How Enslaved Africans Resisted Slavery

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Enslaved African Americans resisted slavery in a variety of active and passive ways. "Day-to-day resistance" was the most common form of opposition to slavery. Breaking tools, feigning illness, staging slowdowns, and committing acts of arson and sabotage--all were forms of resistance and expression of slaves' alienation from their masters. Forms varied, but the common denominator in all acts of resistance was an attempt to claim some measure of freedom against an institution that defined people fundamentally as property. Perhaps the most common forms of resistance were those that took place in the work environment. After all, slavery was ultimately about coerced labor, and the enslaved struggled daily to define the terms of their work. Over the years, customary rights emerged in most fields of production. These customs dictated work routines, distribution of rations, general rules of comportment, and so on. If slave masters increased workloads, provided meager rations, or punished too severely, slaves registered their displeasure by slowing work and sabotaging production. Running away was another form of resistance. Most slaves ran away relatively short distances and were not trying to permanently escape from slavery. Instead, they were temporarily withholding their labor as a form of economic bargaining and negotiation. These everyday forms of resistance vexed slave masters, but there was little they could do to stop them without risking more widespread breaks in production. In this way, the enslaved often negotiated the basic terms of their daily routines. Of course, masters also stood to benefit from these negotiations, as contented slaves worked harder, increasing output and efficiency. Slavery involved a constant process of negotiation as slaves bargained over the pace of work, the amount of free time they would enjoy, monetary rewards, access to garden plots, and the freedom to practice burials, marriages, and religious ceremonies free from white oversight. Some fugitives did try to permanently escape slavery. Often, runaways were relatively privileged slaves who had served as river boatmen or coachmen and were familiar with the outside world. Especially in the colonial period, fugitive slaves tried to form runaway communities known as "maroon colonies." Located in swamps, mountains, or frontier regions, some of these communities resisted capture for several decades. During the early 18th century there were slave uprisings in the British Caribbean. Slaves staged several insurrections, culminating in rebellions in 1739, when they seized arms, killed whites, and burned houses. In 1740 and 1741, conspiracies were uncovered in Charleston and New York. During the late 18th century, slave revolts erupted in Guadeloupe, Grenada, Jamaica, Surinam, San Domingue (Haiti), Venezuela, and the Windward Island and many fugitive slaves, known as maroons, fled to remote regions and carried on guerrilla warfare (during the 1820s, a fugitive slave named Bob Ferebee led a band in fugitive slaves in guerrilla warfare in Virginia). During the early 19th century, major conspiracies or revolts against slavery took place in Richmond, Virginia, in 1800; in Barbados in 1816; in Demerara in 1823; and in Jamaica and in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831. Slave revolts were most likely when slaves outnumbered whites, when masters were absent, during periods of economic distress, and when there was a split within the ruling elite. They were also most common when large numbers of native-born Africans had been brought into an area at one time. The main result of slave insurrections was the mass executions of blacks. In America, slave were more hesitate to revolt as they did not have as much leeway as those given in the Caribbean. After a slave conspiracy was uncovered in New York City in 1740, 18 slaves were hanged and 13 were burned alive. After Denmark Vesey's conspiracy was uncovered, the authorities in Charleston hanged 37 blacks....
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