Slave Ship Revolts Final Paper
Key Terms, People, and Places
Revolt on the Amistad: Incident in which the enslaved Mende successfully rose against their captors. They were arrested in New York but later released and granted formal freedom.
Cinque/Singbe Pieh: Leader of the Mende
John Quincy Adams: Former president and represented the Mende in Supreme Court
Black Carib: A term used to refer to a group of people descended from African captives shipwrecked on the St. Vincent islands and later forcefully dispersed along the Caribbean coast (Kerns)
Red Carib: A term used to refer to a group of people indigenous to the St. Vincent islands (Kerns)
Slave: “A stranger…torn from kin and community, exiled from one’s country, dishonored and violated…the position of the outside…the perpetual outcast, the coerced migrant, the foreigner, the shamefaced child in the lineage…those outside the web of kin and clan relationships, nonmembers of the polity, foreigners and barbarians at the outskirts of their country, and lawbreakers expelled from society” (Hartman 5)
Maroon Community: An autonomous community of runaway/escaped slaves, usually in forested areas
Slave ships during the 15th century through the 19th century became the arenas of fighting spirits and strong will for captive Africans. Their hope for survival made resistance possible. The dehumanization was shocking, but the resistant spirit that this treatment invoked was amazing. The perseverance of the captured Africans during the trans-Atlantic slave trade is unmatched, and shows that their resistant spirit stayed with them from the time of capture and through voyages that would often end in revolt. One of the key notes about the early voyage on the slave ships is the intuitive understanding that upon early capture these captives were at their strongest. While the conditions were horrible from the start, their physical and mental conditions would only deteriorate over time, which resulted in many revolts happening before the ships even left from shore, or sometimes even before the captives boarded the ships. Again, the conditions by which the captives were under were extremely difficult, and these revolts were not uncommon (Rediker).
When analyzing slave ship revolts we must first look at the institution of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. According to historical accounts, slaveholders needed to find efficient and economic ways to transport the captives from Africa to America in order to be profitable. According to traders, the most “economical” transportation of the African captives was across the Atlantic. Transporting the captives that particular way often made it difficult for the traders to control the captives; however, from the point of view of the captives, this made revolt less difficult. One of the biggest obstacles for the crew is their proportional relationship to the captives, as the captives virtually always outnumbered the crew. The slave ship revolts discussed must be kept within the context of the transatlantic slave trade and more generally institution of chattel slavery in the New World, for without the institution, the need for the revolts falls by the wayside.
The transatlantic slave trade began around the 1400s and continued throughout the 1800s, even after its formal abolition in various places. Merchant ships were originally used for the slave trade but later on, ships were designed to carry as many captives as would maximize profit for the traders. Oftentimes, ships would carry 400-600 slaves with crews as small as 30-40 people. Due to the disproportionate numbers of the captives and the crew and other various reasons, the crew felt compelled to treat the captives harshly in order to prevent revolt. Harsh conditions among the slave ships yielded mortality rates for the captives as high as 1 out of every 3.
It’s important to contextualize the story of slave ship revolts from the perspective of the captives themselves, because explaining the logistics and the mechanics of the situation doesn’t do justice to the strength and perseverance of those people. Alex Haley’s Roots is a story told from the perspective of Kunta Kinte, Haley’s ancestor who is captured and set on a slave ship. Haley claims that he is a direct descendent of the characters in his book, but the important aspect of the story is its attempt to describe aspects of the institution of slavery from the perspective of an enslaved person as well as their descendents.
One of the qualities of this biography was its demonstration of the resistant spirit present in those who were captured and how the violence of the institution often overshadowed the slaves’ resistant spirit. Kunta Kinte attempts to resist his captors from the moment he is taken, but because he is tied and under strict supervision the whole way it often resulted in him getting beaten even more harshly. He refused to eat food at first as a form of resistance but he later realizes that eating was necessary for strength in the case of a revolt. Even when he was not directly fighting his captors, he was thinking about ways to save his energy in case a revolt transpired.
While the previous paragraph explains gloriously the strength of the captives, we must also understand the demoralizing conditions they were under. From the moment they were taken and put into slave dungeons in Africa, their honor and h humanity is violently diminished. The dungeons were severely unsanitary with feces and vomit. The beatings and malnutrition often began in the dungeons and often got worse as the captives were loaded onto the slave ships. We can see that having the psychological strength to still attempt to break free and revolt required immense mental fortitude.
The slave ships themselves were often designed with the intention of preventing revolts. Most captives were chained together as a means of decreasing their mobility and preventing any chance of escape. They were held in holding rooms in which the stench often made the captives sick and caused them to vomit. These places were rarely cleaned and if so the cleaning was done carelessly. It was also very rare that the captives were allowed to be brought up to the deck of the ships and when they were, it was often only two at a time with beatings and strict supervision. It is also important to note that captive women were often brought to the deck and kept there so that the ship mates could sexually abuse them (Davis). There were also language barriers among the captives because they were taken from different parts of the continent. These conditions amalgamate into an environment that is seemingly and virtually impossible to break out of.
Davis, Angela. Women, Race, and Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.
Haley, Alex. Roots. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1974.
Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. Penguin, 2007.
Conditions for Slave Revolt
Eric Robert Taylor’s Conditions Favorable for Revolt depicts how, under particular circumstances, Africans aboard slave ships on the Middle Passage would rebel. Eric Taylor gives an in depth analysis and individual examples of the types of conditions he argues were favorable for revolts aboard ships. From reduction in crew strength to crew disunity, enslaved Africans would attack crewmembers and take control aboard the slave trade ships. Furthermore, Taylor gives insight into how often these rebellions took place and how close in proximity to shore they would occur. Many of those enslaved began as free people and it was not until they were captured on their own lands and stripped of their freedom that they were faced with the decision of revolting to save their lives. The conditions Africans faced in the Middle Passage were violent and unfathomable. However, as highlighted in Taylor’s article, “while the transatlantic voyage was a truly horrifying experience, it did not defeat the spirit of resistance” (Taylor 42).
African slaves encountered shocking and unbearable obstacles for revolt on these ships. A detailed account by a prominent British abolitionist on board a slave ship, Olaudah Equiano, offers a description of the harsh conditions on a ship and the violence, fear, loss of hope, and strict surveillance they encountered. Equiano was an African prince born in an Igbo village, now Nigeria. Early in his life he was forced into domestic slavery and then sold to slaveholders. Through the slave trade, he was transported to the West Indies and then to Virginia. Eventually, he would be allowed to buy his freedom and live the rest of his life in England. His famous slave narrative, a depiction of the Atlantic Slave Trade, details the horrific conditions Africans went through. He describes the violence aboard a ship: “one man flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast, [sic] that he died in consequence of it” (Equiano 67). Because the crew wanted to protect its investment in the human cargo, they kept close vigilance on the slaves aboard. These poor conditions, would affect the Africans outlook towards revolting and being able to successfully accomplish doing so. Equiano illustrates,
“One day, when we had a smooth sea and moderate wind, two of my worried men who were chained together, preferring death to such a life of misery, somehow made through the nettings and jumped into the sea. I believe many more would very soon have done the same, if they had not been prevented by the ship’s crew, who were instantly alarmed” (Equiano 68).
Eric Taylor’s article, however, indicates that revolts occurred despite these impediments. The ship’s proximity to the African coast and the reduction in crew strength were key factors to resistance. A large percentage of revolts occurred near the African coast. The coast was symbolic for resistance. It provided a constant reminder of freedom, family, and homeland. Taylor addresses this problem stating, “In fact, captains were so concerned with this potentiality that they often chose to disembark at night so that the Africans could not watch in agony as the coast receded into the background” (Taylor 43). The coast was a motivation to fight and regain their freedom back from their captures.
Reduction of crew power, size, and surveillance were also conditions Africans often seized upon. Ships remained on the coast for long periods of times. While the sailors were on the shore acquiring and capturing slaves, the ships remained half armed and this was a constant threat, which lead to rebellion. Additionally, they were subjected to injury and sickness, which at times would lead to death. This disadvantage killed 20% of the sailors and African slaves often rebelled as a result of this. For example, in 1759, while half of the crew of English ship Perfect was on land, slaves revolted against their captors (45).
Shipboard crises were a common hindrance crew members faced. Revolts increased due to violent storms and their aftermath. During violent storms, the crew directed their attention to the ship and away from the slaves. At times, slaves were brought to deck to assist with pumping water out of the ships as a result of the storm. Encounters with pirates, warships and privateers would also end with slaves revolting. This was a time when the crew was distracted either fighting or attempting to escape pirates or warships. In these instances, their attention was turned away from the slaves, thus leaving the captured individuals free of supervision. When the ships were next to each other, those imprisoned could see the other Africans on board pirate ships were not slaves, but pirates. This symbolized racial egalitarianism and a sign of hope and freedom. Taylor writes, “Pirate ships displayed a racial egalitarianism unmatched in most spheres of existence at the time” (50). This form of symbolism only encouraged the spirits of Africans to resist and escape.
Crew disunity and negligence provided perfect conditions for slave ship resistance. This was common and occurred frequently. Crew disunity took place in a number of ways. In fighting arose due to disagreements among the sailors. Sailors also encouraged slaves to revolt or they themselves would desert. This was precipitated by jealousness and disputes. Disunity usually occurred when a sailor believed the captain shorthanded him. Additionally, crew negligence was one of the more common conditions that preceded a revolt. Because the expeditions were long and excruciating, crewmembers were not always 100% on guard. Africans capitalized on this and revolted. Taylor offers examples of this by demonstrating how Africans would sneak into arms rooms due to the negligence of the overseers. Taylor explains, “They [crew members] dropped their guard to such an extent that some of the slaves were able to steal the key to the arms room and smuggle out weapons while the crew was eating” (54). This time of negligence was opportune for captive Africans who wished to seize any opportunity to revolt.
A majority of the writings about slave ship revolts center around the numerical advantage of slaves to crewmembers. The ratios of whites to slaves aboard these ships were enormous with the majority always favoring the African slaves. This provided Africans with numerical strength. It also provided for psychological encouragement to resist and be successful attempting it. The idea that one held a sufficient majority of people on his or her side gave hope to the captives, and they would often revolt. These opportunities usually resulted in successful overthrows of crewmembers guarding the ships on the voyage. Taylor writes, “Some of the most powerful insurrections on record took place on ships that housed especially large numbers of captives” (56).
The Atlantic Slave Trade was a despicable practice. Extremely horrible events were commonplace on the slave ships, as Olaudah Equiano shares in his narrative. Yet this violence still it did not completely obliterate the hopes and spirits of resistance, although that was one of the goals of the Middle Passage. Resistance throughout the Middle Passage did occur. Although not all of the revolts were successful in Taylor’s terms, they still demonstrate the will Africans held to fight for themselves and their brethren.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. New York: Isaac Knapp, 1837.
Taylor, Eric Robert. “Conditions Favorable for Revolt” in If We Must Die: Shipboard Insurrections in the Era of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.
Example of Revolt: Black Caribs
In the chapter “Antecedents” of her book Women and the Ancestors: Black Carib Kinship and Ritual, author Virginia Kerns describes the history of the Black Carib in the Caribbean. More specifically she argues that “The early history of the West Indies is one of conquest and displacement…[and] [i]n this veritable war of all against all, the Black Carib were sometimes victors, sometimes pawns” (Kerns 19) She goes on to describe the Black Caribs’ numerous battles against the Red Caribs, the French, and the British in defense of their political autonomy as well as their ultimate expulsion from the St. Vincent islands by the British and ultimately their forceful transportation and dispersion along the Caribbean coast. In her introduction Kerns explains how the history of the Black Carib begins in the St. Vincent islands, a land already inhabited by two indigenous groups: the Arawak and the Carib. More pointedly, the Black Caribs’ history “begins in the seventeenth century with the shipwreck of a European vessel on a voyage from West Africa to the West Indies” (Kerns 17). This means that the Black Carib were not a formerly enslaved population making them unique in that respect.
Kerns, Virginia. Women and their Ancestors: Black Carib Kinship and Ritual. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1997
Example of Revolt: Amistad Case
The Amistad revolt is the most famous slave ship revolt of the nineteenth century, mainly because the legal battle that ensued finally humanized the ‘cargo’ in which society centered around. The Mende men, through the use of translator, James Covey, conveyed their horrific experiences of being kidnapped, sold and bought illegally. It was realized by many that slaves endured horror in order to satisfy European financial greed.
Spring of 1839, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes illegally purchased 53 slaves from Havana; 49 of them were men from the Mende tribe. The purchase was illegal because the slave trade across the Atlantic had been banned. However, the Havana slave sellers fraudulently produced documents for the slaves to state that the slaves were Cuban born. The Spanish planters chartered space upon the Amistad vessel to carry the enslaved along the Cuban coast. On most slave ships, the slaves outnumbered the white crew members; this was the same for the Amistad. Singbe Pieh or Joseph Cinque, who was later identified as the leader of the Mende, saw an opportunity due to the small number of crew members and led a revolt. In accordance to Taylor, a lack of crew strength and the vessels location were central factors in slave ship revolts. When there were more slaves than crew members, slaves felt a psychological encouragement as they knew they could overpower with their numbers alone.
The Mende killed the Captain and the cook and took control of the vessel. They overwhelmed the Spanish planters and forced them to sail back towards Africa. However, Ruiz and Montes secretly sailed to Long Island, New York. After observing the damage to the ship and hearing the pleas of the planters, Lieutenant Thomas Gedney arrested the Mende who had gone ashore to buy supplies as they believed they were going to be returned back to Africa.
On January 8th 1840, the five day trial began in the District Court of New Haven. The case allowed for Cinque the leader, to explain his experience and provide evidence that they were African born and had been taken to Havana illegally. The case received much media attention. Images created of Cinque were highly romanticized and circulated around the free black community. The Mende won the case and were given permission to return to Africa. However, the government sent an appeal to the Supreme Court.
The Mende became legendary iconic characters but it was not only the Mende that attracted the public’s attention. In October 1840, Former President John Quincy Adams was persuaded in to become a lawyer on behalf of the Mende’s appeal. Attorney William Holabird maintained the same argument that the treaty between Spain and the United States required the return of all property, including the alleged slaves, with no deduction for a salvage award. He stated that if this was not done then the outcome could be a threat to foreign commerce. However, Roger Sherman Baldwin maintained that the Mende were not slaves. He argued that the United States government could not represent the claims of a foreign government and under the laws of Spain, the Mende were free. John Quincy Adams added to the defense by condemning the Van Buren administration and its efforts to return the Mende to Cuba. He asked ‘Is any thing more absurd than to say these forty Africans are robbers, out of whose hands they have themselves been rescued? Can a greater absurdity be imagined in construction than this, which applies the double character of robbers and of merchandise to human beings?’ His appeal to the principles of the Declaration of Independence was profound, as he called for recognition of the captive Africans natural rights in a society that has spent decades taking these rights away.
The Supreme Court upheld the previous verdict and the Mende were released in 1841. However, no provisions were given to the Mende to accommodate their travel home. Missionaries and other anti- abolitionist helped organize a fund raiser in which the Mende would participate by dancing; telling stories about their experiences and reciting Bible passages. By November 1841, the surviving Mende were on their way back to Africa, accompanied by missionaries. Out of the 49 Mende that originally boarded the Amistad vessel only 42 were arrested in New York, and even less made the return journey. Some died during the revolt and others died while in custody.
The Amistad Case was significant because it brought the illegal trading of slaves to the America’s to public attention. The case gave abolitionists a platform and example to use in their fight for emancipation of slaves. These abolitionists appealed via newspapers for funds to protect and publicize the experiences of the Mende. Lewis Tappan and other abolitionists stated on September 5, 1839 that: ‘Thirty-eight fellow-men from Africa, after having been [practically] kidnapped from their native land, transported across the seas, and subjected to atrocious cruelties, have been thrown upon our shores, and are now incarcerated in jail to await their trial for crimes alleged by their oppressors to have been committed by them.’ They also showed concern for the Mende’s material and spiritual wellbeing.
The Mende became much needed role models to free black communities and Cinque became a symbol of hope and a hero in black households. Finally and most importantly, the revolt emphasized the ever present African spirit. Taylor commented that African born slaves were most likely to revolt because they had experienced freedom. They were willing to risk their lives to regain it. The Mende had the advantage of sharing the same language and could communicate their plans of achieving freedom easily between themselves. No longer could Africans be labeled by common misconceptions as passive beings, happily willing to spend their lives in positions of servitude.
Ragsdale, Bruce A. “Teaching Judicial History: Federal Trials and Great Debates in United States History.” Accessed January 2011. http://www.fjc.gov/history/amistad.nsf/autoframe?openform&header=/history/amistad.nsf/page/header&nav=/history/amistad.nsf/page/
Collections of the Library of Congress
One of the major themes that is prevalent in the empirical analysis of these revolts and that was exemplified in the specific examples is the power of a resistant spirit. It was not a simple act to stage a revolt upon capture, especially not in the conditions that these slaves-to-be were put in, but they found a unifying cause and through constant vigilant resistance, oftentimes found ways to resist the oppression.
This resistant spirit is not only a major component of the revolts themselves, but has shaped itself into history and even now influences an identity that can be embraced by those with a linked past. These revolts are not only a historical showpiece, but a part of many individual’s identities. The history of the African ancestors who successfully fought for their humanity cannot be forgotten.
- How did slave ships have an effect on slavery as a whole?
- What were conditions like before the voyage? During? After?
- How does Hartman’s definition of the slave resonate with the history of the Black Carib and their history of rebellion and revolt?
- What was the significance of the Amistad Case? Why was it given so much media attention?
- Men and women captives played different roles during slave ship revolts. Was this a factor that contributed to the success of a revolt?
Suggestions for Further Readings
- Sale, Maggie Montesinos. The Slumbering Volcano, American Slave Ship Revolts and the Production of Rebellious Masculinity. Durham: Duke University, 1997.
- Greene, Lorenzo J. Mutiny on the Slave Ships. Atlanta: Clark Atlanta University, 1944
- Hartman, Saidiya. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
List of Recommended Videos:
- Amistad. Dir. Steven Spielberg. 10 Dec. 1997. DVD. DreamWorks SKG
- The Middle Passage. Dir. Guy Deslauriers. 14 Feb. 2001. DVD. Les Films Du Dorlis
List of Recommended Websites:
- Ragsdale, Bruce A. Amistad: The Federal Courts and the Challenge to Slavery. Federal Judicial Center. Tues. 25 Jan, 2011. <http://www.fjc.gov/history/amistad.nsf/autoframe?openform&header=/history/amistad.nsf/page/header&nav=/history/amistad.nsf/page/>
Historical docs- Abolitionist appeal
Narrative of Amistad case
John Quincy Adams argument
Anthony Hopkins rendition of John Quincy Adams’ speech (Amistad, 1997)
Clip about Kunta Kente