The Atlantic Slave Trade: Resistance
October is Black History Month in the UK. We’ll be exploring the history of slavery in Britain, from the country’s first steps into the Atlantic slave trade, through its height in the 17th and 18th centuries, to its abolition in the 19th. In this, our fifth blog we look at resistance.
Becoming a slave was a horrendous fate for captured Africans. It was a cruel and harsh experience with slaves regarded as the property of their white owners and granted no rights. Up to a third of Africans captured as slaves died on the Middle Passage. Another third died on the plantations within a few months of arriving, because of new tropical diseases. Others died from sheer hard work.
It is little wonder therefore that some slaves took drastic measures to escape their plight, including suicide, murder, desertion and revolt. For white slave owners, the threat of revolt was a very real problem. Resistance by slaves was costly as it affected production. It was also potentially very dangerous - on the plantations slaves greatly outnumbered their white masters.
Resistance on the Middle Passage was generally very hard to achieve as the slaver ships were designed to prevent it. Options were very limited. Occasionally captives were able to commit suicide, for example by throwing themselves overboard, but larger scale action was rarely successful
Some slaves on the plantations fought for their freedom by using passive resistance (working slowly) or running away. The problem of runaways became so serious that most West Indian islands passed laws to deal with this and other forms of resistance. The punishment was usually a severe whipping, but could also include the loss of a limb and death.
However, some slaves resisted by planning rebellions. In doing so they risked reprisals of torture and death. Tacky’s Revolt, which erupted in Jamaica in July 1760 was the largest British slave rising in the 18th century.
Taking advantage of Britain’s involvement in the Seven Years’ War, the revolt was led by Fante king called Takyi (the Fante people are from what is now Ghana). He and his lieutenants planned to take over Jamaica from the British, and to create a separate black country. On April 7th 1760, Takiy and his followers began the revolt by easily taking over the Frontier and Trinity plantations and killing their masters. They stole arms and munitions from a nearby fort and were soon joined by the slaves of other plantations. They were however defeated by a local militia and Takiy himself shot and decapitated.
The militia were however unable to quash the unrest and other rebellions broke out across Jamaica, but in particular in the west of the island. Rebels numbering about 1,200 regrouped in the unsettled mountainous forests in western Jamaica. They attacked eight slave plantations in Westmoreland Parish and two in Hanover Parish, killing a number of whites. On May 29th a militia tried to storm the rebels' barricaded encampment but was soundly defeated and repelled. On June 2nd, however, bolstered by reinforcements, the colonial forces successfully stormed the barricade and drove the slave rebels out following a two-hour battle, killing and capturing scores of rebels.
The rebel slaves continued fighting for the rest of the year in western Jamaica, forcing the governor, Sir Henry Moore, 1st Baronet, to continue imposing martial law in Westmoreland and surrounding areas. By late 1761, Governor Moore declared that the main western revolt was over. However, some remaining rebels then scattered in small bands, and operating from the forested interior of the Cockpit Country, they conducted a campaign of guerrilla warfare for the rest of the decade, staging raids on plantations within their reach.
It took months and even years for order to be restored. Over 60 white people had lost their lives, as well as a similar number of free people of colour, in addition to 400 or so black slaves. Two ringleaders of the western rebels were burned alive, and two others who were hung in iron cages at the Kingston Parade, until they starved to death. As a consequence of the rebellion, the colonial Assembly passed a number of draconian laws to regulate the slaves. In addition, they banned the West African religious practices of obeah.
A slave revolt in 1791 in Saint Domingue was however much more successful. Here slaves led by Toussaint Louverture managed to overthrow their French oppressors and in 1804 founded the First Empire of Haiti.
These scenes were built by James Pegrum and Dan Harris as part of a series of models for Black History Month. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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