Unchained — The Bloody History of Slave Rebellions

Former slaves on Hispaniola do battle with the French army. The uprising led to the founding of the modern nation of Haiti.

Former slaves on Hispaniola do battle with the French army. The uprising led to the founding of the modern nation of Haiti.

THE EARLIEST written record of slavery, the Code of Hammurabi (1760 BCE), describes the punishment for helping slaves to usurp their masters – death. Since then, just about every major slave-owning society from ancient times to the 19th Century has faced slave revolts and has had to use violence to put them down. Here are some of the notable servile rebellions from history.

Helots were frequently humiliated by their masters. Here one is forced to get drunk to entertain the Spartans.

Sparta vs. the Helots

The militaristic Lacedaemons of Ancient Greece, also known as the Spartans, required a sizable population of slaves to keep their city-state fed. With virtually all military-aged Spartan males training for war, the Helots served as a sort of landed peasantry or slave class in Sparta. They spent their miserable lives toiling in the fields to produce food for their masters, while being systematically repressed, terrorized, bullied, and mistreated by Spartan citizens. Each Helot was subjected to regular unprovoked beatings. Worse, each year as a rite of passage, young Spartan warriors were encouraged to venture out into the countryside and murder a Helot of their choosing. On occasion, the Helots, who outnumbered the Spartans seven to one, would rise up and rebel against their masters. Invariably, the superior Spartan army crushed these uprisings. One such revolt took place in the 5th Century BCE when a dissident Spartan general by the name of Pausanias promised the Helots their freedom if they helped him topple the city-state’s rulers. According to the Greek historian Thucydides, the plot was foiled by other Helots who turned in the general and his rebels. However, a string of Helot uprisings in the 4th Century BCE would be a contributing factor to the weakening of Sparta’s power and influence.

The end of Spartacus’ rebellion.

Rome’s Servile Wars

Aside from dozens of minor revolts throughout Roman history, there were three full-scale slave rebellions between 135 BCE and 75 BCE. The first of these uprisings, known as the Servile Wars, involved up 200,000 slaves on the island of Sicily. The rebels were headed by a Syrian slave and magician by the name of Eunus. It was Eunus himself that foretold of an upheaval that would see the enslaved rule over their masters. His prognostications reportedly gained him the support of many slaves as well as ordinary Romans on the island who were promised clemency when the oppressed took power. While Eunus’ army managed to defeat the Roman legions in early encounters, reinforcements were sent from the mainland. These new units crushed the uprising without mercy in 132 BCE. Thirty years later, a second rebellion would break out on Sicily, when a small group of Italian-born slaves were ordered freed, while the majority of non-Roman labourers were kept in servitude. The remaining slaves, led by one of their own named Servius, armed themselves and rose up. Even though the rebels managed to raise an army of 20,000 trained infantry and 2,000 cavalry, once again, legions sent from Rome eventually managed to defeat them. Although not the largest slave revolt, the Third Servile War, which took place in Italy in 73 BCE stands out as the most well known. A gladiator by the name of Spartacus broke loose with fewer than 100 fellow slaves but eventually gathered a force of nearly 120,000. The roving hoard ravaged the Roman countryside defeating the armies sent out to suppress it. Eventually a large enough group of legions was sent to challenge the slaves and the uprising was crushed two years after it started. The campaign made the careers of Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus.

The Zanj Rebellions

All of Rome’s servile rebellions put together were not as large as the Zanj uprisings, a series of African slave revolts that rocked the Basra region in Southern Iraq in the 9th Century. The insurrection was launched by Bantu-speaking slaves from the Zanj region of East Africa. The revolt began in 869 and ran off and on for 14 years. It eventually drew in a half million rebels, some of them free peoples who wanted to overthrow the region’s ruling Abbasid Muslims. Some historians question whether the slaves themselves actually launched the rebellion or whether they merely joined it and records differ on just how destructive the uprisings were. Most agree however that the Abbasids strengthened their armies to suppress the rebellions. Once the revolts were put down, the rulers then turned their vast army west and conquered Egypt, ending the Tulinid’s rule and creating their own caliphate or ruling dynasty.

A Cimarrone.

Cimarrones of the Americas

Almost as soon as the Spanish introduced African slaves to the New World, many of those same captives began rising up in open revolt. The Cimarrones were one example. All throughout the Caribbean and Central America in the 16th Century, enslaved Africans transported to Spanish colonies began fleeing into the wilderness. These runaways would often band together and form their own communities, sometimes avoiding contact with their former captors but often arming themselves and waging guerrilla campaigns against their former masters. In Panama, entire populations of slaves would flee captivity forming their own colonies in the jungles. They were joined in their struggles against the Spanish by local indigenous tribes and later Spain’s European enemies, like the English privateer Francis Drake. One of the most prominent Cimarrones was King Bayano. In 1552, along with a force of up to 1,200 fugitives, Bayano set up a palenque, or slave sanctuary and led a war against the Spaniards for five years. According to historians, the palenque, dubbed Ronconcholon, was democratic and even was home to a mosque for the Muslim slaves in the community. Others in the group were believed to be Christians, converted by their masters. Eventually, the Spanish overran Ronconcholon and recaptured many of the slaves, including Bayano himself. He was sent to work in South America where he died in captivity. Bayano is still considered a hero in Panama. A river has even been named for him.

Nat Turner’s Rebellion.

The ‘Land of the Free’

The American colonies witnessed up to 250 slave uprisings starting in the 1600s and running right up until Emancipation. The largest of these took place in 1811 in New Orleans. Known as the German Coast Uprising, as many as 500 slaves, armed mostly with hand tools were involved in the two-day rampage, which the slaves had been secretly planning for some time. Two settlers were killed and a number of sugar plantations were put to the torch. Local militia and regular army troops were organized to defeat the rebels. Up to 66 slaves were killed when the two forces clashed. The white forces suffered almost no casualties. Sixteen slaves were tried and hanged. A much smaller rebellion 20 years later would have a huge impact on American history. The Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831 involved only 70 slaves from plantations in Virginia, but as many as 65 white civilians were killed by the insurgency making it the bloodiest slave revolt in U.S. history. Although the rebellion was put down in a matter of days, up to 200 black slaves who weren’t involved in the rebellion were murdered by militias and angry mobs. The revolt caused widespread panic among slave holders in throughout the south and prompted state governments to prohibit slaves from education and pass laws to restrict slaves’ movements. The rebellion also gave local authorities the occasion to abuse free blacks.

Slave Republic

The overwhelming majority of slave uprisings throughout history were crushed, but there have been a number of successful revolts. In 1791, French slaves on Hispaniola rose up amid the confusion of the revolution in France. The island, which lies just east of Cuba, was split between the French in Saint Domingue on the western side, and the Spaniards in Santo Domingo on the eastern shore. By the time of the uprising, the slave population on the French colony was approaching half a million, ten times larger than the number slave-owning Europeans there. Slaves worked in collusion with fugitive maroons to coordinate a mass uprising that within ten days had succeeded in capturing an entire province of the colony. By the following year, up to a third of the Saint Domingue was in their hands. France’s revolutionary regime worked to defuse the situation. It offered full citizenship to the 28,000 freed blacks that lived on in the colony. And to back up the concession with force, it dispatched 6,000 troops to restore order. The efforts did little calm things. Desperate to stave off total defeat, the remaining whites on Saint Domingue sought the help of Great Britain and France. With their military solution unsuccessful and fearing the total loss of the island to Spain and Britain, in 1794, the regime in France abolished slavery in France and all of its colonies. For the next six years, a combined army made up of units from the French Republic and former slaves, led by a former domestic servant Toussaint L’Overture expelled the British and freed the slaves of Spanish Santo Domingo. By 1801, L’Overture declared independence from France, drafted a constitution and crowned himself ruler for life. He also renamed the former colony Haiti. France under Bonaparte dispatched a fleet of warships and a large invading army and retook control of the island, arresting and imprisoning L’Overture. The peace was restored and held until news leaked that Napoleon intended to re-enslave the black population on the island. The uprising promptly resumed and by 1803, with his armies racked by tropical disease and his attention now focused on the war in Europe, Bonaparte abandoned Haiti. In the period that followed whites remaining on the island were massacred. Up to 350,000 Haitians and 50,000 Europeans were killed in the 13 years of unrest. Not all successful slave rebellions were as bloody. In 1848, a non-violent protest by the slaves on the Danish island colony of St. Croix led to the emancipation of all slaves in Danish colonies. Slavery would continue in the New World until Portugal finally abolished the practice in 1888, 25 years after it was outlawed in the United States.

7 comments for “Unchained — The Bloody History of Slave Rebellions

  1. 12 July, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    Great post!

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