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The Caribbean and Resistance

On Board Ship

Voyages across the Middle Passage (between Africa and the West Indies) were hazardous. Ships encountered rough seas and hurricanes. Both enslaved Africans and the ships' crews suffered disease and distressing conditions. Unlike the crew, the African captives were shackled by chains and unable to move about. Not all passively accepted this intolerable experience of captivity. Newspapers printed stories of revolts on board slave ships by the few slaves whose chains had been removed because of the ulcerated sores on their hands and legs. Some captives threw themselves overboard, preferring suicide to slavery.


Once on the islands, enslaved people would find many different ways of resisting - from burning the master's dinner to burning down his plantation. Ruled without consent and subjected to brutal conditions, the enslaved population drew on a range of tactics, from small deeds of non-cooperation and secret acts of sabotage to much more risky (and less frequent) open acts of violence against property or people. They also frequently tried to run away. Newspapers regularly advertised rewards for returned slaves.

Planters known for their cruelty lived with the constant threat of their slaves plotting against them. Jamaica was a particularly difficult island to control, but there was also sporadic unrest in St Vincent, Grenada, Tobago, Barbados and St Lucia.


Newspaper extract, runaway slaves - opens new window
Slaves on the Run
Document | Transcript
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Poster re rebellious slaves at Mongego Bay - opens new window
Rebels Could
Expect to Die
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Revolution in a French Island

In Saint Domingue, news of the French Revolution of 1789 led the enslaved population to demand the rights proclaimed by the revolutionaries. When it became clear that there were no plans to apply the ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality to slaves, Glossary - opens new windowToussaint L'Ouverture, led almost 400,000 slaves in a successful revolt against the French. Toussaint renamed his independent country Haiti.

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Jamaica and the 'Maroons'

Jamaica was the jewel in the crown for British West Indian planters, with its high yield of sugar and rum. But the geography of the island made it easy for runaway slaves to hide out in its mountains and inaccessible forests. These runaways, who became known as 'Glossary - opens new windowMaroons', were determined to live as free men and women. They formed communities and hid in the mountain ranges.

The Maroons - one of their most important leaders was a woman called Nanny - became an 'unseen' enemy for the British. Armed with simple weapons such as stones and rocks, and stolen guns, they would outmanoeuvre the British soldiers throughout the 18th century.

Abused people on the plantations also retaliated. Vigilant planters used both the law and violence to overpower the rebellious slaves. The king's troops would be called in to force rebels to surrender and receive His Majesty's pardon. Those who failed to obey the king's orders could expect to be tortured, burnt alive or executed if caught. Maroons were also transported to the British colony at Sierra Leone.


The struggle for freedom of enslaved Africans began in these small resistance movements. After the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, slaves became impatient for their freedom and took part in further revolts. Slaves continued to rebel against their captors on many Caribbean islands until they achieved full emancipation in 1838.


Cudjoe's insurrection (extract from journal) - opens new window
An Insight into
Slave Resistance
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Slaves singing, murder on the plantation (Anon.) - opens new window
Songs of Resistance
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References and Further Reading

Campbell, M. C., 'Early Resistance to Colonialism: Montague James and the Maroons in Jamaica, Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone', in Ade Ajayi, J. F. and Peel, J. D. Y., People and Empires in African History, London, 1992

Carnegie, J. and Patterson, P., The People Who Came, Book 2, Kingston, 1989

Hart, R., Blacks in Rebellion (Slaves Who Abolished Slavery, vol. 2), Kingston, 1980-5

James, C. L. R., The Black Jacobins, London, 1938 (2nd edn, 1963)

Sherwood, M., 'Jamaicans and Barbadians in the Province of Freedom: Sierra Leone 1802-1841', Journal of Caribbean Studies, 13 (3) 1998/9

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