In This Article Slave Rebellions

  • Introduction
  • Africa and the Atlantic Slave Trade

Atlantic History Slave Rebellions
by
James Sidbury
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0189

Introduction

The importance and meaning of slave rebellions for our understanding of slavery has changed. During the first half of the 20th century, when the historiography of United States slavery was dominated by and then emerging from the genteel racism of the U. B. Phillips school, slave rebellions provided evidence to refute claims that Africans and African Americans happily accepted their enslaved status. The historiography of other American plantation regions, especially the Caribbean, was dominated by concerns with colonialism and decolonization, which produced an analogous focus on heroic black resistance as part of a broader struggle for human liberation and progress. Among those writing about the United States, Herbert Aptheker famously catalogued hundreds of episodes of slave unrest in his effort to show that black Americans fought for their freedom just as did other oppressed people (see Aptheker 1983, cited under British North America and the United States). C. L. R. James’s work on the Haitian Revolution (see James 1989, cited under French) also placed black rebellion at the heart of an international struggle for freedom. Historians writing about slave uprisings continued to do so within progressive narratives—sometimes Marxian and sometimes liberal—until the combination of the fall of state socialism and the rise of postmodernism dealt a body blow to confidence in progressive narratives. Historians have not responded by turning away from slave rebellions, but they have begun to write about them differently. In a cultural environment in which no one professes to believe that slaves accepted enslavement, and in which fewer and fewer are confident that history is moving in an identifiable direction, historical analyses of individual slave rebellions fit much less securely into a single pattern. Sometimes historians analyze slave rebellions as evidence of the resilience of the enslaved in the face of their oppression. Others turn to rebellions because they produce unusually rich, if unquestionably problematic, sources with which to explore the often undocumented ideas and aspirations of slaves. Still others see traditions of slave resistance that culminated in uprisings as important evidence of the kinds of persistent pressure from below that postmodernism has—wrongly in their eyes—removed from center stage.

General Works

The works in this section either take a comparative approach to slave rebellions or look for patterns that characterized insurrectionary activity across political and geographical boundaries. A number seek to find and untangle links between slaves’ insurrectionary efforts and the abolition of slavery in the Atlantic world.

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