African American Resistance

Early Resistance


“The Hunted Slaves” 1861, by English artist Richard Ansdell

The Shores of Africa, 1500s: The forerunners

It began at the edge of our homeland where the verdant forests and tropical bush gave way gradually to the sandy beaches of the Guinea coast. It began at the mouths of rivers, from the northern point where the Senegal and the Gambia pour their troubled streams into the waters around Cape Verde, down the thousands of miles of coastline to the place where the mighty river Congo breaks out into the ocean. On these shores near the mouths of these rivers, we first saw the ships.

There was no way to know it then, but their crews of men and boys came from many ports to find the shores of Africa. They sailed from Amsterdam and Lisbon, from Nantes and La Rochelle, from Bristol and London, from Newport and Boston on ships with strange names. They came to us on “Brotherhood” and “john the Baptist,” on “Justice: and “integrity,’ on “Gift of God” and Liberty”; they came on the good ship “Jesu.” But by the time our weary lines of chained and mourning travelers saw the vessels riding on the coastal waves, there could be but one meaning: captivity. Thus it was on the edge of our continent—where some of us gulped down handfuls of sand in a last effort to hold the reality of the land—that the long struggle for black freedom began.

~Vincent Harding, There is a River, 3


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Before the Mayflower
In the sixteenth century, while Spaniards were just beginning the mass trading of human beings, an advanced civilization was developing in Africa. For example, Benin City, in the interior, was a center of art and commerce. The city stretched for twenty-five miles; wide boulevards were lined with sizable houses sporting balustrades and verandas. Travel was not unknown; increasing archeological evidence, including skeletons and carvings, points to the fact that Africans traveled to what is now Central and Latin America several times, centuries before Columbus. Not only slaves but also free Africans arrived in the Western Hemisphere long before the first permanent English colony at Jamestown in 1620.

Position as Slaves

Africans were the only group to come to this hemisphere as slaves, and from the very beginning, African and African American resistance was a constant. Because of the nature of the slave institution, that resistance had to take a variety of forms, many of them disguised. To the whites what seemed like laziness or stupidity was often really a work slowdown or a pretending not to understand in order to deprive the slave owners of labor.
Sabotage, work slowdowns, organized strikes, running  away, fires destroying plantations, mutinies on slave ships, ground glass in the master’s food poisonings, feigning sickness or pregnancy, insurrections plotted or carried out—all were acts of resistance perpetrated by slaves for the sake of freedom. Even suicide was an act of rebellion, a way of depriving the white man of his “property.” Some slaves also believed that death would take them back to Africa. The resistance of Africans to the dehumanization of chains and the middle passage was so great that some tried to starve themselves. Their captors devised tortures, including hot coals to the lips and a special instrument that wrenched open the jaws of the resisters just to feed them. In many cases, even that did not work.
Historian Herbert Aptheker found 250 instances of revolts and conspiracies in the history of North American slavery; in Brazil, Suriname, and Jamaica, slave rebellion was a way of life.
-Eugene Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution
Hispaniola, 1522: First Slave Rebellion
We cannot forget that America was built on Africa…America became, through African labor, the center of the sugar empire and the cotton kingdom and an integral part of that world industry which caused the industrial revolution and the reign of capitalism….
~W.E.B. Dubois, quoted in Milton Meltzer, Slavery II, 127
It takes only one generation. Columbus brought the first cane plant to Hispaniola on his second voyage. Two decades later his Diego is reaping sugar and revolt. This “white gold” savagely devours the fertility of the land and the flesh of the indigenous population. Africans brought to work the land in place of the Arawaks prefer to die in the fire of revolt. Diego sees his plantation and fields burning. When the Spaniards finally stop the revolt, they hand the rebels along the road to stop future uprisings.
It doesn’t work.
-Eduardo Galeano, Memories of Fire: Genesis, 72-73
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Sierra Leone, 1721: Black Women in the Struggle

…in spite of constant and costly defeats, the struggles for freedom went on. Often women took a crucial part, making full use of the special status and greater freedom of movement accorded them. Their role was exemplified in the events on board the English ship “Robert” as it stood off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1721. Among the thirty captives on board was a man who called himself Captain Tomba, one of the earliest identifiable leaders of the struggle. He and several other African men and an unnamed woman had developed a plan to attack the crew, overcome them, and make their way back to the shore. The woman, because she had greater freedom of movement, was chosen to inform the men of the best time for the attack. 
One night as she roamed the deck, she noted that the number of sailors in the night watch was small enough to make a surprise move more feasible. After she managed to inform Tomba, he prepared to act immediately; but only one of the African men who had promised earlier to assist him was not ready to join Tomba and the woman. Nevertheless, these three decided to strike for their freedom. The smallness of their force and an accidental sounding of an alarm worked against them, so that after killing two of the crew they were overwhelmed by others, beaten to the deck and placed in chains….
And what of the black woman who chose the struggle for black freedom over her privileged bondage among white men? We are told that “the woman he hoisted up by the Thumbs, whipp’d and slashed her with Knives before the other slaves till she died.” And so, not far from the shores of her homeland, the swaying bleeding body of a sister in struggle bore terrifying witness to the cost of the decision for freedom. Yet perhaps she would have considered this lonely vigil above the sea a better use of her body than any that the crew members had had in mind.
~Vincent Harding, There is a River, 12-13
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Maroon Resistance

Maroons: Communities of Resisters


In 1502, Governor Ovando brought “a few Negroes” to Hispaniola to bolster the faltering colony that Columbus had left behind. Among them was the first African American maroon, who escaped to the Indians soon after coming ashore.

Maroonage or flight was one of the major ways slaves resisted their cruel conditions. It was so common that communities formed by these runaways filled the edges of the Americas from North Carolina to Brazil. Known as palenques, quilombos, mocambos, cumbes, laderas or mambises, these new societies embraced African values and traditions while utilizing the skills of the indigenous population. Some survived less than a year, while others lasted for generations or even centuries.

Some became so powerful and so threatening to the plantation system both militarily and economically that the whites had to press for peace agreements with them. The first treaties made by Europeans in the Western Hemisphere were with the maroons.

Almost constantly at war with the Europeans, the maroon communities had to be nearly inaccessible in order to survive because their former masters usually hunted for them. They had to find land both defensible and hidden, which meant creating a society in the most inhospitable terrain. This required immense creativity and courage to endure daily hardships. For example, in one maroon community the water was filled with worms; the people had to devise elaborate purifying operations just to live there.

Yet amid the brambles or rocks or dense jungles, these maroons created thriving economies that included a wide variety of foods and art and a well-developed political and military organization. Maroon societies raised manioc, yams, beans, bananas and plantains, sugarcane, vegetables, tobacco, and cotton. Through ingenious traps and springs they were able to capture animals and fish.

Maroons throughout the Americas developed incredible skills in guerrilla warfare. The defense of their societies included booby traps, false paths with pointed spikes, and extensive use of the natural environment for defense. The warrior bands became adept at ambush, surprise, cross fires, and extreme mobility. They developed extensive and reliable intelligence networks and often communicated by horns. These tactics were necessary because they were almost always outnumbered, and the Europeans had superior firepower.

The reality of resistance, so integral to the Caribbean, was rooted in the slave’s consciousness of his or her human dignity.

~See Richard Price, ed., Maroon Societies; Mavis C. Campbell, The Maroons of Jamaica 1655-1796

San Domingo, 1700s: Ad for Runaways
Zabo, an Ibo, five feet one, quite homely, has scars and lash marks on shoulders having only recently been whipped. Fled the home of the undersigned. Seven newly arrived slaves, part of the cargo of the vessel “L’Aimable,” all Congos, not yet branded.

~Jean Fouchar, The Haitian Maroons: Liberty or Death, 4

Surinam, 1718: Permanent Resistance
The fact that punishments for runaways have to be codified into edicts and laws testifies to the persistence of the maroon resistance.
If a slave runs away into the forest in order to avoid work for a few weeks, upon his being captured his Achilles tendon is removed for the first offence, while for a second offence…his right leg is amputated in order to stop his running away; I myself was a witness to slaves being punished in this way.
~Richard Price, ed., Maroon Societies, 3
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Surinam Slave Trade

Palmares, Brazil, 1695: Maroon Community

For ninety years, maroons have sustained an African society called Palmares led by a small group of chiefs. Economically successful, they have developed trading relations with local plantation owners. Living in a constant state of war, they spread themselves over a large area and engage in general guerrilla war, gradually wearing down the Portuguese. Recognizing the constant threat of the inspiration of their example to other slaves, the Portuguese inflict heavy losses on the Palmarinos, whose supreme chief, ganga-zumba, sues for peace in 1678. But the younger leaders, including the zumbi (war chief), resume the struggle. Not until 1695 do the Portuguese develop a powerful coalition, including ruffians and mercenaries, to defeat the Palmarinos. The Portuguese describe the zumbi as a Negro of singular courage, great spirit and persistence.
~Eugene Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution, 63
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Surinam, 1796: An Adversary Speaks

Captain Stedman, an enemy of the maroons who overran some of their villages is impressed with the life they have created under the harshest conditions…Their fields are even overstocked with rice, cassava, yams, plantains, etc. They make salt from palm-tree ashes…We have found concealed near the trunk of an old tree a case-bottle filled with excellent butter, which…they made by melting and clarifying the fat of the palm-tree worms; this fully answers all the purposes of European butter, and I found it in fact even more delicious to my taste. The pistachio or panda nuts (peanuts) also convert into butter…and frequently use them in their broths. The palm-tree wine they always have in plenty…They fabricate pots from clay…the gourd or callebasse tree procures them cups; the silk-grass plant…supplies materials for their hammocks…candles they can make, having plenty of fat and oil; and the wild bees afford them wax, as well as excellent honey.
~Richard Price, ed., Maroon Societies, 11
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John Gabriel Stedman

Jamaica, 1730: Nanny, Freedom Fighter

Legend and folklore, they say, embody the spirit of the people who remember and tell the stories. The name and deeds of Nanny still dance on the lips of twentieth-century Jamaicans. Her town is still sacred ground.

Leader of the Windward Maroons, she is so powerful they name a town after her, which becomes known for having the greatest warriors. Completely naked except for a necklace of teeth, she invokes loa Ogun (Yoruba god of war) before going into battle. Her followers believe she has magic powers that will make them invulnerable to English weapons. They swear oaths of allegiance to the cause of repelling the intruders from their land. It will take all the magic they can muster to defeat the lust for wealth propelling the white man to this small island.

In battle, Nanny catches British bullets in her buttocks and expels them back. She keeps a large cauldron bubbling without a fire. When the British soldiers come too close they fall in and suffocate.

Nanny is full of magic. The white men’s teeth she wears around her neck cannot bite her.

~Mavis C. Campbell, The Maroons of Jamaica 1655-1796, 4, 11, 50-51


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Jamaica’s True Queen: Nanny of the Maroons

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