Breaking the Chains: 9 Pivotal Slave Rebellions From Ancient Times to the 19th Century

Breaking the Chains: 9 Pivotal Slave Rebellions From Ancient Times to the 19th Century

Kurt Christopher - August 31, 2017

The institution of slavery is as old as civilization itself. Wherever and whenever people have been kept in bondage some amongst their ranks have risked resisting captivity by rising up against their masters. Most slave revolts failed and often ended in the execution of rebellious slaves. In a few cases, however, slaves were able to win their freedom through violent resistance, and in the early nineteenth century, a spate of revolutions championed by enslaved peoples contributed to the alteration of the international slave trade and opened the way for general abolition.

1 – The Third Servile War – 73 BC to 71 BC

Spartacus, perhaps the most famous slave of all time, hailed from Thrace just beyond the borders of the Roman Republic. He fought for the Romans for a time, but after deserting his position he was captured by legionaries and made a slave. Due to his martial prowess, his captors elected to mold him into a gladiator, sending him to train at Lentulus Batiatus’s gladiatorial school in Capua. There he honed his lethality, learning to fight with the gladius and forming personal connections with other would-be gladiators who strained at the notion of giving their lives to amuse a Roman crowd.

Breaking the Chains: 9 Pivotal Slave Rebellions From Ancient Times to the 19th Century
A depiction of the death of Spartacus in the Third Servile War.

In 73 BC this contingent of disaffected trained killers turned their skills upon their masters. Seventy of them rose up within the gladiatorial school. Fighting at first with little more than kitchen utensils, they managed to break out and capture real weapons from the school’s arsenal before making for the countryside. Free from captivity, the small band scoured the area around Capua for more slaves to fill out their ranks, expanding their numbers enough that they were able to repulse a Roman legion sent to end the rebellion. Having bested a legion, the slave army relocated to Mount Vesuvius.

At Vesuvius, the rebels selected Spartacus along with his compatriots Crixus and Oenomaus to lead them. From there they hoped that they might secure passage to Sicily, which had already witnessed two major slave revolts in living memory, in order to expand their following. The Roman Senate responded by raising eight legions under the command of Marcus Licinius Crassus to crush the rebellion, later to be joined by the legions of the legendary Pompey as well. In 71 BC this overwhelming force cornered Spartacus’s army and destroyed it. The 6,000 surviving rebels would be crucified, their bodies lining the road all the way from Rome to Capua.

Breaking the Chains: 9 Pivotal Slave Rebellions From Ancient Times to the 19th Century
A painting of Zanj rebels with the heads of their former masters. Tumblr

2 – The Zanj Rebellion – 869 AD – 883 AD

While slavery was common under the Abbasid Caliphate, based in Baghdad, slaves did not typically work in agriculture. Enslaved men usually worked as administrators or soldiers, while women acted as concubines or domestic servants. In the wetlands around Basra, however, there was an effort in the ninth century to establish a slave plantation system.

The workforce that was brought in to tame the marshes was primarily made up of the Zanj, slaves imported into the Caliphate from East Africa. While slaves in the cities enjoyed reasonable living conditions and even opportunities for social mobility, life for the Zanj agricultural slaves was miserable.

In the early 860s, the Caliphate was shaken by internal political divisions, weakening its ability to respond to disturbances and creating an opportunity for the Zanj. At the time there was an ambitious agitator by the name of Ali ibn Muhammad who had been touring Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula attempting to stir up opposition to the Caliphate. When came to Basra he discovered a ready-made revolutionary group, some half a million downtrodden Zanj slaves. The Zanj flocked to Ali, who proclaimed that he believed that people should be judged by their merits and that even an African slave was worthy of leading the entire Caliphate.

Ali’s slave army managed to carve out an autonomous space for itself around Basra, and for fourteen years from 869 to 883, they repulsed repeated attempts by the Caliph to reconquer the area. In time, though, the Caliphate ground down the Zanj rebels. After Basra fell in a battle that cost 300,000 killed on all sides, the rebels turned to guerilla tactics, but in 883 Ali was killed and the rebellion fell apart. Though the Zanj were ultimately defeated, many of them were granted better treatment after surrendering, and the Caliphate would never again attempt to create a large-scale plantation system drawing on slave labor.

Breaking the Chains: 9 Pivotal Slave Rebellions From Ancient Times to the 19th Century
Wat Tyler’s rebels rioting. midievaleuropeinfo

3 – The English Peasants’ Revolt – 1381 AD

Though not always equated directly with slavery in the modern mind, the institution of serfdom in feudal society bore many of the hallmarks of outright enslavement. Serfs were bound to the land where they lived and were prohibited from leaving. The land itself belonged to a lord, who was entitled to all the surplus crops produced by the serfs and could also call upon them to work for him. In exchange, the lord offered protection to his serfs and allowed them to consume some of the products of their labor.

By the fourteenth century, this feudal relationship in England was beginning to fray under the pressure of the Black Death and the Hundred Year’s War with France. As a consequence of these tension, when a royal official called for the immediate payment of back taxes in Brentwood 1381 he sparked an uprising that quickly expanded across southeast England.

Under the leadership of Wat Tyler, the rebels soon entered London unopposed, prompting King Richard II to go into hiding in the Tower of London. They ransacked the capital, burning government buildings and killing the King’s men while demanding that serfdom be abolished.

After escaping London, King Richard collected a force and offered to parlay with Tyler. The talks went sour, though, and Tyler was killed. With the death of their leader, the rebellion lost its focus and was picked apart by royal militia. Though the revolt failed to end serfdom outright, it did mark the beginning of the end of unfree labor in England. Over the next three centuries, serfdom would gradually disappear in Western Europe, though in the East, and particularly in Russia, the reliance on Serfdom would expand radically in the same period.

Breaking the Chains: 9 Pivotal Slave Rebellions From Ancient Times to the 19th Century
The Serf-Tsar Pugachev dispensing his own brand of justice. mirv

4 – The Pugachev Rebellion – 1773-1774 AD

By the eighteenth century serfdom in Russia had become even more oppressive than it had been at its height in Western Europe. Not only were serfs bound to the land, they could also be bought and sold by nobles, and in some cases, Russian nobles even took out mortgages on their serfs. Russian serfs were also liable to be conscripted into the military for the incredibly long term of twenty-five years. One of these Russian serfs forced into the army was Yemelyan Pugachev, who fought for Russia in the Seven Years’ War before escaping the military and going into hiding.

It was from this exile that Pugachev developed a plan. Tsar Peter III had recently been assassinated, but rumors had been going around amongst the serfs that Peter had actually escaped and been driven out by Catherine the Great. In 1773 Pugachev latched on to these rumors and began wandering the land claiming that he himself was Peter III. Whether the serfs really believed him or just wanted it to be true, they began to follow him. In short order, he amassed an army of serfs supporters who together claimed most of the eastern part of European Russia, whereupon Pugachev, posing as the Tsar, emancipated the serfs.

Of course, Pugachev did not actually have the authority to free Russia’s serfs. Catherine the Great dispatched an army to put down Pugachev’s revolt. The poorly led and ill-equipped forces of the Tsarina were unable to defeat the rebellious serfs, and Pugachev’s imaginary kingdom remained until 1774 when a much more effective Russian force defeated Pugachev’s forces.

Pugachev himself was betrayed by his Cossacks and taken back to Moscow in a cage for a public execution. In the end, the Pugachev Rebellion had the opposite effect of what it had hoped for. Catherine had been considering emancipating the serfs, but the uprising prompted her to abandon the plan.

Breaking the Chains: 9 Pivotal Slave Rebellions From Ancient Times to the 19th Century
January Suchodolski painting “The Battle of Palm Tree Hill,” depicting a clash between Haitian revolutionaries and French forces. Pinterest

5 – The Haitian Revolution – 1791-1804

At the end of the eighteenth century the prized French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue, present-day Haiti, was reeling from the ongoing French Revolution. Socially, the island was stratified between four different classes: the landholding whites, the poor whites, the so-called free coloreds, and the slaves who made up almost ninety percent of the population. Each of these classes saw in the French Revolution a different opportunity. The rich whites hoped the revolution might lead to their independence along with the model of the American Revolution. The poor whites and the free coloreds desired equal rights with the landholding whites, and the slaves saw a chance for freedom.

In the spring of 1791, it looked as if the free-colored were going to get their wish, as the revolutionary government granted them full French citizenship. When the landholding whites attempted to block implementation of this declaration it prompted scattered resistance from the free coloreds. The slaves quickly moved to take advantage of this mild disorder to pursue their own ends, and across the island, tens of thousands of slaves went into open revolt. The rich whites called on the British and Spanish, who were at war with France, to intervene. To forestall an invasion, the colonial government abolished slavery and granted equal rights to all.

Freed from bondage, the rebels returned to the side of the government and helped to defeat the British and Spanish under the leadership of a former slave named Toussaint Louverture. After this victory, however, Louverture declared himself governor for life and proclaimed an autonomous black state. By this point, Napoleon, who had since taken control of France, sent a force to the colony and captured Louverture, and reinstituted slavery. Haiti’s slaves, having tasted freedom, were not about to don chains once again. They returned to open rebellion and defeated the French. In 1804 they proclaimed the independent republic of Haiti, only the second republic in the Americas after the United States.

The Haitian Revolution was by far the most important slave uprising of the nineteenth century, and it more than any other event contributed to the eventual annihilation of the institution of slavery around the world. The Revolution, though very brutal, had been a success, and it prompted terror in slaveholders across the Americas. Three years after the Revolution the British made the international trade in slaves illegal, and the Spanish and Americans both signed on to the policy as well. The Revolution would also function as a model for disaffected slaves across the Caribbean and in the United States.

Breaking the Chains: 9 Pivotal Slave Rebellions From Ancient Times to the 19th Century
An illustration of the capture of Nat Turner. Time

6 – Nat Turner’s Rebellion – 1831

Nat Turner grew up a slave on the Turner plantation in Southampton County Virginia. Turner was deeply religious from an early age, claiming to sometimes receive visions from God, and he also offered religious teaching to other slaves on the plantation. His visions convinced him that God had chosen him as an instrument, he said, to “fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.” In February 1831 there was a solar eclipse, which Turner took as a sign to prepare for an uprising. That August there was another eclipse, and Turner concluded that God had told him it was time to act.

On August 21, 1831, Turner and a handful of his followers escaped and began to move from plantation to plantation, killing any white person that they came across and recruiting new followers from amongst the slaves they found. Turner’s rebels, who numbered seventy at their height, were extremely brutal. They slaughtered sixty men, women, and children using edged weapons and clubs. Their violence precipitated a strong reaction from white militia and the U.S. military, who suppressed the rebellion over the course of two days.

During the course of the fighting 100 slaves were killed, many of whom had not actually been involved, and 56 of the rebels would be executed after they were subdued. Rumors of further uprisings wound through the south, prompting indiscriminate attacks on slaves across the region that claimed another 120 lives.

Turner himself managed to evade capture for two months before being found and sentenced to death. Before his execution he commented “was Christ not crucified?” In the wake of the rebellion, Virginia passed new regulations outlawing teaching slaves to read and further curtailed the rights of even free blacks.

Breaking the Chains: 9 Pivotal Slave Rebellions From Ancient Times to the 19th Century
A depiction of the destruction of a Jamaican estate by the followers of Samuel Sharpe. Wikipedia

7 – The Baptist War – 1831-1832

By 1831 a potent abolitionist movement had developed in Britain and had already achieved a victory in outlawing the international slave trade. Still, the British held a slave colony of their own in Jamaica. Aware of the shifting political winds, the slaves in Jamaica had real hope that they would soon receive their freedom. Particularly high hopes had been placed on abolitionist missionary Thomas Burchell, who traveled to England in 1831 to make the case for ending slavery. Many expected that he would return with news of emancipation, so when he came back to the island empty-handed unrest began to brew amongst the slaves.

One Jamaican slave and Baptist preacher, Samuel Sharpe, believed that the slaves of Jamaica might achieve their goal, which seemed so close, nonviolently. Consequently, in late December 1831, he organized strikes by the slaves, demanding that they be given their freedom and pay amounting to at least half a white man’s wage. 60,000 slaves answered Sharpe’s call, a full twenty percent of the total slave population of the island. Despite Sharpe’s intentions, the strikes did turn violent in places and seventeen whites were killed by rebel slaves.

The British managed to put down the rebellion over the course of eleven days, killing 207 slaves in the subsequent fighting. Following the suppression of the rebellion at least 300 of the uprising’s leaders, including Sharpe, were sentenced to death in British courts. Sharpe’s last words were “I would rather die among yonder gallows than live in slavery.” Though the rebels were defeated, in the end, they did achieve their aim. The year after the “Baptist War” the British parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act, outlawing slavery in British possession in the western hemisphere. By 1838 slavery was illegal in all places flying the Union Jack.

Though the rebels were defeated, in the end they did achieve their aim. The year after the “Baptist War” the British parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act, outlawing slavery in British possession in the western hemisphere. By 1838 slavery was illegal in all places flying the Union Jack.

Breaking the Chains: 9 Pivotal Slave Rebellions From Ancient Times to the 19th Century
The Amistad mutineers arguing for their freedom in court. Robinson Library

8 – The Uprising on the Amistad

In 1839 the Spanish ship Amistad was at sea off the coast of Cuba, transporting 49 Africans who had recently been kidnapped in Sierra Leone to slavery in Cuba. As the ship was low on provisions and the voyage was taking longer than expected, the ship’s cook had been taunting the Africans that they would be eaten when supplies of food ran out. On July 2, 1839, one of the captives by the name of Cinque managed to free himself from his shackles by using a file that another one of the Africans had smuggled aboard.

Having slipped his chains, Cinque released the remaining Africans, and together they rose up, killing the cook and driving two other members of the crew into lifeboats. Using the captain’s personal slave as an interpreter, they demanded that the two remaining crew members take them back to Africa. Rather than pointing the Amistad towards Africa, though, the crew sailed it up the eastern seaboard of the United States, laying anchor off of Long Island. There they were spotted by the USS Washington, which captured the Amistad.

The Captain of Washington then filed a lawsuit claiming that under salvage law he was the rightful owner of the Africans found aboard the Amistad. The two crew members of the Amistad made similar claims to the Africans, while the Africans themselves contended that they belonged to no one. In February 1841 the Amistad case came before the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court ruled that because international slave trade was illegal, the Africans could not have been legally enslaved in Sierra Leone in the first place, and were therefore free. In 1842 the Africans returned to their homes in Sierra Leone.

Breaking the Chains: 9 Pivotal Slave Rebellions From Ancient Times to the 19th Century
An artists interpretation of the uprising on the Creole.

9 – The Uprising on the Creole – 1841

In late 1841 the slave ship Creole departed Virginia headed for New Orleans. Onboard were 135 slaves that were slated for sale in Louisiana. Though the United States had joined with the British in outlawing the international trade of slaves in 1808, the sale of slaves over state lines remained legal within the United States. One of the slaves on board was Madison Washington, an unfortunate who had previously escaped from slavery into Canada but had been recaptured when he came back to Virginia to free his wife.

While at sea on November 7 1841, Washington noticed that one of the ship’s crew had failed to secure the hold, and he seized the opportunity to storm the deck along with eighteen of the other slaves. In a brief fight, the slaves killed one of the crew members and wounded several more before taking the ship.

In a stroke of insight, one of the slaves demanded that the captain of the Creole sail for the Bahamas, a British possession where slavery had become illegal in the aftermath of the slave revolt in Jamaica. When they arrived local authorities informed the slaves that under British law they were now free.

Though the British authorities arrested those slaves implicated in the violent capture of the ship, they allowed the remainder to reside in the Bahamas. Five slaves refused, and would eventually return to New Orleans and slavery with the Creole. The British court also soon ruled that the participants in the uprising had not committed a crime, as they were free and were just in using force to escape unlawful captivity. In all 128 former slaves gained their freedom in the Bahamas, making the uprising on the Creole the most successful US slave revolt in terms of the number of slaves freed.


Sources For Further Reading:

Time Magazine – The Birth of a Nation and Nat Turner in His Own Words

The Atlantic – Nat Turner’s Insurrection

History Collection – Revolutionary Bloodshed: 4 Violent Uprisings That Changed the World as We Know it

History Collection – 10 Famous Slave Revolutions