How far have collective acts of resistance undermined slavery regimes?

By Aleysha Shergill - History Student @ St Hilda's College, Oxford


Since Eugene Genovese’s Rebellion to Revolution (1981), historians have emphasised the importance of everything from widespread rebellion to daily acts of insubordination. By contrast, in comparing the ‘Baptist War’ of 1831-2 in Jamaica to the antebellum U.S. South (1780 – 1860), this article will instead demonstrate that acts of resistance do not inherently undermine unfree labour regimes. As an analysis of slavery in the South will demonstrate, acts of resistance could in fact strengthen them. This article will thus act as an introduction to the comparative approach to history, heralded by historians such as Marc Bloch and, more recently, Chris Wickham, who have argued that when looking for explanations of differences in history, ‘comparison is essential’ and that ‘no historical explanation can be regarded as convincing without some attempt at comparative testing’. This article is also intended to introduce students to the comparative part of the History course at Oxford University, whilst also being useful for any prospective history students.

The Baptist War, which lasted from 1831 to 1832 might at first suggest that acts of collective resistance have the potential to undermine unfree labour regimes. The rebellion was led by Samuel Sharpe, a native Baptist preacher who galvanised 60,000 rebels to demand their freedom from the institution of slavery. The aftermath of the rebellion attests to the power of collective acts of resistance and the following year (1833) the British Parliament passed the Emancipation Act that freed over 800,000 slaves. As such historians such as Thomas Holt have argued that it was slave resistance rather than abolitionists that led to abolition and emancipation in the context of Atlantic slavery.

By contrast, few acts of resistance in the US South, including Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt, undermined slavery as an institution. In the case of Turner’s revolt, it seems the institution was strengthened. The revolt began on 22 August 1831 in Southampton County in Virginia as Turner and his followers killed all the whites in one farmhouse and moved throughout the countryside. At the revolt’s zenith, the rebels numbered between 50 and 60 and killed almost 60 whites. However, the rebellion’s immediate aftermath strengthened white paranoia and white supremacy in the American South. Following the rebellion, Virginia passed laws to forbid slaves from learning to read or write and from holding religious services. This was significant as Nat Turner had been a preacher.

The highly variegated outcomes between the two rebellions can be partially explained by the population differences in both areas. In the British Caribbean throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, slaves massively outnumbered whites as planters became ‘absentees’, living abroad, often back in Britain. In the American South, by contrast, slaves only made up 30 per cent of the population, which made it easier for whites in power to quell resistance.

However, the existence of an abolition movement in Britain was more important for the success of the rebellion in the Caribbean, as it made the British Parliament more receptive to the plight of the rebels. As John Stauffer has shown, the rise of the abolition movement between 1770 and 1820 was spurred on by the Enlightenment philosophy of natural rights and in an age of political revolutions where white elites in power were receptive to radically new ideas. As historian Christopher Brown has shown, the American Revolution also spurred on the abolition movement in the West Indies, creating a ‘crisis of imperial authority in England that directed ‘unprecedented attention to the moral character of colonial institutions.’.

In contrast, in the American South, as Davis has argued ‘Turner and other American rebels had no possibility of appealing to a strong, centralized government that showed increased sensitivity to a burgeoning antislavery movement’. This is as, in contrast to the impact of the American Revolution in the West Indies, in America, the Revolution actually strengthened the institution of slavery. As Robert Young has shown, the ideals of liberty were used by slave owners in the South to argue that slavery was a fundamental property right.

Another reason why Nat Turner’s revolt failed was because of the heavily militarized conditions in the American South. As historians have pointed out, in America, slavery had always depended on physical power; it was a relationship sustained by violence. The South’s militia structures, for example, and access to federal armies ensured any slave resistance was crushed. Indeed, after the revolt, the governor of Virginia deployed the local white militia to suppress the revolt and over 3000 soldiers were mobilised. It is significant, for example, that the day after the revolt, all the rebels, except Turner, had been killed or captured. So strong were these heavily militarized conditions in the South, that they would only be broken by a full-scale war in 1860-1865.

However, the Baptist War, like Turner’s revolt was also ruthlessly crushed and the number of slave rebels killed, including executions, numbered 540. This was despite the fact that slave rebels had consciously avoided the killing of whites (only 14 whites were killed). This highlights the importance of force for the maintenance of slavery as an institution in the context of Atlantic slavery. The use of force by British authorities ultimately suggests that the crucial difference between the outcomes of the two revolts rested on the existence of a pre-existing abolition movement that secured the sympathy of white elites in power.

Moreover, it is clear that collective acts of resistance may undermine slave regimes. However, by comparing the failed Nat Turner’s 1833 revolt, it is clear that the success of acts of resistance was often exceptional. This is not to undermine the possibility for resistance under slavery, but it is a recognition of the fact that slavery as an institution rested, above all, on a ruthless deployment of force.

Further reading:

1. Robert L. Paquette and Mark M. Smith, ‘Slavery in the Americas’, The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas eds Mark M. Smith and Robert L. Paquette (2010

2. Eugene Genovese, ‘The Treatment of Slaves in Different Countries: Problems in the Applications of the Comparative Method’ Slavery in the New World: A Reader in Comparative History (1969), 202-210

3. David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2006)

4. Jeffrey Robert Young, ‘Proslavery Ideology’, The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas eds Mark M. Smith and Robert L. Paquette (2010)

5. John Stauffer, ‘Abolition and Antislavery’, The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas eds Mark M. Smith and Robert L. Paquette (2010)