In the wake of the black history “remarks” about the abolitionist Frederick Douglass that we were treated to at the start of this Black History Month, we were reminded that not all black people have accepted their lot and meekly submitted to enslavement and whatever brutal treatment came with it. Frederick Douglass himself broke bad and beat the tar out of a “slave breaker” named Mr. Covey, who never tried to whip him again. Douglass was 16. When he was 25 he faced down a mob of white supremacist terrorists—because that’s what they were, terrorists—in Pendleton, Indiana, where he was lecturing against slavery.
America’s historical record is bursting with stories of rebellion and revolt; we need to look no further than the true story of the Amistad uprising and subsequent court case to understand that many Africans, and later, Afro-Caribbean, and African-Americans, and other Africans in the diaspora, gave up their very lives rather than be enslaved. Most of these stories did not make it into schoolbooks, stories of ancestors who emancipated themselves, or died trying.
A note to readers: This exploration into black rebellion in no way negates the millions of people who did not revolt, but forbore. These are our ancestors, too, and they had to use every ounce of willpower, patience, physical, mental, and spiritual strength they had to not only survive the Middle Passage and four centuries of slavery, but to thrive, build, create.
The mutiny on the Amistad and the notoriety it gained unfortunately eclipsed the many rebellions, revolts, and mutinies—some of which occurred much earlier.
Between 1699 and 1850 more than 150 attempted mutinies were reported by Lloyd’s of London, who insured slave ships. It is guessed by historians that there may have been many more, but there are no documents to support this. Slave captains were loathe to report mutinies to avoid losing their jobs: killing a slave to put down a rebellion meant a financial loss for the owners of the ship or the trading companies. So they “handled” the rebellions and blamed the deaths on illness. These accounts of Africans refusing to submit never made it into our schoolbooks either, giving students a proper counterbalance to the images of the docile, helpless slave that were cemented into our history lessons.
In this excerpt from an account from 1704 note how the Dutchman William Bosman first assigns an ignorance of European culture to the Africans as the cause of their rebellion, rather than a desire to be free. It is interesting, if what Bosman said was indeed true, that the Africans believed the Europeans to be savages, just as much as the Europeans believed the Africans were.
“We are sometimes sufficiently plagued with a parcel of slaves which come from a far in-land country, who very innocently persuade one another, that we buy them only to fatten and afterwards eat them as a delicacy,” wrote Bosman, chief factor of the Dutch West India Company at the Castle of St. George d’Elmina.
“When we are so unhappy as to be pestered with many of this sort, they resolve and agree together (and bring over the rest of their party) to run away from the ship, kill the Europeans, and set the vessel ashore; by which means they design to free themselves from being our food.
Bosman goes on to describe an insurrection by captured Africans that was ultimately unsuccessful, but that cost dearly in lives on both sides.
And From James Barbot, Jr., English slave trader (1732):
About one in the afternoon, after dinner, we, according to custom caused them [the enslaved Africans], one by one, to go down between decks, to have each his pint of water; most of them were yet above deck, many of them provided with knives, which we had indiscreetly given them two or three days before, as not suspecting the least attempt of this nature from them; others had pieces of iron they had torn off our forecastle door, as having premeditated a revolt, and seeing all the ship’s company, at best but weak and many quite sick, they had also broken off the shackles from several of their companions feet, which served them, as well as billets they had provided themselves with, and all other things they could lay hands on, which they imagin’d might be of use for this enterprize. Thus arm’d, they fell in crouds and parcels on our men, upon the deck unawares, and stabb’d one of the stoutest of us all, who receiv’d fourteen or fifteen wounds of their knives, and so expir’d. Next they assaulted our boatswain, and cut one of his legs so round the bone, that he could not move, the nerves being cut through; others cut our cook’s throat to the pipe, and others wounded three of the sailors, and threw one of them overboard in that condition, from the forecastle into the sea; who, however, by good providence, got hold of the bowline of the foresail, and sav’d himself…we stood in arms, firing on the revolted slaves, of whom we kill’d some, and wounded many: which so terrif’d the rest, that they gave way, dispersing themselves some one way and some another between decks, and under the forecastle; and many of the most mutinous, leapt over board, and drown’d themselves in the ocean with much resolution, shewing no manner of concern for life. Thus we lost twenty seven or twenty eight slaves, either kill’d by us, or drown’d.
In 1732, Captain John Major of Portsmouth, New Hampshire was killed off the Coast of Guinea. He was headed with his ship to the Americas when some 50 Africans broke their chains, killed the crew with guns, axes, swords and other weapons, stormed the captain’s cabin and killed him, too.
The Africans stripped the ship of all its rigging and sails, freed the other Africans, seized its cargo and abandoned the ship.
For a very long list of slave ship rebellions, a good deal of them successful, please visit slaverebellion.org.