Saturday, December 1, 2007

Essay on Slave Revolutions

The Legacy of Slave Revolutions

The legacy of American and European aggression towards our peoples lies in the four and a half centuries of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  They brutalized, raped, assaulted, enslaved, systematized and forcefully transported more then 11 million black men, women and children [1] as mere factors of production.    As the “blood of the slaves”[2] soaked the fertile soils of the Americas,  black men and women repeatedly resolved to fight back: “Mr. Convey seemed now to think he had me, and could do what he pleased; but at the moment—from whence came the spirit I don’t know—I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Convey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose.”[3]  As Fredrick Douglas rose against his oppressor, black communities all across the Americas resolved to fight back.  Some physically challenged their 'Masters', burnt down their plantations, helped men and women escape, all the while others petitioned and lobbied for abolition.   Although no emancipation can ever quell the horrific screams of those destroyed by chattel slavery, herein lies the legacy of the black man, woman and child's revolutions against those larcenous American and European institutions that enslaved them

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A comparative study on both the structure and the relative achievements of slave revolts in South Carolina and Haiti.


        South Carolina began as a royal charter from the King of England, Charles II in 1663. Its first permanent British settlements sprang up in 1669 by both English and Barbadian (Bajans) aristocrats[4]. By the early 18th century the colonies’ cash crop had become rice, which was mostly cultivated by slave labor. By 1708 black men and women had become a majority in the colony, and in 1730 they outnumbered white settlers by two to one[5]. With the dramatic increase in the slave population and increasing attacks from the indigenous tribes of Yamasee and the Creeks, the Carolinians armed themselves with the slave codes which virtually “converted their colony into an armed camp.”[6] Further, their 34,726 square miles of land was bordered by other slave colonies and the ocean.[7] Even as the Carolinians fought against the imperial institutions in the name of liberty and justice, they held fast to both their ever rising numbers of slaves and their rising market share in the cotton industry. Although they did initially halt the slave trade during the war for Independence, but soon resumed it again until the national prohibition on slavery went into effect.[8] Thus slavery remained the key component and institution for this region until they were defeated in the American Civil War in 1865.
Comparatively, Haiti began its European settlement 171 years before South Carolina in 1492.[9] Columbus claimed the land for the Spanish empire and named it La Isla Espaňola. The Spaniards immediately began enslaving the indigenous to mine for gold and also began importing African slaves from the surrounding islands.[10] By the mid to late 17th Century the French had gained control of a significant portion of the island and created Saint-Domingue in 1697.[11] The French developed a highly profitable trade based on their sugar plantations and continuously increased their slave population through out the 18th Century. There were approximately a half of million slaves by 1789 in the French colony of 10,714 square miles, which was overseen by the approximately 32,000 Europeans and 25,000 mulattos (Afranchis).[12] This created a ratio of almost 10 slaves to 1 freeman, comparatively to South Carolina’s 2 to 1 ratio.
Additionally, even though the basic provisions were demanded for the slave according to Code Noir of 1685, “the plantation owner callously overworked his slaves, and to reduce overhead he frequently underfed them. An astonishingly high death rate testified to the brutality of the system.”[13] These awful conditions led to high mortality and low reproductive rates, which further created a need for constant replacement of slaves. Aside from awkward population ratios, there was a growing disparity amongst the free classes in the colony. In the later parts of the 18th century, there was also tension from the Afranchis populations, who were looking for political equity from/with their white counterparts.
"Are you doing yourselves justice when you lift your eyes towards Almighty God and call him Father, and then turn around, bow your heads before a man, and call him Master?”[14] This unnatural system of chattel slavery did not go unchallenged. Thus various forms of slave resistances could be found throughout both colonies, and it was stated that “Whenever and wherever slavery has existed there has been resistance to it, ranging from individual acts of defiance to well-organized, armed revolts.”[15] The most common structures of the slave resistances were found in both colonies and were centered on their ‘day-to-day’ activities. As such, there was the method of ‘slave vandalism,[16] where they destroyed property by mishandling the animals or by braking their tools and machinery.[17] They resisted by misplacing items, working carelessly in the fields and even by hiding rocks in the cotton they picked.[18] There was also a high percentage of theft, where slaves raided the master’s smokehouse, secretly slaughtered his stock, and killed his poultry. Slaves would often fake illnesses or injuries in order not to work.[19]
Slaves would often even trick their masters, as in the instance where the slave woman who was to be sold away from her family pretended to be blind.[20] In another documented case, “One master got the surprise of his life when his own slave sold him! This master took his very light-skinned blackman to the marketplace to be sold. Meanwhile he went to make arrangements for a hotel room. When the master returned he was bound in chains. While he was trying to prove that he wasn’t mulatto attempting to pass himself off as a white man, the real slave escaped.”[21] Slaves would often act as if they were “dumb” in front of the slave holders, who would then have the propensity to be less censored around the slave. Methods as such help eavesdropping and gathering information of the owner’s plans.[22] “They further even used songs, stories, and coded languages to confuse and bewilder their masters.”[23] These hidden rebellions also consisted of countless violent acts, as such as physical resistance, poisonings, stabbings, shootings, house and plantation burnings, and other acts of vengeance.[24]
Another prominent form of rebellion was to runaway. The slaves would often run away to various places for varying amounts of times. Some would try to make passage to freed black communities or maroon societies; others tried to take refuge with the indigenous; and a number of people tried to make their way up North to the non-slave states. Others would hide out for short periods of time; visiting other plantations or avoiding punishment but would ultimately return to the plantation.[25] Often abolitionists and freed blacks or whites would assist slaves to make their run for freedom, through means as such as the Underground Railroad. In two different cases, the slaves actually mailed themselves to freedom![26] One of the instances consisted of a man dubbed Henry “Box” Brown, mailed himself from the South to an abolitionist’s home in Philadelphia.[27] Slaves at times also made their run further south to Florida, where they would became a part of the Black Seminoles.[28]
Although the two colonies seemed to have much in common, they stood in stark contrast when it came to violent uprisings. As such, the Stono Rebellion took place in South Carolina Low Country in 1739.[29] It was under the command of an Angolan slave, Cato, that twenty brave men and women tried fight their way to freedom. [30] They were screaming “Liberty!” and held banners proclaiming it. The Angolan was leading the group towards St. Augustine in Spanish Florida; where the British’s enemy had promised runaway slaves freedom. They took advantage of the early Sunday morning and raided a small store to gather arms. They decapitated two men and left “their severed heads on the steps.”[31] “As they marched they beat their drums to attract other slaves to their cause” and soon the group of twenty had multiplied in to a group of hundred rebels.[32] By middle of the day the rebellion was suppressed and forced to surrender. In those few hours they managed to burn plantations, houses and kill as many of their oppressors as they could. They left the countryside “full of flames.”[33] Although it was the largest slave insurrection in South Carolina[34], and as heroic as their strife may have been: it proved to be an impotent against the institution of slavery and its brutal empire.
Although most slaves’ revolts were quickly dispersed, the slaves in San Domingo found greater success, “whose revolution against France… had led to the first nation run by blacks in the New World.”[35] Although they both arose in a time of political upheaval, the Haitian Revolution held a stark contrast to the Stono rebellion. There was an abnormal 10 to 1 ratio of slaves to freeman in Haiti, and their colony consisted of only one third the land of South Carolina. This slave revolt also began in the shadows of the French revolution, and moreover there had already been another set of revolts in their colony by the Afranchis. Further, the Stono rebellion lasted one afternoon between slaves and the whites; whereas the Haitian revolution lasted nearly thirteen years through a series of conflicts between factions across the colonies’ class structures and its various regional parts (i.e. the north, the south) and also between the empires themselves.[36] Although both of the slave uprisings had African men leading them (Cato in South Carolina and Boukman in Santo Domingo,[37]) they also found leadership in men as such as Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henry Christophe.[38] Stono Rebellion was successful at striking fear into the hearts of the plantation owners,[39] but did not help abolish slavery; whereas the Haitian revolution not only abolished slavery, but systematically ended colonial and slave rule through out the entire island. Although they were not able to maintain this status of sovereignty thru the generations, the revolution itself did completely change the course of history in the Americas. The slaves in South Carolina endured the shackles of slavery until the end of the American civil war in 1865.
Although the Haitians were able to initially fight off the slave holding colonizers, a century of civil war and civil unrest amongst the various class factions led the island nation to fall back into imperial rule. Although the United States has not officially colonized it, it has implemented harsh neo-colonial and neo-liberal policies in the area. America has since, consistently, secured its financial interests on the island with the use of military brute. The European world did not want to see a Black republic emerge in the West Indies, and made sure they suppressed the tiny nation at every given chance. Further, South Carolina reverted to a similar system of racism after the Emancipation Proclamation; from denying their black’s their essential civil rights, to even terrorizing them out of the region. Thus one can say that not only were the slave revolts ultimately not successful in the long run, but also widen the doors to other forms of oppression thereafter.
The Haitian and South Carolinian slaves were merely fighting their immediate circumstances, and both found the same fate through the coming centuries. Neither were ever paid reparations, neither were even given the respect as those who built the Americas. It is a shame that there hasn't been any real tribute to those who cultivated our soils, and bore the true burdens of bearing the name “forefathers and mothers.” Allow us then to pay tribute by continuously reviewing the men and women who stood up and fought against their enslaving oppressors.  Let us remember those as such as Henry Highland Garnet who addressed his brethren, “Let your motto be resistance! resistance! resistance!”[40], It is important to understand these rebellions because the fight is far from being over.  “Let your motto be resistance! resistance! resistance!”




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FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
Through expansionism, colonialism and merchant capitalism there rose a middle class (versus simply the rich and the poor), who in turn (the middle class) used their increasing capital to fund an industrial revolution .  The rise of these new industries across Europe, especially in Britain, needed new markets and changed their existing equilibrium of the import based markets to new export ones. Consequently they no longer needing their existing relationships with the colonies.  Therefore one can say slavery was never truly emancipated; there was just a shift in their status quo, as the old institution of colonialism shifted to the new political economy of the ‘New Imperialism.’  
Read more at: 

Bibliography
Douglas, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York. Penguin
Putnam. 1997
Garnet, Henry Highland. Great Speeches in History. San Diego: Thomson Learning. 2002.
McKissack, Patricia. Rebels Against Slavery. New York: Scholastic Inc. 1996.
Cohen, Samuel. 50 Essays. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2004.
Pearson, Edward. ‘A Countryside Full of Flames.’ Heuman, Gad. The Slavery Reader. New
York: Routledge. 2003
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: HarperCollins. 2001.
Davidson. Gienapp. Nation of Nations. New York: McGraw Hill. 2006.
Stewert, Jeffrey. 1001 Things Everyone Should Know about African American History. New
York: Gramercy Books. 1996.
C.L.R. James, “The San Domingo Masses Begin,” from Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic
World. Found in Professor Petty’s Course Catalogue.



[1] Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade. Simmon and Schuster, 1997. http://africanhistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa080601a.htm
[2] Nas. Stillmatic. Columbia Records. 2001.
[3] Douglas, 79-80
[4] Haiti. ( 2006). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved December 11, 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-217449
[5] ibid
[6] Davidson, 55
[8] Stewart, 1996
[9] Haiti. ( 2006). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved December 11, 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-217449
[10] Haiti. ( 2006). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved December 11, 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-217449
[11] Ibid
[12] Ibid
[13] Burns, 2002
[14] Gibran, Kahlil. The Prophet. 1923.
[15] McKissack, 1
[16] Stewert, 28
[17] Ibid
[18] Ibid
[19] Davidson, 357
[20] McKissack, 19
[21] Ibid
[22] Ibid
[23] Ibid
[24] Stewart, 33
[25] Concept gathered from discussions surrounding Stuart Schwartz “Resistance and Accommodation in the 18th Century Brazil
[26] Stewart, 33
[27] Stewart, 37
[28] Stewart, 35
[29] Pearson, 569
[30] McKissack, 22
[32] McKissack, 22
[33] Pearson, 569
[35] Zinn, 303
[36] Haiti. (2006). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved December 13, 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-217450
[37] C.L.R. James. “The San Domingo Masses Begin.” Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World.
[38] Haiti. (2006). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved December 13, 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-217450
[39] Pearson, 569
[40] Garnet, 46


13 comments:

Anonymous said...

At the eve of the crowning of the first Afrikan American President of the United States of America, I have come across your article that is very insightful. I hope a lot of our people would read, seek knoweldeg about our collective history and use it fruitfully to emancipate and redeem ourselves to human equality - break the remaining shackles of inequality for the good of human kind. God bless you for your piece of research. Koku

jasminedearborn said...

Of interest -- You can see a clip of Toussaint's last moments in prison from the award-winning new short film "The Last Days of Toussaint L'Ouverture" at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2468184/ This film is the basis for a new feature (not with Danny Glover) that is in development.

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