For over four hundred years, African people in North America have been subjected to many different forms of enslavement, oppression, and exploitation. The injustices practiced in this country date back to the beginning of the African Diaspora, being mistreated on “slave ships” and in the colonies. But despite the horrid circumstances through which African people were subjected, they always found a way to resist, survive, and progress. And during enslavement, the harshest time of African’s history in America, resistance was an important device to help them overcome extreme adversities. Runaways, revolts, and subtle resistance techniques were some of the most practiced forms of African’s resistance to enslavement.
For the purpose of this particular synopsis, it is most important to note that limitations did present themselves. Aspects of findings during the research, revolts while at sea on “slave ships”, the abolitionists movement, and white supporters are not mentioned when discussing resistance to enslavement. Some information could not make it in while others, such as white support, did not have a place in this paper. As stated in Black Majority when discussing white support, it can sometimes “lend misleading support to the traditional assumption of white interpreters that slaves, stripped of initiative in so many ways, were incapable of independent thought and action (Wood 248). This research speaks to the African’s aptitude for survival and will only discuss strategies of resistance that Africans practiced.
Enslaved Africans were often seeking a means of escape from the cruel and harsh institution in which they lived. One of the most ordinary ways to escape the harsh realities of their everyday lives was to run away. The “runaway slave” was a very common method in the fight against servitude. Between 1830 and 1860, as many as two thousand slaves a year passed into the land of the free along the routes of the Underground Railroad (Aptheker 141). The most common reason for running away was for freedom, but along side the need for uhuru were certain personal issues dealing with the plantation. The causes of dissatisfaction that could prompt such a response were infinite: oppressive working conditions, inadequate food, derisory clothing, bad housing, prohibitions on spousal visits, fear of being sold, displeasure with a new master’s dissatisfaction with hiring arrangements, ill treatment, [or] excessive punishment (Boritt 29). Many of these issues were closely tied into the natural order of enslavement but each plantation was different, setting specific guidelines and expectations.
There are several accounts of advertisements that were taken out in local newspapers for the recapturing of “runaway slaves”. In Black Majority by Peter Wood, it is stated that, “No single act of self-assertion was more disconcerting among whites than that of running away” (239). In one transcript from 1816 in Mathews County, Virginia, William Bell wrote:
RUNAWAY, from the Subscriber, on Friday Evening last, Near Enfield Court House, a NEGRO MAN, named FRANK, pretty stout, one strait scar on his cheek passing from the under part of the ear towards the corner of the mouth, of a common dark color, something of a flat nose, a short, round chin, and a down look, about 26 or 27 years of age. Had on, brown yarn homespun Pantaloons, striped homespun waistcoat, and a white yarn roundabout. TWENTY-FIVE DOLLARS reward will be given for lodging said runaway in any gaol in this state or TWENTY DOLLARS if any gaol out of the state (Boritt 27).
This record speaks to the importance and value that enslaved Africans had in North America. When a person has an item is stolen or lost, it usually will not get reported if it insignificant. But when a person has an item stolen or lost that is deemed to be of great value, people tend to react in a way that, like William Bell, shows their extreme need for such “property”.
Though the harsh treatment of enslaved Africans was a customary reason to escape, there were other motivations that certain people found to be necessary for running away. One of the primary reasons for enslaved people to run away, other than their living conditions, was for family. Slaves ran to neighboring plantations to be with husbands or wives, ran to search for mothers and fathers, and all too often they ran, in vain, to retrieve their children (Boritt 30). Often times, young boys and girls were ripped from their family and sold or had to watch their parents be sold. In any event, the traumatic experience of a crumbling family was enough to be more than dissatisfied with living conditions.
Unfortunately, this form of resistance was rarely a success. There were many cases of enslaved Africans who ran away and successfully secured their freedom, including those previously discussed during the Underground Railroad. But it can also be understood that the number of enslaved Africans that found freedom by running away were disproportionate when compared to the much larger number of Africans that existed in North America. Few enslaved Africans were able to board sailing vessels and steamboats that headed north or flee through the southern territories of the Mississippi Delta or the coast of South Carolina (Boritt 32). A large amount of Africans who sought the need for rebellion did so in other ways.
The idea of subtle resistance took a myriad of formations throughout African enslavement. Poisoning and arson were two of the deadliest forms of subtle resistance that took place on the plantations and in the houses during the antebellum period. The act of arson was highly destructive and difficult to detect (Wood 292). From 1721 to 1723, in Boston and New Haven alone, there occurred a number of fires for which enslaved Africans were responsible (Aptheker 178). There are several personal accounts and documentations of different arson events that took place over time. In South Carolina, some fires were set that harmed no one. But the main issue that developed for white colonists was the fear that these acts of resistance would become more common and nearly impossible to catch beforehand. On a November day in Charlestown, flames broke out and burned out of control for six hours, consuming three hundred houses, destroying crucial fortifications, and causing property losses (Wood 294). These were the types of resistance methods that put the highest strain on the economic prominence of enslavement.
Accounting an individual experience researched, Peter Wood recounts an event in Charlestown where a “mulatto slave woman named Kate and a man named Boatswain entered Mrs. Snowden’s house in Unity Alley, climbed the roof, and placed a small bundle of straw on the shingles so that it rested under the gables of the adjoining house” (Wood 296). Wood goes on to explain that, had a neighbor not been walking in her yard at that time in the night, the flames would have likely burned down the remaining part of the town. This blaze was doused with water and relieved but the understanding that many enslaved Africans would not stand for their treatment was a statement heard by their actions.
One of the most thoughtful acts of arson crossed the line between subtle resistance and rebellion. In New York City on April 6, 1712, a group of enslaved Africans created an intelligent trap for the white colonists. Setting fire to an outhouse owned by a slave owner, the Africans chose to stick around rather than flee the scene. As unsuspecting whites arrived at the scene to stop the blaze from spreading, the group of about thirty [Africans] armed with guns, knives, clubs, aces, and hatchets, attacked [the whites] (Rucker 27). In total, sixteen whites were injured, nine fatally, and a unit of armed forces were called in to stop the revolt. The intellect and audacity of these Africans to commit an act of defiance to such a magnitude speaks volumes to their willingness to free themselves and vindicate their inalienable rights.
When discussing the second act of deadly subtle resistance, the idea of being poisoned created fear among white Americans that often surpassed the actual threat. White colonists viewed the use of poison as one of the more dangerous forms of slave resistance (Rucker 110). Poison was much more damaging to the social construct of enslavement than that of runaways and arson. Poisoning someone is a blatant act of defiance that reaches toward the human life of another rather than their economic power. In Virginia alone between 1772 and 1810, at least twenty enslaved Africans were executed for poisoning their oppressors (Wood 289). This number does more psychological damage to a colony than an individual act of running away could possibly achieve.
Author Walter Rucker describes two separate accounts of poisoning in his book, The River Flows On. Detailing a 1747 incident in South Carolina, Rucker describes that “a ‘Negro Doctor’ named Jack was accused of poisoning three people… After being detained and searched, Doctor Jack was found to have toxic herbs and roots in his pockets” (110). The idea of a “Negro Doctor” is never fully explained by Rucker but he does mention that some Negroes listed as ‘doctors’ deserved the title for their work in medicine (Rucker 109). [To briefly digress, the issue that stands out is the necessity to put the title of “doctor” in quotations when describing those Africans who practiced the treatment and poisoning of others with medicine. Though it does not seem necessary, he will be quoted in his exact words.]
Another incident in which Rucker explains poisoning is when speaking about an enslaved African “owned” by James Sands. Rucker writes, “A slave named Liverpool who was claimed to be a ‘Negro Doctor’ conspired to poison the infant of Mr. Hands which died some time since, and attempting to put her master out of the world the same way (112).” For Liverpool to poison an infant child helps guide thoughts as to how harsh enslavement needed to be in order to decide that a task as grotesque as such could be planned out and executed. This is another of many conspiracies or actions of poisoning that put fear in the hearts and minds of white America.
One of the most common and least deadly forms of resistance was sabotage. Sabotage included, but was not limited to, the faking of illness, breaking of tools, verbal insolence, working slowly to complete tasks, and going on strikes. These countless acts of defiance were the least confrontational of resistance methods and were rarely punished.
It must be considered an intelligent mind to create such a plethora of tactics to attempt the diffusion of African enslavement. Traits of slowness, carelessness, and literal-mindedness were artfully cultivated, helping to disguise countless acts of willful subterfuge as inadvertent mistakes (Wood 288). In his book, American Negro Slave Revolts, author Herbert Aptheker notes that, “Pretending illness was probably even more common, certainly more frequently complained of, than sabotage” (141). It must first be noted that, while Aptheker disclaims pretending illness as a form of sabotage, sabotage is defined as “any underhand interference with production or work”, which is precisely what pretending illness incorporated (Webster 583). We can then assert that pretending illness was a form of resistance that even the simplest of minds and weakest of hearts could take part in. Like the children who fake a fever to keep from attending school on test day (as light-hearted an analogy as it may be), the enslaved Africans did not need tools nor an organized plan to enact this performance of resistance.
Many whites spoke down to the enslaved Africans and treated them as less than human. The fact that whites accepted so thoroughly the image of a carefree and heedless black personality is in part a testimony to the degree to which black slaves learned the necessity of holding other emotional response in outward check (Wood 286). But the intelligence of the enslaved African found a way around or through any situation in which he or she encountered. Verbal insolence became a consistent means of resistance; cleverly handled, it allowed slaves a way to assert themselves and downgrade their masters without committing a crime (Wood 287).
In one of the rarest acts of resistance, an enslaved African was freed by his “master” as a reward. Tom Molineaux was born in Virginia and enslaved by Algernon Molineaux. Owner of the plantation, Algernon would find enslaved Africans from other plantations and have Tom fight against them (Wiggins 9). In one brawl, [Tom] Molneaux handily defeated his opponent and won a substantial amount of money for his owner, who, as a reward, set [Tom] Molineaux free and gave him $500” (Rhoden 38). To hear this story, it would appear that Tom’s “owner” was an extremely generous man who wanted Tom to have his freedom. But it must be understod that, if Algernon had enough earnings after Tom’s fights to pay him $500 and set him free, the amount of money Tom likely earned Algernon was substantial. Again, this being the rarest form of resistance, Tom Molineaux was able to resist African enslavement with his fists.
Peter Wood, in Black Majority, stated that “It is by no means paradoxical that increasingly overt white controls met with increasingly forceful black resistance” (285). It is true that, with the harshness and strict policies put on enslaved Africans, it was necessary for blacks to try more fervently to resist their status. In this resistance is where revolts occurred. Revolts were often the bloodiest and most brutal form of African survival in an oppressive state of being. When described as slaves of ten or more rebelling for freedom, a study discussed in American Negro Slave Revolts in stated that records of approximately two hundred and fifty revolts and conspiracies in the history of American Negro Slavery have been documented (Aptheker 162). It is important to note here that, though many revolts of enslaved Africans took place, there were many others that went undocumented in order to keep towns and communities from living in fear of revolts and uprisings.
In one documented act of individual resistance, “an enslaved African who, out of desperation, fury, or premeditation, lashed out against a white despite the consequences. Jemmy was sentenced to death in 172 ‘for striking and wounding one Andre Songster’” (Wood 286). But staying within the realm of “slave revolts” as defined by Aptheker’s findings (though there are more documented incidents of such individual attacks), early conspiracies or revolts including ten or more Africans are in abundance.
In one such case, perhaps the most prolific revolt, was none other than Nat Turner. Turner joined forces with other slaves one night on August 21, 1831. Starting at his “owners” house and then working his way through the town, Turner and his rebels forced “as many slaves as they could to join them; spreading death and desolation everywhere until by Tuesday morning, August 23rd, some fifty or sixty persons had been killed” (Carroll 136). Though Turner started his revolt with seven men, there were soon seventy revolting with him (Bennett 128). Accounts of Turner’s rebellion could be found in newspapers days later as one accounts, “An express from the Hon. James Trezevant states that an insurrection had broken out, that several families had been murdered, and that negroes embodies, requiring considerable military force to reduce them” (Tragle 35). It is stated that, after the insurrection was over, fifty five whites and seventy-three blacks lost their lives in this Southampton rebellion (Brown 14).
One of the biggest rebellions of its time was none other than the Stono rebellion. On September 9, 1739, about twenty enslaved Africans gathered. This group proceeded to Stono Bridge and broke into Hutcherson’s store, where small arms and powder were on sale (Wood 314). Later, led by an African named Jemmy, rebelled, killed guards, burned houses and marched, killing any white in their path (Aptheker 188). And though this rebellion only killed fewer than twenty-five whites and property damage was minimal, this rebellion created a new and prevalent form of resisting oppression (Wood, 308). Like poisoning and individual acts of rebellion, the Stono rebellion killed few, but put fear in the hearts of many.
These revolts by enslaved Africans were brutal. But they were only as brutal as the conditions in which they were forced to survive each day. Accompanied with running away, enslaved Africans took it upon themselves to defy and progress past their disheartening conditions. Though not as obvious as runaways and revolts, subtle resistance was an essential tool used to gain the upper hand in a system built to keep Africans enslaved. But with intellect, collective work, and purpose, enslaved Africans fought the system until the system crumbled and could no longer withstand the resistance of the African people.
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