Rebellion: An Overview

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Rebellion: An Overview

If there has been one constant in the history of slavery, from the time of Moses and the exodus from Egypt to those caught in the modern sex trade, it has been that those held in bondage will in some way or another seek their freedom. The slave society of North America was no different and daily acts of individual resistance were the rule rather than the exception. Forms of subversiveness varied, but were most commonly embodied in acts of noncooperation that had potential economic impact on the plantation, such as deliberately working at a slow pace at harvest time or by breaking tools. More overt incidents of resistance, such as arson, individual slaves running away, fighting, or even murdering a particularly cruel overseer, were less common. Only occasionally did acts of resistance flair into outright rebellion and, when they did, they were met with brutal repercussions so as to discourage future uprisings and preserve the slave society. Incidents of insurrection were not limited to the antebellum South, with documentary evidence indicating that attempted uprisings occurred almost as soon as Africans were brought to the continent; in fact, the colonial period as a whole witnessed several notable revolts, including the 1739 Stono Rebellion in South Carolina and uprisings in New York in 1712 and 1741.

Early studies of slavery are notable for their almost complete silence on the subject of resistance and rebellion, making the fundamentally racist argument that slaves quietly acquiesced to the care of benevolent masters and that the violence that did occur on the plantation was nothing more than expected criminal activity. It was not until Herbert Aptheker, writing in his influential American Negro Slave Revolts, identified over 250 slave "revolts and plots" within the bounds of the modern United States that historians began to acknowledge that "discontent and rebelliousness were not only exceedingly common, but, indeed, characteristic, of American Negro slaves" (Aptheker 1969, p. 374). What Aptheker acknowledged is that slaves were people with the same range of emotions, values, and aspirations as whites and whose natural response was to escape from the conditions in which they found themselves. Subsequent scholars have compared the behavior of newly arrived slaves to that of second- and third-generation slaves, arguing that the violently rebellious instincts of the newly arrived slaves was largely tempered by the more survivalist instincts of the American-born slaves. Other historians, most notably Richard Dunn (1972) and Stanley Elkins (1959), have attempted to explain the failure of slave uprisings by stressing the role that diverse African heritages played in hindering the development of cohesive resistance movements and in determining the types of rebellion in which slaves engaged. This thesis has only recently come under challenge through the work of Walter Rucker (2006), who has made a convincing case that, far from creating obstacles, the rich African culture nurtured by many slaves facilitated the creation of a strong collective movement.

Ultimately, the overwhelming political, military, and economic advantages of southern slaveholders doomed every attempted slave rebellion to failure. Yet the resistance that slaves demonstrated every day in the face of overwhelming odds is testament to their indomitable desire for freedom.


Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts [1943]. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.

Dunn, Richard S. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624–1713. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972.

Elkins, Stanley. Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

Genovese, Eugene. From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.

Rodriguez, Junius P. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007.

Rucker, Walter C. The River Flows On: Black Resistance, Culture, and Identity Formation in Early America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.

                                   Simon J. Appleford