How slaves ended slavery

While slavery would be reviled by secular and religious interests, slaves themselves finally overthrew it

Fri, Jun 7, 2019,
James Walvin

Illustration depicting Francois Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture participating in the successful revolt against French power in St Dominique (Haiti). Image: Getty Images

Frederick Douglass, the towering figure in the history of US slavery and abolition, was born a slave in 1818. US slavery was experiencing a new lease of life thanks to cotton, like wise in Brazil (coffee) and in Cuba (sugar and tobacco.) By the time Douglass died in 1895 slavery had vanished clean across the Americas, and was now universally reviled. Abolition had become “the gold standard of civilisation”.

All Europe’s major colonial powers – Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Britain and France – had shipped more than 11 million enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. They formed a vital labour force, tapping the bounty of their American colonies. All this they had done with hardly a whimper of objection from religious, legal or moral commentators. Yet, by the late 19th century, those same nations had utterly renounced slavery. The slave poachers had become the aggressive gamekeepers of the 19th century. It was little less than a revolution. How did it happen?

The key is slave defiance. Although only one major slave colony fell to slave revolt (St Domingue/Haiti), slave resistance was ubiquitous. Douglass was often asked: if slavery was as bad as he claimed, why did slaves not overthrow their oppressors?

Douglass, like all slaves, knew that slavery was a violent system maintained for centuries by draconian control. That had started at the moment of African enslavement, and continued in the horror of the slave ships, and, in various guises, on plantations across the Americas. True, slavery was also sustained by other elements – by inducements and small rewards – but slaves everywhere were in no doubt about what would happen to those who openly resisted.
Slave revolts regularly erupted on slave ships, and in the colonies, but suppression was swift and invariably out of all proportion to the initial slave violence. The daily rigours of plantation life were complemented by bloody penal codes in all slave societies. As long as the Atlantic slave trade survived (the last Africans stumbled ashore in Cuba in 1867) some slaves were prepared to take a risk and turn to violence.

Most slave defiance fell well short of open revolt. Slaves were careful not to transgress too flagrantly: they dragged their feet at work, feigned ignorance, took their revenge on crops and animals, measuring out their lives and work in ways that suited them. The literature of slavery echoes with complaints of slave laziness and disobedience echo. Most slave holders nursed deep-seated concerns and never fully trusted their slaves. Time and again, slaves turned: hit back, ran away, and proved disloyal.

These fears worsened after the American and French Revolutions in 1776 and 1789. Their ideals – “whereas all men are born equal” and “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” – seemed to herald an end to slavery. Then, everything was utterly overshadowed by the slave uprising in Haiti in 1791.

St Domingue/Haiti, France’s most valuable possession, was worked by about 600,000 slaves who produced more than the combined exports of Brazil and Mexico, and twice as much as the entire British Caribbean. But it was a fragile colony and the revolution and warfare swept across the colony on an apocalyptic scale, destroying slavery, an invading British and Spanish army and devastated the economy. It sent refugees fleeing for the safety of Jamaica, Cuba or the US (the Catholic graveyards of New Orleans and Charleston bear witness to their presence).

Haiti became the first independent black nation outside of Africa and its leaders – notably Toussaint L’Ouverture – were heroic figures for slaves everywhere. The complexities of the Haitian revolution were distilled into a simple issue. Black freedom had been won by the defeat of a colonial system and its imperial armies. Whatever the cost and the flaws, Haiti was an inspiration for those who yearned for freedom.

For slave holders it was a terrifying and cautionary tale: slavery was a volatile system and you tampered with it at your peril. All the subsequent slave troubles – in Brazil, the Caribbean and the US – took place under the historical shadow of Haiti. The slave holders’ hearts hardened: give slaves an inch and they would take an African mile.
The British slave colonies had largescale slave uprisings: in Barbados (1816) Demerara (1823) and Jamaica (1831-1832). The last – The Baptist War – was touch and go for the British. The British slave trade had ended in 1807 and the slave populations were becoming increasingly local-born. But they were also increasingly Christian. Chapels, slave preachers, the Bible (with its powerful imagery of freedom and salvation) and its huge congregations of enslaved people: all came together to form an unsettling brew among the slaves. Planters now worried about enslaved Christians. Equally, the violent treatment of enslaved Christians caused outrage among their fellow worshippers in Britain. Tens of thousands of Christian voices were added to growing demands for an end to slavery. Abolition became a widely popular movement which the British parliament was unable to resist.

At the same time, US cotton and Brazilian coffee helped to transform the West. Both were made possible by massive slave trades, this time, not across the Atlantic but along internal trades within the USA and Brazil. It was a miserable story of violation and upheavals with slave families broken up to feed the labour demands of the US cotton and Brazilian coffee plantations. It also reignited slave defiance, with fugitives and resistance becoming an even more pressing problem for slave owners.

Tighter control and more severe management tried to keep the enslaved at their tasks but the brutality of the slave regimes caused outrage among a swelling band of slavery’s opponents. Again, Christian feeling was critical – especially in the US. Though the US South found its own biblical justifications for slavery, the growing criticism of slavery was rooted in American faith. When the Civil War came, (“the abolition war” in many eyes) the entire story changed, and slaves began to tip the balance. They abandoned the plantations in their thousands, undermining the South’s economic ability to fight the war, and providing evidence (as if any more were needed) of their own detestation of bondage. Despite its military uncertainties, the Civil War proved the coup de grace for US slavery.

The wars for independence in the 1810s and 1820s in the Spanish empire in Central and South America finally undermined local slavery (though in places it had already declined or withered.) The numbers were small compared to elsewhere: in 1820 there were some 250,000 across Spain’s vast empire, compared to 1.5 million in the USA and 1.2 million in Brazil. Even so, war and upheaval proved corrosive of Spanish slavery. Cuba was the major exception. There, where slavery was revitalised by a massive expansion of tobacco and sugar plantations, now highly modern and industrialised (thanks to US investment.) There too, slave insurgency – and the inevitable violent repression by planters and colonial authorities, fuelled demands for freedom both from slaves and from their supporters on the island and in Spain. Slavery began to unravel in the military and political confusion of the struggle for independence and freedom finally came in 1886.

Two years later, the last to go was Brazil. Again, the warfare and turmoil of independence from Portugal was the backcloth. Slave revolts dotted Brazil’s slave expansion in the 19th century (often led by recently-imported Africans, many of them Muslim.) Slave flight from the plantations – to free communities in the wilderness or to the anonymity of the expanding cities – was a constant drain. So too was recurring internal and external Brazilian warfare which allowed slaves to flee from the fighting – or join it. Violence, again, enabled slaves to seize their freedom.
Brazil’s slaves had growing numbers of supporters, mainly among educated town dwellers outraged that Brazil was the sole Christian nation left supporting slavery. On both sides of the Atlantic, the outrages of slavery were reported and disseminated by cheap print (and from pulpits and in crowded lecture halls) to an increasingly literate and educated urban people. The voice of popular politics turned decisively against slavery. So too did the churches (earlier silent by-standers).

Brazilian slavery finally fell in 1888. Slavery was now denounced and reviled by both secular and religious interests, but tipped decisively by the subversion of the slaves themselves. In the transformed climate of the 19th century, the old traditions of slave defiance came into their own. Slaves took their chances and finally helped to overthrow the system that had held them and their forebears in miserable bondage for so long.

Freedom: The Overthrow of the Slave Empires by Prof James Walvin is published by Robinson


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