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Slave rebellions

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Slave rebellions

A slave rebellion is an armed uprising by slaves. Slave rebellions have occurred in nearly all societies that practice slavery, and are amongst the most feared events for slaveholders. The most successful slave rebellion in history was the 18th-century Haitian Revolution led by Toussaint L'Ouverture against their French colonial rulers, and which founded the extant country. Other famous historic slave rebellions have been led by the Roman slave Spartacus, as well as the thrall (Scandinavian slave) Tunni who rebelled against the Swedish monarch Ongentheow, a rebellion that needed Danish assistance to be quelled. In the ninth century, the poet-prophet Ali bin Muhammad led imported East African slaves in Iraq during the Zanj Rebellion against the Abbasid Caliphate; Nanny of the Maroons was an 18th-century leader who rebelled against the British in Jamaica; and the Quilombos dos Palmares of Brazil flourished under Ganazumba (Ganga Zumba). The 1811 German Coast Uprising in the Territory of [New] Orleans was the largest rebellion in the continental U.S.; Denmark Vesey rebelled in South Carolina, USA; and Madison Washington during the Creole case in 19th century America.

Ancient Sparta had a special type of serf-like helots. The helots were treated harshly and sometimes resorted to rebellions.[1] According to Herodotus (IX, 28–29), helots were seven times as numerous as Spartans. Every autumn, according to Plutarch (Life of Lycurgus, 28, 3–7), the Spartan ephors would pro forma declare war on the helot population so that any Spartan citizen could kill a helot without fear of blood or guilt in order to keep them in line(crypteia).

In the Roman Empire, though the heterogeneous nature of the slave population worked against a strong sense of solidarity, slave revolts did occur and were severely punished.[2] The most famous slave rebellion in Europe was led by Spartacus in Roman Italy, the Third Servile War.This war resulted in the 600 surviving members of the rebelous slaves being crucified along the main roads leading into Rome.[3] This was the third in a series of unrelated Servile Wars fought by slaves to the Romans.

The English peasants' revolt of 1381 led to calls for the reform of feudalism in England and an increase in rights for serfs. The Peasants' Revolt was one of a number of popular revolts in late medieval Europe. Richard II agreed to reforms including fair rents and the abolition of serfdom. Following the collapse of the revolt, the king's concessions were quickly revoked, but the rebellion is significant because it marked the beginning of the end of serfdom in medieval England.[4]

In Russia, the slaves were usually classified as kholops. A kholop's master had unlimited power over his life. Slavery remained a major institution in Russia until 1723, when Peter the Great converted the household slaves into house serfs. Russian agricultural slaves were formally converted into serfs earlier in 1679.[5] During the 16th and 17th centuries, runaway serfs and kholops known as Cossacks (‘outlaws’) formed autonomous communities in the southern steppes.

There were numerous rebellions against slavery and serfdom, most often in conjunction with Cossack uprisings, such as the uprisings of Ivan Bolotnikov (1606–1607), Stenka Razin (1667–1671),[6] Kondraty Bulavin (1707–1709), and Yemelyan Pugachev (1773–1775), often involving hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions.[7] Between the end of the Pugachev rebellion and the beginning of the 19th century, there were hundreds of outbreaks across Russia.[8]

Middle East

The Zanj Rebellion was the culmination of a series of small revolts. It took place near the city of Basra, located in southern Iraq over a period of fifteen years (869−883 AD). It grew to involve over 500,000 slaves, who were imported from across the Muslim empire.

Europe and the Mediterranean

The Servile Wars were a series of slave revolts against the Roman Republic.

Other slave revolts occurred elsewhere.

South America and the Caribbean

Quilombo dos Palmares in Brazil, 1605 to 1694.

St. John, 1733, in what was then the Danish West Indies. The St. John's Slave Rebellion is one of the earliest and longest lasting slave rebellions in the Americas.

The most successful slave uprising was the Haitian Revolution, which began in 1791 and was eventually led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, culminating in the independent black republic of Haiti.[9]

Panama also has an extensive history of slave rebellions going back to the 16th century. Slaves were brought to the isthmus from many regions in Africa, including the modern day countries of the Congo, Senegal, Guinea, and Mozambique. Immediately before their arrival on shore, or very soon after, many enslaved Africans revolted against their captors or participated in mass maroonage or desertion. The freed Africans founded communities in the forests and mountains, organized guerrilla bands known as Cimarrones. They began a long guerrilla war against the Spanish Conquistadores, sometimes in conjunction with nearby indigenous communities like the Kuna and the Guaymí. Despite massacres by the Spanish, the rebels fought until the Spanish crown was forced to concede to treaties that granted the Africans a life without Spanish violence and incursions. The leaders of the guerrilla revolts included Felipillo, Bayano, Juan de Dioso, Domingo Congo, Antón Mandinga, and Luis de Mozambique.

Tacky's War (1760)

The Suriname slave rebellion was marked by constant guerrilla warfare by Maroons and in 1765-1793 by the Aluku. This rebellion was led by Boni.

The Berbice slave revolt in 1763, was led by Cuffy.

Cuba had slave revolts in 1795, 1798, 1802, 1805, 1812 (the Aponte revolt), 1825, 1827, 1829, 1833, 1834, 1835, 1838, 1839–43 and 1844 (the La Escalera conspiracy and revolt).

Caribbean island revolts.

In 1795 several slave rebellions broke out in entire the Caribbean, influenced by the Haitian Revolution. In Jamaica there was the Second Maroon War. In Dominica there was the Colihault Uprising and the Baptist War, 1831–1832, led by the Baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe. In Saint Lucia the Bush War. In the Saint Vincent islands the Second Carib War broke out. In Grenada there was the Fedon Rebellion. [10] Curaçao had a 1795 slave revolt, led by Tula In Venezuela, José Leonardo Chirino's Insurrection occurred in 1795. In Barbados, an 1816 slave revolt, led by Bussa. In Guyana occurred the Demerara Rebellion of 1795. [11]

In the British Virgin Islands, minor slave revolts occurred in 1790, 1823 and 1830.

In Danish West Indies an 1848 slave revolt lead to emancipation of all slaves in the Danish West Indies.

In Puerto Rico in 1821, Marcos Xiorro planned and conspired to lead a slave revolt against the sugar plantation owners and the Spanish Colonial government. Even though the conspiracy was unsuccessful, Xiorro achieved legendary status among the slaves and is part of Puerto Rico's folklore.[12]


Many slave rebellions occurred in Brazil including the Bahia Rebellion of 1835 (The Great Revolt),[13] as did the Bahia Rebellion of 1822-1830[13] and the Mali Revolt of 1835.[13]

North America

Numerous black slave rebellions and insurrections took place in North America during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. There is documentary evidence of more than 250 uprisings or attempted uprisings involving ten or more slaves. Three of the best known in the United States during the 19th century are the revolts by Gabriel Prosser in Virginia in 1800, Denmark Vesey in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822, and Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831.

Slave resistance in the antebellum South did not gain the attention of academic historians until the 1940s when historian Herbert Aptheker started publishing the first serious scholarly work on the subject. Aptheker stressed how rebellions were rooted in the exploitative conditions of the southern slave system. He traversed libraries and archives throughout the South, managing to uncover roughly 250 similar instances.

The 1811 German Coast Uprising, which took place outside of New Orleans in 1811, involved up to 500 slaves. It was suppressed by volunteer militias and a detachment of the United States Army. They killed 66 black men in the battle, executed 16, and 17 escaped and/or were killed along the way to freedom.

Although only involving about seventy slaves, the Turner's 1831 rebellion is considered to be a devastating event in American history. Over sixty people were killed, causing the slave-holding South to go into a panic. Fifty-five men, women and children were killed as Turner and his fellow rebel slaves rampaged from plantation to plantation throughout Virginia. Turner and the other slaves were eventually stopped as their ammunition ran out. The rebellion resulted in the hanging of about eighteen slaves, including Nat Turner himself. Fears afterwards led to new legislation passed by southern states prohibiting the movement, assembly, and education of slaves, and reducing the rights of free people of color. In addition, the Virginia legislature considered abolishing slavery to prevent further rebellions. In a close vote, however, the state decided to keep slaves.

John Brown had already fought against pro-slavery forces in Kansas for several years when he decided to lead a raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. This raid was a joint attack by former slaves, freed blacks, and white men who had corresponded with slaves on plantations in order to form a general uprising among slaves. It almost succeeded, had it not been for Brown's delay, and hundreds of slaves left their plantations to join Brown's force - and others left their plantations to join Brown in an escape to the mountains. Eventually, due to a tactical error by Brown, their force was quelled by the U.S. military, led by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee. But directly following this, slave disobedience and the number of runaways increased markedly in Virginia.[14]

The historian Steven Hahn proposes that the self-organized involvement of slaves in the Union Army during the American Civil War composed a slave rebellion that dwarfed all others.[15] Similarly, tens of thousands of slaves joined British forces or escaped to British lines during the American Revolution, sometimes using the disruption of war to gain freedom. For instance, when the British evacuated from Charleston and Savannah, they took 10,000 slaves with them. They also evacuated slaves from New York, taking more than 3,000 for resettlement to Nova Scotia, where they were recorded as Black Loyalists and given land grants.[16]

Part of a series of articles on...

1526 San Miguel de Gualdape
(Sapelo Island, Georgia, Victorious)
c. 1570 Gaspar Yanga's Revolt
(Veracruz, Victorious)
1712 New York Slave Revolt
(New York City, Suppressed)
1733 St. John Slave Revolt
(Saint John, Suppressed)
1739 Stono Rebellion
(South Carolina, Suppressed)
1741 New York Conspiracy
(New York City, Suppressed)
1760 Tacky's War
(Jamaica, Suppressed)
1791–1804 Haitian Revolution
(Saint-Domingue, Victorious)
1800 Gabriel Prosser
(Virginia, Suppressed)
1803 Igbo Landing
(St. Simons Island, Georgia, Suppressed)
1805 Chatham Manor
(Virginia, Suppressed)
1811 German Coast Uprising
(Territory of Orleans, Suppressed)
1815 George Boxley
(Virginia, Suppressed)
1822 Denmark Vesey
(South Carolina, Suppressed)
1831 Nat Turner's rebellion
(Virginia, Suppressed)
1831–1832 Baptist War
(Jamaica, Suppressed)
1839 Amistad, ship rebellion
(Off the Cuban coast, Victorious)
1841 Creole, ship rebellion
(Off the Southern U.S. coast, Victorious)
1842 Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation
(Southern U.S., Suppressed)
1859 John Brown's Raid
(Virginia, Suppressed)


In 1808 and 1825 there were slave rebellions in the Cape Colony, newly acquired by the British. Although the slave trade was officially abolished in the British Empire by the Slave Trade Act of 1807, and slavery itself a generation later with the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, it took until 1850 to be halted in the territories which were to become South Africa. [22]


  • Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, 6. ed., New York: International Publ., 1993 - classic
  • Matt D. Childs, The 1812 Aponte Rebellion in Cuba and the Struggle Against African Slavery, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006
  • David P. Geggus, ed., The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001
  • Eugene D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World, Louisiana State University Press 1980
  • Joao Jose Reis, Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia (Johns Hopkins Studies in Atlantic History and Culture), Johns Hopkins Univ Press 1993
  • Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2007.
  • Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2007.

See also

References and notes

External links

  • PBS online article: New York: The Revolt of 1712
  • Rebellion: John Horse and the Black Seminoles, First Black Rebels to Beat American Slavery, these maroons affiliated with Seminole Indians in Florida led a slave rebellion that would be the largest in U.S. history.
  • Bahia Revolt
  • Welcome to Encyclopædia Britannica's Guide to Black History
  • Audio from a talk by Richard Hart (Ex-Attorney General of Grenada)on slave revolts in the Caribbean
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