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

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

Kurt Christopher - August 31, 2017

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. Blackpast.org

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

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