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Slave Resistance and Revolt

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This paper focuses on slave resistance in America, while being cognitive of the international context of slavery and the massive numbers of slaves involved. "In 1860, the population of the fifteen slave states included 8 million whites, 4 million lack slaves, and 250,000 free blacks" (Starobin, 1974, p. 5). These slaves reacted to their oppression both individually and in organized groups, as well as in varied ways. Women particularly displayed unique resources for their resistance. The forms that resistance assumed and the strategies undertaken form the major discussion of the paper. The thesis here is that the differences, and most notably cultural differences, which established the rationale for enslavement were simultaneously the tools used in resistance patterns. Finally, the strategies of slave resistance contain implications and several practical guidelines for those groups who continue to be oppressed such as racial minorities and women.

Resistance in Africa to Enslavement and Export

The Atlantic slave trade involved the forced migration of millions of Africans to the New World between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Not only did this trade prove to be a lucrative source of income for numerous African states, but it also solved several social problems such as criminals and other undesirable people. Within Africa itself, resistance is noted among the Baga of Guinea. "They not only refused to sell slaves, but also did everything possible to secure the liberation of any of their number who were enslaved" (McGowan, 1990, p. 7). Two other groups in Guinea, the Balanta and the Djola, resisted their own enslavement by aggression. "They not only refused to participate in it, but also reacted with great ferocity to Africans or Europeans who attempted to enslave them" (p. 8).

Violent resistance by slaves being exported was common: "The violent seizure of Africans entailed the risk of casualties to the ship and crew, damaged future trade prospects, and evoked African animosity and vengeance" (p. 11). Other potential slaves simply fled from the village, which usually resulted in capture. "In circumstances where preventative measures failed to deter slave traders, Africans resorted to force and, above all, to flight to avoid enslavement. Victims of kidnapping almost invariably tried to resist, but usually they were eventually overpowered and subdued" (p. 16). Resistance during the actual journey assumed many forms, escape attempts to refusal to comply. "Some captives attempted to commit suicide, often by eating earth or by throwing themselves overboard from the canoes" (McGowan, p. 17).

In certain instances, mutinies occurred within African, as a measure to prevent leaving the homeland. In the majority of cases, mutinies were staged to take over the ship, normally when it was en route from the African coast. "They were deeply feared by the ship captains, for they usually resulted in injuries and fatalities among the crew and especially among the slaves, and sometimes in the loss of the ship..." (McGowan, p. 19). These same slaves were later to play a major role in insurrections in the new world. As Starobin states, "...slaves born in Africa or the Caribbean played leading roles in revolts, as did those American-born slaves who managed to retain much of their African cultural identity" (pp. 123-124). Resistance to slavery in Africa was derived from four sources: the psychological impact resulting from seeing the Atlantic Ocean; ill-treatment by ship captains; the transitional point on the coast as the final chance to resist; African residents who incited the slave to resist.

Plantations and Cultural Forms of Resistance

On the New World plantations, the master and the slave existed in completely separate worlds, each with its own identity and perspective. "The evil of enslavement and the strength of cultural differences set these two groups apart from each other and gave the slaves a fundamental sense of themselves as an oppressed racial group" (Escott, 1979, p. 20). This sense of separateness and awareness of cultural differences were precisely the elements that would permit resistance to be initiated and to be reinforced among slaves. Cultural traditions among the slaves and seemingly innocuous events on plantation would prove to be highly meaningful, as is demonstrated through the slave narratives. "Hearing his slaves joining in from the back yard on 'Massa's in de Col', Har' Ground', the master called them inside; 'so we'uns goes in the house', reported one bondsman 'and sings dat for de white folks and dey jines in de chorus'" (Escott, p. 21).

Vail and White (1983) investigate how songs constituted a form of resistance, as well as a perception of power, for the enslaved Quelimante district of Mozambique between the 1890s and the 1930s. Prior to the colonial rulers, the people had been accustomed to a pattern of reciprocity in their labour, even though much of it comprised tribute labor. The injustice of the current system was attacked through their songs. "The Chopi songs, in fact, attack all those targets that are differentiated in the Sena-Podzo and the Lomwe-Chuabo songs according to local circumstances, and they do so from a belief in a Chopi nation that is perfectly capable of managing its own affairs" (p. 918).

The only means available for resistance was though language, whereby Chopi identity is observed to set them apart; this is "most important in their music, which crystallizes their identity, and the lyrics which focus their in-group feelings against outsiders" (Vail and White, p. 918). The slaves in the British colonized West Indies, between 1790-1838 made use of the same means in order to maintain their identity and to achieve cohesion. "Language in particular was an important element in black identity and cultural unity, a major form of defense against dehumanization. "Women field hands were experts in the use of the rich Creole language...frequently used as subtle abuse of whites" (Bush, 1984, p. 228).

Structures and Strategies of Resistance

Large plantations made use of the overseer, known as the foreman or driver who occupied an intermediate position between the owner and slaves, and whose task was the discipline of fellow bondsmen. The majority of drivers exploited their position to ameliorate the conditions for slaves and to protect them. "Drivers could also become, albeit rarely, leaders of escape attempts and resistance movements, as was sometimes evident during the Civil War" (Starobin, p. 11). These drivers could facilitate a state of contrived conditions



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