Sabotage: An Overview

views updated

Sabotage: An Overview

In the case of slavery, sabotage generally constituted an act of deliberate subversion or destruction of property conducted by slaves against their slave masters. Black slaves often engaged in a variety of forms of sabotage that caused great concern and financial loss for their slave masters. Some slaves performed open acts of sabotage, whereas others manipulated the system of slavery through covert efforts. Their actions helped slaves assert their political agency in a system designed to deny them that autonomy.

Concentrated primarily on plantations, black slaves remained under constant surveillance by the slave master, slave mistress, overseer, conspirators within, and patrollers. The constant monitoring of their movement made it virtually impossible for slaves to remotely consider committing acts of sabotage, yet they resisted slavery in innumerable ways. Their efforts at sabotage frequently began not on the supervised grounds of the plantation, but during the guarded journey from Africa to the Americas, known commonly as the Middle Passage.

Many slaves understood that the Middle Passage was a journey from which few ever returned. Instead of following the instructions of the slave traders, some captured Africans leapt overboard to certain death into the Atlantic Ocean to avoid the horrors of slavery that awaited them in America. Olaudah Equiano, a former slave, recalled that during his journey, two of his fellow countrymen noticed an opportunity to free themselves and immediately seized it. According to Equiano, the men saw the glitter of the ocean and without hesitation jumped into it: "[A] group of sailors lowered a small boat down to the water and began to row fast toward the two heads that were still bobbing … [b]ut before they reached them the men waved their arms like happy madmen, and went under" (Bly 1988, p. 181).

Similarly, a letter dated December 15, 1776, described an insurrection during which a sizable number of slaves jumped overboard. After the slaves realized their insurrection had failed, "all the Fantee and most of the Accra men Slaves jumped overboard…. When all was settled we found 32 Men and boys w't [with] 2 women a missing, the best Slaves we had" (Bly 1988, p. 182). This form of overt resistance ultimately sabotaged a slave trader's entire mission: Without cargo, he had failed in his undertaking to secure slaves for sale in the mainland. Countless numbers of slaves made the fateful leap into the Atlantic Ocean because, as Equiano noted, these slave men, women, and children "believed that, once drowned, a man would return to his village and family" (Bly 1988, p. 181).

Yet other slaves committed suicide onboard the ship; this was the case for a slave woman who "hanged herself with a rope-yard on the slave ship" (Bly 1988, p. 182). Other slaves attempted to starve themselves to death in order to sabotage the slave traders' precious cargo. Research reveals that many captains tried anything to protect their investment. Slaves "were tortured with thumb-screws, an agonizing device that applied pressure to the slave's digits, others had their mouths forcibly pried open with medieval and inhumane instruments, such as the speculum orum (a mouth opener) or a bolus knife;" as a consequence, "when a slave's mouth was forced open, the slave's lips were ripped and his teeth were broken" (Bly 1988, p. 181). Numerous accounts describe slaves' fortitude and overall endurance in refraining from eating during the Middle Passage. Although some slaves did succumb to hunger pains or the slave trader's force, many remained steadfast in their determination not to eat, and inevitably their successes ended in death from starvation. Suicide was the costliest form of sabotage for slaves, but certainly, as the records indicate, it was an option that many chose.


The power of white slaveholders over slaves was never total. Enslaved people of African descent relied upon a variety of forms of everyday resistance to challenge the authority of their owners and transform the conditions under which they lived. For former slave Matthew Hume, sabotage was an important tool with which he could express his discontent with work regimes and effectively shape future outcomes. As a child Hume recalled being placed in the field alongside adult laborers to cultivate crops. However, the farming implement with which Hume was provided was inadequate to the task and ensured that he could not keep up with his fellow workers or hear what they were talking about. Knowing that his concerns would not be taken seriously by the overseer, Hume decided to take action into his own hands by striking the hoe against a large rock and breaking it. Hume recalled narrowly missing a whipping and receiving a new tool to replace the old one. After this Hume could keep near enough to hear what the other workers were talking about. Acts of everyday resistance such as Hume's challenged the authority of whites and demonstrated the agency of enslaved people of African descent.

SOURCE: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938. Washington DC: Author, 2001.

Once slaves touched the mainland, sabotage did not cease. As they were placed in the fields, many slaves decided to slow down the work pace, causing slave owners to lose valuable profits. This, along with many other strategies such as disabling machinery and even destroying crops, sabotaged the profits of slavery. Slaves understood their value, and many feigned illnesses to remove themselves, the precious labor power, from the fields. Others went so far as to mutilate themselves to decrease their value. This scheme reversed the power roles, if only momentarily, and put the bottom rail on top: Slave masters could increase the discipline and punishment, but doing so risked the loss of their property.

Stealing valuables, food, or livestock all constituted forms of slave sabotage. Many slave owners faced a harsh reality when they underestimated their slaves' ability to derail the system. Some slaves poisoned their slave owners, sometimes killing them; others physically attacked their plantation owners. In one instance, a former slave recalled how she hid a match in her hair until she reached the barn; once there, she "struck dis piece of wood cross a rock jus' like Marse Tome don an' sho' nough it made a fire … [a]n' I drap it in de leaves, an' run on out de barn down in de corn fiel' an' prestty soon de smoke come rollin' out, an' de flames show an' dar was de corner of de barn on fire" (Perdue, Barden, and Phillips 1976, p. 48). The fire increased and began to crackle until her slave master noticed it and began a water-chain to extinguish it. But the slave had successfully caused significant damage, and she enjoyed the satisfaction of her successful sabotage (p. 48).

In another incident, a slave master struggling to survive financially declared that he needed to sell a few slaves in order to obtain much-needed money. This conversation occurred during dinner, when every night a slave stood near the slave mistress, ready to pass her anything that she needed upon her request. In order to keep important material from the slave, the slave master and the slave mistress usually tried to spell out critical information. On this occasion, the slave recalled that the slave master said he needed to sell "G-A-B-E, and R-U-F-US"; according to the slave, "[c]ourse I stood dere without battin' an eye, an' makin' believe I didn't even hear him, but I was packin' dem letters up in my haid all de time." As soon as dinner finished, the slave returned to slave quarters and relayed the information to his literate father. The next day, "Gabe and Rufus was gone—dey had run away. Marsa nearly died, got to cussin' an' ravin' so he took sick." Although the slave mistress told the sheriff, the slaves managed to escape successfully to freedom (Perdue, Barden, and Phillips 1976, p. 55).

The construction of a slave culture represents perhaps the greatest form of sabotage the slaves managed to develop. Considered to be property, less than human, and unable to sustain human relationships, slaves managed to flip all these erroneous assumptions upside down. Slaves married, had children and raised them, and preserved these familial relationships despite the odds. Moreover, slaves developed a larger slave culture that allowed them to mask their thoughts and feelings when in direct view of their slave owners, but to share their true inner selves when in the slave quarters. This "two-ness," discussed by W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), prohibited slave masters from ever fully knowing how slaves felt. The ability to disguise their inner selves from their oppressors allowed slaves one more means of preserving their autonomy. Thus, whether slaves ran away, poisoned food, broke tools, feigned illness, learned to read and write, or simply concealed their inner thoughts, they managed to resist their inhumane treatment.


Bly, Antonio T. "Crossing the Lake of Fire: Slave Resistance during the Middle Passage, 1720–1842." Journal of Negro History 83, no. 3 (1998): 178-186.

Perdue, Charles L., Thomas E. Barden, and Robert K. Phillips, eds. Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1976.

                                        T. E. Robinson