Who resisted and campaigned for abolition?

Slave resistance, rebellions and the Haitian revolution

by Dr Alan Rice

'Whites feared black retribution in proportion to the violence they meted out, on a daily and generally unregulated basis, to their human possessions. The worst fear must have been that slaves might behave like slave owners.' James Walvin

Hilary Beckles has argued that there was effectively a ‘Two Hundred Years War' that was fought from the arrival of the British in the West Indies in 1638 until the end of slavery in 1838. This war included numerous full scale rebellions. It took place in enslaved African societies throughout the Americas. Resistance to slavery took many forms: from embracing African inspired religions and culture to economic sabotage to violent fight backs. Often these forms of resistance were interlinked. For instance, in the Antigua rebellion in 1735-6, led mainly by a group of enslaved Coromantee Africans from the Gold Coast, the beginning of the act of rebellion was a mass military shield dance (an ‘ikem'). This dance enabled the leaders of the rebellion to assess their following before striking against slavery.

In response to this and other rebellious acts, slave owners sought to limit cultural resistance. They banned the use of African drums and ceremonials. They also introduced ‘Slave Codes' that controlled the movement and activities of enslaved Africans.

Toussaint L'Ouverture and Haiti

Rebellions happened throughout the Americas. The most important was the only large scale successful revolt. This took place in French controlled Saint-Domingue. Again, cultural forms that the Africans had brought with them from Africa were at the heart of the revolt. It started with a religious (‘vodun' or ‘vodou') ceremony led by Boukman in August 1791. The rebellion lasted throughout the 1790s and early 1800s led by the talented and inspiring Toussaint L'Ouverture whose armies fought troops from France, Spain and Britain. Although Toussaint L'Ouverture was captured and died in 1803, his successor Jean-Jacques Dessalines continued the fight. Finally in 1804 the rebellion triumphed and the independent state of Haiti was established.

This success was inspirational for enslaved Africans elsewhere. It stunned slave owners and their supporters and led to ever more brutal punishment regimes to stop rebellion. As an example, there were revolts in the British West Indian islands of Barbados (1816), Guyana (1823) and Jamaica (1831-32) inspired by the example of Haiti. These revolts were put down brutally. The punishment for enslaved Africans who rebelled was horrific. News reached Europe of this punishment. The revulsion the news caused was a key factor in bringing about the abolition of slavery. So even unsuccessful revolts played a part in causing the downfall of slavery.

'Slave resistance was often cultural as well as political: the resistance of a people to being swallowed up by a foreign way of life. In this case resistance may be understood as a refusal to abandon one's values and traditions as well as – at another level – singular acts ranging from quiet sabotage to organizing and fighting back.' Michael Mullin