11. The Conditions of Slavery in Medieval Mesopotamia Sparked a Massive Revolt
Medieval Mesopotamia was rocked by the Zanj (Arabic for “Blacks”) Revolt of 869 – 883, which began as a rebellion of black bondsmen in southern Iraq against slavery. Thousands of African slaves had toiled for generations in massive field projects to drain the region’s salty marshes. The work was backbreaking, the slaves were underfed and brutally treated, and jammed by the thousands into crowded labor camps. The inhumane conditions bred resentment, and the slave camps became powder kegs that just needed a spark to go off.
The spark was provided in 869 by an obscure Arab or Persian mystic poet named Ali ibn Muhammad, who asserted that God had instructed him to lead a crusade of liberation. The rebels were joined by other slaves, and the uprising eventually became a generalized revolt against the Abbasid Caliphate when freemen joined in. By the time the dust had settled and it was all over, hundreds of thousands – or even millions by some estimates – had been killed, and the Abbasid Caliphate had been fatally weakened.
10. The Rebellion That Rocked the Abbasid Caliphate
Ali ibn Muhammad preached freedom and equality regardless of race or class, and the Zanj, flocked to him to escape the miseries of slavery. They joined him in such huge numbers that he became known as Sahib al Zanj – Arabic for “Chief of the Zanj”. Ali’s egalitarian message appealed to other downtrodden people, who also rallied to him. The fight began in earnest in September, 869, and soon grew into one of the bloodiest and most destructive rebellions the Middle East has ever known. The Zanj became expert guerrilla warriors, and repeatedly ambushed government troops in the marshes. They also raided nearby villages and cities to seize supplies and free other slaves.
At the height of the revolt, the Zanj controlled southern Iraq and captured its biggest city, Basra, in 871. Their territory extended to within 50 miles of the Caliph’s capital, Baghdad. The rebels formed a government, ran a navy, collected taxes, and minted their own coins. The tide finally turned in 881, when the government amassed a huge army that drove the rebels back into the marshes. Besieged, many rebels were induced to quit with the offer of generous terms to those who voluntarily submitted. The revolt finally ended in 883 with the capture of the Zanj’s last major bastion, during which battle their leader, Ali ibn Muhammad, was killed.
9. The Introduction of African Slavery to the New World
Slavery was first introduced to Hispaniola, the island that encompasses modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic, soon after the Spanish reached the New World in 1492. The natives were forced by their European conquerors to mine for gold, and between the brutal working conditions and Old World diseases, they were all but wiped out. Within a century, the indigenous peoples of Haiti had been virtually exterminated. By then, however, the island’s gold mines had been exhausted, and the Spanish, who had discovered far richer mines in South and Central America, lost interest in Haiti.
In the seventeenth century, Spanish control waned, as settlers increasingly ignored official policies and went their own way. Spain’s efforts to reassert its control backfired, and before long, much of the island had become a haven for pirates. In 1697, the frustrated Spanish ceded the western part of Hispaniola – today’s Haiti – to France. The French, who named their new possession Saint Domingue, transformed it into a highly lucrative colony, with a labor-intensive sugar-based economy that relied on vast numbers of African slaves.
8. Haiti Became France’s Most Lucrative Colonial Possession
Mass slavery transformed Haiti into the ultimate sugar island, and its profits made it the imperial engine of French economic growth. That came at a high price for the slaves, whose working conditions were horrendous. Their life expectancy was abysmally brief, routinely cut short by backbreaking toil, workplace injuries, tropical diseases, starvation, mistreatment, or outright murder by their masters. However, the slaves were expendable assets: a slave only had to live and toil for two years in order to recoup the cost of his purchase and upkeep and turn his owner a tidy profit as well.
With such brutal economic realities, and the fact that replacement slaves were readily available and relatively cheap, plantation owners had every financial incentive to work their slaves to death. The slave population grew, but unlike Britain’s North American colonies, Haiti’s slave population growth did not result from natural increase, but from the purchase of ever more slaves to replace those who had perished. By the 1780s, Haiti accounted for a third of the entire Atlantic slave trade, as the settlers were in constant need of new slaves to replace those who worked to death on their plantations.
7. Haiti Was Primed for an Explosion as Its Slave Population Mushroomed
Haiti’s system of soul-crushing slavery could be maintained only with brutal methods of compulsion. Especially in the light of the numerical disparity between slaves and whites, which reached 17:1 in the late eighteenth century. In theory, slavery was subject to the Code Noir – French laws that accorded the slaves some basic rights, even as they authorized their masters to use corporal punishments to enforce compliance. In practice, the masters were free to do with their human property as they would, and Haiti’s slaves were routinely subjected to unrestricted and sadistic levels of violence.
By the late 1780s, Haiti was a powder keg waiting for a spark as the numbers of newly imported slaves steadily rose, from about 10,000 to 15,000 a year in the 1760s to about 25,000 a year by the early 1780s, to over 40,000 a year by 1787. By the time of the French Revolution in 1789, there were over 500,000 African slaves in Haiti, ruled by a white population of about 30,000. In addition, there were about 24,000 free mulattos (people of European and African blood) and blacks, known as affranchis.
6. The Night When Haiti Erupted in a Revolt Against Slavery
On the night of August 14, 1791, a well-liked and respected voodoo priest named Dutty Boukman held a religious ceremony in Bois Caiman, in northern Haiti. There, he issued a signal for a slave uprising. Word went out to the sugar plantations, and on the night of August 21 – 22, 1791, thousands of slaves rose up in a violent rebellion that terrified slaveholders throughout the New World. They armed themselves with machetes, knives, pitchforks, and any weapons they could lay their hands on.
Then the slaves fell upon and attacked their masters, as well as everybody else they came across who was associated with the system that kept them in slavery. They exacted vengeance for generations of abuse with merciless massacres. Across the colony, armed slaves burst into their masters’ mansions, visited revenge upon their owners with pillage, assault, torture, and death, and left fire and blood in their wake. They slaughtered the enslavers and put to the torch their owners’ dwellings, cane fields, and sugar houses.
5. The Extreme Violence of Haitian Slavery Triggered a Correspondingly Extremely Violent Uprising
In order to force the slaves to work in the terrible conditions of Haiti’s sugar cane fields and plantations, slavery had been maintained with extreme violence and brutality. The backlash when the slaves finally rose was in turn extremely violent and brutal from the outset. When the tables were turned, overseers, masters, and mistresses, were dragged from their beds, and the lucky ones were butchered on the spot. The unlucky ones were tortured to death, frequently with the same torture implements and techniques that had been used upon the slaves.
The severed heads of European men, women, and children were often placed on spikes and carried at the head of slave columns as they marched from plantation to plantation. Haiti’s sugar country was the world’s most profitable stretch of real estate at the time. Seemingly overnight, the sugar country was reduced to a smoldering and blood-drenched wilderness. Within weeks, the slaves had killed over 4,000 whites, burned at least 180 sugar plantations, 900 coffee plantations, numerous indigo plantations, and inflicted millions of francs in damages.
4. Haiti Descended Into a Cycle of Massacres and Counter Massacres
In the early stages of Haiti’s slave revolt, the rebels did not demand independence from France, but only their freedom from slavery. Many rebels mistakenly believed that King Louis XVI had issued a decree that freed the slaves, but that the island’s governor and whites had wrongfully suppressed the royal proclamation. Thus the slaves initially articulated their rebellion as a fight on behalf of the French king, against a corrupt colonial governor and white settlers who refused to implement a royal decree.
Within ten days of the uprising’s outbreak, the number of rebellious slaves throughout the colony grew to more than 100,000, and most of northern Haiti fell under their control. They then marched upon Cap Francais, the seat of the colonial government, but were thrown back by the whites, who organized themselves into militias. As the slaves regrouped, the whites went on the counterattack and massacred about 15,000 blacks. Haiti had descended into a cycle of massacres and counter-massacres that lasted until the colony finally gained its independence, and continued on for many years afterward.
3. Haiti’s Violent Uprising Against Slavery Ended as Bloodily as It Had Begun
The outbreak of the Haitian Revolution led to over a decade of protracted and at times convoluted fighting against the French, other Europeans, and internal strife between the rebels themselves. Finally, on January 1st, 1804, the former French colony of Saint-Domingue was declared independent and renamed Haiti – an indigenous word of the Taino people who inhabited the Caribbean when Christopher Columbus arrived. A rebel leader named Dessalines made himself Governor-General for life, a position he held until September 1804, when his generals proclaimed him Emperor of Haiti. He was crowned as Emperor Jacques I and held that position until he was assassinated in 1806.
Things did not go well for French whites still in Haiti. Many of them had sided with failed efforts to reintroduce slavery, and the victors were determined to exact revenge. Within days of the final defeat of French forces in Haiti, Dessalines ordered that 800 French soldiers left behind due to illness when their comrades left the island be drowned. As rumors swirled that the French minority were engaged in a conspiracy to convince foreign powers to invade and reintroduce slavery, Dessalines was criticized for a perceived failure to act. He acted in February 1804, with an order to massacre Haiti’s whites. Within two months, about 5000 had been killed, and Haiti’s white population was virtually wiped out. It was a vicious closing chapter to the vicious history of slavery in Haiti.
No article that touches upon Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, and slavery, is complete without mention of his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings (1773 – 1835). It was a creepy relationship – so creepy that to even describe it as a “relationship” is problematic. Today, what went on between Jefferson and Hemings would be considered straightforward sexual assault. Hemings was a slave kept in bondage by a brutal system in which violence was used to coerce its victims and secure their compliance. Within that context, Hemings had as much choice in submitting to Jefferson’s demands as does a modern kidnapped victim, who finds herself chained for years in some psychopath’s basement.
Even if she had not been a slave, there would still have been something creepy about the age disparity between Hemings and the famous Founding Father. Thomas Jefferson was 44-years-old when he used Hemings to satisfy his carnal desires. She was thirteen or fourteen. By the time she was sixteen, she was pregnant with the first of at least six children she bore him. Even if Hemings had welcomed his advances, what Jefferson did would be considered statutory rape today: children that young lack the maturity to consent to sex.
Another layer of creepiness about Thomas Jefferson and his child concubine is that Sally Hemings was his dead wife’s sister and lookalike. Hemings was the daughter of a slave woman and John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law. That made her the biological half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson (1748 – 1782). Hemmings, who was nine years old when her half-sister died, bore a striking resemblance to the deceased Martha, and the resemblance only increased as she grew. Jefferson missed his dead wife, so when her lookalike sister was thirteen or fourteen, he slept with her.
In short, what Thomas Jefferson did with Sally Hemings would be an epic scandal if it had happened today – one that hits just about every icky button there is. Pedophilia? Check. Incest? Check. Violence, coercion, and rape? Check, check, and check. Yet another unsavory layer atop the rest is that Jefferson fathered six children upon Sally, and kept them as slaves. He eventually freed his children, but he never freed his concubine/ Sally Hemings still lived in slavery and was Thomas Jefferson’s chattel property when he died in 1826.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading