Who resisted and campaigned for abolition?

The fight: African resistance

by Dr Alan Rice

'...the Caribbean shares in the great drama of the Americas of which it is an integral part. In this part of the world people engaged in a process of shaping an indigenous Caribbean lifestyle and a new viable, worldview born out of the collective experience of a long-dominated but rebellious people - now enslaved, now brutalised... now pressured into cultural submission, now colonised, but never defeated.' Rex Nettleford

Africans always resisted their enslaved status in Africa, the Americas and Europe. They played a big part in undermining slavery.

African resistance

In Africa some societies, such as the Djola and Balanta, resisted the arrival of transatlantic slavery and the Europeans that brought the system with them. Elsewhere, cultural and religious movements which resisted slavery were brutally put down. To give one example, the movement led by Catholic Seer Dona Beatrice Kimpa Vita in early eighteenth century Congo, which sought to end the European-inspired wars, was crushed and many of her followers were, ironically, exported as slaves.


The most well-documented resistance in Africa was off the African coast on the slaving ships. There were around 500 documented rebellions on slave ships as well as numerous smaller acts of resistance during the transatlantic slave trade period. As the historian David Richardson's research shows, the threat of rebellion seriously affected the trade. It caused losses, and raised costs because of increased security needs and because potential investors in the transatlantic slave trade got nervous when they heard of the rebellions. This resistance usually ended in the enslaved Africans failing to secure their immediate freedom. However, it has been shown to have 'significantly reduced the shipment of slaves' to the Americas by a million people.

Very little information is available on individual Africans involved in such heroic resistance. One we do know of is the Asante, Essjerrie Ettin. He led a bold revolt of 358 enslaved Africans aboard the Dutch ship Guineese Vriendschap in 1769 that nearly succeeded. Unfortunately, a nearby warship rescued the slavers. They captured Ettin and he was brutally executed on the recaptured ship in front of the other enslaved Africans.

Death as a form of resistance

In the harbours and on the voyages themselves, Africans resisted by refusing food, by suicide and infanticide. These were all extreme acts that the enslaved did to ensure their bodies could never be used in the slaving economy.

In the Americas enslaved Africans continued their resistance through everyday resistance such as go-slows, sabotage and running away. The statistics on enslaved runaways as a proportion of imports in South Carolina show that despite strict surveillance and harsh punishments over 5% ran away between 1735 and 1775.

Maroon communities

In some more remote areas of the Americas, communities of runaways known as Maroons established themselves and were a thorn in the side of plantation economies. These maroon communities sprang up in areas as different as Suriname, the interior of Brazil and the mountains of Jamaica. They acted as a magnet for runaways. Palmares in Brazil emerged in the sixteenth century and lasted until 1695. In Jamaica and Suriname colonial authorities fought brutal and intense Maroon wars in the mid-eighteenth century in an attempt to destroy these communities, but were unable to defeat them. They had to make deals with them which allowed them to continue to exist.

Independence in Haiti

Even in areas where there were few or no Maroons, there were significant full-scale rebellions against slavery. In North America there were 65 revolts by enslaved Africans. These included Stono's Rebellion in South Carolina in 1739, the Virginia revolts of Gabriel Prosser's (1800), and Nat Turner's (1831). Denmark Vesey's conspiracy in South Carolina (1822) was inspired by the earlier 1791 revolution in Saint-Domingue which had successfully overcome the Europeans to set up the black republic of Haiti in 1804. It was a major achievement. Haiti showed rebellions could succeed. The events of Haiti continued to inspire revolts throughout the region, including Fedon's rebellion in Grenada (1795-7), Bussa's rebellion in Barbados (1816), the revolt in Demerera (1823) and the so called Baptist War in Jamaica (1831-32).

These revolts all did great damage to the institution of slavery and undermined the slaving nations' powers. For instance, during the rebellion led by Julien Fedon in Grenada 5,000 regular British troops had to remain on the island to defend the plantations. Even so, 100 plantations were destroyed causing £2.5m (£250m today) in damage. These revolts were often inspired by African world-views and grounded in an African past. The Islamic Male revolt in Salvador Brazil in 1835 was one such revolt.


As well as violent rebellion, enslaved Africans also engaged in cultural activities that brought enslaved communities together and often hid their anti-slavery activities. Throughout the Americas and Caribbean enslaved workers organised their own religious activities: either Christian ceremonials held without the permission of their masters or new African inspired religions such as Candomble, Voodoo or Santeria.

Additionally, ceremonies like Jonkonnu or dances like the cakewalk 'were performance and fun, yet at the same time an assertion of slave autonomy and resistance' (Verene Shepherd). The activities survive today in unique African influenced carnivals celebrated from Trinidad to Notting Hill and from Toronto to Rio de Janeiro.

Anti-slavery sentiments

Resistance to slavery grew in the metropolitan centres of Europe and in the Americas. The rebellions brought publicity to the injustice of slavery. There was also an increasing awareness of the brutality of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. This awareness came about partly due to the writings of ex-slaves such as Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince during the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, and partly due to the evidence gathered by Thomas Clarkson at slaving ports from sailors horrified at the cruelty they had witnessed.

Huge petition campaigns had a great motivating effect on Britons, especially those people living in the enlarging urban areas created by the Industrial Revolution. The campaigns helped to push parliament to end both the transatlantic slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833.

Slavery in the American south

However, the American South remained a society built entirely upon the trade in slave-produced cotton. Slavery's grip seemed unbreakable. Many black American abolitionists travelled to Britain to campaign against slavery. One notable activist was Frederick Douglass whose 1845-47 visit helped fire up a boycott campaign against southern goods and pro-slavery churches through his highly successful 'Send Back the Money' campaign that attracted major attention in Scotland. Frederick Douglass's own freedom was funded during this trip by female abolitionists in Newcastle and his printing press which he established on his return home, was sponsored by biscuit manufacturers from Carlisle.

In the north west of England ,the biggest market for American produced cotton, big profits were made. So it became a focus for campaigns against American slavery, with black abolitionists such as Sarah Parker Remond and Henry Box Brown speaking at venues as different as Warrington, Bolton and Salford in the 1850s.

American Civil War and the cotton famine

During the American Civil War between the slave owning states of the South and the free states of the North, the blockade of southern ports by northern forces cut off the supply of much of the cotton needed to power the industrial north west of England. This caused terrible poverty in the north west's cotton famine of 1861-63. Over 20,000 people in Oldham had to go on poor relief and unemployment rates rose to over 50% in many of the small Lancashire cotton towns.

Despite the obvious economic interests of these poor north west workers being with the cotton plantation owners based in the American South, many workers supported the North. They linked their own struggle against wage slavery with the African American struggle against chattel slavery. The sacrifice of the Manchester area cotton workers was acknowledged by Abraham Lincoln whose government sent food supplies and letters that praised their solidarity.

Overall, as Marcus Rediker shows us:

'the embryonic alliance which helped destroy the slave trade' (and eventually slavery) included 'rebellious Africans' (throughout the diaspora), 'dissident sailors who spoke out against the trade' and 'middle class and working class metropolitan activists'.

A mass working class meeting of several thousand adopted this 'Address to Lincoln' to support the Emancipation Proclamation at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester on 31 December 1862.

'...the vast progress you have made in the short space of twenty months fills us with hope that every stain on your freedom will shortly be removed, and that the erasure of that foul blot upon civilisation and Christianity, chattel slavery - during your presidency will cause the name of Abraham Lincoln to be honoured and revered by posterity ... If you have any ill-wishers here ... they are chiefly those who oppose liberty at home.'