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Disabuse yourself of the popular myth which suggests that Africans accepted their subjugation without a fight or offered little or no resistance. From their capture to non-arrival, arrival on the plantation and during slavery, there was the constant manifestation of the quest to assert their human dignity. Despite their captors being equipped with unrivaled military, economic and political might, the slaves remained supremely conscious that this dastardly existence was not their natural condition.
Notwithstanding the major power imbalance and the deck heavily stacked against them, the historical evidence screams for posterity to bear witness to their efforts to maintain their human dignity. The mere whisper of a rumor of a possible rebellion could have triggered mass hangings. Hence, it was a deadly engagement. The dangers notwithstanding, from Nat Turner in the United States to Maroons in Haiti and Jamaica to Zumbi dos Palmares to Jean -Jacques Dessalines, slavery was consistently rejected.
While rebellions represented the most overt and serious forms of resistance, it was by no means, the only form of resistance. Incidentally, the concept of resistance must be considered in a larger and holistic context. Any violation of rules set by slave owners and planters could have been considered as resistance. Insofar as this is concerned, the rejection of chattel slavery was incessant. There was resistance everywhere: running away, gathering at nights, encroaching on areas that are prohibited by plantation rules, engaging in banned religious activities, physical assaults on overseers and masters, stealing, breaking tools, working slow, poisoning their masters’ food, burning their clothes, creating semblances of families (despite being considered chattel-property by law), committing infanticide (killing of babies), reading, pretending to be dumb or deaf, spying and numerous innovative ways to stick it to the system.
From the Baracoons to the arrival on plantations in the colonies, the slaves demanded their freedom. Some slaves chose death in the ocean over life in bondage on the plantation. Slave suicides on ships became so prevalent, sharks could be seen swimming alongside slave ships because they could almost guarantee food was on its way. Slaves refused to eat on the excruciating voyage and traders were forced to design machines to force open their mouths to pour sustenance.
Rely not only on my word. Ella Forbes, in her work: ‘African Resistance to Enslavement’ in the Journal of Black Studies, captures the testimony of John Newton, Captain of an English slave vessel. In his diary, he documented his fear of resistance: ‘The risk of insurrections is to be added (to the other disasters which may befall a ship). These…are always meditated; for the men slaves are not easily reconciled to their confinement and treatment; and, if attempted, they are seldom suppressed without considerable loss; and sometimes they succeed, to the destruction of a whole ship’s company at once…One unguarded hour, or minute, is sufficient to give the slaves the opportunity they are always waiting for.’ (Journal of a Slave Trader, pp. 102-103). All of this was mentioned to point the eyes which this submission may reach, to the fact that it is inconsistent to conclude that freedom was given to Africans as some form of Caucasian penance. It was the constant fear of widespread violence and resistance that forced freedom.
SLAVE REBELLIONS AND INSECURITY
The question is often fairly begged: ‘how come Africans outnumbered the Europeans and resisted so much, yet slavery lasted for over 400 years?’. This column is not afforded the time and space to satisfactorily answer this question but suffice it to mention-never underestimated the power of indoctrination. Also, there are those who complain that the conclusion of slaves being resistant to the system is based on the sampling of a few slaves and rare incidents. However, for me, any incident of resistance demythologizes the narrative of slaves being docile.
That aside, despite not having access to military training or weapons, slaves constantly staged efficiently organized rebellions. The paranoia of the planters over the possibility of insurrections on the plantation was as ubiquitous as sugar cane. There was a constant fear among whites that a grand day of cataclysmic vengeance beckons. It was based on this consideration the freedom of slaves became a reality. Slave rebellions forced planters to summon militias, draft draconian slave codes and devised severe punishments which they hoped would act as deterrents.
In his book, ‘The Routledge History of Slavery’, Gad Heuman noted: ‘While rebellions differed substantially in scale and in scope across the Americas, they often terrified slaver owners. In the face of rebellions, many slave masters fled to the safety towns, where they could be protected by the military authorities’. In an addition to this, the wives of planters often declined to take the trip to indulge in colonial and plantation life due to sheer fear of being killed. The Haitian Revolt (1791-1804) set very high standards for brutality and savagery in the pursuit of freedom. Planters all across the Caribbean heard about the chopping of heads, the drinking of the blood of planters and other extreme forms of violence. As a consequence, insecurity spread all across most colonies. It was in this context, the plantocracy came to the conclusion that freedom for slaves was inevitable. They knew that chattel slavery became untenable. Of course, there are those who resent the idea of rebellions being responsible for freedom. They argue that it was purely about economics. For them, once sugar cane no longer made cents or shillings, this was certain. My question is: how could any reasonable mind ignore the constant fire which blazed from plantations due to violence?
THE EMANCIPATION ACT OF 1833
In August 1833, Thomas Fowell Buxton bestrode the halls of the House of Commons with the much-hailed Bill which was touted by the Abolitionists as the cleansing of the soul of Britain and the atonement of all evil deeds. To contrary, it was anything but that. Most characterized this circumstance as the culmination of an unrelenting campaign led by the Abolitionists. In so doing, they show little or no regard for the machetes of the slaves who rebelled. The Emancipation Act was passed against the backdrop of the Haitian Revolt, the Barbados Revolt (1816), the Demerara Revolt (1823) and the Jamaica Revolt (1831). These upheavals sent a clear and unequivocal message: freedom or death. Hence, the presentation of this Bill came as no surprise. It was not a case where the masters decided that they have had enough and it is time for tokenism. There was literally no choice.
Slavery was not given, it was demanded.