colonies as well as to Louisiana to introduce more Africans — and for Louisiana, more African Americans from the Upper South as well — in order to offset the production shortfall.

Throughout the Americas, slave uprisings had been more closely associated with the presence of large concentrations of men and women born in Africa and newly arrived, and the events in Saint-Domingue were read as a cautionary tale against the slave trade that continuously introduced these "revolt-prone" Africans. Therefore, when South Carolina reopened the slave trade in 1803, the decision was deemed appalling. The specter of Haiti was used by some Americans to bolster the abolition of the slave trade at the earliest possible date, 1808.

The Impact of the Revolution

As conspiracies and revolts reached a height in the 1790s, slave societies started to fear the influence of "French Negroes," who were thought to harbor ideals of freedom brought about by the revolutions in France and Saint-Domingue.

The city of Baltimore, among others, passed an act against black Domingans in 1797, stating, "Many of the slaves imported into this state by the French subjects or citizens mentioned in the said act have been guilty of disorderly conduct, and are suspected to be dangerous to the peace and welfare of the city."

Interestingly, the largest U.S. revolt — in terms of participants — took place in 1811 in Louisiana and was led by Charles Deslondes from Haiti. French and French Creole-speaking men were associated with uprisings in British, Spanish, and Dutch colonies until 1820, and they led a large revolt in Curaçao in 1795.

In Cuba, José Antonio Aponte, a free man who organized an uprising in 1812, had promised his followers that help would come from Haiti, and he galvanized his troops with pictures of Toussaint L'Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe. In the United States, black abolitionists, nationalists, and activists were inspired by the uprising and its emblematic figure, Toussaint L'Ouverture. They daringly paid tribute to the revolution at a time when white abolitionists played it down, afraid it would repel sympathetic whites.

During the 1816 rebellion in Barbados, references were made to Haiti. In 1820 Denmark Vesey, who had been enslaved on the island for a few months and had bought his freedom in Charleston, South Carolina, recruited determined participants — including enslaved Haitians forcibly brought during the revolution — to what was one of the best-organized slave conspiracy in the country. His goal was to free the enslaved with the help of Haiti and sail to Africa or to the black republic.

Even though Haiti was not in a position to effectively help in Cuba or South Carolina, it is a fact that the black republic sought to export the benefits of its revolution. Its constitution gave Haitian nationality and protection to any black or Asian person. As a result, enslaved men and women who successfully escaped to the island became free and could not be returned. Several cases concerning runaways were brought by slaveholders to King Christophe early on, and to presidents Alexandre Pétion and Jean-Pierre Boyer, but no foreign refugee was ever sent back to enslavement. In addition, Haiti provided financial and military assistance as well as refuge to Simón Bolívar, the liberator of Spanish America, in return for a promise to abolish slavery there. In 1824 and again in the 1850s the island nation actively recruited African-American immigrants.

Frederick Douglass paid tribute to the significance of the Haitian Revolution when he stressed that blacks owed much to American and British abolitionists, "but we owe incomparably more to Haiti than to them all."

Black Abolitionists in France

African Americans fought against the slave trade and slavery through sabotage, escape, conspiracies, and revolts while freed people were involved in abolitionist activities, from organizing campaigns to delivering speeches and writing pamphlets, as demonstrated in Abolition and Celebrations. And as explained in The Abolitionist Movement in Britain and the United States , African abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano were quite active in Great Britain. Less well known is the role of blacks in the movement that brought about the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the French colonies long before any other territories in the Western Hemisphere.

During the French Revolution of 1789, people of color from Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe, and Martinique living in France organized themselves into the Société des citoyens de couleur (Society of Colored Citizens), headed by mulatto Julien Raimond, a wealthy planter and slaveholder from Saint-Domingue. It worked closely with the Société des amis des noirs (Society of the Friends of the Blacks), which asked for equal rights for free people of color, the immediate abolition of the slave trade, and a gradual abolition of slavery. In 1791 the Société des citoyens worked diligently to gather together activists who were dispersed in various clubs and kept the revolutionaries informed of the political and social situation in Saint-Domingue, where the uprising had started during the night of August 22-23.

Despite the abolitionists’ efforts, France wrote the maintenance of slavery into her 1791 constitution. On August 10, 1792, however, with a regime change, the constitution itself was abandoned. A month later, Raimond proposed to the Assembly the creation of a voluntary legion made up of black men residing in France whose mission would be to help defend the revolution.

The Légion franche de cavalerie des Américains et du Midi (Free Cavalry Legion of the Americans and the South) was led by Joseph Bologne de Saint-George. Born in Guadeloupe in 1739, he was the son of an enslaved Senegalese woman and a French nobleman. The family settled in France in 1748, and Saint-George received an excellent education. He became a fencer celebrated throughout Europe, a violinist, and a famous music composer and conductor. The Chevalier de Saint-George, as he was known, was Queen Marie-Antoinette’s music instructor.

Yet when the revolution started, Saint-George abandoned the aristocratic way of life that had been his and became a revolutionary. He believed the new social order would bring about freedom, equality, and the end of racism. As the head of the revolutionary Legion of the Americans, which soon became known as Saint-George Legion, he brought in Alexandre Thomas Davy de la Pailleterie, who had moved with his father from Saint-Domingue to France in 1780. Alexandre’s father was a marquis and his mother, an enslaved African. She was called Louise-Cessette “du mas” or “of the little house.” When Alexandre, following a fight with his father, enrolled in the army at a low rank, the marquis forbade him to debase his noble name. The young man then took the name Dumas in honor of his mother. The man who became the famous General Alexandre Dumas was the father of the legendary author Alexandre Dumas.

On May 17, 1793, the Legion sent an “Address to the National Convention and to all the patriotic clubs and societies on behalf of the Negroes held in slavery in the French colonies of America.” It was written in the name of “one million slaves” and asked for the immediate abolition of slavery. The soldiers and officers who had signed the document, along with the Société des citoyens de couleur, launched a joint campaign for the end of slavery and the slave trade.

A delegation of black men and women was received by the Convention in Paris on June 4. Among them was Jeanne Odo a woman born in Saint-Domingue, who claimed to be 114. The delegation carried a new flag: a black man on the blue stripe, a white man on the white stripe, and a mulatto on the red stripe, with the slogan “Our union will be our strength.” The flag symbolized the end of the colonial order, as well as general freedom and equality. Following the black citizens’ campaign, the new constitution enacted on June 24, 1793, specified that no one could be sold. Although it did not address the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, it was considered a step in the right direction.

Saint-Domingue and the French Abolition

Less than three weeks later, throngs of enslaved men and women rushed from the mountains and took on the city of Cap in Saint-Domingue. Their victory led to the evacuation of 10,000 whites, who fled the island. In September, the French commissioners, under pressure from the black population — and in an effort to counteract Spain, which gave slaves their freedom if they fought against the French — proclaimed the end of slavery. “Equality of epidermis” representatives were elected: three blacks, three mulattos, and three whites. They were dispatched to Paris to bring the news and see to it that the measure would not be rescinded.

On February 4, 1794, three of them were received by the Convention in Paris: a white former slaveholder, Louis-Pierre Dufay; a black man, Jean-Baptiste Belley; and a mulatto, Jean-Baptiste Mills. Belley, a Senegalese, had been deported to the island as an infant. He had bought his own freedom and later fought in Savannah, Georgia, alongside the Americans during the War of Independence. Belley was an infantry captain and had been a leader (he was wounded) in the battle of Cap seven months earlier.

Right after the deputation speech given by Dufay — in which he extolled the black population who saved the revolution from the colonists allied to the British Crown — France abolished slavery and the slave trade (which had been subsidized until 1793) in all its colonies.

The uprising in Saint-Domingue and, to a lesser extent, the activism of black abolitionists and their allies in France, had put an official stop to the slave trade and slavery. It is now recognized that without the impulsion of the revolt in Saint-Domingue, the French Revolution would not have decreed the abolition. The Haitian Revolution had radicalized the French Revolution on the question of slavery.

But the story was far from over. On May 20, 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte re-established slavery and the slave trade. He excluded black officers from the army, including General Toussaint L’Ouverture and General Alexandre Dumas. In July the French territory became off-limits to "blacks and people of color"; and in January 1803, mixed marriages became illegal. The violent fights that followed the reintroduction of slavery in Guadeloupe and French Guiana resulted in thousands of deaths.

Hundreds of people from Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue were then exiled to France and imprisoned or enrolled by force in the army. Among the prisoners were Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Baptiste Belley, and Jean-Baptiste Mills. Toussaint died in 1803 and Belley in 1805.

France outlawed the slave trade in 1817, but it continued illegally until at least 1831. Slavery was finally abolished in 1848.

Sylviane A. Diouf
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture


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