What Were the Earliest Rebellions by African Americans?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Despite reports to the contrary, African-American slaves had a history of revolt.

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William Henry Shelton

They gathered at the Stono River and raided a warehouselike store, Hutchenson’s, executing the white owners and placing their victims’ heads on the store’s front steps for all to see. They moved on to other houses in the area, killing the occupants and burning the structures, marching through the colony toward St. Augustine, Fla., where under Spanish law, they would be free.

As the march proceeded, not all slaves joined the insurrection; in fact, some hung back and actually helped hide their masters. But many were drawn to it, and the insurrectionists soon numbered about 100. They paraded down King’s Highway, according to sources, carrying banners and shouting, “Liberty!”—lukango in their native Kikongo, a word that would have expressed the English ideals embodied in liberty and, perhaps, salvation.

The slaves fought off the English for more than a week before the colonists rallied and killed most of the rebels, although some very likely reached Fort Mose. Even after Colonial forces crushed the Stono uprising, outbreaks occurred, including the very next year, when South Carolina executed at least 50 additional rebel slaves.

2. The New York City Conspiracy of 1741. With about 1,700 blacks living in a city of some 7,000 whites appearing determined to grind every person of African descent under their heel, some form of revenge seemed inevitable. In early 1741, Fort George in New York burned to the ground. Fires erupted elsewhere in the city—four in one day—and in New Jersey and on Long Island. Several white people claimed they had heard slaves bragging about setting the fires and threatening worse. They concluded that a revolt had been planned by secret black societies and gangs, inspired by a conspiracy of priests and their Catholic minions—white, black, brown, free and slave.

Certainly there were coherent ethnic groups who might have led a resistance, among them the Papa, from the Slave Coast near Whydah (Ouidah) in Benin; the Igbo, from the area around the Niger River; and the Malagasy, from Madagascar. Another identifiable and suspect group was known among the conspirators as the “Cuba People,” “negroes and mulattoes” captured in the early spring of 1740 in Cuba. They had probably been brought to New York from Havana, the greatest port of the Spanish West Indies and home to a free black population. Having been “free men in their own country,” they rightly felt unjustly enslaved in New York.

A 16-year-old Irish indentured servant, under arrest for theft, claimed knowledge of a plot by the city’s slaves—in league with a few whites—to kill white men, seize white women and incinerate the city. In the investigation that followed, 30 black men, two white men and two white women were executed. Seventy people of African descent were exiled to far-flung places like Newfoundland, Madeira, Saint-Domingue (which at independence from the French in 1804 was renamed Haiti) and Curaçao. Before the end of the summer of 1741, 17 blacks would be hanged and 13 more sent to the stake, becoming ghastly illuminations of white fears ignited by the institution of slavery they so zealously defended.

3. Gabriel’s Conspiracy, 1800. Born prophetically in 1776 on the Prosser plantation, just 6 miles north of Richmond, Va., and home (to use the term loosely) to 53 slaves, a slave named Gabriel would hatch a plot, with freedom as its goal, that was emblematic of the era in which he lived.

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