Freedom fighters: the enslaved people who fought for the abolition of slavery

Victory in the fight against slavery has been mostly credited to white abolitionists – with the struggles of enslaved people to gain their own freedom largely overlooked, says James Walvin

A family comprising several generations of enslaved people. Resistance, common throughout the history of slavery, ranged from slow working to violent fights for freedom (Universal History Archive/Gertty Images)

When the African-American Frederick Douglass – who was a towering figure in the history of US slavery and its abolition – was born into bondage in 1818, a resurgence in slavery was about to begin in the US, Brazil and Cuba. Indeed, despite 1791’s seismic slave uprising in Haiti, which had destroyed that nation’s slave trade and sown the seeds of defiance across the Americas, slavery remained profitable. Yet by the time Douglass died in 1895, slavery had not only vanished from the Americas but had become universally reviled.

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It was a staggering turnaround. In the course of a lifetime, slavery had been overthrown across the western hemisphere. The story of this transformation is a complex, sometimes confusing one – and at its heart lie the efforts of slaves themselves.

African-American Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895, slavery had been eradicated in the Americas by the time of his death
An undated photograph of African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Born into slavery in 1818, by the time he died in 1895, slavery had been eradicated in the Americas. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

In the early 19th century, enslaved Africans, their offspring and their descendants were ubiquitous across the Americas. Though African slaves travelled with Columbus, and were later settled in the Spanish Caribbean, the enslavement of Africans in the western hemisphere essentially started with the Portuguese traffic of people from the continent early in the 16th century. Slavery did not take secure root until the Portuguese settlement of Brazil and the introduction of sugar plantations there in the late 16th century. Over the next 300 years, more than 12 million Africans were loaded on to slave ships bound for the Americas.

In the 17th century, slavery spread throughout the English and French Caribbean colonies, where slave labour serviced tobacco, cotton and then sugar industries, and in the North American colonies, where enslaved people worked primarily in tobacco and rice cultivation.

In North America, the Caribbean and Brazil, these people formed a mighty, vital force, though elsewhere they were more marginal. All of Europe’s major colonial powers – Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Britain and France – were eager participants in the Atlantic slave trade, and all shipped staggering numbers of Africans across the ocean to tap the bounty of their American possessions.

The story of the fall of slavery in the Americas is also the story of slave defiance

Until the mid-18th century, this had provoked hardly a whimper of objection or resistance by religious, legal or moral commentators. Yet by the late 19th century those same nations, and their churches, laws and politics, had utterly renounced slavery. The British ended slavery in 1838; the French – after earlier false starts – followed suit in 1848. The 13th Amendment of 1865 formally ended slavery in the United States, but it continued in Cuba until 1886 and Brazil until 1888.

The slave poachers of earlier centuries had become the aggressive gamekeepers of the 19th century. It was little less than a revolution – and the story of the fall of slavery in the Americas is also the story of slave defiance.

The draconian system that sustained slavery

Though only one major colony fell to slave revolt – Haiti (known then as Saint-Domingue) on Hispaniola – it would be wrong to diminish the significance of such defiance. Douglass was often asked why, if slavery was as violent and repressive as he claimed, slaves not did overthrow their oppressors across the Americas as they had in Haiti. The answer, as he knew, was that slavery was a system sustained by draconian control and management.

True, slavery was also sustained by other elements such as inducements and small rewards, but enslaved people everywhere were left in no doubt about what would happen to those who openly resisted. Planters’ capricious blows and whippings, as well as the daily rigours of plantation life, were reinforced by bloody penal codes in all slave societies. Whenever revolts erupted – as they did regularly on Atlantic slave ships and in the colonies – suppression was swift and extreme, and invariably out of all proportion to the initial violence of the uprising.

Even so, African slavery was peppered with open revolt across the Americas, though it was less widespread and less violent in North America than in the Caribbean and Brazil. In the long years before the last enslaved Africans stumbled ashore in Cuba in 1867, there were many who were prepared to take a risk and turn to violence in an effort to win liberty. Indeed, many had been enslaved during conflicts in Africa, and brought that combat experience to the Americas.

Though most slave defiance fell well short of open revolt, it remained a feature of all slave societies. Enslaved people dragged their feet at work, feigned ignorance, took revenge on crops and animals, and measured out their days and tasks in ways that suited them, but were always careful not to transgress too flagrantly. Complaints about slave behaviour – of apparent laziness, stupidity, inattention and downright disobedience – echo through the literature of slave-holding life.

Slavery was a system sustained by draconian control and management

Just as common was the universal sense that slaves could not be trusted. Although slave-owners often lived close to their ‘possessions’ – some even living with them as common-law partners – and although many slaveholders felt that they had gained their slaves’ trust and loyalty, most nursed deep-seated concerns. Time and again, trusted slaves turned: they hit back, ran away and proved disloyal in ways their owners had not expected. Hence there was a widespread, recurring and abiding sense of betrayal among slave-owners.

After the Declaration of Independence of the United States cut that country’s ties from Britain in 1776, the new nation’s ideals (“all Men are created equal…”) seemed to augur an end to slavery. Yet, ironically, several of the ‘Founding Fathers’ who drafted and proclaimed those ideals were slave-owners. The American republic ushered in a new form of democracy, while being anchored in slavery. Moreover, slavery’s value increased after 1800, thanks to the dramatic impact of the cotton boom in the American South. The United States was, then, born arguing about slavery – and those arguments had repercussions throughout the enslaved Caribbean. What followed in Haiti, however, was totally different.

After the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, France’s most valuable possession, Saint-Domingue, was propelled into a maelstrom of conflicts that lasted from 1791 until the colony gained independence in 1804. Saint-Domingue was worked during that period by around 600,000 enslaved people, a huge proportion of whom had been brought to the colony in the previous ten years. They produced enormous volumes of sugar and coffee; indeed, the value of the French colony’s exports exceeded those of Brazil and Mexico combined, and was double that of the entire British Caribbean.

Yet this was a fragile system, powered by an army of recalcitrant slaves owned and supervised by 30,000 white people and a similar number of gens de couleur (people of mixed race). After the outbreak of revolution in the mother country, it rapidly splintered into conflicts with colonial authority and between and among the colony’s social groups. Each group fought for its own interest: for dominance (the white population), for an equal role (the gens de couleur) or for freedom (the enslaved population). The French struggled to maintain their colonial control, and revolutionary upheavals and violence swept the colony on an apocalyptic scale.

Whatever the cost and whatever the flaws, Haiti offered a beacon of hope for slaves everywhere

The conflicts in Haiti destroyed slavery, swallowed invading British and Spanish armies, and devastated the economy. They sent refugees fleeing – often with their slaves – for the safety of Jamaica, Cuba or the United States; indeed, memorials in the Catholic graveyards of New Orleans and Charleston bear witness to the presence of slave-owners from the French colony. By the time the independent nation of Haiti emerged in 1804, the population of the former Saint-Domingue had fallen by a third and the lush landscape was pockmarked by the ruins of plantations and devastated properties.

However badly damaged it was, though, Haiti was the first independent black nation outside Africa, and its leaders – notably Toussaint L’Ouverture – were elevated to heroic status among slaves everywhere. For the enslaved and the freed alike, the complexities of the Haitian revolution were easily distilled into a simple issue: black freedom had been won by the defeat of a colonial system and its imperial armies. Whatever the cost and whatever the flaws, Haiti’s independence offered a beacon of hope for millions of slaves elsewhere. It was an inspiration for those who yearned for freedom.

Engraving depicting an exhausted slave being whipped, which appeared in a British anti-slavery publication of 1826
An engraving from a British anti-slavery publication of 1826 shows an overseer whipping an exhausted black slave on a plantation, where violence and bloody penal codes subdued resistance (Photo 12/Getty Images)

Slaveholders, naturally, viewed it differently. For them, it was a terrifying tale with a cautionary lesson: slavery was a volatile system, and you tampered with it at your peril. All subsequent slave troubles – in Brazil, the Caribbean and the United States – were viewed through the historical prism of Haiti, which hardened slaveholders’ hearts. The events in Saint-Domingue in the late 18th century strengthened slave-owners’ belief that if you gave slaves an inch they would take an African mile. The story of slave freedom evolved thereafter in the shadow of Haiti.

Throughout the 19th century, violence and unrest preceded or accompanied slave freedom everywhere. The British Caribbean colonies worked by enslaved people had always been volatile, but the first half of the 19th century witnessed large-scale uprisings in Barbados (1816), Demerara (1823) – now in Guyana – and Jamaica (1831–32). The last of those, the 11-day rebellion dubbed the Baptist War, came close to defeating the British, and was a sign of the profound changes taking place among the enslaved. The British slave trade had ended in 1807, and enslaved populations increasingly comprised local-born people, growing numbers of whom were Christians. Chapels, slave preachers, the Bible (with its powerful imagery of freedom and salvation) and huge gatherings of enslaved people away from plantations combined to create a radicalising brew. Planters had once feared African defiance; now they worried about enslaved Christians.

New large-scale domestic slave trades in Brazil and the US replaced the supply of labour from Africa

Equally, the violent suppression of enslaved Christians caused outrage among fellow worshippers in Britain. Thousands of Christian voices were added to growing demands for an end to slavery, and abolition became a widely popular movement that British parliament was unable to resist – though the pill was somewhat sweetened by a growing sense that sugar might be more easily acquired from non-slave sources in Asia.

Economic criticisms of the system, observing that free labour was more economic than slave labour, were not applied to US cotton or Brazilian coffee, however. Both of those huge slave-based industries, which helped transform the western hemisphere in the 19th century, were made possible by new large-scale domestic slave trades that replaced the supply of labour from across the Atlantic. Almost one million slaves were forcibly moved across North America to the southern cotton empire, and an even greater number were transported from older Brazilian settlements to newly developing areas of the country.

The abolition of slavery in the French colonies is proclaimed on 27 April 1848, depicted in a contemporary painting by François-Auguste Biard
The abolition of slavery in the French colonies is proclaimed on 27 April 1848, depicted in a contemporary painting by François-Auguste Biard (Heritage Images/Getty Images)

As people were transferred from old slave-powered industries to new slave regions to feed the voracious labour demands of the US cotton and Brazilian coffee plantations, a miserable story of violation and upheavals was repeated, with many families broken up. This reignited slave defiance, so that fugitives and resistance became even more pressing problems for slave-owners. In response, tighter controls and more severe management strategies were implemented to keep the enslaved at their tasks.

This brutal repression by these slaveholding regimes sparked growing outrage among a swelling band of opponents. Christian sensibility was again critical, especially in the US. Though the South found biblical justifications for slavery, the growing tide of criticism was also rooted in American faith, sharpened by evidence of the violence meted out to slaves in their moments of defiance – notably fugitives seeking freedom in the North.

How the American Civil War tipped the balance

The entire story changed with the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, when enslaved people began to tip the balance. They abandoned the plantations in their thousands, undermined the South’s economic ability to fight the war, and provided massive collective evidence – if more were needed – of their detestation of bondage. For all its military uncertainties, the Civil War proved the coup de grâce for US slavery.

A similar pattern was evident across the old Spanish empire in Central and South America. There, wars for independence in the 1810s and 1820s had undermined local slavery, which in other areas had already withered. Numbers of enslaved people were in any case small compared with other regimes: in 1800, there were about 250,000 enslaved people across Spain’s vast empire, compared with 1.5 million in the US and 1.2 million in Brazil.

War and upheaval proved corrosive to Spanish slavery. The major exception was in Cuba, where – initially, at least – slavery was revitalised by a massive expansion of tobacco and sugar plantations, thanks in large part to US investment during the 19th century leading to modernisation and industrialisation. Yet there, too, slave insurgency – and the inevitable violent repression by planters and colonial authorities – fuelled demands for freedom from both slaves and their supporters on the island and in Spain. As with earlier Spanish colonial revolts, Cubans fighting for independence encouraged slave rebellion and flight. Slavery began to unravel in the military and political confusion of the struggle for independence in the second half of the 19th century. Abolition finally came in 1886.

Two years later, Brazil – where African slavery had proved so vital to European settlers three centuries before – became the last country in the Americas to abandon slavery. Again, warfare and the tumultuous struggle for independence from Portugal (finally achieved in 1822) had provided the backdrop for slave resistance. After independence, revolts continued to punctuate Brazil’s slave expansion in the 19th century, these uprisings often led by recently imported Africans, many of them Muslims and others with experience of African warfare. The flight of slaves from the plantations – to free communities in the wilderness or to the anonymity of the expanding cities – was a constant drain on enslaved populations. So, too, was recurring social disorder, allowing slaves to flee from the fighting – or to join it. Violence, again, enabled slaves to seize their freedom. Brazil’s slaves were also backed by a growing band of supporters, mainly urban-dwelling, literate, educated people increasingly outraged that Brazil was the sole Christian nation left sustaining slavery.

Opposition to slavery flourished on both sides of the Atlantic. The outrages of slavery were reported and disseminated in cheap printed publications, and from pulpits and in crowded lecture halls, to an increasingly literate and educated urban population. The voice of popular, often reforming politics turned decisively against slavery. So, too, did churches, which earlier had been silent bystanders.

So, by the end of the 19th century, slavery fell. It had been denounced and reviled by both secular and religious interests – but the balance was tipped decisively by the subversion of the slaves themselves. In that transformed climate, the old traditions of slave defiance came into their own. Slaves took their chances, and finally helped to overthrow the system that had held them and their forebears in miserable bondage for so long. It is time we recognised fully the role played by the enslaved themselves in bringing down the slave empires that had lasted for so many shameful centuries.

James Walvin is professor of history emeritus at the University of York. His latest book is Freedom: The Overthrow of the Slave Empires (Robinson, 2019)

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This article was taken from issue 16 of BBC World Histories magazine