A Brief History
On September 9, 1739, the Stono Slave Rebellion, the largest slave revolt in pre-revolutionary British America took place in Charleston, South Carolina. Throughout history, humans have kept other humans as slaves. Some slaves resisted; some even revolted successfully. Here 10 incidents when slaves had finally had enough and rose up against their masters are listed.
10. Stono Rebellion, British North American Colonies, 1739.
In this rebellion, also known as “Cato’s Rebellion” after its leader, an educated slave, African slaves from the Congo, some of whom were former soldiers, attempted to break free and travel to Florida where the Spanish had promised freedom to escaped slaves of the English. At least 21 white people and 44 African slaves were killed in the fighting. The remaining rebels (perhaps 16 or so) were sold off to the West Indies. This rebellion led to laws restricting the gathering and movement of slaves education of slaves and made it illegal to teach slaves to read. Interestingly, the new laws also forbade the mistreatment of slaves and provided for penalties of up to 10 years in prison for doing so.
9. Warsaw Uprising, 1944.
When Nazi Germany took over Poland in 1939, it began treating its people as slaves. Thousands of Jews and Poles were rounded up and taken to concentration and death camps, and part of Warsaw was walled to function as a sort of prison. In a 63-day mass uprising, the Polish Resistance rose up against the German occupiers . They had to fight without the help of nearby Soviet troops who had been ordered by Stalin to not come to their aid. The Soviets even refused air support, although the nearest Soviet air base was only 5 minutes away by air. The Germans eventually put down the uprising and killed about 200,000 civilians and 10,000 Polish fighters in the process. The uprising and reprisals caused about 85% of Warsaw to be razed to the ground.
8. Zanj Rebellion, 869-883.
Also known as the “Negro Rebellion,” this was a series of revolts in what is now Iraq. The Zanj were Bantu people from southeast Africa and were kept as slaves throughout the Arabic Muslim lands. 500,000 slaves and freed slaves fought in the rebellion. There were many thousands of deaths on both sides. Some of the rebellion leaders who were caught were severely punished. Yahya of Bahrain, for example, was subjected to having his arms and legs cut off while still alive and then his throat cut and body burned. Some modern historians dispute the role of black Africans in the revolt, claiming their number was smaller than previously believed.
7. Cherokee Nation Slave Revolt, 1842.
Contrary to popular belief, white European-Americans were not the only slaveholders in America. Some Native Americans had a long history of keeping members of other tribes as slaves, and they even sometimes kept white Americans they had captured as slaves. Additionally, some Cherokee and Creek in what is now Oklahoma kept Africans as slaves. When some of these African slaves tried to escape to Mexico where slavery had already been outlawed, they were rounded up by a large force of Cherokee warriors. As punishment for killing 2 slave catchers they had encountered along the way, 5 of the slaves were executed. This incident served to inspire more revolts by slaves held by Native Americans and resulted in stricter laws about keeping slaves.
6. New York Slave Revolt, 1712.
At the time of the revolt, New York had one of the largest slave populations of all the colonies. The plight of the slaves was aggravated by working alongside free African-Americans. About 23 African slaves decided to revolt and killed 9 white people, while injuring 6 more. Dozens of arrests of blacks resulted. Several of them committed suicide while in jail. To intimidate other slaves into submission, 21 were executed; 20 by being burned to death; the remaining 1 was killed on the breaking wheel. In the aftermath both slaves and freed blacks, alike, were subjected to new restrictions.
5. Haitian Revolution, 1791-1804.
Napoleon Bonaparte was frustrated by the stubborn resistance of the African slaves on Haiti, and after losing thousands of soldiers to tropical diseases, he finally gave up on Haiti as a lost cause. This remarkable event resulted in victory and freedom from French domination and the founding of a new country by the slaves who had won their freedom.
4. Nat Turner’s Rebellion, 1831.
Also known as the “Southampton (Virginia) Insurrection,” this slave revolt resulted in more black deaths than any other slave revolt in the U.S. About 70 slaves took part in the revolt, but as many as 200 were killed by terrified or enraged white people. Turner himself avoided capture for 2 months but was hanged when finally caught. Like the Stono Rebellion and the Cherokee Nation Slave Revolt, this incident resulted in more restrictions on allowing slaves to congregate or to learn to read. Turner was literate and deeply religious and reported receiving a series of visions that encouraged him to move forward with the revolt. He considered, for example, a solar eclipse to be a sign from God to initiate the rebellion.
3. John Brown’s Raid, 1859.
Fiery, white abolitionist John Brown and his sons led a raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) to steal guns to give to slaves to help them revolt. Brown and his 20 men (15 white men and 5 black men) were foiled by the U.S. Marines, and Brown was subsequently executed, despite pleas for clemency from both American and European celebrities. Brown has often been depicted as somewhat of a nut, but accounts of people who personally knew him show him to be an intelligent and rational person. History and Headlines Fact: Brown had tried to recruit Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas to take part in the raid, but both declined. Tubman declined due to ill health and Douglas because he thought the raid was doomed.
2. La Amistad, 1839.
Although it is the most famous, the slave revolt on the Amistad is only one of at least 485 known slave revolts on ships. In this case, the slaves successfully commandeered the ship and sailed it to Long Island, New York, where it was intercepted at sea by the U.S. Navy and taken into custody. A court case ensued about whether or not the slaves should be considered free or if they should be returned to their Spanish-Cuban owner. The U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of the African slaves, and the victorious rebels were declared free men. History and Headlines Fact: Former President of the United States John Quincy Adams was one of the lawyers representing the slaves before the Supreme Court. See the 1997 film Amistad for a graphic portrayal of the incident.
1. Spartacus Slave Revolt, 73-71 BC.
Known more properly as the “Third Servile War,” this rebellion was led by Spartacus, a Thracian slave who fought as a gladiator. Spartacus led a revolt of gladiators against their Roman masters and gathered house and field slaves along the way in a massive uprising in which the Roman army experienced several losses. The Romans finally managed to put down the rebellion and executed as many as 6,000 of those captured by crucifixion. This rebellion is famously depicted in the award-winning 1960 movie Spartacus starring Kirk Douglas and in the excellent television series Spartacus which was shown on the Starz cable premium channel from 2010 to 2013. History and Headlines Fact: Karl Marx considered Spartacus one of his heroes.
Question for students (and subscribers): What incidents would you include? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
For another interesting event that happened on September 9, please see the History and Headlines article: “September 9, 1850: California Becomes 31st American State.”
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For more information, please see…
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Black Rebellion: Five Slave Revolts. Da Capo Press, 1998.
Hoffer, Peter Charles. Cry Liberty: The Great Stono River Slave Rebellion of 1739 (New Narratives in American History). Oxford University Press, 2011.