Research shows that there were hundreds of slave revolts throughout this country. Author Herbert Aptheker listed them in a book called “American Negro Slave Revolts.” He wrote that the first of these occurred 94 years before the Mayflower set sail.
African people never accepted slavery. They fought against it at every opportunity. The slave traders knew this, and lived in constant fear of revolts and uprisings. The slave traders did not sleep easy aboard their ships. Africans did not leave their homeland without a struggle and they did not submit easily to bondage.
This resistance started before the Africans set foot on the shores of colonial America. The story of the resistance began on the continent of Africa with Queen Anna Nzingha. She dedicated her life to keeping her people free from enslavement. She led an all-female army that repeatedly defeated the Portuguese in the 1600s. Nzingha was cunning and daring. She fought the Portuguese for 40 years. The history of Nzingha can be found in a book titled “Black People and Their Place in World History” by Leroy William Vaughn.
The spirit to be free continued on the slave ships that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Historian William Loren Katz, in his book titled “Eye Witness: A Living Documentary of the African American Contribution to American History,” recorded the following: “Captain Philip Drake, a slave trader for 50 years, reported that the Negroes fought like wild beasts. Slavery is a dangerous business at sea, as well as on shore. If care is not taken, the slaves will mutiny and destroy the ship’s crew in hopes of getting away. To prevent such misfortunes, we visit them daily, searching every corner between decks to see whether or not they have any pieces of iron, wood or knives.”
Katz also noted that Native Americans and Africans sometimes joined together in the fight for freedom. When the Natchez Indians massacred whites in 1730, they spared the lives of 106 Africans. Later, a Boston law prohibited members of the two groups from carrying a stick or cane, day or night, that could be used for fighting.
One of the largest slave rebellions occurred on Sept. 9, 1739, in Stono, S.C., when a group of 20 Africans captured guns and ammunition. They burned houses and marched to other plantations to encourage slaves to join them, wreaking havoc along the way. The Charleston militia got word of the men and met them in an open field. They attacked and killed many of the slaves. This rebellion caused the slave masters to always carry their guns with them everywhere, even to church.
One of the most successful revolts aboard a ship happened on the Creole, which was transporting slaves from Richmond, Va., to New Orleans. In 1841, a slave named Madison Washington led the fight for freedom. Washington was a fugitive slave who had been recaptured and sold back into slavery. He led 17 other slaves in overpowering the crew and killing one of the traders.
The crew was spared on promises of good behavior, and ordered to sail to Nassau, the Bahamas. The crew proved to be treacherous and the slaves wanted to execute them. At this point, Washington made a decision to spare their lives saying, “We have got our liberty, and that is all we have been fighting for. Let no more blood be shed.”
In 1852, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass published a book called “The Heroic Slave” in memory of Washington. He referred to the slave rebellion as being within the American Revolutionary tradition.
The names of Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey struck terror in the minds of slave owners. The book, “Before the Mayflower,” written by historian Lerone Bennett Jr., records their history. Turner was one of hundreds of blacks who led serious revolts and uprisings against enslavement. Prosser gave the call to revolt in Richmond, Va., in 1800. Some historians reported that the number of slaves involved in planned revolts reached as high as 50,000.
For four years, Vesey had been planning a highly organized slave revolt in Charleston, S.C. By 1822, the Africans had collected weapons and ammunition. But two house slaves revealed their plan and as a result 131 Africans were arrested. Their leaders were led to the gallows. Before they went to their deaths, they called out to the Africans to revolt until freedom was theirs.
The desire to be free was always in the hearts and minds of African people. In colonial America they burned barns, broke tools and poisoned their masters. The words of the old song rang loud and clear from the slave ships to the civil rights movement:
Oh, freedom over me!
And before I’d be a slave
I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free.
Eva M. Doyle has been a columnist for the Criterion newspaper for 37 years.