On the eve of the American Revolution, slavery was recognized and accepted throughout the New World. All of the major European powers at one time or another entered the Atlantic slave trade, just as most of them possessed slave colonies. Yet it was the British who came to dominate the Atlantic slave system. British Empire ships carried more African captives than any nation (an estimated three million); Britain's colonies in the Caribbean and mainland North America produced vast quantities of tropical goods (sugar, tobacco, rice, indigo) for the home market; and the country as a whole grew rich on the profits of enslaved African labor.
Within two decades, however, Britain (1807) and the United States (1808) had acted decisively to abandon the transatlantic slave trade. In fact, "abolition" was to emerge as one of the most important reform movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
How and why this came about are questions that continue to puzzle historians. By and large, interpretations of abolition tend to fall into two camps. The first, popularized during the nineteenth century, tends to explain abolition in terms of a moral or humanitarian movement.
The second, which can be traced back to the publication of Eric Williams's book Capitalism and Slavery, in 1944, places much greater emphasis on economic factors. Controversially, Williams argued that abolition coincided with periods of general economic decline in the British Caribbean. Abolition, in other words, was motivated purely by economic self-interest. Williams's "decline thesis" remains a subject of ongoing historical inquiry. But if many of his arguments have been questioned, Williams was surely right in drawing attention to the connection between abolition and capitalism.
This is not to suggest that the spread of abolitionist ideas had to rest on the growth of the factory system and free-labor ideology, but that there was a link of some sort, perhaps a transformation of consciousness, evident in the desire on both sides of the Atlantic to dignify and honor labor, now seems indisputable. Abolition is perhaps best understood as the confluence of a number of different factors, some of them moral, some of them economic, and some of them ideological.
The Early Movement
Properly speaking, the early abolitionist movement dates from the late eighteenth century. But there were attacks on slavery and the slave trade before this period. Enlightenment figures, such as French philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Montesquieu, both expressed their disapproval of the Atlantic slave system, as did writers like Aphra Behn, the author of Oroonoko (1688), the story of an African enslaved in Suriname.
For the most part, these early critics focused on the inhumanity, cruelty, and immorality of the slave trade, themes that would be picked up by abolitionists in the 1780s. The case against colonial slavery was also greatly strengthened by political economists such as the Scottish Adam Smith, who argued that slave labor was costly and inefficient, certainly when compared to free wage labor. Others went further, condemning slavery on the grounds that it was harmful to personal industry, profitable economy, and family life. Slavery was increasingly viewed by many eighteenth-century Britons (and Americans, too) as part of a "system" that appeared outmoded and in urgent need of repair.
An important lead also came from the Religious Society of Friends, known as Quakers. Convinced of the utter sinfulness of physical coercion, American Quaker activists, following Anthony Benezet and John Woolman, succeeded in making abolition a test of religious truth. In 1758, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting made involvement in the slave trade a disciplinary offence, leading to exclusion from all its business meetings.
Two years later Quakers in New England similarly changed their policy relating to slave merchants. Interestingly, there was an international or transatlantic dimension to this reform activity. In 1761 the London Yearly Meeting also announced that any of its members found guilty of involvement in the slave trade would merit disownment. Underpinned by an intricate web of family connections and business contacts, international Quakerism would prove to be one of the most dynamic and enduring factors in the campaign against both slavery and the slave trade.
The Significance of the American Revolution
Important as these initiatives were, however, they did not yet constitute an organized movement. Here, an important catalyst came in the shape of the American Revolution. At an ideological level, the fate of Britain’s North American colonies unleashed a heated debate about political representation that was quite often framed in terms of slavery (disfranchisement) and freedom (the vote).
The revolutionaries’ commitment to freedom and equality necessarily led to growing unease over the legitimacy of slavery, as did the valor of the African Americans who enlisted in the Patriot cause. As physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence Benjamin Rush put it, "It would be useless for us to denounce the servitude to which the Parliament of Great Britain wishes to reduce us, while we continue to keep our fellow creatures in slavery just because their color is different."
Significantly, the Revolution witnessed the emergence of the first broad-based abolitionist organizations, in the shape of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (organized in 1775, reorganized in 1784) and the New York Manumission Society (1784). Soon, other groups appeared in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island and, for a short time, in Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky. Moreover, in 1794 an American Convention of Abolition Societies was formed in an unsuccessful effort to give the early abolitionist movement national scope.
The progress of abolition in America was initially swift. By 1788 no fewer than six states had legislated for the immediate abolition of the slave trade and two more, South Carolina and Delaware, had suspended it temporarily. Others, like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, had also gone further and made some provision for the gradual or immediate abolition of slavery itself. This was state action, however.
At the federal level there was no getting away from the fact that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had agreed to leave the slave trade intact until 1808. How this proposal had come to be adopted, first at Philadelphia and later by the ratifying conventions, bewildered many abolitionists, but nevertheless it was part of the Constitution, as was the clause recognizing slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of representation in the House of Representatives.
Of course, there was an obvious irony here. If the Revolution stimulated interest in abolition, the truth was that there were evident limits to the American conception of freedom, particularly where enslaved Africans were concerned. It was one thing to attack slavery in New England or the Middle Atlantic states, where it had been of only marginal significance, quite another to attack it in Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, or the Carolinas. Here, American ideals of freedom and equality came into conflict with a southern plantocracy that jealously protected its economic and political interests; indeed, many of the principal revolutionaries, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were themselves slaveholders, and showed little inclination to abolish the institution of slavery. Instead, the Founding Fathers agreed to disagree over slavery, as part of a series of compromises that underpinned the adoption of the Constitution in 1787.
American abolitionists sought to circumvent the Constitution by appealing directly to the U.S. Congress. On February 11, 1790, two Quaker delegations from New York and Philadelphia presented petitions to the House of Representatives calling for an immediate end to the international slave trade. This was followed the next day by a petition from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, signed and endorsed by Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, this time urging Congress to adopt measures against slavery as well as the slave trade.
The ensuing debate determined the broad lines of Congressional action for the next eighteen years. On March 23, the House of Representatives affirmed that it could neither abolish the slave trade, at least not before 1808, nor take any action affecting the emancipation of slaves. The Constitution, in other words, meant exactly what it said, a point made forcefully by figures like future president James Madison, who feared that any concessions to abolitionists might only invite the disunion of the infant American republic.
Nevertheless, the House of Representatives did go on to reserve its right to regulate the trade. In 1794, for instance, following intense pressure from abolitionists, Congress prohibited United States citizens from supplying slaves to foreigners. Similar commitments were also made regarding the "humane" treatment of Africans during the Middle Passage.
Increasingly, after 1790 American abolitionists would look to Britain to take deliberate action against the transatlantic slave trade, thereby setting an example for others to follow.
The British Movement After 1783
Like its American counterpart, the British movement had emerged in the years immediately following the American Revolution. The timing was again significant. The Revolution galvanized political debate in Britain, at the same time giving slavery (disfranchisement) an immediate significance by linking it to the political condition of thousand of native-born Britons. But the Revolution also had a more far-reaching effect.
Defeat in the American war brought with it a searching and sometimes painful reevaluation of Britain’s standing as a once victorious Protestant nation. One result of the loss of the American colonies was a move to tighten the reins of empire elsewhere, notably in Canada, Ireland, and the British Caribbean. Another, however, was a rise in enthusiasm for political and religious reform, for virtually anything, in fact, that might prevent a similar humiliation in the future.
The loss of the American colonies forced Britons to think about themselves and about their failings. Naturally enough, slavery and the slave trade also came under the microscope, leading some Britons to contemplate alternative visions of empire, including, significantly, an empire without slavery. If the debate was rarely framed in these precise terms, we should not underestimate the impact of the American Revolution and imperial crisis on British political thought.
Seen in this light, the abolition of the slave trade was inextricably linked with the character, virtue, and destiny of the British nation, at least until the rising tide of revolutionary violence in France shifted the terms of debate yet again. The American Revolution also had a vital impact on British abolitionism because it effectively divided British America, at the same time halving the number of slaves in the British Empire. Abolitionists were well aware of the importance of these events. "As long as America was ours," wrote abolitionist Thomas Clarkson in 1788, "there was no chance that a minister would have attended to the groans of the sons and daughters of Africa, however he might feel for their distress."
War — or, more precisely, defeat — created a climate in which abolitionism could take root. Early abolitionist activity in Britain was channeled through the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (SEAST), organized in May 1787, which, with some justification, has been described as the prototype of the nineteenth-century reform organization. Its task was to create a constituency for abolition through the distribution of circular letters, books, and pamphlets. Abolitionists were also quick to exploit the influence of the press and, in the case of Wedgwood’s famous cameo of the kneeling slave, visual images and artifacts.
Moreover, in Thomas Clarkson they possessed the movement’s only full-time, professional reformer. An indefatigable and obsessive man, Clarkson not only popularized abolition through his various letters and pamphlets, but as the SEAST’s traveling agent (he made three tours of England and Scotland between 1788 and 1791), he provided a vital link between London and the provinces.
A key role was also played by a small group of black abolitionists who formed a group known as the Sons of Africa. Among them was Olaudah Equiano, of Nigerian origin. An ex-slave who traveled widely and was at one time or another a servant, a hairdresser, a miner, and a ship’s steward, Equiano emerged in his forties as an important spokesman for the early abolitionist movement. He described some of his experiences in his enormously successful Interesting Narrative (1789), which remains probably the most complete account of the enslaved experience in the eighteenth century.
In 1791 Equiano spent more than eight and half months touring Ireland. The following year he visited Scotland and spoke to meetings in Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield, Durham, and Hull. At the same time, he wrote articles and reviews for the Public Advertiser and was personally acquainted with abolitionists Granville Sharp and Sir William Dolben.
Together with Sharp and another free African, Ottobah Cugoano—a Fante from Ghana who had been enslaved in Grenada—Equiano also helped to publicize the 1781 Zong case, in which the British owners of the slave ship Zong attempted to claim insurance on 133 Africans from São Tomé who had been thrown overboard when an epidemic spread.
An International Movement
There was always an international dimension to the early abolitionist movement; indeed, foreign support and intervention were deemed vital to the success of the movement at home. In pursuit of these aims, British abolitionists made contact with the French Société des Amis des Noirs, following its organization in 1788.
More significant, certainly in the long term, were the links that British abolitionists established with their counterparts in the United States. Personal contacts between British and American abolitionists had been forged during the colonial period. Granville Sharp, for instance, had been introduced to Benjamin Franklin through Anthony Benezet and corresponded with Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, while for years Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic had been united in their efforts to alleviate the sufferings of the black population.
If anything, the Revolution strengthened these ties, at the same time setting them on a more formal basis. One of the first acts of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, following its reorganization in 1784, was to open a correspondence with Thomas Clarkson. Eager to repay the compliment, in July 1787 the SEAST wrote to the societies at Philadelphia and New York to inform them of the measures they had taken for the abolition of the slave trade.
The SEAST’s long-term objective was to stimulate enough interest to encourage mass petitioning. In fact, the history of the early abolitionist movement in Britain can be told in terms of two major petition campaigns. The first took place in 1788, when over one hundred petitions dealing with the slave trade were presented to the House of Commons.
Abolitionists, Planters, and Saint Domingue
It was against the background of this campaign that, on February 11, 1788 a committee of the Privy Council was appointed to look into the state of the slave trade. In May, William Wilberforce, working in close cooperation with the London Committee of the SEAST, introduced a motion in the House of Commons calling for an early abolition of the trade. But the Commons resolved to hear its own evidence, a compromise measure that left abolitionists playing a dangerous waiting game. Wilberforce and his supporters did win one concession, however. Late in the same session both Houses passed Sir William Dolben’s Slave Limitation (or Middle Passage) Bill, which reduced the number of captives that British ships could carry.
The Commons’ hearings dragged on until February 1791. Undaunted, the SEAST went on collecting evidence, distributing tracts, and lobbying MPs. Despite these efforts, Wilberforce’s motion was again defeated, this time by a vote of 163 to 88. The size of this defeat prompted him to propose launching another petition campaign. Everything indicated that public support for abolition was still strong. Help also came from William Fox’s Address to the People of Great Britain, on the Utility of Refraining from West India Sugar and Rum (1791). Fox’s pamphlet, which went through fourteen editions, inspired a nationwide boycott of West Indian sugar and rum that at its peak involved some 300,000 families.
Not to be outdone, in 1792 the powerful Society of West India Planters and Merchants set up its own publications committee, whose activities mirrored exactly those of the SEAST. The propaganda war was further intensified by debates over the meaning and significance of the slave insurrection in Saint Domingue (future Haiti) in 1791. The SEAST was eager to refute the charge that abolition of the slave trade, or even abolitionist activity, might in any way lead to the destruction of West Indian property.
The revolt in Saint Domingue, abolitionists countered, had not been caused by "the friends of the blacks in France," but by "the pride and obstinacy of the whites who drove them to their fate, by an impolitic and foolish dissention with the mulattoes, and with each other." Yet for many, Saint Domingue would remain a potent symbol of violence, instability, and unrest, conjuring up images that made explicit the link between abolition, liberty, and the rising tide of revolutionary violence in France.
Decline of the British Abolition Movement
Despite these obstacles, the petition campaign of 1792 was a huge success. In all, 519 petitions were presented to the House of Commons, the largest number ever submitted to the House on a single subject or in a single session. In 1792, the House of Commons resolved, by a vote of 230 to 85, that the slave trade ought to be gradually abolished. After lengthy debate, January 1, 1796, was fixed for its abolition.
The Lords, however, rejected the Commons’ resolution and on June 5, 1792, voted to postpone the business until the following session, when they would hear their own evidence for and against the slave trade. Abolitionists suffered further humiliation in 1793, when the House of Commons refused to revive the subject of the slave trade, in effect reversing the resolution of the previous year.
In desperation the SEAST considered and then rejected a proposal to endorse a nationwide boycott of slave-grown produce. The abolitionist movement lost momentum and, ultimately, purpose. As the hearings in the Lords spluttered to a halt, even the gathering of fresh evidence began to lose significance. The result was disintegration and decay.
In 1793 the London Committee of the SEAST met thirty-three times; in 1794 the figure fell to just nine. That same year, Clarkson withdrew from the fight, his health broken by a punishing round of tours and meetings. Thereafter, the SEAST went into a steep decline, finally ceasing operations in 1797.
American Abolitionists, Elitism and Education
In the United States, meanwhile, the movement had evolved in a different, if complementary, direction. The style was different as well. Whereas British abolitionists committed themselves to grass-roots activity, appealing directly to local electors, by and large, early American abolitionists conceived of anti-slavery as an elite movement, espousing carefully worded legal and political challenges to slavery and the slave trade.
Discretion was the by-word of groups like the Pennsylvania Abolition Society: hence the emphasis on persuading legislators to take action by emphasizing their "honorable" and "gentlemanly" credentials. If groups like the SEAST took obvious pride in depicting themselves as "respectable," a key word in the abolitionists’ vocabulary, they also attached great weight to their ability to speak for the British "people," thereby helping to redefine the shape of British politics.
Moreover, American abolitionists, frustrated in their efforts to get Congress to implement a federal ban on the slave trade, spent an increasing amount of their time defending state abolition plans. They also took a keen interest in the welfare of free blacks, sponsoring African schools and, where possible, extending legal aid to distressed blacks, particularly those kidnapped or caught up in the domestic slave trade.
The New York Manumission Society, for instance, established its first school for African Americans, the African Free School, in New York City in 1787, and was responsible for educating thousands of pupils, including Rev. Alexander Crummell, the scholar and missionary who served twenty years in Liberia, and former runaway and abolitionist Rev. Henry Highland Garnett, an advocate of emigration. If anything, these legal and educational activities would assume greater importance as time went on, helping to give American abolitionism its own distinctive shape and character, especially after 1790.
The Abolition of the Slave Trade
By century’s end, abolitionism seemed to have reached something of an impasse on both sides of the Atlantic. But then in 1804 the British movement sprang back into life, presumably at the instigation of William Wilberforce. The government was clearly in favor of the measure. Furthermore, the entry into Parliament of a batch of new "liberal" Irish MPs, following the Act of Union of 1801, subtly altered the disposition of pro- and anti-slavery forces in the House of Commons.
By 1807 it also looked as though it would be possible to build an international coalition against the transatlantic slave trade, something that had proved impossible during the 1790s. Denmark had already abolished it in 1792. The United States was expected to follow suit in 1808, while for different reasons Holland, Portugal, and France were all highly susceptible to diplomatic pressure. Perhaps just as important, a modest increase in slave births over deaths in the British Caribbean, notably in Barbados, held out the prospect that the British sugar colonies might be able to supply themselves.
In this sense, the abolition of the slave trade was a pragmatic decision made in the knowledge that Britain could probably afford to dispense with it. Yet there is little doubt that public opinion was behind the measure, or that many MPs were swayed by the moral arguments put forward by Wilberforce and his supporters.
The death of William Pitt in 1806 also proved an important turning point. The new government, Lord Grenville’s "Ministry of All the Talents," was known to be in favor of the measure. In 1806 it brought in a bill prohibiting the slave trade to conquered Dutch Guiana. Seizing this opportunity, Wilberforce began to attach the provisions of his own Foreign Slave Bill to the proposed legislation. The Foreign Slave Bill was passed into law in 1806, paving the way for the Abolition Act of 1807, which finally outlawed all British involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. As predicted, a year later the United States also officially abandoned the slave trade, in accordance with the constitutional ban agreed to in 1787.
Towards the Abolition of Slavery
Emerging out of the political crisis of the 1770s and 1780s, the early abolitionist movement was to prove one of the earliest examples of Anglo-American cooperation, at least in the reform sphere. Working through channels that stretched from London to New York, Philadelphia, and beyond, abolitionists exchanged ideas and information, in the process creating an "imagined community" of reformers, who offered one another support, advice, and encouragement.
On both sides of the Atlantic, moreover, abolitionists faced concerted opposition, something else that bound them together. Yet it is also important to be aware of the differences between British and American abolitionism. In Britain, debate was limited by a profound sense that, in the first instance, the fight had to be carried against the transatlantic slave trade; in fact, Wilberforce and his supporters often were at pains to point out that they had no intention of attacking Caribbean slavery.
American abolitionists, on the other hand, quite willingly embraced the abolition of slavery, albeit gradual abolition, just as they interested themselves in the welfare of free blacks. Similarly, while British abolitionists openly adopted tactics such as mass petitioning, American abolitionists were more cautious and, in a sense, more wary of alienating elite opinion.
After 1807-08 abolitionism entered a new phase; for many, it was synonymous with the 1830s movement led by William Lloyd Garrison. However, this shift or transformation should not detract from the historical significance of the early abolitionist movement or, indeed, its bearing on our understanding of Anglo-American reform.
Between 1807 and 1808 Britain and America moved to abandon their legal involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, committing themselves to a course of action that other nations viewed with surprise and bewilderment. Abolition of the transatlantic slave trade did not mean the end of British and American involvement in slavery, of course; Britain still had its slave colonies in the Caribbean, and the United States remained a slaveholding republic.
But what happened in 1807-08 was to prove the opening salvo in a campaign that would lead ultimately to the abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean in 1833-34 and the United States in 1865.
University of Southampton
Anstey, Roger. The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1760-1810. London: Macmillan, 1975.
Brown, Christopher Leslie. Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
Carretta, Vincent. Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2005.
Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Drescher, Seymour. Capitalism and Antislavery: British Mobilisation in Comparative Perspective. London: Macmillan, 1986.
Fladeland, Betty. Men and Brothers: Anglo-American Antislavery Cooperation. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972.
Newman, Richard S. The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Oldfield, J. R. Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilisation of Public Opinion against the Slave Trade, 1787-180.7 Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.
(British Transatlantic Slave Trade: Guide to Sources)
(Wilberforce, Clarkson, Equiano, Benezet, Woolman)
The Abolition of The Slave Trade
Africans started to fight the transatlantic slave trade as soon as it began. Their struggles were multifaceted and covered four continents over four centuries. Still, they have often been underestimated, overlooked, or forgotten. African resistance was reported in European sources only when it concerned attacks on slave ships and company barracoons, but acts of resistance also took place far from the coast and thus escaped the slavers’ attention. To discover them, oral history, archaeology, and autobiographies and biographies of African victims of the slave trade have to be probed. Taken together, these various sources offer a detailed image of the varied strategies Africans used to defend themselves from and mount attacks against the slave trade.
The Africans’ resistance continued in the Americas. They ran away, established maroon communities, used sabotage, conspired, and rose against those who held them in captivity. Freed people petitioned the authorities, led information campaigns, and worked actively to abolish the slave trade and slavery.
In Europe, black abolitionists launched or participated in civic movements to end the deportation and enslavement of Africans. They too delivered speeches, provided information, wrote newspaper articles and books.
Using violent as well as nonviolent means, Africans in Africa, the Americas, and Europe were constantly involved in the fight against the slave trade and slavery.
When the first navigators reached the coast of Mauritania in 1441 and Senegal in 1444, they organized systematic abductions, and met with hostility and reprisals. Although they continued kidnapping, they also started to buy people. But that policy also met with opposition. Explorer Alvise Ca’Damosto, who was attacked by 150 men on the River Gambia in 1454, wrote than when he tried to talk to them,
they replied that they had had news of our coming and of our trade with the negroes of Senega [Senegal River], who, if they sought our friendship could not but be bad men, for they firmly believed that we Christians ate human flesh, and that we only bought negroes to eat them; that for their part they did not want our friendship on any terms, but sought to slaughter us all, and to make a gift of our possessions to their lord.
But armed struggle was neither the only nor always the best strategy. Long-term approaches were also needed to protect people from the slave trade. Earthworks were built to thwart small-scale raids and kidnappings; some rivers were diverted so that they would not bring ships near settlements. Africans surrounded their main towns by thick walls, twelve feet high; they built ramparts and fortresses with deep ditches and planted venomous and thorny trees and bushes all around.
Communities deserted their vulnerable settings to relocate in hard-to-find, easy-to-defend places such as hills, mountains, underground tunnels, marshes, caves, forests, or behind high sand dunes. Some hamlets regrouped to defend themselves more easily. In southern Benin, people built small towns on stilts at the edge or in the middle of lakes. This innovation gave them a clear view of approaching raiders and allowed them enough time to take the appropriate measures.
Africans established work teams for protection, left the paths to their villages overgrown, stationed armed groups at vulnerable points, and covered their roofs with noisy leaves to detect would-be kidnappers. They used their habitat as a safeguard by reconfiguring the layout, size, and architecture of their houses, villages, and capital cities. They built their towns in mazes to confuse and disorient attackers. Houses were connected one with another; they abutted forests and the sea to make escape easier. Some communities adopted the most brutal tactics: they indiscriminately killed anyone who ventured close to their territory so as to discourage any incursion.
Some leaders actively worked against the transatlantic slave trade. One of the most famous was Abdel Kader Kane, the Muslim leader of the Futa Toro region in northern Senegal. Kane had succeeded in peopling his kingdom by retaking by force his people who had been kidnapped and by forbidding slave caravans from passing through his territory. After the French took three children from Futa, Kane sent a letter to the governor:
We are warning you that all those who will come to our land to trade [in slaves] will be killed and massacred if you do not send our children back. Would not somebody who was very hungry abstain from eating if he had to eat something cooked with his blood? We absolutely do not want you to buy Muslims under any circumstances. I repeat that if your intention is to always buy Muslims you should stay home and not come to our country anymore. Because all those who will come can be assured that they will lose their life.
On a personal level, families who could locate a captive on the coast gathered resources to obtain his or her release, even if it meant substituting another person for their loved one. Some relatives were even able to trace the whereabouts of kin deported to the Americas and tried - sometimes successfully - to buy their freedom.
Armed Struggle in Africa and in the Middle Passage
As the slave trade expanded, resistance to it grew as well, and the need for shackles, guns, ropes, chains, iron balls, and whips tells an eloquent story of continuous and violent struggle from the hinterland to the high seas. As one slave trader remarked:
For the security and safekeeping of the slaves on board or on shore in the African barracoons, chains, leg irons, handcuffs, and strong houses are used. I would remark that this also is one of the forcible necessities resorted to for the preservation of the order, and as recourse against the dangerous consequences of this traffic.
Wherever possible, such as in Saint-Louis and Gorée (Senegal), James (Gambia), and Bance (Sierra Leone), the Europeans' barracoons were located on islands, which made escapes and attacks more difficult. In some areas, as soon as local people approached the boats,
the crew is ordered to take up arms, the cannons are aimed, and the fuses are lighted . . . One must, without any hesitation, shoot at them and not spare them. The loss of the vessel and the life of the crew are at stake.
The heavily fortified forts and barracoons attest to the Europeans' distrust and apprehension. They had to protect themselves, as Jean-Baptiste Durand of the Compagnie du Sénégal explained, "from the foreign vessels and from the Negroes living in the country."
These precautions notwithstanding, in the eighteenth century, Fort Saint-Joseph on the Senegal River was attacked and all commerce was interrupted for six years. Several conspiracies and actual revolts by captives erupted on Gorée Island and resulted in the death of the governor and several soldiers. In addition, the crews of quite a few slave ships were killed on the River Gambia; in Sierra Leone, people sacked the captives' quarters of the infamous trader John Ormond. Similar incidents occurred in other parts of the African coast. Written records document how Africans on shore attacked more than a hundred ships.
Some Western slavers maintained occult centers in their barracoons, staffed by men they paid to "work on" the captives, sometimes with medicinal plants. The objective was to kill any spirit of rebellion, to "tame" the detainees, and make them accept their fate. The existence of these centers shows the extent of the precautions taken by slavers to prevent rebellions on land and during the Middle Passage: shackles and guns controlled the body, while the spirit was broken.
But revolts on slave ships, although extremely difficult to organize and conduct, were numerous. About 420 revolts have been documented in slavers' papers, and they do not represent the totality. It is estimated that 100,000 Africans died in uprisings on the coast or during the Middle Passage. The fear of revolts resulted in additional costs for the slavers: larger crews, heavy weapons, and barricades. About 18 percent of the costs of the Middle Passage were incurred due to measures to thwart uprisings, and the captives who rose up saved, according to estimates, one million Africans from deportation by driving up the slavers' expenses.
Uprisings and Maroons in the Americas
Africans used a variety of strategies to manifest their hostility both to the slave trade that had brought them to the Americas and to enslavement itself. Some were nonviolent, such as running away and sabotage; others involved poisoning, murder, and uprisings. Those that inspired the most fear were armed revolts. Every country in the Americas had an African presence, and in every country, plots were hatched and actual uprisings took place.
The first recorded rebellion was led by men from Senegal. It started on December 25, 1522, on the sugar plantation of Admiral Don Diego Colón, the viceroy of the Indies and Christopher Columbus's son, four miles from Santo Domingo, on the island of Hispaniola. Although crushed, it instilled tremendous fear in the colonists and the Spanish Crown. Closely following this first movement came a number of other revolts throughout the Spanish colonies in the sixteenth century.
From about 1602 to 1694 the maroon "Republic of Palmares," which regrouped about 30,000 Africans, led several attacks against white colonists in Brazil. Maroon wars also took place in Suriname between 1789 and 1793 and in Jamaica in 1739 and 1795. Maroons were active in all countries where Africans lived, particularly in Saint-Domingue, Cuba, and Colombia.
Akan originally from Ghana led uprisings in Jamaica in 1673, 1690, and 1745; and one of them, Tacky, was the organizer of a large revolt in 1760. Africans, mostly from Congo, rose up in 1739 in South Carolina during what is known as the Stono Rebellion. In 1741 enslaved people organized a conspiracy to burn down New York City and get their freedom. Among those arrested when the plot was discovered were at least twelve men and women of Akan origin. Other large-scale uprisings occurred in the 1760s in Suriname and Honduras.
During the revolutions in France and Saint-Domingue and inspired by them, unrest and revolts were prevalent in the French Caribbean colonies. In Guadeloupe, hundreds of white colonists were killed or emigrated in 1794. Julien Fedon, a free man from a French island, headed what can best be described as a war that lasted sixteen months in Grenada, starting in 1795. Blacks in St. Lucia and St. Vincent took up arms with the French, who had proclaimed the abolition of slavery, against the British who occupied the islands.
In Barbados, the most significant uprising occurred in 1816, more than a hundred years after the first one, which had taken place in 1692. It was island-wide, organized by the elite of enslaved men, such as drivers and craftsmen, and its leader was an African-born man named Bussa. Starting in 1807 African Muslims in Bahia, Brazil, organized several plots and revolts. The last and largest one took place in 1835; it involved free and enslaved men and led to deportations and emigration to Benin, Nigeria, and Togo.
In 1811 and 1812 Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo were swept by uprisings. Puerto-Rico had its most important one on July 29, 1821. It was led by Marcos Xiorro and involved several plantations. It was believed that he had sought help from Haiti.
Guyana went through its major rebellion in 1823; it involved an estimated 1,200 enslaved people from about fifty-five plantations; most were born in the colony.
The largest revolt in Jamaican history took place in 1831. It involved up to five hundred people and was led by Baptist deacon and domestic Samuel Sharpe. Nat Turner's revolt in 1831 in Virginia lasted only two days but terrorized the country, as fifty-seven white men, women, and children were killed.
The Caribbean counted an average of four revolts per year in the 1790s. There, the largest uprisings, besides the revolution in Saint-Domingue, occurred in Guadeloupe in 1794; Curaçao in 1795 and 1800; Barbados in 1816; British Guyana in 1823; and Jamaica in 1831.
Countless other uprisings and conspiracies marked the history of the Americas. They instilled terror in the colonists and were brutally — and often indiscriminately — suppressed through hanging, beheadings, burning at the stake, quartering, breaking on the wheel, and other methods of torture. Despite enormous risks, enslaved and sometimes free people fought for liberation, and their actions had a significant impact on the slave regimes, which became more brutal, and on colonial politics. However, no uprising was as determining as the revolution in Saint-Domingue.
The Revolution in Saint-Domingue
In January 1804, an event that had enormous repercussions shook the world of the enslaved and their owners. The black revolutionaries, who had been fighting since 1791, crushed Napoleon's 43,000-man army.
In December 1803, in full debacle, the 8,000 French soldiers left on the island (most of the others had been killed in combat and 20,000 had died of yellow fever), boarded their ships, and sailed away. Within twelve years, black Haitians had fought against and defeated not only the French colonists but also the French, Spanish, and British armies.
To erase the symbolic traces of the old order, the victors changed the name of the island from Saint-Domingue back to Haiti (mountainous land), its original name given by the Arawak Indians. Haiti had become the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere and the world's first black-led republic. The impact of this victory of poorly armed men and women,—who had fought for and gained their freedom back in 1793 — against the best army in Europe sent to re-enslave them, sent shockwaves throughout the Americas.
Paradoxically, at the same time as it influenced enslaved people to rise up, the Haitian Revolution also stimulated the transatlantic slave trade. The withdrawal from international markets of the island, which had produced half the world's coffee and as much sugar as Brazil, Cuba, and Jamaica combined, gave an impetus to these colonies as well as to Louisiana to introduce more Africans — and for Louisiana, more African Americans from the Upper South as well — in order to offset the production shortfall.
Throughout the Americas, slave uprisings had been more closely associated with the presence of large concentrations of men and women born in Africa and newly arrived, and the events in Saint-Domingue were read as a cautionary tale against the slave trade that continuously introduced these "revolt-prone" Africans. Therefore, when South Carolina reopened the slave trade in 1803, the decision was deemed appalling. The specter of Haiti was used by some Americans to bolster the abolition of the slave trade at the earliest possible date, 1808.
The Impact of the Revolution
As conspiracies and revolts reached a height in the 1790s, slave societies started to fear the influence of "French Negroes," who were thought to harbor ideals of freedom brought about by the revolutions in France and Saint-Domingue.
The city of Baltimore, among others, passed an act against black Domingans in 1797, stating, "Many of the slaves imported into this state by the French subjects or citizens mentioned in the said act have been guilty of disorderly conduct, and are suspected to be dangerous to the peace and welfare of the city."
Interestingly, the largest U.S. revolt — in terms of participants — took place in 1811 in Louisiana and was led by Charles Deslondes from Haiti. French and French Creole-speaking men were associated with uprisings in British, Spanish, and Dutch colonies until 1820, and they led a large revolt in Curaçao in 1795.
In Cuba, José Antonio Aponte, a free man who organized an uprising in 1812, had promised his followers that help would come from Haiti, and he galvanized his troops with pictures of Toussaint L'Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe. In the United States, black abolitionists, nationalists, and activists were inspired by the uprising and its emblematic figure, Toussaint L'Ouverture. They daringly paid tribute to the revolution at a time when white abolitionists played it down, afraid it would repel sympathetic whites.
During the 1816 rebellion in Barbados, references were made to Haiti. In 1820 Denmark Vesey, who had been enslaved on the island for a few months and had bought his freedom in Charleston, South Carolina, recruited determined participants — including enslaved Haitians forcibly brought during the revolution — to what was one of the best-organized slave conspiracy in the country. His goal was to free the enslaved with the help of Haiti and sail to Africa or to the black republic.
Even though Haiti was not in a position to effectively help in Cuba or South Carolina, it is a fact that the black republic sought to export the benefits of its revolution. Its constitution gave Haitian nationality and protection to any black or Asian person. As a result, enslaved men and women who successfully escaped to the island became free and could not be returned. Several cases concerning runaways were brought by slaveholders to King Christophe early on, and to presidents Alexandre Pétion and Jean-Pierre Boyer, but no foreign refugee was ever sent back to enslavement. In addition, Haiti provided financial and military assistance as well as refuge to Simón Bolívar, the liberator of Spanish America, in return for a promise to abolish slavery there. In 1824 and again in the 1850s the island nation actively recruited African-American immigrants.
Frederick Douglass paid tribute to the significance of the Haitian Revolution when he stressed that blacks owed much to American and British abolitionists, "but we owe incomparably more to Haiti than to them all."
Black Abolitionists in France
African Americans fought against the slave trade and slavery through sabotage, escape, conspiracies, and revolts while freed people were involved in abolitionist activities, from organizing campaigns to delivering speeches and writing pamphlets, as demonstrated in Abolition and Celebrations. And as explained in The Abolitionist Movement in Britain and the United States , African abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano were quite active in Great Britain. Less well known is the role of blacks in the movement that brought about the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the French colonies long before any other territories in the Western Hemisphere.
During the French Revolution of 1789, people of color from Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe, and Martinique living in France organized themselves into the Société des citoyens de couleur (Society of Colored Citizens), headed by mulatto Julien Raimond, a wealthy planter and slaveholder from Saint-Domingue. It worked closely with the Société des amis des noirs (Society of the Friends of the Blacks), which asked for equal rights for free people of color, the immediate abolition of the slave trade, and a gradual abolition of slavery. In 1791 the Société des citoyens worked diligently to gather together activists who were dispersed in various clubs and kept the revolutionaries informed of the political and social situation in Saint-Domingue, where the uprising had started during the night of August 22-_23.
Despite the abolitionists’ efforts, France wrote the maintenance of slavery into her 1791 constitution. On August 10, 1792, however, with a regime change, the constitution itself was abandoned. A month later, Raimond proposed to the Assembly the creation of a voluntary legion made up of black men residing in France whose mission would be to help defend the revolution.
The Légion franche de cavalerie des Américains et du Midi (Free Cavalry Legion of the Americans and the South) was led by Joseph Bologne de Saint-George. Born in Guadeloupe in 1739, he was the son of an enslaved Senegalese woman and a French nobleman. The family settled in France in 1748, and Saint-George received an excellent education. He became a fencer celebrated throughout Europe, a violinist, and a famous music composer and conductor. The Chevalier de Saint-George, as he was known, was Queen Marie-Antoinette’s music instructor.
Yet when the revolution started, Saint-George abandoned the aristocratic way of life that had been his and became a revolutionary. He believed the new social order would bring about freedom, equality, and the end of racism. As the head of the revolutionary Legion of the Americans, which soon became known as Saint-George Legion, he brought in Alexandre Thomas Davy de la Pailleterie, who had moved with his father from Saint-Domingue to France in 1780. Alexandre’s father was a marquis and his mother, an enslaved African. She was called Louise-Cessette “du mas” or “of the little house.” When Alexandre, following a fight with his father, enrolled in the army at a low rank, the marquis forbade him to debase his noble name. The young man then took the name Dumas in honor of his mother. The man who became the famous General Alexandre Dumas was the father of the legendary author Alexandre Dumas.
On May 17, 1793, the Legion sent an “Address to the National Convention and to all the patriotic clubs and societies on behalf of the Negroes held in slavery in the French colonies of America.” It was written in the name of “one million slaves” and asked for the immediate abolition of slavery. The soldiers and officers who had signed the document, along with the Société des citoyens de couleur, launched a joint campaign for the end of slavery and the slave trade.
A delegation of black men and women was received by the Convention in Paris on June 4. Among them was Jeanne Odo a woman born in Saint-Domingue, who claimed to be 114. The delegation carried a new flag: a black man on the blue stripe, a white man on the white stripe, and a mulatto on the red stripe, with the slogan “Our union will be our strength.” The flag symbolized the end of the colonial order, as well as general freedom and equality. Following the black citizens’ campaign, the new constitution enacted on June 24, 1793, specified that no one could be sold. Although it did not address the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, it was considered a step in the right direction.
Saint-Domingue and the French Abolition
Less than three weeks later, throngs of enslaved men and women rushed from the mountains and took on the city of Cap in Saint-Domingue. Their victory led to the evacuation of 10,000 whites, who fled the island. In September, the French commissioners, under pressure from the black population — and in an effort to counteract Spain, which gave slaves their freedom if they fought against the French — proclaimed the end of slavery. “Equality of epidermis” representatives were elected: three blacks, three mulattos, and three whites. They were dispatched to Paris to bring the news and see to it that the measure would not be rescinded.
On February 4, 1794, three of them were received by the Convention in Paris: a white former slaveholder, Louis-Pierre Dufay; a black man, Jean-Baptiste Belley; and a mulatto, Jean-Baptiste Mills. Belley, a Senegalese, had been deported to the island as an infant. He had bought his own freedom and later fought in Savannah, Georgia, alongside the Americans during the War of Independence. Belley was an infantry captain and had been a leader (he was wounded) in the battle of Cap seven months earlier.
Right after the deputation speech given by Dufay — in which he extolled the black population who saved the revolution from the colonists allied to the British Crown — France abolished slavery and the slave trade (which had been subsidized until 1793) in all its colonies.
The uprising in Saint-Domingue and, to a lesser extent, the activism of black abolitionists and their allies in France, had put an official stop to the slave trade and slavery. It is now recognized that without the impulsion of the revolt in Saint-Domingue, the French Revolution would not have decreed the abolition. The Haitian Revolution had radicalized the French Revolution on the question of slavery.
But the story was far from over. On May 20, 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte re-established slavery and the slave trade. He excluded black officers from the army, including General Toussaint L’Ouverture and General Alexandre Dumas. In July the French territory became off-limits to "blacks and people of color"; and in January 1803, mixed marriages became illegal. The violent fights that followed the reintroduction of slavery in Guadeloupe and French Guiana resulted in thousands of deaths.
Hundreds of people from Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue were then exiled to France and imprisoned or enrolled by force in the army. Among the prisoners were Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Baptiste Belley, and Jean-Baptiste Mills. Toussaint died in 1803 and Belley in 1805.
France outlawed the slave trade in 1817, but it continued illegally until at least 1831. Slavery was finally abolished in 1848.
Sylviane A. Diouf
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
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