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Faced with the prospect of leaving Africa forever, Ottobah Cugoano, then in his early teens, devised a desperate plan along with other captives aboard a slave ship bound for the Americas. In his memoir, published in 1787, Cugoano writes: "A plan was concerted amongst us, that we might burn and blow up the ship, and to perish all together in the flames."
Cugoano's plan called for the boys and women aboard to carry out the plot because the men were kept chained below in the slave deck. But the group was betrayed by one of the African women on board, and, as Cugoano explains, "the discovery was likewise a cruel and bloody scene."
Given the brutal consequences of resistance and harsh conditions of slave ship life in general, it is remarkable that slaves found the courage to resist or that any rebellions were successful at all. The captives had many factors working against them. The lack of a common language made it difficult for them to unite. Often captives belonged to different tribes. The Wolofs, Fulani, Ashanti, and Mandingos each spoke their own distinct language, and sometimes they were political rivals.
In addition, the majority of the captives wore heavy chains throughout the Middle Passage making escape nearly impossible. And the harsh punishment that resisters received was a strong deterrent; slavers made a point of brutalizing rebellious captives in front of the other slaves to horrify them and discourage further mutinous attempts.
However, the Africans' fighting spirit prevailed, and resistance among slaves appeared in many ways. Suicide was one way that captives exerted their free will within the confines of a slave ship. Mutiny and violent rebellion were two others. Resistance occurred on ships from every slave trading nation, and even during the early days, captives showed a strong drive to regain their freedom.
The Number of Rebellions
Between 1699 and 1850, Lloyd's London Shipping List reported more than 150 attempts of slave mutinies. Some historians estimate one insurrection every eight to ten journeys. In all likelihood, the number was far greater, but an accurate account is difficult to calculate.
Surviving documents that might support a truer figure have yet to surface, and during the slave trading years, slave ship officers wanted to hide instances of rebellion. A captain who killed slaves to suppress a mutiny incurred a financial loss for his employers, the owners of the slave ship or trading company.
Losing money for investors lessened a captain's chances of receiving another expedition. He would rather blame the cause of death on slave illness than mar his reputation as a competent officer. Therefore, it was in his best interest simply to handle a rebellion without mentioning it in writing, unless the rebellion grew too large for him to cover up.
In the majority of reported cases, crews crushed the rebellions, but from time to time captives did emerge victorious. One of the earliest successful uprisings occured in 1532 on the Portuguese slaver the Misericordia. The 109 slaves on board were being shipped from San Tome, an island off the Gold Coast of Africa, to Elmina, a Portuguese slave fort. Along the way a band of captives revolted against Captain Estevao Carreiro and his crew. The rebelling slaves killed all of their captors, except the pilot and two seamen, who escaped to Elmina in a longboat. Although there is no record of what happened to the ship or the slaves, historians believe that the ship was lost because, in most cases, slaves did not know how to navigate slavers.
Sometimes, however, survivors of a successful slave ship rebellion lived to tell their stories. For example, in 1742, while their ship lay moored in the Gambia River, slaves aboard the galley Mary wrested control from the captain and drove the ship ashore. The ship was plundered and destroyed by Africans who lived in the area, and during the violent struggle, most of the crew were killed. The captain and first mate were kept prisoners by the slaves on board for nearly a month. Finally, the two escaped and found shelter in a French fort on the Senegal River. The captain returned home to South Carolina, where the ship's owner, prominent Charleston merchant Samuel Wragg, awaited word of his slave cargo. Rumors of rebellion made their way across the ocean and were confirmed when, on October 24, 1743, the Charleston-based newspaper the South Carolina Gazette ran the following item: "One of Samuel Wragg's ships, the Mary, which delivered negro cargoes in Charleston in 1737, 1738, and 1739, was destroyed in the Gambia River in 1743."
Sometimes rebellions took an unusual turn. Historian Hugh Thomas describes a mutiny in 1752 during which slaves on the Marlborough fought each other as well as their captors. As the ship left the slave trading post Bonny, located at the mouth of the Niger River in West Africa, about twenty-eight of the four hundred slaves on board were left unattended on deck. While the crew washed the slave decks below, the unattended slaves located some firearms. The slaves then attacked and shot most of the crew of 35 men.
The surviving sailors were commanded to sail back to Bonny, the home of many of the captives. Just off the African coast, however, the Marlborough was attacked again, this time by another British slaver, the Hawk . Again, the former captives fended off an enemy. However, in the melee, a skirmish erupted between Gold Coast Africans and those from Bonny. Accounts report that more than one hundred Africans died before the Gold Coasters won the standoff.
Other times, slaves were able to overtake a ship because of its small size and few crew members. Some historians point to the success of the rebellion aboard the schooner Amistad as an example. In 1839 Joseph Cinque, a West African slave, led a victorious uprising aboard this slaver, which was moored off the coast of Cuba. Had the Amistad been a 350-ton vessel, carrying a large crew of thirty men, many historians argue that the crew would have been able to subdue the captives.
Frequently, especially while still in Africa, illness and death decimated the ranks of European slavers. Once again, slaves took advantage of the depleted number of crew members left to guard them. In part because the ship still remained close to land, and in part because there were fewer sailors to overpower, slaves used the opportunity to plan an escape.
The Story of Tomba
Sometimes an individual's spirited and courageous attempts to free himself and others stand out from among the few surviving documents of slave resistance. Tomba, a particularly strong-willed leader, achieved fame because of his acts of rebellion in the holding barracoons of Sierra Leone and aboard the ship as it was being stocked with slaves. Before he was finally captured, Tomba led raids and killed many African and European slave traders.
John Atkins, a slave ship surgeon in the early 1700s, included Tomba's remarkable attempts in his 1753 memoir, A Voyage to Guinea. It was, however, the young rebel's attitude that first made an impression. Atkins writes:
As... Slaves are placed [in] Lodges near the Owner's House for... better viewing them, I had every day the Curiosity of Observing their Behavior, which with most of them was very dejected. Once ... I could not help taking notice of one Fellow among the rest, of a tall strong make, and bold, stern aspect. As he imagined we were viewing them with a design to buy, he seemed to disdain his Fellow-Slaves for their Readiness to be examined, and... scorned looking at us, refusing to rise or stretch out his Limbs, as the [slave] Master commanded; [this] got him an unmerciful Whipping... which the Negro bore with Magnanimity, shrinking very little, and shedding a Tear or two, which he endavoured to hide as tho' ashamed.... All the company grew curious at his Courage.... [We were told] that this same Fellow, called Captain Tomba, was a Leader in some Country Villages that opposed [African slavers], and their Trade, at the River Nunes.
Not all resistance involved violence and organized rebellion. Passive resisters, those who tried to oppose their captors without guns, also made an impact.
Jumping overboard was one common way of escaping captivity during the Middle Passage. Even during a mutiny, this choice was an option. As historian Selena Axelrod Wisnes relates,
In 1787, a cargo of slaves sailing from the Danish trading fort of Christianborg to Saint Croix attacked the ship's company with any weapon that came readily to hand, including shackles and chains that they had hammered off their legs. After a pitched battle that lasted over two hours, the crew finally retained control of the ship but not before 35 slaves sprang overboard into the sea.
For the European slave trader, slave suicides generally meant one thing: loss of financial investment. In 1776 Captain Peleg Clarke wrote ship owner John Fletcher about a mass suicide:
I am sorry that I have so disagreeable a story now to tell which is [that], about the 8th of last month, our slaves rose on board and a large number of them jumped overboard, out of which twenty-eight men and two women were drowned. Six men were taken up by the Moree town people which Mr. Klark, the [Dutch] governor of the fort at that place, took out of their hands, and has them in ounces [of gold] per head for taking them up, so I could not settle it with them, and being obliged to return to Accra again in order to settle, I have begged the favour of Mr. Mill [a member of one of the famous mercantile families of Guinea and the West Indies] to settle it for me.
In 1790 Ecroyde Claxton, a ship's surgeon, described an experience with a slave who had thrown himself overboard and managed to escape: "The slave, 'perceiving that he was going to be caught, immediately dived under water and, by that means, made his escape, and came up again several yards from the vessel, and made signs it is impossible for me to describe in words, expressive of the happiness he had in escaping us.'"
Refusing to eat was another way that slaves showed their resistance. Slavers watched captives closely to make sure all slaves ate their rations, and crew members used several means of forcing resisters to swallow food and drink water. If slaves refused, slavers sometimes beat them with pieces of rope until they gave in. Other times crew members used burning coals or a speculum to force-feed slaves. Reports Captain Theodore Canot, "It is the duty of a guard to report immediately whenever a slave refused to eat.... Negroes have sometimes been found in slavers who attempted voluntary starvation... his appetite is stimulated by the medical antidote of a [whipping]."
Usually, however, European slave crews overpowered rebellious captives, and punishment was drastic and especially brutal. Captain William Smith describes the methods used to kill one rebellious captive, who had tried to escape from the slave ship Elizabeth in 1727:
One of the two men negroes we had taken up along the ship-side... readily confessed he had kill'd the cooper with no other view but that he and his countrymen might escape undiscovered by swimming on shore.... We acquainted the negro that he was to die in an hour's time for murdering the white man.... the hour glass being run out, the murderer was carried onto the ship's forecastle, where he had a rope fastened under arms, in order to be hoisted up to the foreyard arm, to be shot to death.... Ten white men who were placed behind the barricade of the quarterdeck fired their musquets and instantly killed him.... The body being cut down upon the deck, the head was cut off and thrown overboard ... for many of the blacks believe that, if they are put to death and not dismembered, they shall return again to their own country after they are thrown overboard.
Because slave rebellions were so costly, slavers from rival European nations sometimes helped each other subdue rebelling captives. The Dutch slave ship captain Willem Bosman recounts how he and his men were able to quell a rebellion with the help of a French slaver and an English vessel anchored nearby. In this case, according to Bosman, the slaves
possessed themselves of a hammer; with which, in a short time, they broke all their fetters in pieces... after which they came up on deck, and fell upon our men, some of whom they grievously wounded, and would certainly have mastered the ship if French and English vessels had not very fortunately happened to lie by us; who perceiving by our firing a distressed gun that something was in disorder aboard, immediately came to our assistance with chalops and men, and drove the slaves below deck.... Some twenty of them were killed.
Captains who demanded that captives fill the positions of sick or disabled seamen sometimes found themselves caught up in a slave rebellion. In 1765 an article in the newspaper the Newport Mercury reported,
soon after [Captain Esek Hopkins and his ship, Sally ] left the coast [of Africa], the number of his men being reduced by sickness, he was obliged to let some of the slaves to come upon deck to assist the people; these slaves contrived to get possession of the vessel; but was happily prevented by the captain, who killed, wounded, and forced overboard eighty of them which obliged the rest to submit.
Other times, captives took advantage of the somewhat lax security during the period when traders were buying slaves. Because keeping slaves in the fetid hold of the ship bred diseases, which jeopardized the investment, captains often allowed the slaves to roam the decks. Although this practice reduced the outbreak of disease, it also sometimes invited rebellion. Captain Abijah Potter of the slave ship Liberty, for example, kept the first six slaves he purchased unchained above deck. Their relative freedom gave the captives ample opportunity to escape. As historian Jay Coughtry explains, "While roaming around the main deck of the [ship] ironically named Liberty, unshackled and unguarded the slaves soon discovered an ax, and [killed the captain of the ship and a mate], before the rest of the crew reached the arms chest and subdued them."
The Fear of Rebellion
Because slave revolts were such a problem, slave ship captains and merchant slave trading firms gave crew members explicit advice about how to avoid shipboard rebellions. In a letter from Captain John Fletcher to Captain Peleg Clarke, Fletcher advises, "Be very careful in keeping a good look out and watchful of your Negroes to prevent Insurrections."
Heeding such warnings, captains employed many solutions to handle the rebellion problem. One of the most popular involved making sure that slaves came from different parts of Africa and had their own distinct languages and customs. That way, slaves were virtually unable to communicate with each other or easily plan an attack.
In his seafaring account, seventeenth century mariner Richard Simons describes the slaver's strategy of divide-and-conquer:
The means used by those who trade to Guinea, to keep the Negroes quiet is to choose them from severall parts of ye Country, of different Languges; so that they find they cannot act joyntly, when they are not in a Capacity of Consulting one an other, and this they can not doe, in soe farr as they understand not one an other.
As a result, rebellions were often individual attempts to gain freedom rather than planned group efforts. Rival tribes had a difficult time joining forces, and without a common language, it was nearly impossible to organize a powerful resistance.
Because shipboard rebellions were of such concern, captains often increased security measures to ensure a successful voyage. They kept captives in chains to control them and required a higher ratio of seamen to slaves. They increased crew numbers so that there was one seaman for every ten to fifteen slaves. In addition, slavers constantly examined the decks for blunt or sharp objects that slaves might use as weapons.
As slave trader James Barbot wrote during his voyage in 1700,
If care be not taken, [captives] will mutiny and destroy the ship's crew in hopes to get away. To prevent such misfortunes, we used to visit [the slaves] daily, narrowly searching every corner between decks, to see whether they have not found means, to gather any pieces of iron, or wood, or knives, about the ship, notwithstanding the great care we take not to leave any tools or nails, or other things in the way: which, however, cannot be always so exactly observ'd, where so many people are in the narrow compass of a ship.
Each nation developed a reputation based on its success in controlling slave rebellions. The American slavers, especially those from Rhode Island, held the record for the fewest uprisings. "The mode of confining and securing Negroes in American slave ships... is abundantly more rigid than in British vessels," observed one eighteenth-century eyewitness.
Historians are unsure why Rhode Island's slave ships had the fewest mutinies since they often had relatively small crews. Some researchers suggest that using guns to quell revolts played a key role in the small number of rebellions aboard Rhode Island slavers. One witness aboard the slave ship Nancy later recounted how quickly Rhode Island crews relied on firearms to stop mutinies: "Four or five days after the voyage commenced, as the slaves were all together messing one day... one of them seized the master as he was pouring molasses into his victuals.... The master and crew then drove [the slaves] below with small arms, one... jumped overboard, and a few of the said slaves got slightly wounded."
Researchers still do not know why resistance and rebellions occurred on some ships and not on others since there are no clear-cut, universal reasons for rebellion. It was not unusual, for example, to allow slaves to roam the deck of a ship during the early stages of the purchasing period, when there were only a few slaves on board. Crews at times allowed groups of as many as 160 slaves to spend the day above deck unchained. "A knowing trader will never use chains but when compelled, for the longer a slave is ironed the more he deteriorates," claimed slaver Theodore Canot, "and, as his sole object is to land a healthy cargo [for] pecuniary [monetary] interest."
Although it seems that rebellions should have been a problem during these moments of freedom, more often than not they weren't. Slaves simply took in the fresh air, and crews readied the ships for departure. Although the valiant efforts of some enslaved rebel Africans did cause their deaths, their failed attempts only served to strengthen the slaves's resolve. Risking shark infested waters in a desperate attempt to reach land required a measure of courage that sustained itself and grew over time. As historian Jay Coughtry explains: "Ordinary merchandise rotted, leaked, or became waterlogged. Slaves posed the added burden of being unwilling and, at times, uncooperative passengers: elaborate security measures were necessary in order to keep them from sabotaging the ship, jumping overboard, or elminating their captors altogether." As fear of rebellion among slavers caused them to increase their crews, so did the captives' determination to fight against the unspeakable horrors of the Middle Passage.
In 1829 slaves on the Spanish sloop the Amistad rebelled and took command of the ship. Led by one of the enslaved Mende tribesman, Joseph Cinque, the slaves killed several crew members but spared the lives of two slave traders, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, who promised to navigate the ship back to Africa.
Instead, Ruiz and Montes tricked the Africans and secretly headed west and north, hoping to strike land. After two months of zigzagging up the coast of North America, the schooner landed in Long Island, New York. The starved captives went ashore in search of provisions. Immediately, government officials seized them and took them to a prison in New Haven, Connecticut.
Once imprisoned, the captives of the Amistad found themselves in the middle of an international political battle between people who believed in slavery and abolitionists who argued against it.
The Spanish government and the crew members of the Amistad wanted the captives returned to them. As slavery advocates, they believed the Africans were property. Many Americans also argued on behalf of the slaveholders, although some thought that the Mende tribesmen should remain in the southern United States to work as slaves on plantations.
Abolitionists asserted that the Africans should be freed and allowed to remain in the United States as free men or to return to Africa. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where a former U.S. president, John Quincy Adams, argued successfully on behalf of the captives.
Adams's winning argument centered around a question of legality, not human rights or morality. As a result of the 1807 laws that abolished transatlantic slave trading, the Court recognized that the captives had been taken unlawfully from Africa.
Under the protection of the American government, Cinque and the other enslaved Mende were free men once again. In 1832 several Amistad survivors, including Cinque, returned to Africa, where they settled in Liberia.
In his account of a voyage made in 1693 from England, excerpted in Black Cargoes, by Daniel P. Mannix and Malcolm Cowley, Thomas Phillips discusses measures he took to discourage slaves from rebellion.
"When our slaves are aboard we shackle the men two and two while we lie in port, and in sight of their own country, for 'is then they attempt to make their escape, and mutiny; to prevent which we always keep [guards] upon the hatchways, and have a chest full of small arms, ready [loaded] and prim'd, constantly lying at hand upon the quarterdeck, together with some granada shells; and two of our quarter-deck guns, pointing on the deck then, and two more out of the steerage, the door of which is always kept shut, and well barr'd; they [the slaves] are fed twice a day; at 10 in the morning, and 4 in the evening, which is the time they are aptest to mutiny, being all upon deck; therefore all that time, [those] men... not employd in distributing their victuals to them... stand to their arms; [some men stand] with lighted matches at the great guns [loaded with ammunition and pointed] upon [the slaves] till they have done [eating] and gone down to their kennels between decks."
The gruesome conditions on slave ships also created tension between officers and crew members. In 1721, for example, second mate George Lowther aboard the Gambia Castle, a ship belonging to the Royal African Company, led a mutiny because he claimed the company had allowed the seamen's physical health to deteriorate drastically. In his book Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, Marcus Rediker relates that "some difficulties apparently arose over procuring a cargo of slaves, and Lowther maintained that the merchants said that the seamen should stay on the coast till they Rotted.' The tars [sailors] considered their plight to be one of bondage,' in which they endured Barbarous & Unhumane Usage from their Commander.'"
Historians sometimes have difficulty determining whether it was the unruly actions of seamen or the extreme reactions of brutal captains that provoked mutinies. The trial transcript of James Littman v. Peter Bostock, which was heard in the Vice Admirality Court located in Charleston, South Carolina, gives a detailed picture of an incident aboard the Prince George, anchored along the Gambia River, in January 1753. In this instance, seaman James Littman accused Captain Peter Bostock of assault. Bostock countered that it was Littman's own violent behavior that necessitated stern discipline. "Defendant [Captain Peter Bostock] saith that the said James Littman at several other times and places was very often drunk and ... very abusive to this Defendant and to the rest of the Officers... and without any thing being done or said to him... did make a great riot and noise on board the said ship and cried out murder several times and behaved himself in a very disorderly and mutinous manner. Therefore this Defendant did for the Causes aforesaid put Irons upon and confined the said James Littman for about the space of twelve Hours.... What [Captain Bostock] so did was through Necessity and to keep James Littman, who was then running about the said Ship raving like a Madman, quiet and prevent him from raising a mutiny on Board."
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