The history of slave rebels and resistance in the Caribbean is a rich and complicated story. Enslaved people in the Caribbean resorted to active resistance much more often than their North American and South American counterparts. Haiti (known then as Saint-Domingue), Jamaica, Barbados, and the Dutch Guianas were particularly prone to slave revolts, averaging one major revolt every two years between 1731 and 1832. No other slave societies have quite so complex a history of resistance as those in the Caribbean. Historian Sir Hilary Beckles has said, “the many slave revolts and plots… between 1638 and 1838 could be conceived of as the ‘200 Years’ War’– one protracted struggle launched by Africans and their Afro-West Indian progeny against slave owners.” In this week’s episode, we’ll cover the middle half of this 200-year long struggle. We’ll talk about enslaved Caribbeans’ suffering, their achievements, and their alliances with free people of color. But we will also discuss the realities of their violence, and their complicated legacies in revolutionary politics, race relations, and international diplomacy.
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Transcript for: Slave Rebels and Resistance in the Revolutionary Caribbean
Researched and written by Marissa Rhodes
Produced by Marissa Rhodes and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD
Marissa: On August 30, 1789, hundreds of enslaved people gathered along the waterfront in St. Pierre, Martinique. They had just received news that the King of France had abolished slavery but their masters denied that any declaration took place. The rebels knew their masters would resist this decision, even if they had to dethrone the king (which would ironically happen within the space of three years). Enraged slaves from all across Martinique announced their commitments to violent revolt should their masters deny them their freedom. The governor of the island later described the rebels on the waterfront as “armed with the instruments they used to cut their sugarcane, refused to work, saying loudly that they were free.” The governor addressed the rebels, telling them that this news was erroneous, that the king had not freed them. The subjects of slavery and black citizenship had merely been added to the agenda for the Estates-General which had convened that May in Paris.
The rebels responded by writing two letters to colonial authorities. The first said, “We know that we are free and that you accept that rebellious people resist the orders of the King… We will die for this liberty; we want it and will gain it at whatever price, even through the use of mortars, cannons, and rifles.” It went on to say of slavery that “if this prejudice is not entirely annihilated, there will be torrents of blood as powerful as the gutters that flow along the roads. “ It was signed “nous, Negres.” (which in English is “Us, Negroes.”)
Sarah: Astonishingly, the enslaved rebels had not yet received news of the storming of the Bastille six weeks earlier. But they were aware of a constitutional crisis in the metropole and, in their eyes, the ideological turmoil in Paris had a clear relevance to their ambitions of freedom. In a second letter to the governor, the rebels appealed to a renewed drive for equality and justice among Frenchmen:
“The entire nation of the black slaves united together has only one wish, one desire for independence, and all slaves with one unanimous voice articulate only one cry, the demand for a liberty that they have earned justly through centuries of suffering and ignominious servitude. This is no longer a nation that is blinded by ignorance and that trembles at the threat of the lightest punishments; its suffering has enlightened it and has determined it to spill to its last drop of blood rather than support the yoke of slavery, a horrible yoke attached by the laws, by humanity, and by all of nature, by the divinity and by our good King Louis XVI. We hope it will be condemned by the illustrious Viomenil. Your response, great general, will decide our destiny and that of the colony.”
Marissa: The “news” of abolition in Martinique was indeed a rumor. It would two years before free people of color were granted legal equality to whites, and another year after that before the French empire would (temporarily) abolish slavery. The colonial militia quickly crushed this rebellion. Twenty-three enslaved people were tortured for their participation and eight were executed. Still, the rebels’ letters survive and they suggest that the French, and American, revolutionary rhetoric had radicalized enslaved Africans and creoles in the Caribbean.
Enslaved people in the Caribbean did resort to active resistance much more often than their North American and South American counterparts. Haiti (known then as St. Domingue), Jamaica, Barbados, and the Dutch Guianas were particularly prone to slave revolts, averaging one major revolt every two years between 1731 and 1832. No other slave societies have quite so complex a history of resistance as those in the Caribbean. Historian Sir Hilary Beckles has said, “the many slave revolts and plots… between 1638 and 1838 could be conceived of as the ‘200 Years’ War’– one protracted struggle launched by Africans and their Afro-West Indian progeny against slave owners.”1 In this week’s episode, we’ll cover the middle half of this 200-year long struggle. We’ll talk about enslaved Caribbeans’ suffering, their achievements, and their alliances with free people of color. But we will also discuss the realities of their violence, and their complicated legacies in revolutionary politics, race relations, and international diplomacy.
And I’m Sarah
Marissa: and we are your historians for this episode of Dig.
Sarah: In Jamaica, some time in the early 1770s, historian and slave-owning planter Edward Long sat at his writing desk and resentfully penned a description of Caribbean slaves. They were, he said: “irascible, conceited, proud, indolent, lascivious, credulous, and very artful.”2 English-born Jamaican planter John Dovaston agreed, blaming the Congo, the homeland of many of the Caribbean’s enslaved Africans. Dovaston recommended against using Congolese slaves if one was able, calling them “the most vicious and desperate slaves” who “if young their disposition is so ill-suited to slavery and if old they will die before they will submit.”3 Dovaston recommended instead, that planters buy slaves from the Gold Coast (modern day Ghana) to use as field hands because they were “dull and stupid and only fit for Labour.”
Marissa: You probably don’t need me to tell you that Dovaston’s hypothesis about ethnically-determined personalities does not hold water. The tumultuous relationships between free planters and their enslaved Africans and creoles in the Caribbean has little to do with any inborn trait among any African ethnic group. The comparative rebelliousness of the enslaved people in the Caribbean stems from fundamental differences between the ways in which Caribbean and North American slave societies were organized. First, Caribbean slave societies were much more diverse than those in North America. When the Spanish first arrived in the Caribbean in the 1490s, they recognized five major native groups occupying the archipelago and outlying islands. But linguists have discovered that they spoke at least 9 different dialects of Tainos. So these 5 groups were more heterogeneous than we might suspect.
On top of that complicated landscape, there were more than 7,000 islands (most of them tiny and uninhabited) which were claimed by 5 different European nations: the Netherlands, Britain, France, Spain, and Denmark. Following European conquest, these societies continued to diversify. Both ethnically and agriculturally. The Europeans transported and enslaved Africans from approximately 18 ethnic groups. Enslaved people living in the Caribbean produced sugar, yes, but also indigo, coffee, tobacco, cotton, ginger, and cassava. Many also bred cattle. Racial categories were also much more blurry. Whites, blacks, and indigenous peoples forged relationships and produced creole children. Creole in this context means “born in the Caribbean” irrespective of race. Colors did not necessarily indicate a person’s legal status. Of course European whites were always free because they ran the show. But free planters could be white, “mulatto”, or black and for the most part, they identified with other planters rather than enslaved Africans or creoles.
Sarah: Second, many slave-owners in the Caribbean belonged to an absentee planter class. Rather than settlers, Caribbean planters tended to be venture capitalists who established plantations in the West Indies to diversify their investment portfolios. They operated their lucrative sugar, coffee, or indigo plantations from abroad and lived on vast European estates which they financed from returns on their Caribbean investments. This system was especially common among British, French and Dutch planters. By the eighteenth century, most Caribbean plantations had converted to lucrative cash crops, namely sugar and tobacco, and wealthy Europeans passed down their plantations to their heirs, who stayed in Europe and oftentimes never visited the Caribbean even once.
Absentee owners were, understandably, estranged from the people they enslaved on their plantations. They shared no common spaces, daily routines, or personal negotiations like North American slaves did with their masters. This dynamic intensified over the 17th century and early 18th century. The estrangement between master and slave may have made harsh working conditions even more prevalent on plantations owned by absentees. Planters were not around to assess the welfare of their field workers or to make small adjustments in their lives that might have assuaged their resentment and anger. What’s more is that Caribbean planters favored “unseasoned” slaves — meaning Africans who were new to the West Indies and enslaved more recently. They were called “unseasoned” because they were thought to be less accustomed to the rigors of slave work in a new world.
Planters reasoned that if they kept their plantations populated with newcomers, it might be harder for enslaved people to form strong bonds and organize against their master. This preference, combined with the harsh conditions of sugarcane planting (listen to Averill’s episode on Sugar and the slave trade) meant that mortality rates were very high. This, in turn, necessitated the importation of more “unseasoned” slaves from Africa, and the cycle continued. Planters mistakenly assumed that this constant influx of enslaved Africans would impede rebellion. We know now that plantations with higher creole populations (enslaved workers of various races who were born in the Caribbean) had fewer instances of slave revolt. The enslaved lived under harsh regimes, to be sure, but they were also able to form more bonds among themselves than slaves on smaller plantations or slaves who lived under the watchful eye of their masters every minute of the day.
Marissa: Caribbean slave populations were generally unable to maintain themselves through natural increase which was a huge problem on a sugarcane plantation. Planting sugarcane was a massive operation. For example, in 1873, the plantation of Juan Poey in Las Canas, Cuba (which grew 1,560 acres of sugarcane) required 450 enslaved black workers, 230 Chinese indentured servants, 500 oxen, and 40 horses working the land at all times. These massive labor requirements meant that Caribbean sugar plantations were larger, and served by more enslaved Africans than most operations in North America.
The constant turnover, the high population of foreign-born enslaved Africans, greater opportunity for unsupervised association among the enslaved, and the lack of outlets for grievances made absentee plantations in the Caribbean hotbeds of unrest. This unrest was intensified by the high African to white ratio which resulted from all of the above. For example, Jamaica was seized by the British in 1655. At that time, there was 1 African to every white person living on the island. By 1703, there were 6 Africans for every white. And by 1739, there were 10 Africans to every white person in Jamaica.
Sarah: The importance of absenteeism to the frequency of slave revolts cannot be overstated. Absenteeism was much less common, practically unheard of, in the Spanish Caribbean. The Spanish also favored enslaved creoles somewhat more than “unseasoned” Africans. In the 1760s the switch to sugar planting meant that Spanish plantations tended to include fewer creoles than they had in past centuries but even then, the Spanish were known to put considerable effort into seasoning new enslaved Africans. Never in the Spanish Caribbean did black populations significantly outnumber white populations. These critical differences had a huge impact on the Spanish Caribbean’s vulnerability to unrest. Until about 1810, the Spanish remained immune to slave revolts (while British, French and Dutch holdings had been struggling with them for over a century). The Spanish were, however, the last to abolish slavery in their Caribbean holdings (1873 for Puerto Rico and 1886 in Cuba).
Marissa: I know I said that the Spanish Caribbean remained practically immune to slave revolts during this critical period of 1638-1838 and that is true. But that doesn’t mean that enslaved people in the Spanish Caribbean did not resist. In fact, it was in Barbados, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico where the earliest instances of mass resistance began. Enslaved people, African, indigenous, and creole, found that they could escape their plantations and form maroons, which are communities of fugitive slaves in remote areas. The term “maroon” comes from the Spanish word cimmaron, which means “living on mountain tops.” By 1547, there were about 7,000 maroons living in these remote communities (out of 30,000 enslaved people total on the island). So this was happening in large numbers.
In 1697, the island of Hispaniola was divided in half by the Spanish and French (Santo Domingo and Saint-Domingue). Maroon communities on the island strategically used the Spanish and French against each other. After 1650, maroon communities became increasingly involved in politics and continued to emerge on several other Caribbean islands. After 1700, they resembled bands of guerilla warriors headed by one or two chieftains. Jamaican Maroons were particularly formidable in the first half of the 18th century. Their wars with the British are the first example of slave revolts that we’ll talk about today.
Sarah: The British acquired Jamaica in 1655, and Spanish planters freed their slaves, as a final “eff-you” to their rival European power. The British were aware of how powerful the Jamaican maroons had become because their possession of the island hinged on the support of their leader, Juan de Bolas. De Bolas signed a treaty with the British in 1658, agreeing that he would stop furnishing fighters for the Spanish in exchange for control over inland territory on the west of the island. The Jamaican maroons continued to swell. In 1673, for example, 300 slaves escaped from St. Anne’s parish and sought asylum in the maroon communities.
Marissa: By the 17-teens, there were several permanent maroon communities living on Jamaica. One of these was led by Queen Nanny (Nanny is a bastardization of Nannani- an Akan word that means ancestress and queen mother). Queen Nanny was an Ashanti queen and Obeah priestess born in the Gold Coast region of Africa (present-day Ghana) sometime in the last quarter of the 17th century. The Ashanti are a sub-group within the Akan ethno-linguistic group common to West Africa. Nanny and her five brothers: Cudjoe, Accompong, Johnny, Cuffy, and Quao were transported by the British to Jamaica sometime around 1700. It is unclear if they were biological siblings. She is often portrayed as an enslaved African but there is significant evidence that she was never enslaved. European powers did occasionally enlist free Africans for certain initiatives in the colonies. Since they were prominent members of Akan society, maybe they got involved in one of these diplomatic initiatives. It’s also possible that they escaped British custody before they were officially purchased in Jamaica. We aren’t sure.
They did all abandon the British at some point and assumed leadership of several maroon towns and dedicated themselves to building armies of escaped slaves. Nanny became the spiritual and military leader of Moor Town (also known as Blue Mountain Rebel Town). Its name was eventually changed to Nanny Town. In 1728, the British sent more troops and a new governor to Jamaica who escalated the violent conflict between the British and the maroons. Maroon assaults on British outposts resulted in immediate retaliation by the British militias and Queen Nanny’s ambushed them, which was essentially a declaration of war. Queen Nanny went on to command 300 freedom fighters in a war against the British colonial militia. This became known as the First Maroon War.
Sarah: Queen Nanny was a skilled strategist. She taught her band of maroons to camouflage themselves among the foliage of the Blue Mountains. She also organized a complex network of spies and lookouts who she trained to communicate with the rest of the group using the abeng, a horn which allows people to communicate over long distances. Queen Nanny’s guerilla tactics inflicted huge losses on the colonial militia. Queen Nanny and the British mounted near-annual assaults on each other throughout all of the 1730s. The British occupied Nanny Town twice but Queen Nanny and her men just continued to move deeper into the mountains. She was said to be able to catch bullets in her hands or between her thighs, heal wounded warriors, and produce charms which made her soldiers invulnerable. Recognizing Queen Nanny’s charisma, military expertise, and the fact that the maroons had little to lose, the British agreed to sign a treaty with the Jamaican maroons in 1739 and 1741.
The treaty granted the maroons autonomy and British support so long as they stopped helping enslaved Africans escape their captivity and protected the island from invasion. It also required that the maroons help capture escaped slaves and return them to their masters. This last clause split the maroon armies into different camps. Queen Nanny opposed any agreement which would challenge the autonomy of Jamaica’s maroon communities. Cudjoe and Trelawny Town eventually signed the treaty but the other maroon communities declined. A land grant treaty was drawn up in Queen Nanny’s name that same year but historians are nearly certain it was forged. Her resistance is well documented and she never complied with its terms. The maroons were also supposed to pay the British for the land grants they received. They never did.
Marissa: The treaty sparked bitter resentment among many maroons. This resentment simmered for over 50 years (this is important for the Second Maroon War which we’ll get to a little later in the show). Queen Nanny died sometime in the 1750s. During her lifetime, it is estimated that she assisted in the escape of 800 enslaved people from Jamaican plantations. Yet after Queen Nanny’s death and the deaths of her brothers, the maroons continued to train in the style of Akan guerilla warriors and maintained a commitment to obeah. Queen Nanny and the Maroon Wars are such an excellent story of resistance because they combined active resistance (in the form of warfare against the British) with passive resistance (by maintaining their social and cultural ties with west African religious and military life). Queen Nanny based her leadership on the matrilineal model of Akan queenship.
The most fascinating part of this story is that, thanks to the land grant treaties the maroons signed with the British, Jamaican maroon communities retained their legal autonomy through time to this day. They also continue to practice many elements of Akan culture. (I should note that in historical documents, they were not recognized as Akan but as “Coromantee” people. This is because Akan groups were held captive in a town called Coromantee before they were transported to the colonies and sold as slaves. This designation has kind of stuck. Obeah is now colloquially referred to as “Kromantee religion”, for example.) As an African woman who fought for the freedom of enslaved people, Queen Nanny is one of Jamaica’s national symbols of pride. Her face appears on the Jamaican $500 bill.
Sarah: Queen Nanny’s example inspired one of the largest, most influential slave rebellions in Caribbean history: Takyi’s Rebellion. Takyi was born into the Fante ethnic group in West Africa (also part of the Akan). He was a high-ranking chieftain, spoke fluent English, and admitted to selling enemies from other Akan states (including Ashanti- Queen Nanny’s people) to be enslaved by the British. At some point, his people lost a war with another Akan state and he was himself sold into slavery under the British. While he was enslaved in Jamaica, Takyi rose to the position of overseer on his plantation. It was from this position of relative autonomy that he planned his rebellion, with the aid of many other Akan insurgents.
In May 1760, Takyi and his allies killed their masters, occupied their plantations (named Frontier and Trinity), and seized the munitions stores at Fort Haldane. They took over two more plantations (Heywood Hall and Esher) that same day. By the next morning, hundreds of enslaved people joined the cause. When the growing group of rebels stopped to celebrate their success, a slave from Esher plantation fled to the closest authorities for help. As they planned their next move, an Obeahman spread a powder over the bodies of the other rebels and told them that it would make it impossible for the British to hurt them.
Marissa: Notified by the enslaved man from Esher, dozens of mounted militia confronted the rebels. They were accompanied by maroon contingents who were (because of the treaties with Britain) treaty-bound to aid in quelling the rebellion. The Obeahman boasted that he and the rebels were untouchable. The British responded by seizing the Obeahman, executing him in front of the rebels and hanging his body by his own mask in site of the rebel camp. This brutality convinced most of the rebels to return to their plantations. But Takyi and two dozen other rebels renewed their attacks.
During a session of guerilla fighting in the forest, a maroon marksman called Davy killed Takyi and brought his head to the British as evidence of his death. Takyi’s role was finished but several other bands of rebels renewed the effort in wake of Takyi’s death. One was a warrior queen called Akua (the British called her Cubah so you’ll see it both ways). Akua was another Ashanti queen who was elected by the enslaved population in Kingston to lead the subsequent rebellion. Akua held court in Kingston (which is on the windward side of the island– the opposite side from where Takyi had begun the rebellion). Akua was outfitted with all of the traditional markers of Akan queenship. Before her campaign even began, they were discovered and she was deported for conspiracy. She foiled her own deportation by bribing the ship captain to transport her to the other side of the island where Takyi’s men were still fighting the British. She fought alongside Takyi’s allies until she was captured and executed two months later.
Sarah: It took the British two months to subdue Takyi’s Rebellion fully. And the consequences were grave. Sixty whites and 400 enslaved blacks were killed. Takyi’s allies were captured and either burned alive or hung in cages at the Kingston parade where they remained until they died of dehydration or starvation. The rebellion was put down by the British brutally and decisively but from that point forward, Caribbean planters were preoccupied by the possibility of revolt. Island security was tightened; slave meetings were limited and monitored closely, weapon access was restricted to whites, and obeah was outlawed. It was in response to Takyi’s Rebellion that Edward Long… that white guy quoted at the top of the show, wrote his harsh condemnations of Coromantee slaves.
Caribbean planters panicked that their slaves would rise up and kill them and their families. This fear was tempered by the fact that few of them actually lived on their plantations but still, they worried constantly that their free workers (and probably their profits) would be damaged by rebellious slaves. For a short time, Takyi’s Rebellion made British and French nationals question whether sugar cultivation was worth this trouble. Their uncertainty was aggravated by their being several years into the Seven Years War (French and Indian War) with France. They were unsure that the empire could withstand additional unrest.
Marissa: Horrified British planters quickly formed a “West Indian Lobby” which blocked abolitionist MPs from introducing legislation to abolish the trade. This is a super important part of the history of slavery because historians have shown that in Britain, popular opinion had swung in favor of abolition by the 1760s, perhaps because of the violent complexity of the trade which was exposed by Takyi’s war. Yet the lobby was able to delay abolition for almost 50 years. This post-Takyi lobby was so powerful (thanks to all of their rebellion anxiety and sugar income) that the trade continued without the support of the general public.
Sarah: European planters’ anxiety was amplified by the American Revolution which began 16 years later. It was their fear of slave rebellion that convinced Caribbean planters to condemn the American war for independence. Absentee planters had more influence with the British Parliament and French Crown than American colonists. Americans’ grievances did not resonate enough with them to risk the loss of metropolitan support. Caribbean planters relied on imperial resources to defend their land and protect whites from further revolts.
This dependence on metropolitan resources became extremely complicated after the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. The next slave revolts we’re going to discuss are those associated with the Haitian Revolution. This conflict was long (over a decade long) and mind-numbingly complex. We will not be getting into all the complexities. We’ll save that for a different episode. But we can’t talk about Caribbean slave revolts and ignore those that are now seen as parts of this larger revolutionary conflict in the French colony known as Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). Now this conflict lasted over a decade and is actually a combination of civil war, slave rebellion, imperial war, and several wars of liberation. But the slave insurrection in Haiti is the critical event around which Europeans and creole planters were forced to conduct diplomacy and armed conflict.
Marissa: The French Revolution inspired and radicalized the free blacks in Saint-Domingue. They were already resentful because many free blacks had served for the British during the 1779 Savannah campaign. When they returned home, they expected an improvement in their status among white planters. Many free people of color on St. Domingue were themselves slave owners. They felt like they had much in common with the white planters on the island and sought solidarity with them. White planters disagreed. Vincent Ogé and Jean-Baptiste Chavannes were wealthy mulatto planters from prominent, educated families. Chavannes had served in the military for the British in the 1770s. Both men resented the prejudice shown toward them by white planters on St. Domingue. When news of the outbreak of the French Revolution reached St. Domingue, Ogé and Chavannes wondered if they could use this chaos in the metropole to their advantage, to earn the status and acceptance enjoyed by white planters.
Ogé visited Paris at precisely the moment when the King had called up the Estates General. He approached a block of white planters called Club Massiac but they rejected his vision of a race-neutral society in St. Domingue. So Ogé was compelled to ally himself with Les Amis des Noirs, an anti-slavery group. As the French attempted to reorganize the empire according to republican ideology, the Amis des Noirs proposed voting rights for free blacks in the colonial assemblies which were meant to represent the interests of colonists. Even though he and other mulattoes from St. Domingue were anti-abolition, white Europeans were just unable to see past the color of Ogé’s skin. Britons were convinced that racial neutrality would disrupt the slave trade and ultimately destroy the lucrative sugar industry. One letter to the editor published in April 1790 in the St. James Chronicle articulated these suspicions and warned against doing away with race-based bonded labor:
“that it is impossible for white men to cultivate the sugar canes in Jamaica, as it is to cultivate the cane itself in this country, is strictly true. And I will vouch for another matter, that if the Slaves were liberated, no pecuniary considerations could prevail upon them to work for hire. A Negro either here or there, will starve rather than work.”4
Unsurprisingly then, the measure proposed by Ogé and his allies was voted down and he returned to St. Domingue with the certainty that radical action was necessary if free people of color were going to get anywhere.
Sarah: Ogé (formerly a slave-owning men of leisure) began wearing military uniforms and rallying free people of color. Their actions went unnoticed for some time because they restricted their movements to the island’s border with the Spanish colony Santo-Domingo (present-day Dominican Republic). The Spanish were unlikely to protect French interests and the police force was largely made up of free men of color who supported their cause. In October 1790, 800 French soldiers finally confronted Ogés and Chavannes on the battlefield. Half of them were themselves free men of color.
Ogé commanded only half as many men but still, the French were unsuccessful in putting down the revolt and were forced to withdraw. As they anticipated the next French military attack, Chavannes and other soldiers tried to persuade Ogé to enroll enslaved blacks into their ranks, promising them freedom for serving. Ogé categorically refused. He envisioned his revolt to bring about racial neutrality and gradual phasing out of the slave system. Alienating other slave-owners would damage his long-term goals.
Marissa: The colonial governor of St. Domingue, at the head of an army of 3,000, attacked Ogé and his men the very next day. They were forced to flee to the Spanish side of the island where they remained for several months. The Spanish typically sheltered colonial fugitives, another middle finger to their rivals, but Ogé was unlucky. The Spanish were in the middle of negotiations with France and they could not risk upsetting them so they captured Ogé and extradited him to French custody. Ogé and Chavannes were tried, sentenced, tortured, and executed in February 1791. Their bodies were broken on the wheel in the public square, then they were beheaded and their heads displayed on stakes. Ogé’s suffering was great and many people in attendance at the execution were so moved that he quickly became a martyr for the revolutionary cause.
In Paris, French revolutionaries and moderates were incensed. Remember– they had met Ogés at the convention of the Estates-General. Also, moderates, who did not necessarily support abolition, were appreciative of Ogé’s efforts to avoid involving enslaved blacks in his revolt. By May 1791, only months after the execution, the Constituent Assembly in France granted free people of color equal rights throughout the entire empire. Dramatized reenactments of Ogé’s execution were performed on Parisian stages.
Sarah: Now we know what you’re thinking… this wasn’t a slave revolt. And you’re right but it was Ogé’s revolt that brought French Revolutionary politics to the general public in St. Domingue. His execution ignited a civil war among several rival factions in St. Domingue, each fighting for their own interests. These factions were formed around both class, occupational, and racial identities and their alliances shifted constantly. Once again, we are glossing over the details but it’s important to know how chaotic this environment was. In August 1791, 6 months after Ogé’s execution, several isolated slave revolts snowballed into a massive slave insurrection in the Northern Province.
Marissa: The enslaved rebels had planned to execute their revolt on August 25, the day that the Colonial Assembly was scheduled to meet in the capital, Cap Francais. All of the white planter factions were supposed to be in attendance. They presumably planned to slaughter as many men as they could. They began the revolt with a spiritual ceremony called Bois Caȉman. The details of this ceremony are fuzzy and clouded by legend but historians know that the meeting, some version of it, took place. Boukman Dutty and 200 other enslaved people from the surrounding plantations gathered in the woods to plan the revolt. Boukman was purported to be a charismatic orator and he delivered pep talks to his fellow insurgents while a vodun priestess sacrificed a pig and the insurgents pledged their loyalty by drinking the pig’s blood.
Days before go-time, their plan was foiled. Some of their allies were arrested and parts of the conspiracy were discovered by authorities. Boukman decided to initiate the insurrection three days early and on a sugar plantation in the northern province, rather than in the capital. On August 22, the rebels mobilized. To the planters’ horror, it became clear that this was no minor revolt. The enslaved insurgents numbered between 60,000 and 100,000. French troops and colonial militias attached Boukman and his men but they were quickly repulsed. The insurgency moved like wildfire across the north. Rebels destroyed plantation after plantation, murdering whites, burning crops and destroying farming equipment. In the course of two months, the insurgents had killed over 2,000 whites, burned 200 sugar cane fields, 1,200 coffee plantations, and 50 indigo plantations. Boukman was killed that November but still the rebels continued their violence and destruction of the Northern province. By 1792, rebel slaves controlled one-third of the island.
Sarah: In the meantime, the civil war raged among the several factions in St. Domingue. France established a Civil Commission to address the widespread violence and instability. For two years, a French Civil Commission attempted to negotiate peace between the factions but all sides remained obstinate. The enslaved insurgents remained unconnected to the factions in power. They were just a force of legend operating in the North with no voice in the Colonial Assembly.
This was until Léger-Félicité Sonthonax was appointed Commissioner in 1793. Sonthonax was given more power than the Commissioners before him (who weren’t getting anything done) and he was sympathetic to the black cause. He was a consummate French revolutionary, committed to liberty, equality, and fraternity. When he arrived in St. Domingue, he raised an army of 6,000 troops (the Commission had never before had its own force). He deported influential whites and replaced them with mulattoes, and dissolved the Colonial Assembly, and replaced it with a Provisional Committee comprised of six whites, five mulattoes, and one free black man. Unsurprisingly, his actions turned all of the white factions against him.
Marissa: The governor, a Frenchman who allied himself with the white planters, challenged the Commission’s authority, so Sonthonax dismissed him. The enraged governor rallied the white militias around his cause and engaged in an armed assault against Sonthonax and his troops. The ex-governor and his militiamen quickly occupied the capital. This was the last straw. Sonthonax responded by promising the enslaved insurgents in the North freedom if they helped him retake the city. Fifteen thousand black insurgents responded to his request and ran the ex-governor and white militiamen off the island.
This alliance between enslaved rebels and the French government came at an opportune time. Shortly after the governor and militiamen were defeated, Spain and Great Britain attacked St. Domingue. Many black insurgents, led by general and former slave Toussaint L’Ouverture, had taken up arms with Spain who promised them freedom. Spain and Britain sought to take advantage of the revolutionary chaos in Paris and to protect their colonial interests from the anarchic fervor of French radicals. Yet L’Ouverture and most of his followers did not desire independence from France specifically– they desired independence from slavery and allied themselves with whomever agreed to make that a reality. Identifying this as a unique opportunity, Sonthonax boldly declared liberty for all blacks on the island in the summer of 1793. By February 1794, the French National Convention declared universal abolition of all slaves within the French empire.
Sarah: For France, this was not only political, but also a practical move. The French decided that they could only succeed in their interests abroad if they had one leg up over the English. For revolutionaries, this leg up came in the form of abolition. Now the French were able to quickly raise large armies of ex-slaves on site. The British did not have this capability. Throughout the 1790s, 60,000 British troops were killed, and many millions of pounds spent, in the Caribbean keeping enslaved populations in check. Spain had historically protected the interests of Caribbean slaves in French and British colonies but as L’Ouverture was discovering, they were not willing to go so far as to abolish slavery in order to vanquish their rivals. The goals for most people of color on St. Domingue up to this point had been either (1) legal equality with whites or (2) abolition of slavery. France’s abolition of slavery within the empire gave people of color in St. Domingue what they wanted, yes, but it also served the interests of white, middle class revolutionaries. For example on the day the National Convention abolished slavery, Georges Danton, the first president of the Committee of Public Safety in Paris, was quoted as saying:
“…representatives of the French people, until now our decrees of liberty have been selfish, and only for ourselves. But today we proclaim it to the universe, and generations to come will glory in this decree; we are proclaiming universal liberty…We are working for future generations; let us launch liberty into the colonies; the English are dead, today.”
Marissa: Guadeloupe is one example of the French using abolition against the British. In 1790, the white planters on Guadeloupe refused to enforce France’s granting of equal rights to people of color. (Remember that declaration followed the death of Ogé). A slave revolt in 1793 prompted the disaffected white planters to invite the British to come occupy the island. The British obliged. Guadeloupe was the most lucrative sugar colony in the Caribbean and the they had coveted it for over a century. The British occupied the island for most of 1794 until a French republican governor ended the occupation and freed the slaves who turned on their owners. From that point forward the French used freedmen in interesting ways on Guadeloupe. Ex-slaves manned Guadeloupean privateering ships which attacked British supply ships heading to the colonies. The privateers sometimes captured slave vessels and brought the Africans on board to Guadeloupe where they were given the same rights as other freedmen on the island. These black privateers also played a critical role in the intelligence networks which made pan-Caribbean communication possible during the chaos of the 1790s.
Sarah: So enslaved people in the French Caribbean experienced temporary benefits from France’s radical move. But planters (both black and white) in the colonies continued to resist the declaration of abolition. The British continued to enforce slavery and pursue armed conflict with slave rebels in their Caribbean colonies. In some ways, France’s abolition of slavery made life harder for enslaved people in the British Caribbean. The Second Maroon War is a representative example of how the British handled enslaved rebels after French abolition. Remember we left off with the First Maroon War and how the peace treaty with Britain resulted in a schism of the maroon towns.
In the summer of 1795, so one year after the abolition of slavery in the French Empire, two maroons from Trelawny Town attempted to steal pigs from a farm and were beaten by an enslaved man who worked the farm. When the maroons went to file a grievance with the British, the British imprisoned them and reignited the maroon wars. Because the British were unwilling to ally with enslaved blacks, they were compelled to use their own troops. The British furnished 5,000 troops to fight against Trelawny Town in the ensuing war.
Marissa: Due to the deep fissures in maroon relations caused by the first war, the maroons from Accompong allied with the British and fought Trelawny Town. Sixty-five British troops were killed before the first Trelawny maroon was even wounded. Only a total of 16 Trelawny maroons were killed in the war, while British casualties were in the hundreds. The British were intent on destroyed the maroons this time around. They were convinced that the maroons were being influenced, perhaps even aided by the French revolutionaries. After the British burned down the towns, poisoned their water supply and released 100 Cuban bloodhounds in the region to track maroon warriors, Trelawny Town did eventually surrender. They did so under the condition that they would not be deported off the island. Dozens of runaways fled their plantations to fight alongside Trelawny Town during the war. These warriors were treated with no mercy. Half of them were re-sold into slavery in Cuba and the other half were executed by the British.
The Second Maroon War is obviously much different from the First Maroon War. The stakes were much higher. Having witnessed Takyi’s Rebellion, the American Revolution, Ogé’s Rebellion, and the Slave Insurrection of 1791, the British were intensely motivated by revolt paranoia, a frantic desire to preserve their empire, intensifying imperial rivalries, and the threat of spreading radical republican ideology. Robespierre’s Reign of Terror left 40,000 (mostly) bourgeois Frenchman dead. This was a decisive confirmation for Britons that it was in their interest to preserve parliamentary monarchy. So you can see that as momentous as it was for the French to abolish slavery in the empire, their abolition of slavery and Britain’s decision to continue the slave trade were decisions that aligned with their diplomatic interests more generally.
Marissa: Or at least the French THOUGHT that abolition would serve their general interests. This turned out to be short-sighted when it came to St. Domingue. Shortly after L’Ouverture allied with France, he expelled Sonthonax from the colony before his term as Commissioner was done. Most historians think that he felt threatened by Sonthonax’s popularity and resented the fact that a wealthy white man was taking credit for abolishing slavery. L’Ouverture was an effective leader. A brilliant general, he and his forces were able to expel the British from St. Domingue in 1798. This restored French control over the island. L’Ouverture anticipated that the French would welcome his efforts and that he would become a favored authority within the empire. But he failed to realize that the French feared his power and anticipated that he would conquer the island for himself, leaving France without its most lucrative sugar colony.
Sarah: France responded by putting many checks on L’Ouverture’s power. They encouraged dissent within his ranks, replaced legions of ex-slaves with white troops, forced L’Ouverture to resign and replaced him with three white generals. These actions convinced the ex-slave rebels that France was hellbent on restoring slavery. The end to the French Republic in 1799, at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte, supported these fears. The rise of Napoleon marked a turning point when rebels on St. Domingue went from desiring abolition to desiring independence from France and the formation of a black republic. In 1801, L’Ouverture lead an army across the border to conquer the Spanish half of the island and free the slaves who had been under Spanish control. Napoleon’s power continued to grow and the United States pledged their support to him should St. Domingue attempt to overthrow French rule.
Marissa: In a desperate bid to protect the long-term wellbeing of the colony, L’Ouverture enforced labor codes which effectively reinstituted slavery. He sought to make the colony profitable again. He reasoned that St. Domingue had no hope of surviving as an independent nation if it wasn’t producing and exporting goods. So essentially, in order to achieve liberty from France, L’Ouverture rewound one of his biggest accomplishments– the reason why so many people were loyal to him in the first place. Napoleon’s agenda made matters worse because he began to gradually reinstate slavery throughout the empire. After a gradual decline, L’Ouverture was exiled to France where he died in prison. But his second in command, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, was able to maintain support from ex-slaves and went on to defeat Napoleon’s forces and declare Independence for Haiti in 1804.
Sarah: The Haitian wars of liberation are the last instances of Caribbean slave revolt that we have time for today but the rebellious spirit of enslaved Caribbeans did not end there. In fact, it was invigorated by the Haitian example which taught them that blacks were indeed capable of defeating white Europeans and creating a nation of their own. Enslaved populations in the British Caribbean were inspired by Haiti and went on to stage several large slave revolts– in Barbados in 1816, and Jamaica in 1831– before they abolished slavery in 1833. Apart from the immediate impact of Caribbean slave revolts during the Revolutionary era, there are several ways that it influenced Caribbean culture today. The enslaved rebels we quoted at the top of the show had referred to a black Caribbean “nation.” This and many other instances suggest that Caribbean slave revolts sit at the root of Afro-Caribbean identity. This is the reason why Akan culture is so critical to the Afro-Caribbean identity which was forged during this century. This identity is one shaped by colonialism and enslavement, but also on the legacy of Akan heritage which shaped the thoughts and tactics of enslaved rebels.
Marissa: So in some ways, Long’s and Dovaston’s perception that enslaved people in the Caribbean were prone to rebellion is accurate: enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and their creole descendants DID employ active and very violent resistance at a frequency and intensity that we don’t find elsewhere. But planters like Long and Dovaston failed to locate the cause in the racism and inhumanity of the system of bonded labor that sustained their fortunes. There was also more to Caribbean slave rebellions than revolutionary ideology. This “200 Years War” began long before the revolutionary era, and ended only once Caribbeans achieved widespread emancipation and independence in the 1860s. But the cultural currency of republican politics did, for some time, allow enslaved Caribbeans to legitimize their rebellion.
But I have to point out the irony of one thing: Dovaston singled out Gold Coast Africans as the ethnic group most suited to slavery. Obviously no ethnic group is ever suited to slavery. But he was doubly wrong about the Akan from the Gold Coast which he called “dull and stupid and only fit for Labour.” Approximately 1.2 million Akan people were forcibly transplanted to the Caribbean and sold as slaves between 1520 and 1838. The Akan were incredibly intelligent and sophisticated activists whose military skills had a devastating impact on European powers. Akan culture was an important element of the 200 Years War for abolition and their activism served as inspiration for Marcus Garvey, the Rasta movement, Reggae, and some argue, for a pan-Caribbean identity which allowed for the rise of Caribbean nationalist politics in the 20th century.
Roberts, Justin. Slavery and the Enlightenment in the British Atlantic, 1750-1807. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Konadu, Kwasi. The Akan Diaspora in the Americas. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012.
Dunn, Richard S. A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2014.
Cummings, Ronald. 2012. “Jamaican Female Masculinities: Nanny of the Maroons and the Genealogy of the Man-Royal”. Journal of West Indian Literature. 21, no. 1-2: 129-154.
Thompson, Alvin O. Flight to Freedom: African Runaways and Maroons in the Americas. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2006.
Dubois, Laurent. A Colony of Citizens Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
Hart, Richard. Slaves Who Abolished Slavery: Blacks in Rebellion. Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2002.
Understanding Slavery Initiative
UK National Archives online exhibit “Caribbean Histories Revealed”
- Beckles, Hilary, and Verene Shepherd. Caribbean Slave Society and Economy: A Student Reader. New York: New Press, 1993, p. 363.
- Long, Edward. The History of Jamaica Or, General Survey of the Antient and Modern State of That Island, with Reflections on Its Situation, Settlements, Inhabitants, Climate, Products, Commerce, Laws, and Government. 1774.
- John Dovaston, Agricultura Americana, Vol. 1 (1774) unpublished.
- St. James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post (London, England), April 17, 1790 – April 20, 1790; Issue 4524. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.